Back To The Future? The first thing you should know is that electric cars and, more generally, electric vehicles, are not really new at all! Electric cars in 1900 accounted for 38% of US automobiles, 33,842 cars; the remainder: 40% steam, and only 22% gasoline. Thus EVs might have taken over entirely if not for several factors:
- the limited battery technology available at the time
- the discovery of cheap petroleum in a couple of places, one in Texas and one called, well, Petrolia, near Windsor/Detroit, in the 1900s;
- The mass-production of the gasoline-powered Ford Model T, which cut the price to about half that of the largely hand-built EVs of the day (Amusingly, Henry Ford himself bought electric vehicles for his wife and son)
- The invention of the battery-powered starter for gasoline engines (“Honey, I shrank the battery!”).
Since that time, Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) engines have been the norm for most personal transportation. But, as you probably know, subways/metros and many streetcars/trams run completely on electricity in major cities, and have for decades.
What’s new is that, starting in this century, many companies like Tesla Motors and Nissan have been making successful electric cars using battery technology similar to that in your smartphone — lithium-ion batteries (“Li-On” for short). You know, the kind you plug in overnight to recharge. Recently GM/Chevrolet and most other old-time car makers have started shipping (or promised to soon start shipping) electric cars to try to compete. As of 2017, Mercedes-Benz has in fact stopped sales of gasoline Smart™ Car, and will be selling only the electric version of it in North America. In late 2018, Tesla’s Model 3 became the best-selling sedan in the US. Bloomberg notes that expensive oil is just what the electric car needs (also lists the European automakers planned releases). Bloomberg earlier reported a 2016 MIT study claiming that we could wind up with 87% of our cars running on electricity at some point. Electrification of “the car” is definitely a thing, and trucks are not far behind, so let’s look at some of the ways that the new wave of electric cars is going to “shock” your world.
Wake Up And Don’t Smell the Smog
Gasoline and diesel fuel and similar sources are collectively called “fossil fuels” as they get their power by unleashing chemicals that were stored away in the long-distant past, when organic material became converted to goo rather than to stone.
Burning these fossil fuels gives off tons of junk that gets into the air. It’s not just cars, of course; trucks, airplanes, factories and power plants largely work by burning fossil fuels. Large cities like London, Los Angeles, New York and Beijing have in recent times had so much “smog” (smoke/fog) that they would have become uninhabitable if they had kept on burning fuels without change.
As a result, California now has among the most stringent emissions controls in the USA. This legacy is also why some California cities now require solar panels on some new buildings (including San Francisco and Santa Monica). Los Angeles has had an amazing 98% reduction in some pollutants since the 1960’s despite nearly tripling the number of cars and miles driven . It’s also why China is investing so heavily in production of electric cars.
Don’t “Burn, Baby, Burn”!
“Burn, baby, burn!” was a catch-phrase of student radicals back in the 1970’s. “Molotov cocktails” (gasoline in a glass jar or bottle, with a lit rag for a fuse) were (far less often than imagined) thrown at university and other administration buildings that were considered unfriendly to the radicals. But they are also used by arsonists, and in riots and full-scale rebellions; they are not to be trifled with.
What most people don’t consider is that a conventional gasoline car is a lot like a molotov cocktail. You have a lot of gasoline, and you have a source of combustion. The National Fire Protection Association notes that from 2003 to 2007 there were an average of 287,000 vehicle fires — a quarter of a million — every year in the USA, causing 480 civilian deaths, 1,525 injuries, and $1.3 billion in damage. Almost every one of those was in a gasoline-powered car. You can get a glimpse of this terrible human and material toll on Google Image Search.
There are a few EV fires, but a lot lower percentage of EV fires for the number of EVs on the road, not just fewer in absolute numbers. Here’s Tesla’s take on the issue.
So: More EV’s, fewer car fires.
Fast and Furious
At the present time, high-end electric cars are among the fastest cars when it comes to acceleration from a standing start. Things like ‘0–60’ time (the number of seconds to speed up from standing still to moving at 60 mile per hour, or 0–100 km/sec in metric) and the time to drive a quarter-mile “drag” race, are quite often won by high-end EVs.
Where gasoline cars retain their edge for now is in top speed, but you can’t really drive much above 120MPH on most North American highways so this touted advantage isn’t such a big deal.
Fill ‘er up! Fewer gasoline filling stations.
“Gas stations” — businesses who run gasoline pumps — will be affected. Many will adapt, and provide high-speed electrical charging alongside gasoline. But many others will close their doors forever. Leaving more land for development, and hopefully making housing just a bit cheaper for some of you.
There will be a lot less demand for public charging stations than there was for gas stations, because many people who primarily drive to and from work (and maybe taking the kids to soccer practice) will be able to charge their EVs overnight, at home, when electricity is often cheapest anyway. Many of these will also have rooftop solar panels and battery storage (like the Tesla “PowerWall”) so their car’s day-to-day fuel will be completely free from usage charges.
But that said, there are already more Tesla-capable charging stations than gasoline pumps on New York City’s Manhattan, more EV charging points than gasoline pumps in Japan, and will be more in the entire UK by 2020. Figures include public and private-but-accessible charging stations. There is also a ranking of the top 10 American cities by public charging stations NOT including Tesla’s.
Tesla is often listed separately as they are the only car company at present to provide their own network of fast charging stations (called “SuperChargers”), which provide fast charging for Tesla cars using a proprietary connector and signaling protocol.
You can look on PlugShare, ChargeHub and newcomer OpenChargeMap for a map of charging stations (including Tesla’s) and on Tesla for a map of SuperChargers. Tesla’s in-car navigation, of course, has access to this map so you can always get directions to the nearest charger, using voice commands.
And by the way, while your EV is charging in your garage or outside your home overnight, you can tell it to start up the heat or airconditioning a few minutes before you get in, and that way it’ll draw the start-up energy from the house power mains instead of from its battery, extending your range in cold or hot weather.
Fix My Wagon: service/repair stations
As with gas stations, car repair places will have to adjust or fade away. The problem for them is that an EV has far fewer parts — an electric motor has only a handful of moving parts, whereas a gas or diesel engine has a hundreds and hundreds. Plus, burning fuel generates heat — a lot of it — so the engines are constantly under stress from that, so you have to change the oil frequently as it gets baked. And the engine wears out from all that heat.
Electric cars need wiper blade changes, minor lubrication, tire rotations/replacement, and body work when some turkey in a parking lot dings your ride. They need brake work a lot less often than ICE cars because of something called “regenerative braking”, which uses the car’s momentum to run the motor as a generator to recharge the battery while slowing the car. EVs never need oil changes, oil filters, transmission service, radiator service, engine tune-ups (or “plug and wire” service), muffler/tailpipe replacements or any of a dozen other services that a conventional car needs over time. Thus, while you’ll pay more to buy an EV, you will more than make it back over a few years in cheaper power costs and not having to pay for all those “routine” service calls.
Do the math. And if you’re in the car service industry, you might want to start diversifying sooner rather than later.
Buy Your Car Online
The small amount of service needed by EVs is also the reason that most old-line car dealers will try to steer you away from an EV despite its superiority. They’re in it for themselves, not for you. That’s why the existing car dealer business model is broken, and EV makers are increasingly selling online.
In fact, in some jurisdictions, that’s the only way you can buy a Tesla, since they, as a silicon valley upstart, don’t have dealer franchises, but in all cases sell direct. In more enlightened areas they’re allowed to have “Tesla Stores” where you can do the paperwork in-store; in others you can only do the purchase paperwork online (you still have to pick the car up at the Tesla store, sometimes in a neighboring state). This model will probably be used by most other EV startup companies, and will soon become mainstream.
So if you happen to be working in a car dealership, be prepared for some disruption! And if you’re looking to buy, your grandparents’ advice on dealing with car dealers may no longer apply.
“Live Better Electrically”
Here’s an advertising jingle from the 1960’s, when elecric utilities wanted people to make greater use of machinery in the home — like electric washing machines and dryers instead of wringer washers and clotheslines.
You'll get more
From life you see
When you live better
Please don’t ask me to sing it, since I can’t carry a tune even if it has Handels. But there it is. If you want the long version, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z5KEu5WvdnE
And, this sort of change may be happening over again. As more people buy EVs and need to charge them, the electrical grid that carries electrical power to homes may have to grow with it. As with any sort of growth, there will be some disruptions. In some places the cost may be pushed out to consumers.
As mentioned, though, some people will install solar roofs and battery storage so they generally won’t need much power from the grid. Probably this won’t be a big deal after all.
Feel the Burn: As The World Warms
Some of the chemicals given off by burning fossil fuels aren’t just air pollutants; they also affect the climate of the whole world. Carbon Dioxide, Methane and others are “greenhouse gases” (see CO2 and CO2 again). Just as a gardener might use a glass “greenhouse” or “hothouse” to capture the sun’s heat for growing flowers or vegetables when it’s too cool for them outside, these gases trap the the sun’s heat in our atmosphere, causing the world to warm up. “Global Warming” or “Climate Change” or whatever you want to call it; it’s bad for everyone. The vast majority of actual climate scientists agree that human action is one of the main drivers now of our warming planet. There are of course lots of details to be worked out, and some who won’t accept it, but the basic science around it is pretty well settled, not in the sense that we know everything, but that we understand the basic ideas.
The problem for EV’s is that personal transportation only generates about an eighth to a quarter of the world’s overall green-house gases. So just switching to electric cars won’t be enough. But many of the people who drive EVs feel that being an early adopter of electric transportation provides a kind of leadership role that will encourage other people and indeed other industries to move to more climate-friendly energy sources. but leading the charge
Home on the Range
Almost all EVs can be charged up overnight, at home, with enough range to get you to work and back. Charging at home overnight means you won’t have to stop to fill up the car on the way to work. That means a few minutes more sleep or a bit more time around the water cooler before work, and a more relaxed you!
The Silence of the Lanes
Dumb old fogies are going to miss the roaring sound that a gasoline engine makes, especially when you “gun it” or “floor it”. For most of us, however, peace and quiet is a win-win situation, most of the time: you can talk at a normal level, or just listen to music. The only time this could be a problem is on quiet residential streets; for this reason the NHTSA is putting in a ruling requiring EVs to make some sort of artificial sound when travelling at the low speeds typical of residential driving. As long as it doesn’t play the same tune as an ice cream truck, we’ll be fine.
It’s What’s (Not) Under The Hood That Counts
Because the electric motor is so much smaller than a gasoline engine, there is just plain way more room for your stuff. The Tesla cars have both a traditional “trunk” or “boot” at the rear, and also a “frunk” (front trunk) for additional storage. On the bigger Model S you can pack a bicycle in there (wheels on!), if you want to cycle the last part of your ride. Or, you can camp in it (not kidding!).
This extra space also makes the vehicle safer if, god forbid, you’re in a serious accident. Say you’re in a head-on collision, or, you lose control and hit a tree. In a traditional car, the engine can be pushed into the passenger compartment, causing serious injuries to the people in the front seat. On a car with out such a clunker up front, the “frunk” acts as an extended “crumple zone”. There are lots of reports of people surviving serious accidents in Teslas because of this feature. There’s even a case where a Tesla was totally t-boned and everyone walked away.
OK Car, I’m Drunk. Take me home!
Finally, we can’t talk about EVs without talking about self-driving cars. “Self-driving” covers a whole range of things, from intelligent cruise-control, to a car that can follow simple navigation requests, all the way up to a car with no steering wheel or brake pedal that is totally voice-commanded and computer-controlled! And they’re coming, too. See here andhere.
Obviously cars don’t have to be electric to be self driving, but some of the EV makers are leading the charge for self-driving. This is a whole separate issue that will probably have as much impact as electric cars, so watch for my forthcoming list of Ten Ways Self-driving Cars Will Map Out Big Changes To Your World!