Electric car vaporware

By Kennedy Maize

Spare me the hype about electric cars. Allegedly “green” technology was a theme at the latest Detroit auto show, as chronicled by the New York Times last Sunday.

Sorry, I don’t buy it. Been there, done that, didn’t work. In the early 1980s, electric cars were going to be the way to break OPEC’s back. Didn’t happen. In the early 1990s, electric cars were going to suck pollution out of the sky. Nope. Today, electric cars are going to stop global warming in its tracks. Fuggedaboud it.

I pass on this link to a wonderfully funny YouTube video spoof on Congressionally-designed electric cars. It’s at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rAqPMJFaEdY. It reminds me a series of Lil Abner comic strips in the late 1950s (this dates me), where Al Capp invented cars that ran on the energy generated by inhaling and exhaling, through a chest strap. This was when the first Volkswagens and Renault Dauphines were appearing in American markets in response to rising gasoline prices. My father, an engineer, bought a totally funky 1960 Saab that had a two-stroke, three cylinder engine (you had to add oil when you filled up with gasoline, one quart to eight gallons) and a terrifying freewheeling feature that I loved. Those cars, as crappy as they were, were real.

Hype far exceeds production when it comes to electric cars. Seen any Tesla Roadsters on the interstate? I haven’t (but I don’t live in Hollywood). At the Detroit show, Tesla Motors unveiled a newer, faster electric sports car, the Roadster Sport. The new machine goes from 0 to 60 mph in 3.7 seconds, compared to 3.9 seconds in the original version.

The new roadster is $128,500 per vehicle versus a $109,000 price tag for the pokey version 1.0.

This is, to my mind, what we used to call “vaporware” in the early days of personal computers.

Then there’s the Chevy Volt, which GM plans to roll out in 2010 (if there still is a GM in 2010). $40,000 for a downsized sedan that will go 40 miles on a six-hour battery charge. I’m not going to be looking to trade in my 2004 Toyota Highlander for that performance. No thanks.

The problem here – it’s been the problem for a century – is the battery. The big new thing is lithium ion batteries, which power the laptop I’m using to write this story and my cell phone. Not good enough, not nearly good enough.

North America is a big place, and Americans expect cars that can take them to distant destinations. Sure, most trips are short, but what happens when you live in Maryland and want to visit relatives in rural Georgia and don’t want to fly? You want a car that will get you there without the need to stop every 40 miles or so for a multi-hour recharge.

With gasoline at well under $2/gallon, electric cars are an even harder sell. GM is betting that gasoline prices will return to the levels of mid-2008, but that strikes me as a sucker’s gamble. Over the past 30-some years, gasoline prices have spiked from time-to-time, but overall remained low and fairly predictable.

The auto industry, wooing Congressional bailout money, has been giving lip service to the politically-correct concept that Detroit isn’t building cars that consumers want (meaning hybrids, compacts, and, ultimately, electrics). That’s nonsense.

People aren’t buying the cars they want because they can’t get credit and they are fearful that the economy is collapsing around them. The foreign carmakers that sell into the U.S. market can’t sell cars here, either. And they aren’t selling cars in their own domestic markets.

Clearly, Toyota and Honda are more efficient carmakers than GM, Chrysler, and Ford. That’s a management failure on Detroit’s part. But that doesn’t begin to explain what’s happened to the worldwide auto market. Electric vehicles – much desired for many years by the utility industry to smooth out load – aren’t the answer to the auto market woes.