In Search of the Flux Capacitor
Once upon a time, most electric vehicles were milk floats or golf carts and the future was a coffin called the Sinclair C5. It all looked so much brighter 100 years ago.
Back at the dawn of motoring, before cheap oil from Texas and Henry Ford's production lines, half the cars in America were electric. There was no need to wrestle with hand cranks or gear sticks and nowhere much to drive except round town. By the turn of the 20th century, New York taxis were powered by batteries, which weighed in at more than half a tonne and had to be swapped using hydraulic lifts. Then along came automatic starters, and suburbia and interstate highways. Unfettered by limits on range, and turbo-charged by plummeting prices, internal combustion engines won. Nothing much would change for generations; until now.
Having recently killed the electric car, General Motors could yet become its saviour. Its "new' kind of hybrid, called the Volt, revives an old design by Ferdinand Porsche: a petrol-driven generator that keeps the battery charged for longer trips. For wealthier drivers, the loser of a long-forgotten "battle of the currents' is reincarnate in a roadster that burns off Ferraris. Named after the marginalised genius Nikola Tesla, and powered by a polyphase induction motor that Tesla pioneered, this Lotus knockoff packed with laptop batteries redefines what electric cars can do, travelling 200-plus miles on a single charge. But a price tag just shy of six figures means it won't change the mass market yet. Absent cheaper, lighter and more powerful battery packs, the only affordable options have been bug-like, low-range and slower than buses, though they're nippy enough to whirr past cyclists at the lights.
The next few years could change everything, however. Britain's prime minister says he wants to see the back of pure-petroleum models by 2020, with government incentives to support a switchover. The newest of the pure electric models are getting faster and going further, with 100 mile ranges on the horizon, at less outlandish prices. While some expect battery capacity to double in the coming decade, the weight of cells could also halve, making high-end performance more affordable. The soaring price of oil is focusing minds, both on its scarcity and environmental impact, and above all on the cost of filling a tank. After decades of dependence on this concentrated and user-friendly fuel, Europe's biggest carmakers now say the future is electric, and their Japanese counterparts agree, as increasingly do die-hards in Detroit. Like GM, the highest profile convert in America, they're mostly planning hybrids that can plug into the regular mains, but still hold range-extending tanks of liquid fuel.
For now, that's the variant that drivers seem likeliest to buy, apart from those who run multiple vehicles. Who would trade in the family saloon for a two-seater smaller than a Smart, but which still costs more than a regular hatchback, let alone a £130,000 sports car, like the soon-to-be-produced electric Lightning, or its marginally cheaper Tesla rival? Even plug-ins like the Volt, which GM plans to unveil at its centenary in September, are being touted at over $40,000, which would probably mean making them at a loss. To some, they're the worst of all worlds: substandard electric cars that still burn fossil fuels. To others, they're a step in the right direction, cutting emissions and running costs, and developing the infrastructure needed for wholesale electrification, from charging points and (ideally renewable) power sources to subsidies and financing models that offset the higher up-front prices for battery vehicles.
Though less encumbered these days by the "burden of history', to cite the title of an academic survey of Big Oil and big automakers and their coinciding interest, the "better battery bugaboo' still stalks the industry. Whatever the reality, success is always perceived to be "just around the corner', says the author of this study, David Kirsch, and claims of breakthroughs should be scrutinised sceptically. That said, radical changes seem to have started, in the minds of consumers as much as elsewhere. Their readiness to go electric, even with the existing limitations, is harder than ever to predict, as is the staying power of hybrids in the longer term. It's also far from clear who'll profit. Investment is pouring into drive-train and battery development, but many carmakers feel hamstrung by lack of funds. There are also potential bottlenecks in supplies of parts and raw materials, were production to ramp up significantly. Now that the big manufacturers are getting serious about plug-in hybrids, and the pure electric future they seem to presage, can startups realistically compete?
"That's the $64,000 question,' says Martin Eberhard, who founded Tesla Motors, but was forced out in a bust-up with its principal backer, the Silicon Valley financier Elon Musk. "The public's position on cars is right now in flux, and it will be in flux for the next five or ten years,' Eberhard says. "Five years ago the guy who drove a Prius was a weirdo; today that's very mainstream and the guy who has the SUV is wondering how the hell he's going to unload it.' None of this guarantees a rosy future for anyone, however. Forget the forecasts of bankruptcy at General Motors, which is offloading Hummers and anything else it can flog. The same fate could befall the industry's new darlings, or up and coming wannabes, like the Norwegian-based Th!nk, which started life as an offshoot of Ford and now boasts a Porsche-designed prototype called an Ox. "Th!nk is, of course, like Tesla, a fledgling company and the viability of both is certainly questionable,' Eberhard warns. "There's lots of opportunities to screw up, and I've seen both companies screw up a few times already.'
I AM THE RESURRECTION
Tesla's mission from the outset was to sidestep the traps of recent history. Almost every new venture since the 70s had tried, according to Eberhard, to achieve too much. They tended to be run by idealists who wanted to make cars that met everyone's needs, but wound up satisfying no one. Tesla's objective was different, says Glyn Owen, the company's general manager and a long-time employee of Lotus, whose factory and expertise are vital Tesla components. "This car is partly a marketing tool,' he says, during a tour of the production line, where squat Tesla Roadsters are built alongside the Lotus Elises from which their chassis derives. "It's proof of a concept and a way of generating interest,' Owen says. "But to really make a difference, we have to scale up drastically.' For that, he concedes, the company needs a partner. It's already putting out feelers, trading battery expertise with Daimler, and Eberhard talks about Tata as a possible predator. For now, production languishes in single figures, after problems with carbon-fibre, a doomed two-gear transmission and modifications to fit a bigger motor, along with other tweaks like a lowered doorsill to accommodate Elon Musk's wife.
Nevertheless, the impact has already been huge, both in the media and on "Maximum Bob' Lutz, a cigar-chomping former fighter pilot, who was hired at the start of the decade to revive the fortunes of General Motors. "When Tesla announced they were building a car,' Lutz says, "that kind of tore it for me. I thought, ‘If some little West Coast outfit can do this, we can no longer stand by.' The Volt concept that GM paraded at last year's Detroit motor show was a revelation: this year there were dozens like it, and companies from Volkswagen to Mercedes are all talking about launching plug-ins in 2010, when GM's Volt is due to debut. "Some people said it was a fake, a PR exercise,' Lutz reflects. "We said: ‘We'll show ‘em'.'
Sceptics had good grounds to be suspicious. Three years earlier, GM crushed an entire fleet of electric cars in the Arizona desert, ignoring pleas from drivers to let them buy them. "What we really need,' fumed a Business Week reader last month, in response to a gushing feature about GM's plans, "are small electric vehicles that can go 50 to 60 miles on an overnight charge.' For a handful of years, however, that's exactly what GM manufactured. Its legendary EV1s might have looked like Ford Capris with the back end of an old-school Citroen. But by the time that GM scrapped them, their nickel-metal hydride batteries were capable of triple-digit mileage. The car, based on a prototype called the Impact, was descended from a model that GM built to win a solar-powered race across Australia. Before entering production, a modified EV1 set a land speed record for electric cars, notching up 183 miles per hour. The company leased out hundreds of vehicles between 1996 and the end of its testing programme in 2003. "I'm saving America,' by driving one, Tom Hanks shouted on late-night TV. Mel Gibson likened the EV1 to a Batmobile whooshing out of the Batcave, but that wasn't enough to keep it alive. There weren't enough buyers to make it viable, GM claimed, and no amount of pressure could convince the company otherwise, not even all the people on its waiting list.
Bosses had blown a billion dollars on "proving' electric vehicles (EVs) couldn't work, largely to fob off Californian regulators, who seemed all too happy to collude. In 2003, they in turn scrapped the mandate forcing carmakers to roll out electric models. Instead, the Air Resources Board chose to side with advocates of hydrogen fuel cells, which are widely derided as "the technology of the future… and always will be.' As if to prove that point, car company lobbyists have just watered down the watered down rules: there's now no requirement to put fixed numbers of fuel-cell vehicles on the roads, which according to Martin Eberhard was the only reason Honda started leasing its FCX Clarity this summer.
Whatever GM's reasons for not wanting the EV1 to succeed (and critics say much of it comes down to turkeys not voting for Christmas, whether that's lost trade in parts, servicing and dealership, or cannibalising profitable gas-guzzlers), one look at its adverts is enough to see why it didn't seduce car-buffs. It did nothing to refute Jay Leno's view that most "electric cars were driven by people with earth shoes.' You could barely make out a vehicle in the EV1 print ads, let alone someone desirable draped over it, or driving it, or generally in its vicinity. Instead there were abstract layouts and taglines about the future having arrived, but no answers to the obvious questions like "how far, how fast and how much,' laments Chelsea Sexton, who worked on the EV1, then got fired when it was ditched. "Even with the anaemic marketing we had,' Sexton says, it wasn't destined to fail. "They just had to build us more cars.' It was an ironic flashback to an earlier generation, when the Tennessee Valley Authority tried promoting electric cars in response to the 1970s oil shocks. At one point someone planned a race between Paul Newman and Robert Redford. "I realised we'd get a lot of national publicity,' says David Freeman, an adviser to the Carter administration, "but there weren't any cars in the showrooms.' This time that wasn't because they didn't exist.
"GM realizes they made a serious miscalculation when they killed the EV1,' says Bill Moore, the editor of EVWorld and also an industry consultant. "The only real question is whether the Volt is too little, too late.' GM insists it isn't, although sales goals are fairly modest: just 60,000 by 2012. Lutz is still adamant times have changed. "Within a few years we hope to be producing hundreds of thousands,' he says, calling the Volt's plug-in concept "the reinvention of the automobile'. Even so, it's still not top of his list of priorities: the ultimate goal is to go fully electric. Chelsea Sexton's glad to hear it, though she's a vocal supporter of the Volt, despite being "the last person you'd expect to be praising GM, but they are the most aggressive right now about actually doing and not just talking.' Nevertheless, if you gave her millions of dollars to spend tomorrow, she says, "I would probably invest it in batteries.'
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