GM Pines for Electric Car
Posted Aug 26, 2008 by Richard Heinberg
In just two years we’ve gone from a film documentary called Who Killed the Electric Car? to an article in Canada’s Globe and Mail titled Who Revived the Electric Car?. This is a deliciously ironic turn of events.
Those of us who understand the perils of oil dependency have been advocating the electrification of transport for years: not only can an electric transport system access renewable sources of energy like solar and wind, but electric motors are far more efficient than internal combustion engines, so electric cars use less energy than gasoline-fed cars do—and emit less CO2 even if their power comes ultimately from a coal-fired generating plant.
So naturally it’s gratifying to see General Motors, the villain of Chris Paine’s excellent film, rushing to bring out its Volt—a battery-powered car on which the company seems to be staking its hopes for economic survival in the era of $100+ oil.
The Volt is slated for debut in 2010, just in time for the world peak in oil production. Maybe at its unveiling GM’s ad department will feature Hubbert curves on flipcharts surrounding the diminutive car, its winsome young driver and passengers clutching cloth shopping bags stuffed with fresh-picked organic produce.
Still, one can’t help but wonder whether the Volt will be GM’s breath of fresh air or its last gasp.
Cars are inherently inefficient. Yes, we can make them smaller and lighter; we can power them with renewable electrons instead of nasty old hydrocarbons. But in the final analysis, pushing a ton or three of steel down the highway just to move a two-hundred pound person to and from a shopping mall is both wasteful and plain stupid in a multitude of ways.
Consider just two: tires and asphalt.
The prosthetic hooves on that high-tech chariot are made largely of non-renewable petroleum, and after 40,000 miles or so they tend to wear out (Americans discard them at a rate of one tire per person per year).
Then there’s the stuff that roads are made of. We build roads compulsively so as to give our precious cars more places to roam, but those roads also soon wear out, so we have to constantly repair them; this requires enormous amounts of asphalt (25 million tons annually in the US). But asphalt is, once again, a petroleum product, and as oil gets scarce the building and maintenance of roads becomes unmanageable.
Electric cars are a sparky idea if you consider only what they are designed to replace. But we really need to be thinking about how to reduce our need for motorized transport altogether by redesigning our cities and shortening our supply chains. And where something more than a scooter is necessary, we should move people and freight by rail or water rather than by highway.
Maybe, if it really wants to get with the 21st century program,Chevrolet should consider making bicycles or locomotives. It would be entertaining to see what the GM ad execs would come up with to advertise the company’s future flagship product, an electric light-rail car seating 40. Maybe they could call it the Hummer.