Electric Cars Could Work… If The Government Got Out Of The Car Business

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The tragedy is, electric cars could probably work. If the government would get the hell out of the way.electric lead

The feds postulate requirements – basically, design parameters – that are at odds, that conflict – and make an economically sane electric car absolutely out of the question.

The government insist, for example, that every electric car be as “safe” as every non-electric car. This being defined as complying with every last federal standard – not necessarily meaning that the car in question simply refrain from being a death trap.

Most people outside the car business do not grok the distinction. They presume that every new car is “safe” since it meets federal crashworthiness standards (and other standards that have zip to do with that; bear with, I’ll explain) and every car that doesn’t, isn’t.

Nope. All it means is that every new car has met the currently applicable federal standards and made it through whatever crash tests apply today. It does not mean – out in the real world of two objects trying to occupy the same space, simultaneously – that a 2016 Chevy Aveo is a “safer” car to be in than a 1996 Caprice (“Shamu the whale” model).

Especially if the Caprice pile-drives into the Aveo.'96 Caprice

What has this to do with electric cars?

It has to do with weight – which is a function, to a very great extent, of the need to comply with the reams of federal ukase having to do with “safety.” This includes the latest pedestrian safety mandates… which have absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with how “safe” the car is for the people within. Also requirements that challenge  (oops, demand) the car companies build cars able to support their own weight upside down. Most cars do not end up this way, but the mandate assumes they will and so requires lots of heavy steel to buttress the roof, so that it can support the car’s weight if it ends up tits (er, wheels) up.

Which adds weight.'16 Aveo

Which is very, very problematic for the functional (and so economic) viability of an electric car. The heavier it is, the more work its electric motor/battery pack must perform to get it moving. And the more work these must do, the faster the battery loses its charge And because batteries, by their nature, take a awhile to recharge, you end up with a car that has an intolerable flaw.

Well, two of them.

The first flaw is the abbreviated range of travel. While it’s true that most people – or at least, many people – may not need to be able to drive continuously more than 100 miles at a stretch every single day, the fact remains that knowing you could is critical to the psychological acceptance by the general public of the electric car.

Take that away and you have a car that most people do not want.    

And most electric cars can’t go even 100 miles before they need to be recharged – which manifests the second (and arguably, more serious) problem: Recharge times.

They are impossibly long. soviet bread lines

We live in a fast-food/right now culture. It is risible to believe that people – most people – will ever voluntarily part with their money for a car that requires them to sit and wait for it to be drivable every single tim they drive it.

Would you buy a car that required you to stop for a minimum of 30-45 minutes every 70-100 miles (or less) for a recharging session?

Probably not.

These issues – a palsied range of action and Soviet bread queue-like recharge times  – are what’s killing the electric car.

Not GM.

And both these problems could be greatly lessened by making a really light electric  car. But the government makes this effectively (economically) impossible. For both electric and conventional cars.GM EVI1

Because both have to comply with all the “safety” ukase that the Feds spew, endlessly.

Thus, the 2017 Chevy Bolt electric car I recently savaged (here) weighs a scale-crushing 3,580 pounds notwithstanding that it is a subcompact car… in terms of its dimensions.

Now, it’s true that 960 pounds of the Bolt’s bulk is the battery pack. But what about the rest of it?

A great deal of it is steel – steel needed to make the car able to support itself when upside down and to pass all the current crash tests as well as the new pedestrian impact standards.

It would still lose – badly – if a ’96 Caprice piled into it. Even though the ’96 is not “safe” – as defined by being able to meet every current federal “safety” requirement.   

Point being, a car is not necessarily a good place to be in just because the government says it is. And – conversely – cars that would not be considered “safe” by current government say-so aren’t necessarily. It depends on the car. And on what you hit with it.

Or, what hits it.     '73 Cadillac

By definition, every car we (those of us who were alive back then) drove in the ’80s – even the ’90s – is “unsafe” according to current rigamarole. Yet most of us survived.

I drove a ’74 Beetle (very used) when I was in college in the mid-late ’80s. It would be considered a death trap by modern standards – and there’s no denying that if it had been struck pile-drive-style by a car like the ’96 Caprice, it might very well have resulted in my death.

But the Beetle was a flyweight – about 1,700 pounds. About half the weight of the Bolt. As a result, it got very good gas mileage.

A lightweight electric car could get very good range. Or at least, could go a lot farther on a charge.'74 Beetle

Take a 1,700 pound like my old Beetle. Pull the internal combustion engine (and lose about 300 pounds). Now you have a 1,400 or so pound chassis, ready to go. Add the batteries and electric motor – both of which would be smaller and lighter now because there’d be less deadweight to move.

The resultant car would weigh under 3,000 pounds and probably closer to 2,500 pounds.

How much farther could it travel? How less frequently would your travel be interrupted for foot-tapping recharges?

We’ll never know, until Uncle gets out of the car business.

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  1. I have said it for a long time, it’s the government that screws up R and D in most of these situations.

    There is a favored way of research. So they all are lemmings and do the same thing. And god forbid if your tech goes against what the statists favor.

    Just look at hybrids, all the automakers basically license a version of Toyota’s system. So they aren’t even DOING any real research. (Granted, it seems to be a decent reliable working system, I thought by now there would be tons of unfixable old Prius’s by now.)

    But the statists want the ICE gone. Period end of discussion. So there goes all those options too.

    Batteries are what is what holds electric back. NO one is trying to do an electric car without batteries. Frankly, I don’t see batteries (at least with what goes for a battery today) ever working.

    Why don’t they build a semi tractor trailer truck using the same type of tech as a diesel (technically diesel electric) train locomotive? Granted its now 80 year old tech. Doesn’t it scale down? You would think it would work good on at least heavy trucks. Electric powering all the wheels (including the trailer), putting the weight down low. No need for an transmission, at least a mechanical one.

    That’s what I don’t get about hybrid cars. Why not power it only with electric motors? And make the gas engine the source for the electric generation only, not connected to the wheels eliminating the transmission and its weight. I know the Volt was supposed to be that, but then it wasn’t.

    No one tries anything different. Just double down on what keeps not working……..

    • I’m pretty sure the main reason for not having direct drive electric motors on automobiles is because the efficiency gains aren’t very high over a direct drive (or overdrive) transmission, and because throttle response would be terrible.

      A diesel-electric train engine runs at the same speed over very gentle grades for hundreds of miles. That might be OK in many parts of the country, but since car manufacturers are hesitant to customize vehicles for regions (which is why the CA air resources board sets the rules for the whole country), they want vehicles that perform well in both the Rocky Mountains and Florida. If fuel consumption or whatever becomes cost prohibitive to the trucking industry they’ll start to wring more efficiency out of their (already very efficient) drive trains. But as long as they can pass along the fuel cost as a surcharge to customers there’s not much incentive to change out the fleet.

      There was some talk a few years ago about using large capacitors for temporary storage that would allow for decent acceleration along with a direct drive system, but I don’t know what happened to that. My guess is that it would require so much copper between the capacitor bank and the electric motors that it would be incredibly cost prohibitive. That and when the caps fail they tend to do so in a spectacular way.

  2. Just an addition… the mass of the battery pack means that the roof and all the crash structures have to be even stronger. So there’s a feedback loop involved as well.

  3. Electric cars have no place on the Interstate. They are city cars, and should be marketed as such. But there’s no money in cities for building parking lots and retrofitting existing parking with charging stations (and the homeless would just break into the chargers for “free” electricity anyway). Instead the city government doubles down on commuter rail, bus lines and other inconvenient forms of transportation no one wants.

    When I lived in Aspen, the normal way to get around town for the elites was to jump into their Zap Car or other tiny electric. Of course the elites could afford that 4th vehicle that was only useful for 3 months a year (in the winter months the streets are dominated by SUVs). The rest of us took the bus or biked around town. They aren’t going to drive it much beyond Woodycreek, but that’s OK. If you need to go “down valley” you have one of the other cars in the garage, and surly no sane person would want to get the Zap Car up to 65 MPH, let alone 75.

    Politicians listen to the wrong people. The media listens to the wrong people. They listen to the “scientists” who throw out some statistic like “there’s enough wind power in Wyoming alone to power the entire country.” What they don’t say is that capturing all that wind is a non-trivial and incredibly uneconomic venture. That’s what an engineer or accountant would tell you. But engineers are pessimists (or at least realists) and inherently truthful, so no one listens to them, just tells them to do the impossible. So you end up with albatross electric cars and gas turbines providing most of the “renewable” electricity.

    And don’t get me started about the media’s misapplication of Moore’s law to everything electric…

    • Hi Eric,

      “Politicians listen to the wrong people. The media listens to the wrong people.”

      Government attracts, and in many cases funds, an army of “court intellectuals”, whose job is to promote statist intervention to address every “problem” facing the world. Their ranks include pundits, “philosophers” and scientists. Some are paid directly by the State, some are rewarded with prestige and influence (think Paul Krugman on the “left” and William Kristol on the “right”). Politicians “listen” to these people, who always make arguments justifying the exercise of more State power, then claim to have been advised by objective “experts”. This creates a symbiotic information loop. Intellectuals seek prestige and influence, so they create arguments that appeal to those in power; politicians seek justification for their schemes, so they promote the “objective” arguments from the intellectual class. Finally, the media constrains their reporting almost exclusively to arguments that fall within this information loop.

      It is important to note that this mutually beneficial relationship does not require any sort of conspiracy. It is the predictable result of the concentration of power. Consider the influence of Keynes vs Hayek/Mises. Keynes abandoned his earlier, sounder economic beliefs* in favor of a theory designed to appeal to those in power. Hayek and Mises were much better economists and much more profound thinkers, yet Keynes won. He didn’t win on the merits, he won because his arguments appealed to those in power.

      Consider the influence of Milton Friedman vs Murray Rothbard. Friedman, despite being considered a pure, free market guy, never challenged the legitimacy of the State. He was an efficiency fetishist who spent his career trying to devise ways to impose market discipline on State actions (an impossible task). Rothbard, a much better economist IMO, was ignored and marginalized because he argued that State intervention would always make things worse. This dynamic even occurs within the broader libertarian community. Those who advocate “change from within” political action actively despise Rothbard and revere Friedman.

      * “By a continuing process of inflation, government can confiscate, secretly and unobserved, an important part of the wealth of their citizens”.
      – John Maynard Keynes

    • Government built transit is built to the priority of politics, people’s travel needs are never more than secondary considerations and probably rarely even that high. For this reason new transit lines continue to fail to attract ridership.

      The scientists are usually government funded and as such they either produce what the political class needs or they will be out of a career.

    • “That’s what an engineer or accountant would tell you. But engineers are pessimists (or at least realists) and inherently truthful, so no one listens to them, just tells them to do the impossible. ” You done said a mouthful there buddy. The PTB don’t want to deal with reality.

      • You should see what I see. The pained press conferences. These poor geeks having to put on a smile and pretend arm-pump enthusiasm for things they know are either silly or stupid or some combination of the two.