Friday, December 24, 2010

Musings on powering the family car: Gas, electric, pedals?

Imagine the responses if all cars were electric and someone were trying to sell a gasoline-powered vehicle.

(Image: The electric Hungarian concept car Antro, which you can pedal into the garage if your battery runs out, and which splits into two cars for two-commuter households. Source: Antro Vehicle Development Public Benefit Company.)

What would folks say about gasoline cars?

“Gasoline? They can make fuel-air bombs out of that. It’s explosive! You’re going to pour that stuff down a tube and carry it around in your car? That's nuts! What about a collision?”

“Every city’s going to have dozens of gasoline stations with underground tanks filled with explosive liquid that could also leak and pollute groundwater? I don’t think so.”

“Internal combustion engines? They only operate at 25% efficiency. Enormous amounts of their energy are lost as heat. Makes no sense. They’re noisy. They stink. They pollute. You could kill yourself if you left one running in a closed garage.”

And so forth.

A fellow named Robert Llewellyn operates a video podcast on electric cars called Fully Charged. While driving a $2 million Honda hydrogen fuel cell-electric car, he had this comment:

“The internal combustion engine is just a clunky old bit of Steam Age technology. Pistons, crankshafts, valves, all that stuff … It’s clever and complex Victorian technology. It’s not what we should be doing now.”

That said, are there problems with these new post-Steam Age electric vehicles. But there is also any number of solutions for virtually all of them. Here are some pluses and minuses from your federal government.

And some of my thoughts:

Electric cars are expensive. I think of computers. I remember spending $2,000 for one of my first computers some three decades ago. It was quirky, had limited power, was heavy and there weren’t many programs for it. The laptop on which I’m writing this cost a third the amount, is portable, and has capacity and capability that leave that old machine fading like a bad memory. Like computers, they'll be cheaper later.

They’re not sexy and they’re so, well, golfcarty. Let me say two words. Tesla roadster.

Yeah, well, can I fit my kids and the groceries into one? Well, Tesla and Toyota are working on an electric RAV4. AMP has an electric Chevy Equinox now. Shucks, even Range Rover has one.

They’ll never get the price under control as long as they need a ton of batteries for range. Well, battery technology will certainly improve, at least somewhat, which will help. And getting charging stations into parking lots may mean you can fill up any time you stop for a couple of hours—to shop, to eat, to work. And if you charge up when you get home, you’re full at dawn every day. You know, that 300-mile range is mostly so you don't have to fill the car more than once every week or two, not because you drive 300 miles every day.

It’s all so inconvenient. You can charge your iPod and Blackberry and iPhone on a wireless induction plate. No need to even plug them in. Here’s one from Brookstone. And one from Slippery Brick. And there are others. I haven't tried these, but I hear they work fine. Can it work for cars? How about an induction charging plate in your garage. You drive in, and it automatically starts charging. No cables, no fuss. The folks at HaloIPT are among the many that are working on it.

What about long-distance driving? I’ll run out of power and there’s no quick-charge capability. Hard to say how this will work out eventually. Project Better Place is betting on simply driving into a station and quickly swapping your batteries for fresh ones. Others suggest that the induction plate technology cited above can be installed in highways—so you charge as you drive. Here’s a simple discussion on how it works.

The upshot of all this is that you can come up with lots of excuses, but either right now, or soon, pretty much all of them can be answered and put to rest.

Are electric cars the future? Or perhaps hybrids or hydrogen? Or something really quirky like the electric/human-powered Antro, which splits into two cars for two-income commuters and joins back into one car for weekend family outings?

Don't know, but it's clear that the future of alternative transportation is, well, really cool.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2010

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