Sunday, March 8, 2009

Gas is dead, long live electric!

Somehow, I have to provide reasoning for going electric when I'm telling people about our project to put an electric engine instead of a fuel engine on our homemade kart. It seems pretty obvious to us: Fossil fuel powered vehicles are dead, long live electric! The list of reasons why we believe that electric vehicles are about to reign the world seems endless.

The first reason is so obvious, I'll just mention it without a rant: Burning fuel is bad for our environment. 'Nough said.

We're out of gas. Some people may argue that we still have plenty of gas for a few decades, but on a scale of technological shifts, the fossil fuel era is over. We simple have to shift to a new power source for our transportation, there's no choice here, so we'll do it. We're going to put batteries or fuel cells in our cars while shifting out fossil fuel munching monsters. Even Ford CEO Alan Mulally has stated a few days ago that "In 10 years, 12 years, you are going to see a major portion of our portfolio move to electric vehicles." I'm convinced that this will be quite a good projection on the timing of the introduction of renewables. We're still having a big economic crisis on our hands, but we have learned that the situation requires a shift in thinking on many levels, which provides amazing opportunities for the environment and our economy. On her visit to Belgium over the last few days, Hillary Clinton stated "never waste a good crisis," and highlighted the opportunity of rebuilding economies in a greener, less energy-intensive way. Yay, I like the vibe of that statement!

Gas is expensive.
The cost per kilometer for the Tesla roadster is 0.01€ where the cost of a gas powered car will easily be about 25 times that high! So maybe you're happy that the prices of gas have been dropping considerably over the last few months, it's still insanely expensive if you compare it to the newly emerging alternatives. Note that gas is taxed very heavily and the shift away from gas will imply that our governments will experience a pretty big loss in tax incomes.

Fuel powered engines are inefficient. The Tesla roadster averages its efficiency at 92%. The following discussion from salon.com shows that electric cars don't suck down the same amount of energy as gas guzzlers do, even if fossil fuels would be used to generate the electricity and store it in an electric car's batteries. Obviously this example adopts the worst case scenario for the electric car, so it's much better off in all other scenarios.
"According to Tesla, the well-to-tank efficiency of gasoline is 81.7 percent, while the well-to-battery efficiency of natural-gas-generated electricity is 52.5 percent. At first glance, the gasoline looks more efficient, but keep in mind that efficiency is lost in the combustion engine. Because of the fact that the Tesla electric roadster has no internal combustion engine and no conventional transmission, its efficiency is an impressive 2.14 km/MJ. For comparison, the hybrid Prius is 0.68 km/MJ, and a conventional Honda Civic is 0.63 km/MJ. When you combine the well-to-tank efficiency with the vehicle's efficiency, the Tesla has a well-to-wheel efficiency of 1.14 km/MJ, compared with 0.556 km/MJ for the Prius."

So, if the electricity can be provided from renewable sources, electric vehicles are super efficient in comparison with cars that eat fuel.

There's few interesting discussion topics that come up when assuming that everyone has an electric car instead of a fuel powered one. A common argument is the dooming scarcity of electricity when we're switching over to an electric era. I'm pretty reassured that, if this problem would indeed occur, we can easily deal with it. Renewable energy systems encompass a broad, diverse array of technologies that is undergoing a constant influx of innovations. The cost of producing electricity from renewable sources is a few cents per kWh, which is comparable to, for example, coal. The potential cost of various technologies is much lower than that of coal, so the future is bright. Again, the current crisis brings me in an optimistic mood; The shifts in thinking about producing cars and environmentally friendly energy production will be part of getting us out of the current trouble. Only a few days ago, the Swedish government has been proving themselves worthy in how they're dealing the crisis; With looming bankruptcy for Saab, the Swedish minster of trade has insisted that Saab moves away from producing cars and should shift their business from manufacturing cars to producing wind turbines, if Saab wants to receive any support from their government to get out of trouble. A staggering move, indeed. Let's just hope it inspires other governments (Obama, this is your cue) to urgently consider similar moves.

Another common argument about electric vehicles is about their range of electric cars. In the case of the Tesla car, its range is about 350km before you need to recharge it for about 3.5 hours. That's not good for a trip that requires some 1000 kilometers, but, honestly, how often do you need to drive that far? Many families will have a trip once a year that requires such a range, but I'm sure that more than 95% of the people on the road could easily fit their daily range in a few tens of kilometers, so the range of an electric powered car being in the hundreds of kilometers will easily satisfy many people. Also, I'm confident that the range of electric cars will steadily improve as the technology in electric motors and batteries will evolve, although I'm far from being an expert in these fields. Currently, we're stuck in a virtuous cycle where batteries are considered not to be good enough for producing electric cars, and as long there's no mass production of electric vehicles, there's not enough pressure on improving the state of the art. We'll have to break this cycle in the next few years because of other reasons mentioned above and I'm very optimistic that the technology involved with it will take great steps forward as a consequence, greatly enhancing the range of electric vehicles. Prices for great electric cars, like the Tesla roadster, are extraordinary for most of us, but as the future will bring mass produced electric vehicles from big car companies (like Ford, see above), prices will drop considerably.

There are some serious misconceptions and doubts about the performance of electric vehicles. When we see a rare electric car, it's often a slow one. Golf karts, forklift trucks and stupid looking electric vehicles that can't go above 50 km/h are bad examples of what an electric vehicle can do. Luckily, the Tesla roadster tells the story of a really powerful car with amazing acceleration statistics. It goes from 0 to 100 in 3.7 seconds which puts it well in the top 50 fastest accelerating production cars, just ahead of a Ferrari F40. Electric engines provide 100% torque, 100% of the time. Electric karts have already shown that they could dominate fuel powered karts as well, since the acceleration of an electric motor leaves the gas karts at a standstill at the starting line.

Electric is simpler. Building an electric car requires less skill than fuel powered cars. Note that the first electric cars were invented around 1835, more than 50 years before gasoline engines were getting ready for mass production. Electric engines being less complex is our main reason when getting our hands dirty and building our own kart, but it is also a good reason why it should be phased in into any road vehicle. An electric engine only consists of a few components; a few batteries, a controller and a motor. A typical four-cylinder engine of a conventional car comprises over a hundred moving parts. By comparison, the motor of an electric car would just have one: the rotor. An electric engine doesn't easily deteriorate or break down and doesn't need regular maintenance. You don't need to pay the costs of maintaining a fuel powered engine by frequently having to change the oil, coolants, spark plugs or any of the complexities that come along with gasoline engines. Batteries will have to be changed, though, every 100.000 to 150.000 kilometers. All of the technology that has been developed for fuel munching engines can be thrown out, and the end result is a simpler and better performing car. Electric engines are so simple that I, as a complete newbie on this technical level, am very optimistic that I can build, drive and maintain an electric kart on my own, without having to ever grasp how a gas engine works. And I can't be bothered with that knowledge either. I consider fuel powered motors to be ancient technology.

I strongly believe there's plenty of reasons why we'll be going electric on our kart. If we can manage to successfully complete this project, as complete newbies, I'm sure the car companies will be able to swiftly pull of this kind of a stunt as well. More so, I'm completely baffled that our streets are still filled with fossil fuel powered cars when there's such a better alternative, on every level. But I'm confident that change is upon us and the era of fossil fueled road transportation is at its end. I, for one, welcome the era of electric transportation!

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