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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.

GM voltSo 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.

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Reader Comments


Adding a new row

From: The Rent a Car Review, Sep 26, 2009 03:20 PM

The cost to charge the batteries is low, so even with the cost of replacing batteries, my daily fuel cost for a work commute is 4 cents. So for one day's bus fare, you run this for a month. Because these are classed as a powered bicyle I do not need to insure or licence it. You buy it and pay for eletricity and maintenance, that's it.

Asphalt is the car killer.

From: Pangolin, Aug 28, 2008 12:10 PM

If my prosperous Northern California town with it's mild weather can't afford to keep the asphalt from powdering your local municipality isn't going to be doing any better.

As I ride my longtail cargo bike around town I can feel that many roads have become not much more than chunks of loose asphalt floating on the roadbed. These are one large truck away from becoming a pothole.

The ultimate urban transit solution could be PRT(personal rapid transit) simply because, unlike the misnamed light-rail, it could float over the mangled roads on ultra-light monorails. It could also be used for automated delivery of palleted goods to neighborhood depots.

Detroit is going to be producing a new fleet of superlight cars precisely at the time that city councils realize that they can't afford to pave most of the roads any more due to increased costs and reduced tax revenue. All due to economic diversion of funds to energy costs at the expense of everything else.

The auto industry death spiral has begun.

Ironically, until 2005,

From: gardeneral, Aug 27, 2008 10:22 PM

Ironically, until 2005, General Motors did make locomotives. Its Electro Motive Division produced the first successful diesel locomotives in the 1930s and led the world in diesel loco production until overtaken by General Electric in the 1980s. GM sold its locomotive division to a partnership led by Greenbriar Equity Group LLC and Berkshire Partners LLC on April 4, 2005.

And, of course, diesel locomotives are the original "hybrids". Their diesel engines do not turn the wheels which drive the locomotives. The diesel engines power generators which, in turn, supply power to electric motors which drive the wheels. They are "diesel-electric hybrids", electrically-powered engines which get their electricity from on-board engines and fuel supplies instead of from overhead wires.

I got an electric scooter

From: Doug, Aug 27, 2008 07:10 PM

I got an electric scooter yesterday. I am very happy.

It's a cheap chinese bike but it totally works as a proof of concept vehicle. Another $500 in better parts at the factory would produce a pretty amazing little vehicle. I can't wait to see how good they get when Honda takes an interest and starts making these in mass-scale.

I pobably drove 40 miles yesterday, just because I was having so much fun. So the claims of 100 km range are probably true. Another couple batteries, wired up in the storage area would give you close to 80 miles range, or more speed.

I go 32 Km/hr, so I got to work in 10 minutes. With all the stops I kept up with downtown traffic. But a bit more speed would be nice. I can modify the circut board and add batteries. Some people are going 55 Km/hr on these things. From hitting a few bumps in the road I can tell you that anything over 50 Km/hr will be quite scary. Anything over 40 Km/hr will be fast enough and I should be able to do that with just 1 extra $29 battery and a short piece of wire.

The cost to charge the batteries is 6 cents, so even with the cost of replacing batteries, my daily fuel cost for a work commute is 4 cents. So for one day's bus fare, you run this for a month. Because these are classed as a powered bicyle I do not need to insure or licence it. You buy it and pay for eletricity and maintenance, that's it.

Over time I will will probably upgrade the motor, front shocks and brakes, but the frame, body and battery configuration are quite good. This will make an excellent test bed.

I now worry less about running out of oil. There really are viable solutions. We could cut down so much. Use the truck or the minivan when you really need it, but for the nice days in spring, summer and fall, an electric scooter seems like an ideal choice, even if you have to wear a suit like me.

BAU with a new face

From: Bob Brannigan, Aug 27, 2008 09:07 AM

Mr. Heinberg,

While I agree with you 100%, I wonder if it not also indicative of more fundamental problem. PBS aired a program about the Volt featuring Bob Lutz. I wrote a mostly measured critique of it on my blog entry titled "Dinosaurs"

It appears that GM is so entrenched in the personal transport paradigm that logic such as yours will likely fall on deaf ears. IMO the Volt is a reactive product, not a proactive one.




From: AVE_fan, Aug 27, 2008 07:13 AM

Maybe if we inter-urban commuters could drive our EVs onto rail-guided "flatcars", connect our recharged batteries to the motor on board for propulsion we could eliminate a good portion of the asphalt, tire and energy consumption associated with the commute.

Electric car - roads

From: Anonymous, Aug 27, 2008 03:45 AM

I think the electric car IS the last gasp of the era of personal unfettered mobility. The use of asphalt is to make all weather roads into HIGH SPEED all weather roads and is as Richard points out an expensive and soon unaffordable luxury. The all weather road beds may be one of the big legacies from the oil era, as were many of the old Roman road beds for Europe. However as Richard and others have often pointed out, railroads and water will be the best metod of moving goods and people. The road beds will remain as local connections suitable for low speed, lower weight carrying vehicles. The ideal would be that these local units would be electric but ICE power will likely persist for some time.