Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Electric Vehicles Are Coming

A Shell Oil Company report predicts the virtual extinction of internal combustion engine motor vehicles by the year 2070.  The slide towards alternative fueled vehicles, especially electric vehicles known as EVs, is in its infancy, but has begun.  EVs could reach a critical mass by 2030.  Within a generation, the poor and truck drivers will drive a majority of the gasoline-powered engines remaining on our roads.  Yes, one day even you will drive an EV or other alternative-fueled vehicle.  

My new car, the Nissan LEAF, is the first mass market EV.  It is a technological marvel, offering immediate torque when pressing the "gas" pedal, initially surpassing that of a sports car.

The LEAF regenerates electricity in the battery when coasting and braking.  The LEAF drives and feels like a conventional, very quiet automobile, but without spark plugs, muffler, transmission, tailpipe, or a gasoline engine. It's simpler design could avoid many costly repairs--at least until the battery needs replacing in about a decade.  Consumer Reports recommends the LEAF, predicts excellent reliability based on three years of data, and notes very high owner satisfaction.

The LEAF is a joy to drive with a low center of gravity, created by its battery placement in the floor.  A former race car driver was exuberant with the LEAF's first iteration three years ago:

A Nissan commercial lampooned gas-powered cars, implicitly it's own cars, and explicitly, the Chevy Volt (electric range 38 miles with gas back-up motor):

At the higher end of the cost spectrum, Consumer Reports gave the Tesla Model S (MSRP of $70,000 before a $7,500.00 tax credit) its highest performance rating ever--a 99 out of 100.  In 2014, Tesla expects to release the Model X, an electric SUV with three rows of seats and futuristic doors that open upward. 

Other vehicles will soon compete with Tesla. In the next couple of years, Infiniti will sell the gorgeous LE, built on the LEAF platform. We will also see introduction of the funky-looking BMWi3 (not my taste). A Cadillac EV, expected to arrive in 2014, will carry a jaw-dropping $74,000 MSRP.  Tesla, meanwhile, is making plans for a$35,000 EV to compete with the LEAF in a few years. 

For now, a $7,500 Federal income tax credit--which can reduce even the alternative minimum tax--is encouraging EV sales.  Critics, some of whom rarely criticize tax breaks, contend that the EV market cannot sustain itself without such "government subsidies."  That is true in the short-run while production ramps-up to achieve economies of scale to bring prices down to those of conventional automobiles.  

Critics--especially at Forbes magazine--contend that "America’s energy and automotive futures should be left to the free market."  This assertion ignores the far larger, albeit indirect subsidies that prop-up gasoline-powered motorcars.  The United States spent $145 billion at the height of the Iraq War in 2008.  Would we have invaded and occupied Iraq for years if the Middle East was not supplying us with the majority of the oil we consume?  One observer from the James Baker Institute estimated, "At $20 billion a year in military expenditure to protect the flow of oil, the US taxpayer is spending roughly an extra hidden $4 to $5 a barrel for the crude oil beyond its market price."

In addition, the Internal Revenue Code allows oil companies to immediately deduct the cost of preparing oil fields, instead of capitalizing costs over time like many other capital investments. 

Congress has not raised gasoline taxes from 1993 levels and, each year, raids general revenues to pay for the nation's federally-funded highways.

In contrast to the tens of billions spent subsidizing the oil industry, $7,500 in tax credits for 200,000 Nissan Leafs (the number of production vehicles that will trigger the phase-out of subsidies), will amount to a mere $150 million. 

Not a bad investment to start seriously cutting air pollution.

Not a bad investment after watching oil spurt uncontrollably from the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, fouling once-pristine beaches from Florida to Louisiana, with incalculable economic repercussions. 

Critics contend further that EVs merely offload their emissions onto the power grid. That is true. However, Florida's coal power generators are operating at day and night and releasing emissions whether or not people are plugging-in their vehicles.  Other Floridians are charging their EVs from a grid powered partly by nuclear energy, which emits no greenhouse gases.  

The LEAF gets the equivalent of 129 miles per gallon in city driving. The Toyota Prius "only" gets 50.  My old 2002 Lexus ES 300 only got 17.  The environmental benefits of an EV are blatantly obvious. 

Speaking of the popular Prius, Toyota is making a deliberately slow evolution to electric vehicles, offering only 11 miles of range on a Prius plug-in. Toyota is wringing as much profit it can out of its investment in gas-electric hybrid technology.  I don't blame Toyota, which is selling as many Priuses each month as Nissan is selling LEAFs in a year. 

However, Toyota risks getting left behind if it does not increase the range on the Prius plug-in and offer it for sale nationwide. Currently, Toyota sells it in only 14 states--and Florida isn't one of them.  

In my judgment, the LEAF is more fun to drive than the Prius, which has an annoying bar across the rear window and, oddly, no instrument panel through the steering wheel.

Toyota expects to introduce hydrogen fuel cell vehicle late next year as a 2015 model with range on par with gasoline-powered vehicles and requiring only three minutes to fill-up.  However, virtually no hydrogen fuel cell infrastructure exists yet in the United States.  Images of the 1937 Hindenburg explosion could make consumers wary.  An expected price of around $50,000 will assuredly keep Toyota's vehicle (like Tesla's Model S) out of range for most people.  Despite no harmful emissions (only water vapor), hydrogen fuel could be as expensive as gasoline. 

The most significant factor holding back widespread adoption of electric cars is their range. For the 2013 model, Nissan increased the range of the LEAF from 75 to, in my experience, 84 miles on an 80% charge in ECO mode. The Tesla Model S has a whopping 265 miles of range, but needs a very large--and expensive--battery. 

As battery technology improves, range will increase, and more people will view electric vehicles as a viable option.  At present, the LEAF is suitable for normal-range commuting, such as my 10 mile round-trip commute to work.  Nissan says most people drive 29 miles a day and the LEAF's range exceeds that by two and one-half times. My family will still need our gas-combustion minivan for long trips and I will need it when I must attend a court hearing in Jacksonville, Tampa, or Miami.  Charging stations are becoming more prevalent, but it is not practical to plan on 20-30 minute charging sessions every 75-80 miles.   Once mass market EVs reliably hit 150 miles of range (two and one half hours of highway driving), they will become quite popular.

While many wait for the technology to improve, I will drive around Winter Park enjoying the equivalent of 129 miles to the gallon--without a tail pipe.