The Electric Vehicle

North America is automobile-centric. Our cities are younger than most other urban centers around the world and really only flourished at or around the time the internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicle became ubiquitous. We carved up our cities in orderly blocks each surrounded by paved paths moving people and goods like capillaries. To get between cities, we laid supersize paved paths — our arteries for fast, high volume transportation. The level of infrastructure investment that went into enabling automobiles to be the predominant form of transportation is really quite impressive and it’s here to stay. The ICE car though, is on its way out. The transportation industry accounts for 30% of GHG emissions and road transportation specifically makes some up 70% of that. It’s on the way out because it has to be.

Sitting behind the wheel, you just have to take a moment and consider what’s really happening. You’re sitting in a 1 ton metal box being accelerated by mechanical energy coming from rapid controlled explosions 3 feet in front of your face. It’s noisy, it’s hot and it’s spewing fumes everywhere you go. In light of the last 50 years of technological advancements, doesn’t that sound just a little… archaic? I don’t mean to belittle the ICE; it was an engineering marvel of its day but its days are numbered.

So what are our options? We’ve got a hundred years worth of auto infrastructure. Mass public transportation that completely replaces cars? Unlikely, especially outside of the downtown core. Strategic urban planning to reduce our personal transportation needs? Sounds great but that’ll take the better part of the next hundred years. Our only feasible hope of staying within the 2 degrees celsius window is to work with what we have — operate within the system, not invent a new one. Enter the electric vehicle.

Without delving into the technical nuances, it’s fairly straightforward to see why EVs make sense:

  1. Electric drives are much more efficient than ICEs at converting its source of stored energy to mechanical energy. Not only does it get you further on an equivalent amount of energy, modern drives will also provide higher zero-speed torque (i.e. for all you adrenaline junkies, you can accelerate faster from rest).
  2. In most of North America, electricity is dirt cheap compared to gasoline. Tesla Motors put the ballpark energy cost savings at $11 000 in the first 5 years. Who needs gas stations when you have a wall plug?
  3. Generally speaking, you’ll be charging your car during low electricity demand times. At night, your EV will be drawing on baseload generation (these are the least carbon intensive and costly sources — think hydro, nuclear, wind, etc.). As someone working in power system planning, you and your EV are kinda making my day.
  4. There’s potential to use EVs as distributed storage. This one will require some more work in policy design and technical implementation but there’s no reason why your car battery can’t provide emergency power when the grid goes down. If you’ve ever considered installing solar panels or a small wind turbine on your property, your EV’s battery can help smooth out the variable power output.

Yes, with the current state of technology, range and charging time are issues but decrying EV technology over these imperfections would be shortsighted. Tom Thumb, the first American steam locomotive, lost a race against it’s horse-powered counterpart during its own demonstration event. Technical challenges will always plague new technologies in its infancy but we should evaluated EVs on its potential for both economic return and environmental benefits. Don’t be that guy who invests in a stagecoach just before locomotive proliferation.