Letter From The Editor: Short Fuse

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R.J. King
R.J. King

Nearly every global automaker has plans to introduce pure electric vehicles. Earlier this year, General Motors Co. announced it would debut 20 such vehicles by 2023.

Short of a huge buildup in infrastructure, including the installation of hundreds of thousands of yet-to-be-developed fast-charging stations at service stations, stores, office buildings, and elsewhere, along with a huge boost in battery production to support forecasted growth, the rollout will take years to implement in the United States.

China and Europe are further ahead integrating electric-powered vehicles into their respective markets, but they’re often subsidized and fall short on the infrastructure and battery production fronts, and the industry has yet to overcome what’s called “range anxiety.”

Pure electric vehicles on the market today have an average range of around 150 miles, meaning a trip beyond that distance requires a recharge that can take five or six hours. Short trips during the day are fine, as drivers can charge their vehicles at home overnight or during office hours, although the charging equipment is expensive.

Even a more robust range of 250 miles between charges generates anxiety, as a strong, steady wind, hot and cold temperatures, or a
run up a mountain pass can drain the battery more quickly.

To help solve range anxiety, Michael Ableson, vice president of global strategy at General Motors, says battery chargers should be installed where people will likely spend 30 minutes, such as a restaurant or shopping mall. He says the battery on the Chevrolet Volt can receive an 80 percent charge within a half-hour.

“Every building has electricity, and the experience for charging a vehicle should be seamless — meaning you pull up, plug in, and walk away,” he said during the CFA Society Detroit’s auto show luncheon in January. “Your credit card will be pre-loaded, so it’s a fairly easy process and better than pumping gas, when you consider the smell and other factors.”

Still, as an audience member pointed out, her sales job requires visiting multiple clients on any given day, making a pure electric vehicle impractical. A hybrid vehicle, where a gasoline engine kicks in once a battery is drained, may be a solution, although it requires drivers to juggle two fill-ups, not one.

Despite the drawbacks, Ableson says automakers are keen on electric vehicles because they have fewer moving parts and components than their gasoline brethren, while the battery range is improving. In turn, with fewer parts, there’s less maintenance. Naturally, a skeptical consumer would assume the price of an electric vehicle would be cheaper, but that’s not the case.

Another factor holding back a major market shift to electric vehicles is the robust energy assets we enjoy in the U.S.; fracking operators have found massive deposits of oil and natural gas over the last five years. Such wealth doesn’t bode well for anyone who hopes an energy crisis will cause gasoline prices to go through the roof.

Even if there was a massive shift to electric vehicles, are utilities ready to meet the load demand? That’s debatable, given all the energy expended in meeting mandates for cleaner forms of energy.

Finally, there’s the chicken and egg dilemma. To jump-start the market, do automakers produce large quantities of electric vehicles, or do utilities and others build out the charging infrastructure? If this was a game of chicken, everyone would have already blinked.

— R.J. King, rjking@dbusiness.com

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