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What If We Are Wrong About Electric Cars? Part 5 – An Efficiency Discussion

Current battery electric cars have either massive battery packs or ridiculously low ranges. Despite the obvious issues with the mass increase in vehicles, EV advocates always claim that there is nothing more efficient than batteries to store energy. While that is true, this should not be a valid argument to defend EVs. What if we are wrong about them?
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If efficiency were all we needed in personal transportation, electric cars would have prevailed over combustion-engined cars since Robert Anderson created the first electric carriage in 1832. To be fair, it was only after Gaston Planté invented the lead-acid battery in 1859 and Camille Alphonse Faure perfected it in 1881 that the first rechargeable EV was born. These vehicles dominated the automotive industry’s early years until combustion-engined cars took over.

Unlike what most people think, it was not the lead-acid battery technology that killed electric cars: it was the electric starter. Before that invention, people had to start engines with hand cranks, which often caused nasty accidents and even deaths when something went wrong. When combustion engines became more convenient, they ruled the industry (something we have already discussed regarding electric cars). It was also more convenient to drive further. In other words, the range was also a concern, perhaps even more sensitive at that time than nowadays: cars were luxury goods before Henry Ford conceived the Model T.

Fast forward to 2008, Tesla created a sports car that could drive 200 miles (320 kilometers) per full charge. With the same cells, Tesla launched the Model S four years later, expanding the range to up to 405 miles (652 km) nowadays. However, that is just under the best possible conditions. In other words, in warm weather.

Green NCAP’s tests recently showed something most EV buyers only realize when they already have their cars: the promised range is not always there. Take the Model 3: it has an official range of 491 km (305 mi). Tested by the European organization, it presented 450 km (280 mi) when the weather was warm. In winter conditions, the car could not drive further than 241 km (150 mi), less than half the official numbers. That happens because the heating system has to compete with the electric motors for the little energy the battery pack can hold.

Efficiency alone will not make EVs powered by batteries the right solution. It would be wise for them to have spare energy either to drive further or to offer a more predictable range. Perhaps the true range should be that these vehicles achieve in the winter, with heating working. That would prevent the disappointment of having a 300-mile car traveling just 150 miles. While that is acceptable for EV advocates, regular customers will get mad when they discover that. Telling them their cars are highly efficient will not help.

Companies following the current path of giving EVs solely a battery pack are just making them bigger to offer more range. Again, it is worth remembering the GMC Hummer EV, a vehicle whose 212.7-kWh battery pack tips the scale at an equal or higher point than many cars: 2,923 lb (1,326 kg). The whole thing weighs 9,063 lb (4,103 kg). Despite that, its official EPA range is 329 miles (529 km), and I am sure it will be much lower in cold weather. Although this electric pickup truck now looks like an exception, it may soon become the rule.

Just check the Tesla Semi’s case. Elon Musk said it made a trip from Fremont to San Diego (around 500 miles) with a full charge and a gross vehicle weight of 81,000 pounds (36,741 kilograms). The very first image in that video reveals it had some 1,323-lb (600-kg) pallets in its semi-trailer: a maximum of 28 units (37,038 lb, or 16,800 kg), but possibly around 24 (31,752 lb, or 14,400 kg).

If what the Tesla CEO said is true, the electric truck and the semi-trailer weigh 43,962 lb (19,941 kg). Semi-trailers usually tip the scale at 10,000 lb (4,536 kg), which would make the Semi one of the heaviest (if not the heftiest) Class 8 trucks in the world. What good is it that the electric truck is very efficient if it carries less load than its competitors – and takes a long time to recharge?

Although batteries are the most efficient way to store energy we know, the ones we currently have still demand improvement. Their weight must be drastically reduced, which will only happen with higher energy density (something solid-state batteries promise to offer). While we do not get there, is it wise to put all our efforts into something that still lacks so much of what made combustion-engined vehicles successful? What if we are wrong about electric cars? That’s what I’ll try to present in the next and final text of this series.

 
 
 
 
 

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