Friday, February 15, 2013

Electric-Car Battles

You've probably already heard about New York Times reporter David Broder's controversial recent article about a road trip he took in the Tesla Model S electric car.  If not, a quick recap.

The Tesla is a plug-in electric car (not a hybrid) which has won many awards.  Broder was offered a test drive from Washington, DC, to Connecticut. The point of the trip was not so much to test the car itself as to try out the new rapid recharging stations that Tesla had installed along the route.

Broder reported that the trip was a bust - he ran out of charge and the car had to be loaded on a truck - but the details of his account have been fiercely contested by Tesla boss Elon Musk (and Broder has counterchallenged in response).  Meanwhile, electric-car skeptics like Charles Lane of the Washington Post have seized on the debacle as further evidence that "the electric-car fantasy may finally have died".

Interestingly,  though, both camps seem to agree about what is the key question: can an electric car ever be as convenient and adaptable as its gasoline counterpart?  I'm not so sure that this should be the key question.

Gasoline is an incredibly efficient and compact way to transport energy around: according to Richard Muller's Energy for Future Presidents, a given weight of gasoline can store about 25-50 times as much useful energy as the same weight of batteries. (This figure takes into account the relative efficiencies of gasoline engine v. electric motor.) That is a high barrier for the electric car to climb, and I tend to doubt that it can be surmounted.

But gasoline is a nonrenewable resource: the US can't burn over 100 billion gallons a year, year after year, for ever.  And when the supply does get tight, Nature has no obligation to supply us with any equivalent fuel.  No natural law demands that Americans shall forever possess personal transportation devices capable of moving a half-ton payload in climate-controlled comfort four hundred miles without stopping.

The car of the future may be electric, if renewable electricity is available to fuel it. It may also be smaller, more inconvenient, and have less range.  But if it beats the alternatives available at the time, we'll still take it.

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