Shysters and Vapourware
SHYSTERS AND VAPOURWARE
Since leaving Tesla earlier this year, Eberhard's been weighing up three business plans. One seems to involve doing as he thinks Tesla ought to: going into business with a mainstream carmaker. The next is to help make the grid work more intelligently to meet demand from plug-ins. But his favourite seems to be another way of helping hybrids take off: developing a solid oxide fuel cell. Rather than using a three-cylinder engine to turn liquid fuel into electricity, this device does it electrochemically, which makes the process more efficient. There's a drawback, however: it has to run at almost 100 degrees Celsius, so you need a way to keep it cool. "That's not insurmountable," Eberhard says, but it's yet to be surmounted.
The world of EVs and hybrids is awash with new ideas and expectations, many of which may not amount to much. Spotting the ones that will is much easier said than done, particularly in the field of energy storage. But whichever technological variant takes off, and whatever the incentives that back it, the batteries and power management systems will be similar, at least for now. One company that aims to change that is the Canadian carmaker ZENN (which stands for Zero Emissions No Noise). Its cityZENN model, an upgrade supposedly capable of 80 mph and 250 miles of range, is due to launch at the end of next year, ideally powered by something called an EEStor. This "game-changing energy storage technology is in the advanced stages of commercialisation," the company claims, but no one's actually verified that yet. Nevertheless, ZENN's raving about its supercapacitor as "THE key enabler of many clean technologies today: renewable energy; grid load-levelling; consumer electronics and security applications." It's like a battery, but it isn't, and if it delivers on the hype, five-minute charges could be with us within months. ZENN owns shares in EEStor, and is first in line to use it, but considering the supposed potential, the fact it hasn't upped its stake suggests things aren't quite so simple. If they're not, the cityZENN would launch powered by lithium-ion.
Capacitors are just glorified batteries, but they're touted with the sort of reverence that used to be reserved for hydrogen. As for that great hope, the former head of the CIA, James Woolsey, has six words for anyone who thinks it still should be: "Forget hydrogen, forget hydrogen, forget hydrogen," he says. It's easy to see why. One of the major drawbacks is hydrogen's density. Although it's got phenomenal amounts of energy per unit mass, it has to be compressed to reach manageable volumes, a process which gobbles up energy in its own right. And even then it's only going to take you 100 miles or so as things stand, which is no further than a decent battery pack. Boost the storage capacity and everything changes, but this has been the story for 30 years now, and it's always still not quite around the corner. That pretty much sums things up for drivers too: there's no nationwide hydrogen distribution network to fill up with. And even if there were, which would mean building many thousands of outlets, where would you actually get the hydrogen from? Whether it's water or natural gas, you've got to use a lot of energy to do it, which is why so many are sceptical – compared to how people talked it up just a few years back, hydrogen's come down to earth with quite a bump.
These days, it's being laughed off like the water car, which is a bit rich because hydrogen's problem is commercial, as opposed to physical, viability. And even then, says Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute, there's still a transitional role for fuel-cell hybrids. Others aren't so sure, and they're not at all convinced by Honda's efforts to prove Lovins right, especially its decision to give an FCX Clarity to Jamie Lee Curtis. "If Honda is desperate enough to foist an uncertain technology on a celeb who no longer attracts the limelight," says Top Gear journalist Matt Master, "it illustrates one unhappy fact: whatever our transport solutions are, they are still far enough off that absolutely everyone is hedging their bets."
One man who isn't is Shai Agassi, until recently a high-flier at the software company SAP, until someone challenged him to put up or shut up about electrifying transport. In response, he quit his job and set up Project Better Place, a venture in search of a new name as well as a new kind of business model. To start with, he dismissed conventional wisdom. The problem's not with lack of battery capacity, he argues, "the Achilles heel is a lack of infrastructure." The reason people don't buy electric cars is because they don't see how they can charge them as easily as filling up a tank with petrol. After ruling out hydrogen and biofuels as alternatives that could scale "to a point where you can drive 700 million cars off it," he settled on building charging points; hundreds of thousands of them. And to get around the issue of charging time he has another radically simple solution: swapping batteries like the old New York taxis did.
"I think it's a bad idea," says Martin Eberhard. "The technology for batteries is a very, very fast moving arena still and making swappable batteries forces standardisation. It's too early. The technology is changing, the voltage of the battery, the charging rate of the battery, the charging technique of the battery, the physical size of the battery, the inner connector of the battery, communications with the battery, all of these are moving targets." So when would it make sense to think about standardising, in his view? "Just about the time that swapping batteries doesn't make sense anymore because the battery packs are big enough."
Agassi begs to differ. "We need standards," he says. "Not in terms of size, but with connectors." Even so, he's designed his swap stations, which can supposedly switch a battery in less than five minutes, to have easily replaceable connectors in case standardisation fails. The next problem Eberhard highlights is harder to deal with. The expensive thing with a battery pack is the container, not the contents, and every time you use the container it wears down slightly, so a battery back that's been used a hundred times will offer shorter range than one that's never been used. "Your car's performance will radically vary depending on what battery pack is in it at that particular moment," he says. "If you own it, you're much more likely to take care of it," but that's the opposite of the Project Better Place pricing model.
Instead buyers will be paying for their cars like mobile phones, which is Agassi's way of defraying the punitive up-front cost of buying an EV. "The more you commit, the more of a rebate you get on day one," he says. "You'd pay a certain fee for miles but the cost of the car would be subsidised and in some cases you'd be getting it for free." It's easy to grasp and will make immediate sense to most consumers, but Eberhard thinks it stinks. "It will just piss off the buyer," he argues, because most pay for electricity already, and they'll mostly charge their vehicles at home. "If I put solar panels on my roof," adds Eberhard, who's done just that and says he generates enough power to charge a car each night and run his home, "it's my goddamn electricity, I'll go and put it in my car, I don't feel I should pay him anything."
Perhaps there's room for both, argues EVWorld's Bill Moore, who's just commissioned a study which found PV panels and EVs to be a "very affordable" match. "It's the choice between renting a flat and buying a home," he says. Different models appeal to different people, but either way some kind of subsidy is probably needed to kickstart the market. In Agassi's case, he's started by signing up governments, with his native Israel and similarly sized Denmark first up. He's raised $200 million of equity for each project, with further debt issuance planned, and he expects his warchest to swell to several billion by the end of the year. Next year he aims to have 1,000 cars on Israeli roads and charging infrastructure in place. Production cars, built by Renault-Nissan, will follow in 2010, with mass production in 2011 and a target of three-quarters of a million vehicles. Agassi says Renault has promised him as many cars as he can take, and they're custom building them to make battery swaps simple.
Even so, Eberhard's not convinced. Tesla's battery pack was "built to squeeze in the space." When designing the Roadster, "we figured out all the available volume for the battery pack and then we basically filled it like water with battery," he says. "The battery pack is the single most expensive and most dangerous component of the car, no question about it. And for that reason, it needs to be very rigidly installed in the car so that bad things don't happen in a crash. Rigidly installed and highly protected. And the question is, you know, can they make a system like that, that can be realistically removed and replaced in a reasonable amount of time, and where I can ensure that even with idiots at the changing stations that it gets installed correctly every time?" And there's more. "The hardest part for us in making our car pass crash standards was making a the battery pack safe, no question about it. We were beefing up the brackets and holders so they would stay put and do what they are supposed to do in a crash and if you add on top of that the requirement that it can be quickly and easily removed and replaced, it's tricky."
Still, there are other elements to Agassi's plan. "We want to spur an industry that will continue to build green power plants," he says. In Denmark, for example, he's teamed up with a wind company to provide the energy his cars will draw from the grid. And he also wants to use them to make it more efficient. "50,000 cars represent a gigawatt of added standby power," he says. That means extra generation capacity at peak demand. Software will also play a part in regulating the energy flow into cars, which will pull into car parks with charging points, as well as the other options for refuelling. "You're not going to see all the cars start charging because they all got to work at the same time," he says. Instead the system will learn from your driving patterns how urgently you need power, minimising the strain on resources.
This "smart grid" technology is essential if plug-ins aren't to wreak havoc, and managing cars could turn out to be its killer application, though DC networks linking solar and wind farms would come a close second. Cars themselves could be fitted with solar panels too: Toyota is doing this on the Prius, though at present they're just a gimmick to charge your iPod. For now things are manageable enough, thinks Martin Eberhard, though there's plenty of investment required. "With no upgrade to the grid whatsoever," he says, "we could have roughly 40 percent of American drivers powering their cars from electricity that is charged at night." His new business plan focuses on a vital question for the future: how to prioritise which appliances draw power when. There's an enormous amount you can teach the grid about what's needed where and that will be the key to making it work on clean energy. Otherwise there'll be a need to keep expanding capacity exponentially, since the grid has to be able to deal with peak demand, which for now would mean burning more fossil fuels. Even if it did though, that would still generate fewer emissions than burning them in petrol engines.
TORQUE OF THE TOWN
The bigger concern for car buyers, however, is still where they'll be able to charge up, as well as how long it might take. With plug-ins, a label that covers pure EVs as well as hybrids, their big advantage is also the biggest headache. You get to plug them in. But you have to plug them in. And if you don't have a garage at home, this is a serious problem: hanging extension cables out the windows of apartment blocks isn't really a viable option. Eberhard says this is simple to resolve, as does Agassi, who's about to confront it: you just need to tear up the streets and install vast numbers of charging pylons. Elektromotive, a Brighton-based company which maintains a couple of dozen of them in London, hasn't really considered how to meet demand for more yet. And nor has the government, despite its call for a switch to plug-ins. But the problem's not a big one in theory, provided someone stumps up the cash.
It's unlikely, however, that a current perk for Londoners will survive. On payment of a £75 fee, which gets you a connection cable worth almost as much, and two keys to use the "JuicePoints" run by Westminster Council, EV drivers can charge up as often as they like for no fee. Since U.S. drivers say it costs them $10 a month to run low-speed cars, this isn't all that great a deal in the end. But one that certainly was has been prematurely axed, at least from the perspective of EV campaigners. From next year, there'll be no more free parking for the few hundred electric cars that enter the City of London each day, although other boroughs will continue to offer it. The freebie was "too popular," officials say, which is an odd way of putting it given the onus on councils to cut pollution and promote more sustainable transport. But there's still no road tax to pay, or daily congestion charge, and if you roll into Mayfair every morning, the savings on offer at Park Lane Masterpark mean it all adds up to a car paying for itself inside a year. This does mean that most buyers are well off, however, since they're the ones who gain most from the current incentives. "These are usually someone's third or fourth vehicle," says Izzy Wells of NICE. "By and large it's people working for hedge funds, that sort of thing. They're doing it for financial reasons, not environmental ones."
On a bigger scale, state subsidies can do more than help the environment. They could also wean America off foreign oil, and the resource-related conflict this entails, were either to be a priority for policymakers. Agassi says they should be. By his calculation, investing a sixth of a country's oil imports in EV infrastructure makes mass electrification viable. In the U.S. case that would be $100 billion. The cost of generating 50 years of renewable power for 200 million cars would be $500 billion, he estimates, which means half a century of clean-conscience driving for the cost of one year's imported crude. It's certainly a catchy pitch. For now the Chinese are making the running, banning petrol motorbikes from several cities. Perhaps that will catch on quicker, though a plan to slap higher charges on the most polluting cars in London seems to have died before coming to life. A consortium of lobbyists led by Porsche has succeeded in getting the proposal quashed.
Since most of the EVs in cities are still low-speed "neighbourhood" cars, wouldn't it make more sense to use the torque power of electric motors to drive trucks? Emissions from surface transport are up to a quarter of the Western world's total, and much of that's down to road haulage. The problem, as ever, is one of batteries: the weight and volume required for freight transport would be prohibitive, as well as uneconomic, though as prices drop in the coming years this ought to change. There is a growing market for mid-sized trucks, produced by Modec and Smith Electric in the UK, although the latter seems to have run into difficulties. The shares of its parent, Tanfield Group, lost 97 percent of their value the other week. A drop-off in orders caused the company to shelve plans for a dedicated EV factory and expansion into the United States. "The enquiry level and the number of new customers initiating trials are buoyant," a spokesman said. "However we anticipate that due to the economic climate and the trading conditions our customers are experiencing, it will take longer for these trials to convert into volume orders."
The final frontier to broach is the racetrack. After back-to-back wins for diesel-powered Audis at Le Mans, there's talk of a diesel hybrid entering the 24-hour race soon. But what about an all-electric model? Once again it's a battery issue, though if Shai Agassi's "pit-stop" plan can work, it ought to be replicable with expert crews. Despite the Tesla's zip, Glyn Owen says his company's got nothing on its mind right now except getting its Roadster to buyers. After all the hold-ups and in-fighting, the popular "Truth About Cars" blog is already 11 posts into a series called "Tesla Death Watch". Its latest goes straight for the jugular: "The fact that Tesla Chairman Elon Musk owns a solar power and space launch company is, at least potentially, a perfect trifecta," it says, linking to a Newsweek story full of "co- and tri-branded crap" about power for cars that aren't being made yet. "When Musk finally announces that Space X will be launching solar panels into orbit to beam juice to a million gen3 EVs," bitches the author, "he'll square the circle." Until then, it's all just another trip "in Tesla's spinning teacups."
Hence Owen's reticence about gearing up for racing, which is a shame, because the Roadster's like a rollercoaster with stabilisers, even in its abortive twin-speed version. That ships locked in top gear, and starved of torque (though all seven of the people who own one can trade them in for single-speed models when they finally leave the factory), but it still shifts fast enough to mess up your face, even if you don't prang a passing farmhand. Round Norfolk's rolling lanes, I'm far too terrified to let rip towards its top speed, although there are some whippy overtaking manoeuvres that get Owen clutching his doorhandle. Braving the A11, we're hampered by the sudden appearance of a police car, which gets me easing off excessively on the gas, still marvelling that we're in the same gear I used to ease around the car park. It's like having a dimmer switch instead of an accelerator. The rev counter's utterly superfluous though. First, I defy anyone to red-line it. And, more importantly, it just mirrors the speedometer, which by now has caught Owen's attention. "Step on it a bit," he urges. "You've got a lorry trying to pass you."
"In the real world," mused Jay Leno, after his own trip in Tesla's "proper sports car", "most of the fun is between 40 and 80 mph, which is where you put your foot on it." I try that again, and feel like a schoolboy strapped to a bomb. Fast cars really aren't my thing, though I drive slow ones like a homicidal maniac. Still, I'm inclined to agree with Leno: "The Tesla shows sports cars can be electrifying. The sports car needn't die once oil runs out." To my amazement he even goes further. "If you dropped somebody in from another planet and said, this one with the petrol engine or this one with an electric motor, well, they'd probably say the Tesla." In which case, why isn't he saying so on Top Gear, giving Clarkson what for and his Russian fans serious eye candy? Perhaps that will soon be upon us.
The shifts in the past couple of years have been seismic. Though both Tesla and the Volt have hogged the headlines, there are many, many others doing similar things. Subaru, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Volkswagen, Daimler, BMW, Think, Tesla, and a dozen or so smaller start-ups are all launching all-electric vehicles in the next 12 to 48 months. Some of those also plan plug-in hybrids, and in VW's case the German state might also get closely involved. But for all the recent buzz, EV's still don't get much traction with proper petrolheads. Lewis Hamilton says he'd drive an electric car, "but I don't feel I particularly need to go out and buy one." As for winning an electric Grand Prix, you've got to be joking. "Motor racing is all about the sound, all about the noise, all about the smell of the fuel – all about the whole atmosphere," Hamilton says. "If you have electric cars you won't even have no atmosphere."
So where does this leave us? In the midst of a paradigm shift, says Bill Moore, whose editorship of EVWorld has taken him from fringe crank status to mainstream auto industry consultancy. "For the next 20 years," he concludes, "EVs are going to still be expensive things that only the rich can afford," though he hopes to see people prove him wrong. In the meantime, the average driver's habits will have to change, using scooters for errands instead of cars, and bicycles or legs for shorter trips. "Then one day," Moore predicts, "someone will blow the whole thing wide open by inventing the equivalent of the Model T."
This time round, that's less likely to be a vehicle than a pricing plan, a charging network or the battery that changes what's possible, even if it can't deliver 1.21 gigawatts of time travel.
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