Why Electric Cars?

At the dawn of the automotive age electric cars were, in proportion, more numerous than today. With cheap gasoline and the much greater range the internal combustion engine (ICE) came to dominate the market and continues to do so to this day.

The tide is beginning to turn, slowly, but it is turning. First fuel is not so cheap anymore. In 1970 the price of a barrel of oil was about 3 dollars. This was the last time the US was a net exporter of oil and therefore had some control of the price. Adjusted for inflation that would be about 18 dollars currently. Even at the recently depressed price of around 50 dollars a barrel, it is several times more expensive than in 1970. A car getting 25 miles per gallon will cost the driver of an ICE powered car about 2.50 $ to cover 25 miles.

How does that compare with an electric powered vehicle? Modern vehicles running on electricity, whether they are hybrids, plug-in hybrids, or pure electric get around 4 miles per kiloWatt-hour (kWh). Locally electricity costs are around 9 cents a kWh. To cover that same 25 miles in this comparison means that the fuel cost for an electric car is 75 cents, less than a third the cost for gasoline.

An important feature of electric cars is their ability to recapture some of the energy consumed after accelerating up to speed – when you take your foot off the accelerator in an electric car the motor acts like a generator sending power back to the battery. It’s immensely important in stop and go traffic. This is a principle reason why hybrid cars such as the Prius get such good mileage, even thought they have only a small supplemental electric motor/battery for an otherwise gas powered car.

Gasoline engines have hundreds of moving parts. The parts need lubrication, and cooling and exhausting, and on and on. It is interesting to note that Forbes magazine has described the maintenance shop at new car dealerships as the principle profit center. You may negotiate a lower price for a new car but I doubt any negotiating room to lower the cost for labor and parts in the shop.

For an electric engine there is essentially one moving part, the rotor. No significant lubricants are needed, no coolants to maintain, no exhaust system, you don’t even need a transmission except to go forwards or backwards. Hence maintenance of an an electric car is significantly cheaper than ICE powered cars.

There are a couple of current drawbacks. Modern electric cars are produced as yet in small numbers and therefore don’t benefit from economies of scale. As they become more popular costs will fall. The biggest limiter right now is range and charging time. The high end Tesla with a 120 kWh battery has a range of over 250 miles. The charging time with one of their “superchargers” is about an hour.

The Chevrolet Volt, at half the price of the Tesla model S, has a 40 mile range on electric but the range is extended by an on board ICE that serves only to charge the battery on the fly.

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