Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Hybrid or All Electric Car Makers Take Sides (WSJ)

According to the Journal's automotive guys in Japan, Toyota and GM favor hybrids, Renault and Nissan (Carlos Ghosn Motors?) and Honda like the pure electric approach. You gotta wonder who's smoking what here.
Pure electric cars are in mass production right now. You can buy one today, no waiting list. We call 'em electric golf carts. They are too slow to venture on the freeway, they don't keep the rain out, no heater, and the range is not much more than a few turns around the golf course. This level of performance hardly exceeds that of a bicycle, for ten times the price of a bicycle. It's the best you can do powered with lead acid car batteries. The batteries just don't store enough juice to do any better.
The pure electric car people are hoping for lithium ion batteries that store more juice, and be lighter (lithium weighs less than lead) allowing an electric car good enough for commuting and the occasional run to the grocery store. Forget about longer trips , you use a conventional gasoline or diesel car for that.
Lithium ion has two big problems. First, they cost like crazy. For $50 I bought a new lead acid battery big enough to crank my Caddy. Same money only gets you a lithium ion battery big enough to run a laptop for a couple of hours. Secondly lithium ion is a fire hazard. There is a very impressive bit of video out there showing a laptop bursting into flames and burning down to a puddle of plastic on a conference room table. A failure in the battery released all the stored energy at once. Now visualize the fire when a lithium battery big enough to run a car lets go like that. And how collision proof are these batteries going to be?
Then there is the hybrid mafia. I do allow that Toyota has a good product in the Prius, good styling, and it's selling like hot cakes. They have a waiting list of eager customers. Not bad for a very tiny low performance car.
Too bad the Prius doesn't make economic sense. The gas mileage isn't all that great and it is very expensive. You'd have to drive the Prius a million miles before the modest saving on gas repaid the stiff purchase price. You do better with a conventional small car, it costs half what a Prius does. Your Prius will be dead and gone long before it reaches break even on gas. We won't even speculate what a battery replacement on a Prius will cost. Car batteries last about 4 winters, I'd not expect a Prius propulsion battery to last any longer. Also, Prius maintainance costs on a dual propulsion system to be twice that of a conventional car with a single propulsion system.
The real answer is diesel. The 1970's diesel VW Rabbit got 40 mph, better than the much costlier and complicated hybrids get in 2007. The Europeans have figured this out and better than half their cars are diesel today.

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