Electric Cars – Closer Than They Appear

The most important and most intractable problem in international relations is not war or poverty, each of which are seeing rapid progress in recent years. It’s global warming, where a world-scale disaster is unfolding and the international community seems to lack fundamental tools to craft a solution. Individuals, cities, U.S. states, and some countries are trying to find answers, but the big international agreements like Kyoto and Copenhagen have been, essentially, a big bust. Carbon continues to accumulate in the atmosphere as fast as ever.

Last week I saw a fascinating presentation in a converted water tank, now a 100-person theater with seats repurposed from old car seats. It was the visitor’s center of the company, Better Place, near Tel Aviv. The presentation highlighted how much bad comes from something we all do every day – getting in a car and driving. Gas-powered cars are a major source of carbon dioxide worldwide, they prop up unsavory regimes in oil-exporting countries, they are a big contributor to the U.S. trade deficit. Also they make a lot of noise and they stink. The technology is a hundred years old, and Better Place wants to revolutionize it through a massive switchover from gas to electric cars.

Right now a lot of the electricity we use comes from coal, a dirty fuel (even after the industry rebranding it by fiat as “clean coal”). But over the time it will take to switch over from gas to electric cars, alternative ways of making electricity will become more economical, so the electric car offers a path forward, a possibility (the word we heard a lot at Better Place) for the cleaner future we need. Gas cars by contrast are a dead end.

Personally, I’ve been driving an electric car for about three years. It’s a Solectria Force, one of about 400 made by a Boston company in the 1990s. They quit after no major car company would pick it up, but quite a few of the old ones are still on the road. It uses 13 regular lead-acid car batteries. My car is fun to drive, economical (the equivalent of 100 mpg in fuel cost terms), and very practical for driving kids around town and the like.The range is about 40 miles — plenty for most trips — and then you plug it in right in your garage and never have to visit a gas station. We keep a gas car too, for longer trips.

The two big drawbacks of our electric car are (1) there is no service other than getting out your own wrenches and then relying on other Solectria owners who connect on the Internet; and (2) let’s face it, this thing was a Geo Metro before it got electric, so it’s pretty stripped-down and underpowered.

At the Better Place visitor’s center, I got to test-drive one of their new cars, made for them by Renault. They’ve solved my two problems completely. Customer service is available by phone 24/7 by pushing a button in the car, and the driving experience is decidedly un-Geo Metrolike. It’s a nice comfortable sedan with good acceleration and a fun driving experience. I want one! Not enough to move to Seattle — one of the areas where you’ll first see the car, along with Israel, Denmark, Australia, and Hawaii — but enough to be impatient.

The big innovation with Better Place, compared with the other electric cars everyone now seems to be selling, is their solution to “range anxiety.” This is the feeling drivers have that their electric car could strand them, even though most trips are in fact within the range of the car. (Lithium batteries now used give more like 100 miles compared with my car’s 40 miles.) The Chevy Volt solves it with an onboard gasoline-powered generator, and that’s fine but still gas-based. Better Place solves it with a network of charging spots to plug in, and of robotic battery-swapping stations that can give you a fully charged battery in less than five minutes while you sit in the car. The Better Place model is that you own the car but not the battery — you pay for fuel by the mile, not by the gallon. A NY Times Magazine article a couple of years ago nicely describes range anxiety and Better Place’s solution.

The car’s GPS system knows where you are and where all the charging spots and battery-swap stations are. When you tell it to go from Point A to Point B, it says, “great, but we’ll stop at Point C briefly for a battery swap.”  There’s more detail to their system but the essence is that in a gas car you’re on your own but in a Better Place car you’re embedded in an intelligent network that takes care of you.

Electric cars are fun to drive and to blog about, but the big point here is that someone has a big idea to transform one of the biggest stumbling blocks that’s kept us from solving global warming. When I heard about the Better Place plan a couple of years ago, I thought they were insanely ambitious. I was wondering how we get the first one percent of drivers to go electric (millions of people). They were thinking, how do we get everyone. Now that I’ve driven the car myself, I still think the plan is insanely ambitious, but holds great possibility. And being fun doesn’t hurt.

2 responses to “Electric Cars – Closer Than They Appear

  1. “The most important and most intractable problem in international relations is not war or poverty, each of which are seeing rapid progress in recent years. It’s global warming, where a world-scale disaster is unfolding.”

    Well put, Joshua!