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Why not electric cars?


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© June 2008 Anthony Lawrence

I overheard some people talking yesterday. They were talking about the price of gasoline, and saying things like "We need to drill in Alaska!".

Let's say we don't care about the environment (obviously many do not!). How much oil would we gain? Enough for another twenty years? Fify? A hundred? Whatever it is, it should be obvious that oil is a finite resource and we need to be working at conserving it because there are things that we absolutely need oil for.

The big objection I hear to electric cars is range, and that just maddens me. THAT'S A SIMPLE PROBLEM TO SOLVE. Design all electric cars with a standardized, removable battery pack. Where we have gas stations now, you'd drive into a bay, they'd yank your old pack out, drop in a newly charged pack, and you'd be on your way. NO RANGE PROBLEM.

Yes, it would take cooperation, time, and expense. Far less expense than dragging oil out of Alaska or the deep sea.. far less than a war in Iraq..

Arrgh..


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Wed Jun 4 13:30:16 2008: 4293   Mitja


I don't think range is the biggest problem with electric cars. The main obstacle is where to get all the electricity required to power all our traffic. A small (european) car has the power of 40kW. Driving it for one hour will consume 40 times as much power as washing-machine. And then add all the SUV's, buses, trucks,... If we'll go this way, we'll all get new neighbours - nuclear power plants.
For now the best option are hybrid cars and thus can buy enough time to develop a more permanent solution.



Wed Jun 4 14:09:23 2008: 4294   BigDumbDinosaur


I, for one, would be overjoyed if we could wean ourselves from petroleum for motor fuel and switch to electrically-powered cars. Aside from the environmental gains that might be had, the real worth of such an endeavor would be to eliminate the need to deal with a hostile bunch of people in the Middle East. But...

The idea of a "gas station" (battery station?) swapping out battery packs as an analog to filling up the tank is fraught with problems. Although it would certainly be possible to design the car so the battery pack could be easily removed and replaced (as is done with electric material handling equipment in many factories and warehouses), storing and charging the packs would present a number of technological and logistic challenges.

Any such battery station would have to have a lot of charged battery packs on hand at all times to meet demand—customers are going to expect the same turnaround time presently achieved in refueling a conventional car. Current battery technology being what it is, a full recharge requires a fair amount of time, and while that recharge is happening, the battery pack has to be stored somewhere, and continue to be stored until a customer needs it. This will require that the average battery station take up much more land area than a gas station, whose product is easily stored in a subterranean tank.

Batteries of a size capable of propelling a highway vehicle at speed over a reasonable distance (at least 250 miles/400 KM to be comparable to a gasoline or Diesel fueled vehicle) are heavy and cumbersome, requiring the use of specialized equipment to handle them. At any given moment, multiple vehicles could be in the station for battery changeout. There would have to be multiple bays to handle those cars, multiple battery-handling machines—and multiple service station attendants. The cost to run such a business, just in terms of labor, would be far greater than that experienced by a present-day gas station. Self-service, of course, would be out of the question. It would be unrealistic to expect Joe or Jane average motorist to change their own batteries. By the way, how do we handle the situation where a battery pack turns out to be defective and leaves a motorist stranded with a dead vehicle? This isn't going to be the classic case where the hapless driver trudges to a gas station and back with a one gallon can. The only solution will be a tow—again at considerable expense.

The amount of power that would be required to charge all those battery packs would be enormous. To charge a reasonable number of battery packs in a reasonable amount of time, each battery station would have to have a service that would deliver several hundred kilowatts. In terms of infrastructure, the service drop, meter and building wiring would have to be far more robust than anything seen in current small commercial buildings, representing a substantial installation cost—think many pounds of copper wire, etc.

More significantly, our present generation and distribution facilities don't have anywhere near the capacity required to handle the sort of load we are contemplating, while at the same time, powering everything else that is in use (think air conditioning loads during July and August). We possibly would have the generating capacity needed if nuclear power was used on a large scale (although that doesn't solve the distribution aspects of the problem). However, thanks to the narrow-minded ignorance of certain environmentalists who are against anything that involves splitting an atom, we don't have the required generating capacity and probably won't for many years to come—if ever. Sans nuclear power, we'd have to build fossil-fueled generating stations, which would defeat the environmental gains we might realize by switching to electric cars.

A nation running on a fleet of battery-powered cars is more utopian at this point in time than practical. Also, current technology makes battery power essentially useless for larger trucks, buses, construction equipment, aircraft (weight, as well as available power being concerns here), locomotives, etc. Like it or not, petroleum packs a lot of energy per unit consumed, and nothing else devised to date comes close. Therefore, the real problems to be solved right now are how to get the petroleum we need at a practical cost, and how to use it wisely. Cultivating other energy sources is something that will take a lot of time, money and political backbone, none of which we have in abundance.

As I said at the beginning, I like the idea of electrical cars for everyone. However, I think the technical and logistic challenges of moving everyone off gasoline and on to electrons are going to prevent it from happening for a long time.






Wed Jun 4 14:25:14 2008: 4295   TonyLawrence

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I agree that there are issues.

First: nuclear power. I know that some are still rabidly opposed. To my mind, there is no realistic alternative at this time.

Battery swapping wouldn't need to be an exact analog to gas. I *have* to visit a gas station when I run out, but with electric I could often charge at home and many commuters could recharge at work. There would need to be less swapping stations and they wouldn't need to store thousands of packs - maybe not even hundreds.

Commuter rail and bus stops could offer charging stations, parking lots.. an extra cost center for them, convenience for the commuter.. I think this is possible.







Wed Jun 4 16:25:05 2008: 4296   drag


I agree with the nuclear power. Right now there is no real alternative. Hydro power is tapped out. Wind power has been, and always will be, a joke except for small/medium scale power generation in certain select areas of the country. Solar power has strong potential..

But otherwise your either going to make the choice between nuclear or solving the fossil fuel problem for another 50 years. As far as running out of oil.. at the current rate of consumption and increasing demand for the stuff I think we have about another 200 years or so to go before we start to run out. The current gas "crisis" is a artificial construct designed by folks like OPEC in order to generate more revenue while conserving their resources. This combined with competition from our friends in Asia. Lets also not forget to mention governments jumping on top and adding additional taxes (like my state has done) and what seems to me to be a 'trust' built between oil companies.

As far as electric cars go..

Well current battery technology is junk for most purposes. They are either much to big and heavy (like lead acid) or are just plain border-line unstable (like lithium-ion). I mean if people didn't mind that they risk their cars leaking explosive gasses and generate impressive amounts of heat and chemicals after getting into a fender bender.. then we can do it with todays tech. There has been more then one house burned down because they owners were foolish enough to park electric cars in attached garages.

And, of course, if your a environmentalist, the idea of having about 200 million cars driving around with a ton and a half of boxes of very toxic chemicals that will have to be replaced when they wear out every 3-4 years should be enough to give you nightmares.

In addition the amount of power it takes to charge a battery is much more then what you would ever get back out of it...

Hydrogen cars essentially are battery-powered. Instead of storing electricity in batteries they would do it in hydrogen. This may be more efficient and probably much more friendlier. Those super-capacitors may be very cool also.

What will end up having to happen is a combination of different things. We are looking at people needing to have a combination of different sources of energy. In the long term, probably in my lifetime and into the next, oil will never be replaced. It can be minimized, of course. Combination of nuclear energy with hydrogen as power storage for mobile devices (cars, laptops, flashlights, etc) probably will do it. Solar power has a place. This way people who need something to run down to the store or go across town can use electrical cars, people who need to commute can use hydrogen. Trains can use hydrogen and diesel (depending on were they are going). Diesel consumption can be reduced by switching to renewable oils like vegetable oil. That sort of thing.



Wed Jun 4 16:47:06 2008: 4297   TonyLawrence

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Whether it's 20 years or 200 years, we need to get started NOW. It may take 200 years to solve the problems, but if we don't get going, it won't ever happen.

Fuel cells, batteries, whatever: start DOING it. Instead of wasting money on wars, we could have put it into R&D, subsidies, challenge grants.

I like electric because it works. Other technologies may also, but we KNOW gasoline is a problem - politically, pollution, diminishing sources.. let's get MOVING.

It doesn't have to be 100%. Do what California did: demand 10% of cars sold be NOT gasoline powered. Even 5% to start. Increase it 1% per year. Give tax incentives for beating the percentage.. get the darn stuff moving!



Wed Jun 4 20:26:08 2008: 4298   drag


This isn't the sort of thing that the government can force to get working. (in fact the government is pretty damn impotent at pretty much solving any problem, although they'll happily lie about how much they can do to solve problems)

The problem is fundamentally that we need energy. Oil is plentiful and cheap and is going to remain that way for a long time. To get off of Oil we need something to replace it with.

moving cars off of running gasoline to battery power isn't a solution. It's a transference of the problem from people paying individually for gasoline to collectively burning fossil fuels in power plants. It's not going to reduce the power requirements... It's like saying that we are running out of money, so we should all start using credit cards and that'll solve the problem.

Is it more efficient to have each car be it's own power plant? Or is it better to generate the power in a central location then transfer it miles and store it in batteries? Is the efficiency of scale going to compensate for the transmission losses, the cost of creating/disposing/recycling batteries, and the inefficiencies batteries?

I suppose power plants tend to be coal powered, so maybe it's better to burn coal to power our cars instead of burning refined oil products.

I donno.

Until we have something other then fossil fuels to go off of for generating energy then I doubt the costs (it's more then just money) of changing how our cars operate on a massive scale is really worth it.

My bets are on Nuclear, and getting rid of the regulation and red tape surrounding those things (you know, to make it actually possible to build them nowadays) is something the government can do to dramatically push us in the right direction. Once the people have a massive source of very cheap energy then it becomes very financially attractive for them to use it to make cars that run off of hydrogen or batteries.

Iceland proves that this is possible. They have, however, thermal energy sources near the surface so that they can use that for cheap energy sources. Right now they are undergoing a massive change to switch to hydrogen for everything. Cars, buses, ships, etc. If they can pull if off, then we can if we can get our ability to generate cheap electricity up and running.



Thu Jun 5 17:56:39 2008: 4309   BigDumbDinosaur


Seems as though we have a consensus here. We need to get nuclear generating stations on line ASAP. <Grin>

As for an EPV (electrically powered vehicle), such a device would work out fine for my current situation. I don't take long road trips for the most part. With a few exceptions, all of my clients are easily in range of an EPV. I don't carry heavy loads (unless you consider me to be the heavy load), and most of the driving around here is at moderate speeds. These are the operating conditions to which current EPVs are best suited.

That said, the continuing Achilles' heel of the EPV is the battery. Modern traction motors and controllers are very refined and are capable of efficiently using battery energy to maximize range. However, they are still hobbled by the batteries. An enormous amount of research has gone into developing a battery technology that is compatible with both EPV operational and environmental requirements. Some years ago, GM announced what they thought was a battery breakthrough, which ultimately proved to be an economically impractical design to mass produce. So we're no further along in the quest for the ultimate battery than we were 10 years ago. This battery business must be resolved or else large-scale adoption of EPVs will never happen.

Even if a suitable battery design is developed, the vastly increased demand for electricity that will be required to charge millions of batteries every day (whether at a battery station or at home) will also have to be addressed. None of this will happen over night, and as Tony alluded, we should be going full-tilt right now on solving these problems. We should have started on it in the 1960s when impending problems vis a vis petroleum (especially the potential for politics to interfere with oil production and delivery )were first recognized. However, this country seems to be constantly playing ostrich in this regard. I think most technically-naive individuals (which includes the majority of our politicians) vastly under-estimate what will be required to curtail the use of petroleum for power vehicles. It's a complicated issue, to say the least.






Thu Jun 5 18:01:02 2008: 4312   TonyLawrence

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That's why I think the path is to require say 5% of vehicles to be NOT internal combustion.

Let the mfgrs figure out what - if they can power 'em with rubber bands, great. If it's batteries, being forced to make alternatives may lead to breakthroughs. Then start bumping it up - 6% next year, 7% the year after..

I'm looking forward to hamster powered vehicles..



Thu Jun 5 18:32:54 2008: 4314   BigDumbDinosaur


I'm looking forward to hamster powered vehicles.

Yes, but what do you plan to do about the environmental issues associated with disposing millions of pounds of hamster "exhaust" every year?

I think harnessing lawyers and politicians (keeping in mind that most politicians are misguided lawyers) as prime movers for automobiles makes more sense. We already have a glut of them (lawyers and politicians, that is) and they are sufficiently erudite to understand simple instructions, such as "Go!", "Stop!" or "Shut the f**k up, moron!" For larger vehicles, e.g., buses, we can harness the representatives from adjacent congressional districts to provide the motive power.



Fri Jun 13 00:12:20 2008: 4333   anonymous


"This isn't the sort of thing that the government can force to get working."

That's nonsense. This is exactly the kind of thing that the government can force to get working, by creating favorable conditions for investment in non-fossil-fuel energy infrastructure, and giving grants for basic R&D, tax breaks for consumers, etc. California's approach is one way to do it, but the feds need to put some weight behind it too. The government could easily throw a billion dollars or more into solar or other energy research, if there was the political will to do it.






Sat Jul 5 22:49:11 2008: 4393   anonymous


First, electric cars are 3x more efficient than internal combustion cars, so even if they draw their electrical power from oil, it's still at lowering the carbon load. Second, cars could be made much lighter which will increase the driving range. Third, most people commute less than 40 miles per day, that's will within the range of electric cars, in fact, the EV-1 that Toyota made had a range of 105 miles. Concerning the issue of recharging, they have batteries now that can be 80% recharged in 10 minutes... that's what? 5 minutes longer than a gas filling? As for quick replacement of batteries, why not agree on a standardized battery and build a standarized slot in the car... in and out and you're on your way. As for energy, the sun is one massive nuclear fussion reactor sending massive amounts of photons our way, there are less expensive ways to collect that than photo-voltaics (although thin-film (FSLR) or Nanosolar) will make even this practical, consider what Seville, Spain is doing, build a huge tower and point many mirrors at the top to boil steam, which then runs a turbine. Or, geothermal, massive amounts of heat below of us because of a molten core, send water down and use the steam to again run a turbine. What we have is a lack of imagination.... If you think drilling in Alaska is the answer, you need to be reminded that it only promises 2 million barrel per day, while we are using 21 million barrels per day currently... that's not much of a dent. Wind power, tidal power, river power, hydro-electric... my gosh, there's power all around us, we just aren't using it yet like we could be. It's so sad that a trillion dollars has been wasted on Iraq, that could have and should have been redirected to a policy of energy independence. My last two long distance trips utilized a bus and a train, my current means of travel about town is by bicycle.... we all don't need to get into a car for our mobility needs.... but that's a habit many of us have formed... well, maybe when gas is $10/gallon you'll re-consider.



Tue Mar 17 14:25:41 2009: 5735   TonyLawrence

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This could change things: (link)



Thu Mar 19 00:23:29 2009: 5756   BigDumbDinosaur

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The design could lead to electric car batteries that charge in 5 minutes (compared with 8 hours in today's electric cars) and cell phone batteries that charge in just 10 seconds.

I'd have to respond that sort of statement as wishful thinking, not pragmatic science.

In order for any battery to be fully charged, all of the energy derived from it during discharge must be replaced. Since said process will never be 100 percent efficient, we can plan on anywhere from 110 to 150 percent of the energy that was consumed during the discharge cycle being consumed during the charge cycle. To recharge an automobile propulsion battery in five minutes instead of eight hours (assuming no change in the charging efficiency) would require at least 100 times as much raw power as currently used—the amount of energy that would have to be provided in such a short period of time would be massive. It all comes back to basic physics and the conservation of energy.

Look at it this way: suppose an EPV is driven at a speed such that 30 horsepower is required. We can expect a continuous power consumption from the battery of about 24 kilowatts, assuming an efficient traction motor and controller. One mechanical horsepower is equivalent to 746 electrical watts, assuming no losses. Therefore, I'm assuming about 93 percent efficiency, which is probably optimistic. If the EPV is driven for one hour under these conditions, its power consumption will be 24 kilowatt-hours (KWH). To recharge the battery to the same state it was in before we went on our trip, we'd have to consume 24 KWH from the charging source—more, actually, since losses will be incurred.

Now, any combination of energy (watts) over time that multiplies to 24,000 will produce the desired charge. We could consume 1000 watts for 24 hours to achieve a full charge, 24,000 watts for one hour, or if we were hell-bent on recharging in five minutes, a whopping 288,000 watts. Assuming the battery pack operated at, say, 180 volts, the current needed to recharge in five minutes, assuming no losses, would be 1,600 amperes. You'd need battery cables as big around as an average adult male's forearm to handle the load. I won't even mention the massive battery charger and the electrical service that would be needed to power it.

Unless this new battery technology has somehow managed to rewrite basic physics, you'd be better off figuring out how to fuel your car with water. <Grin>



Thu Mar 19 01:37:35 2009: 5757   TonyLawrence

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I think you are missing the point (though the article wasn't helpful by concentrating on that "10 minute" figure).

The point is that whatever size "hose" you want to provide, small or large, this technology allows a quicker recharge. Recharge time is one of the big drawbacks of electric cars - improving that would be an important advance. Obviously you can't throw that much energy back in that quickly - but doing it *more quickly* is significant.



Thu Mar 19 13:22:01 2009: 5765   BigDumbDInosaur

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I'm not missing the point. The point *I'm* making is that even reducing the charge time by one half (to four hours, for example) doubles the instantaneous energy consumed during the charge cycle. Let's suppose we are able to reduce the full charge time down to an hour to replace those 24 KWH I mentioned in my previous example (my opinion is a 10 minute recharge cycle is unrealistic). Assuming a 180 volt battery (a reasonable assumption with today's technology), you would have to deliver an average charging current of some 135 amperes. That's still a bulky piece of equipment to do the charging, with bulky cables being connected to the battery. I won't even mention the potential danger of the average motorist handling cables attached to a high voltage, high current power source. It could be practical in a commercial setting but not so at a residence. It's all pollyanna thinking right now. We'd be better off focusing research efforts and funds on developing power sources that don't require a conversion to electricity at a stationary generating plant, as well as dependence on a battery.



Thu Mar 19 13:34:07 2009: 5766   TonyLawrence

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OK, I see that. And you are correct that this wouldn't be feasible for home use for cars (though it certainly could be for computers, cell phones etc.). It could be done commercially though and make "filling up" with electricity almost as convenient as filling up with gasoline.

I think it's silly to say we shouldn't research such technologies - of course we should. You never know when enough things come together and create a real change in our world. This *might* be part of it.





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