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As a ‘Moon Shot,’ Creating a Viable Electric Car is a Challenging Mission

Costs high, obstacles steep; does America have the will to launch this mission?

by on Jul.03, 2009

The most famous electric vehicle in history, the Lunar Buggy was the result of an intense effort that, in today's dollars, cost $100 billion. Do we have the will - and the cash - for the equally challenging effort needed to produce a viable, cost-competitive EV for Planet Earth?

The most famous electric vehicle in history, the Lunar Buggy was the result of an intense effort that, in today's dollars, cost $100 billion. Do we have the will - and the cash - for an equally challenging effort needed to produce a viable EV for Planet Earth?

The race to deliver electric vehicles to the market is on and competition is heating up. But like the Apollo Program, success is likely to be measured over many years and will come at great cost. Our friends at Green Car Journal examined the challenges of bringing the EV into the mainstream and shared this analysis with TheDetroitBureau.com.

As we mark the 40th anniversary of successfully landing a man on the moon this month, it’s interesting to note the many comparisons that position electric cars as the next ‘moon shot.’ There are synergies at work since, after all, the Apollo Program’s lunar rover may be the most high-profile electric car in history. But the editors at Green Car Journal caution that even as get-there-at-all-costs momentum builds for electric cars in Washington DC, it’s a giant leap of faith to assume that today’s activities will lead to an affordable all-electric car in your garage anytime soon.

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What people overlook is that accomplishing ‘big picture’ programs like Apollo require accepting the concept of unlimited spending to achieve the mission. Current levels of unprecedented federal spending notwithstanding, electric cars are not an exclusive answer to future transportation challenges and consumers will not be willing to buy them at all costs.

In current dollars, the Apollo Program cost well over $100 billion. At its end there was no imperative to produce a consumer product to sell at a reasonable cost. Such is not the case with electric cars. Even after the Obama Administration’s $2.4 billion in grants to promote electric car and advanced battery development, plus an additional $25 billion loan program and $7,500 per-vehicle subsidies that could ultimately run into additional billions of dollars, there’s no assurance that electric cars will be affordable after the money is spent.

There’s a shroud of denial that regularly excludes the real cost of battery electric vehicles from discussion of their considerable benefits.  I understand first-hand the advantages of an electric car with its high efficiency, zero localized emissions, and petroleum-free operation. But I also recognize the importance of an affordable cost so most people can buy them, and that’s a crucial issue that’s rarely, if ever, discussed. People should be asking why.

The primary culprit is not the car. Automakers in the 1990s proved they could produce full-function electric vehicles offering the attributes that most drivers expect, although with limited driving range of about 100 miles or so. What they couldn’t do was replace a gas tank with an advanced battery pack that cost less than $20,000 to $30,000. Today’s electric Tesla Roadster battery cost is about the same. Extraordinarily high battery cost is why we’re seeing newly-announced battery electric sedans with a retail cost of $45,000 to $55,000.

Will buyers pay $15,000 to $25,000 more for a vehicle that runs solely on batteries compared to a similar gasoline or clean diesel model? Not in mass market numbers, which is why electric cars should be considered potential mid- to long-term volume vehicles rather than a sure short-term solution as battery costs are being sorted out. Higher fuel economy gasoline, clean diesel, and hybrid vehicles of varying types will comprise the majority of the U.S. market’s estimated 11 million annual vehicle sales for years even as battery electric cars come to new car showrooms in increasing numbers.

Ron Cogan is editor of Green Car Journal.  You can find back issues of the print publication at GCJUSA.com.

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7 Responses to “As a ‘Moon Shot,’ Creating a Viable Electric Car is a Challenging Mission”

  1. Jack Harned says:

    A thoughtful post…interesting to me as I will join GM’s former AC Electronics team celebrating our significant role in Apollo later this month, on the 40th anniversary of the moon landing. Apollo differs, in addition to the noted fact of unlimited spending for a non-commercial goal, in that mission objectives and decisions were made by centralized government authority. Electric car technology grows by competitive-driven acts by numerous players… maybe with some support from government to come.

  2. Al Rusca says:

    There is a very good documentary called “Who Killed The Electric Car?” that sheds an interesting light on electric car development. The “experimental” program was becoming too successful in California and was closed down by a combination of the oil companies, auto manufacturors, and the government.
    My question is where would electric car technology have been today if that program had been left alone to flourish? It was a program before it’s time and literally squashed!
    From what I understand, every last vehicle from those prototype cars were destroyed by the manufacturor and any of those vehicles found today are without the original drivetrains and battery packs.

  3. Ron Cogan says:

    Al, sorry to say this assessment is wrong. That’s understandable because, like many others, you’ve been led in that direction by too many published stories that have not shared the context detailing why electric cars are such a challenge, or by electric vehicle interests with an agenda.

    It was my job at Green Car Journal and at Motor Trend to follow the electric vehicle activities unfolding during the 1990s and accurately report on them. I have no agenda other than to report the truth…and I spent a lot of time analyzing activities, talking with the engineers and scientists behind the scenes, and getting behind the wheel of all electric vehicles of the era to get to the truth.

    What is the truth? To start with, the film ‘Who Killed the Electric Car’ got it wrong. This so-called ‘documentary’ convinced too many unknowing viewers that a conspiracy of self-focused interests kept the modern electric vehicle from coming to new car showrooms. It’s true that the auto industry was conflicted and couldn’t figure out what kind of commitment it should make to developing these vehicles, even as automakers were being required to do so by the State of California. But that’s not the fundamental reason why electric cars failed.

    To accurately reflect the truth, the title of the film should have been “WHAT Killed the Electric Car.” And that ‘what’ was the enormously expensive battery pack required to make electric cars work.

    You ask where we might be if the electric vehicle program in California was left alone to flourish. First of all, it wasn’t flourishing. Automakers were losing tens of thousands of dollars on each electric vehicle they built at the time…because of the extraordinarily high battery cost. Battery development continued even after the automakers’ contractual obligations with the State of California for test marketing electric cars were fulfilled and production of these vehicles ended. Yet, the battery conundrum continues to be a challenge to this day even as incremental improvements are made and hopeful new approaches emerge. What’s required is an advanced battery that offers all the characteristics needed to power cars at a truly reasonable cost. That battery does not yet exist.

    Since the advanced battery is the key enabling technology for modern electric cars, this is a real problem. You can bury the cost of a $30,000 battery in a generally unapproachable electric car like the $109,000 Tesla Roadster, but it’s tough to do that in an affordable model. Tesla’s answer is the $57,000 Model S sedan it says will be sold in late 2011, while Coda Automotive’s answer is the $45,000, Chinese-made Coda electric sedan it says will be sold in late 2010. Are these affordable electric cars for the masses? Probably not. I do hope this changes soon, though, and electric cars become a meaningful part of the auto industry’s renewal.

  4. tdb says:

    Al, I must echo most of Ron’s point, in fact I’ll follow up on just one key element of your own not. While I can tell you 100+ ways that General Motors has screwed up, over the years, including the heavy-handed way they collected the last of the EV1s in customer hands, the fact is that the movie, “Who Killed the Electric Car” was no more an accurate documentary than was Michael Moore’s “Roger and Me.” (That doesn’t mean they don’t score points, but they both play fast and loose to get those points across.)
    The irony is that GM was the last of the major makers to actually have EVs in the field, during that abortive attempt to legislate technology into being. The first out was that hero of the environmental movement, Honda, followed by Toyota. They were as reluctant to field electrics as anyone and pulled out of the experiment event before California’s Air Resources Board, or CARB, actually rolled back the zero-emissions rules. But somehow, GM has gotten the bad wrap of being the company that killed things off. Not so. Not even close.
    As to the experiment, it wasn’t actually seen that way; CARB believed it could force the technology into being and assumed that just because the government had been able to mandate lower emissions from gasoline vehicles, it would somehow be possible to also regulate into being an entirely new form of powertrain technology. Wrong. Ron gets into the specifics, so I won’t repeat his arguments.
    Now, let me point to a conversation I had with the director of CARB a month or so before the EV mandate went into effect. I was battering her during a Q&A session and she finally asked, “which side are you on?” My response? “I think this is one of the worst laws ever written and I hope you stick to it, at least for awhile.
    Huh? I went on to state my belief that the technology wouldn’t live up to expectations — and it didn’t; only a very small number of enviro-geeks accepted those early EVs. But by pushing to implement the rules, CARB did force automakers around the world to at least look at electric propulsion. What they began to learn, back then, has provided the foundation for modern products ranging from the Prius to the Volt. And it could help in the push to develop competitive EVs.
    Interesting, this seemingly odd position was mirrored in a conversation I had with Bob Lutz, the father of the Volt concept, a year ago. What serious gearheads started realizing is that electric propulsion DOES have some pluses, notably the fact that you develop max torque the moment the motors start to spin. So, you can get a product like Tesla, with 911-class acceleration.
    Now comes the challenge of getting the rest of the battery powertrain to compete with gasoline.
    As Ron makes clear, this is the moonshot.
    Paul A. Eisenstein
    Bureau Chief, TheDetroitBureau.com

  5. harry says:

    Has anyone considered the environmental impacts of the batteries from cradle to grave?

    “Zero localized emissions” is a much better description than “zero emissions”. However, even batteries and electric motors have emissions like ozone or Hydrogen during operation.

  6. tdb says:

    Harry,
    A VERY good point and that gets to the root of some of the arguments against electrification. California often seems willing to accept pollution – outside its borders; it wants clean electric power that might be created by burning coal in Nevada or somewhere else, where prevailing winds carry the pollution to the East.
    And, yes, there are the trace pollutants emitted by, say, motors in operation. I think hydrogen “pollution” is not a worry to anyone, except in a closed environment, where it could prove explosive, however.
    The more significant question is what each form of propulsion requires, in terms of energy, and what it produces, in terms of pollution, on a full cradle-to-grave analysis. If we only consider what’s being emitted while driving, we could actually wind up with dirtier technologies, overall.
    Paul A. Eisenstein
    Bureau Chief, TheDetroitBureau.com

  7. harry says:

    Yes, that was the point. Last thing we need is for batteries to be the next MTBE.