A lot of people are not able afford today’s EVs, even used. If we are to get rid of the old, polluting cars around us, we need a new class of car for them.
I should start with a disclosure. I actually hate most cars, and I have most of my life. At least, I have ever since my father decided to buy a new car in 1959. Looking at what was on the market, I came to see that cars could only be used as passenger vehicles because that much utility was needed to get them to the junkyard — planned obsolescence followed by replacement was the intention of the design. I also found out how appallingly inefficient gas-powered cars are. And I came to hate seeing puddles with Newton’s rings because of dripping oil. I was a 13-year-old curmudgeon, and it was the fault of the Big Three car companies.
It’s not that I have never enjoyed a car I owned. I had a Triumph TR3 at one time. That was fun to drive. I even worked on it, doing my own tune-ups as a pass-time. But it was undeniably an ill-fitted contraption that rattled its way around the countryside, something TR3 owners tended to ignore.
The only car I ever had and liked thoroughly was my 2001 Prius. I bought it new and it lasted me until I gave up on driving altogether. Living in town and retired, I could walk just about anywhere, and a car became a luxury I could do without.
What I see now in CleanTechnica’s posts is something different. A Tesla is a marvel. I think it was intentionally designed to move people in more ways than one. Even those who find the roar of an engine thrilling might find pleasure in talking about carbon footprints.
And the Aptera is something else again. That car actually has me wondering whether I shouldn’t get my expired driver’s license renewed. What fun it looks like it would be!
But there is something missing with every EV I have seen. It is something to think about.
Aptera’s claim to being potentially a “never charge” vehicle brought this clearly to focus for me. The solar calculator Jennifer Sensiba wrote about in CleanTechnica tells me that here in central New England, a full-featured Aptera can gain about 25 miles of charge on an average day, just sitting in the daylight. That means I, who have driven an average of about 25 miles per year over the past five years, would be pretty well set up. Of course if I had one, I would doubtless drive a great deal more. I believe an Aptera would be a joy to drive, and I really would nearly never need to charge it.
The Aptera is designed for high efficiency at high speed. Thinking about that, I wondered about other possible car designs with onboard solar panels. What if I could get a solar-powered car designed for everyday people and the everyday trips they make? For me, that would mean a car somewhat less expensive than the Aptera, even in its most striped down form — in other words, something that cost a good deal less than $26,000.
I remembered a neighborhood vehicle called the Chrysler GEM. That was back in the days even before the GM EV1 cars were all crushed, providing fodder for conspiracy theories. I knew the GEM was still around under a different owner, and I looked it up. Today, it is being built by a Polaris, a company with a wide range of vehicles for sale.
At the Polaris website, I could design GEM the way I wanted it — a road vehicle, fully enclosed, with a solar roof. And that car would not be terribly expensive, well below $20,000, even with the extras I put on it.
But there were two little hiccups in the design.
One is that while the solar roof is an excellent idea for keeping the batteries in shape, it really would not reduce the amount of charging all that much, because the car was not designed primarily for efficiency.
The other problem is that the GEM is a low-speed vehicle, with a top speed of 25 mph. The low-speed class is defined by the federal government, and it seems 47 states allow them on the road. But they are prohibited from using roads with speed limits above 35 mph.
For me, getting a GEM set up for roads would mean I could drive to only about half the local businesses I might want to visit. I could go to my doctor’s office, but I would not be able to go to Staples. I could go to two of the large food stores in town, but not to the biggest. Such limited utility puts a question mark on its price, even at $10,299 for the most basic car, without my add-ons.
I recalled that federal law also defined medium-speed vehicles. A car in this class might have a top speed of 35 to 45 mph, as determined by the states. It is not allowed to be driven on interstate highways, and would also be excluded from other high-speed roads, depending on how the states want them to operate. Being defined by law, however, does not mean they exist.
With a medium-speed vehicle, I could visit businesses in any part of the town I live in, and I could even travel to other towns nearby, with care to choosing the route. If such a vehicle cost a few thousand dollars more than a low-speed vehicle, the added utility would make it much more attractive — at least to me. But only about a dozen states allow them, including none in the Northeast, and so finding a manufacturer seems impossible.
It would make sense to have medium-speed cars, designed for ordinary use by ordinary people, with the greatest efficiency for local driving. They would be designed specifically to do what many of us do most of the time, driving at speeds under 40 mph, changing speeds a lot, and simply sitting still at a light or while the next driver up parks or picks up the kids. This is important, because many people really do drive this way most of the time, and many cars with internal combustion machines are made far worse polluters in such situations. After all, how much CO₂ per mile do you emit when you’re not moving? Or even at low speed?
Of course, the car I am advocating of would be not merely efficient, but also truly affordable, even for people who have lower incomes. These are people who typically are probably least likely to buy an electric vehicle, even used. But they might, if EVs were more easily within their reach.
On that thought, a set of specifications came tumbling out of my head. I acknowledge that it is my own set. Other people might like to come up with different sets of specs, and that’s okay — in fact it would be good. My intention is only to start a conversation going toward the goal of a very affordable EV designed to be efficient in very ordinary use.
My design for a medium-speed vehicle would give it a range of about 50 to 90 miles, as short range would reduce both cost and battery weight. It would have a nearly flat roof to mount solar panels, big enough to mount a full kilowatt. That means it might seat four to six people. The car would definitely be designed to be efficient at lower speeds, using light motors, despite the distinct lack of pep this would entail. We are trying to get around here, and while we might try to be polite and stay out of the way of those who want more speed, we don’t need speed ourselves. (I always tell people I am in a urgent rush to get to bed by 9:30.)
In real driving conditions, even if the car has top speed of 45 mph, an average speed might be closer to 25 or 30 mph because most driving would be in town. That means that the car’s aerodynamics are not all that important. The body design would be light, but could be designed much more for comfortable access and ride than many cars have. It could have bigger, taller doors, for instance.
Body components could be designed for low cost, even if that means flat glass and panels or body pieces that are curved only in one direction. That might not reduce the cost of a mass-produced car much, but for a startup, it might make the first cars out much less expensive.
Clearly, as much as I like the design of the Tesla and the Aptera, my dream car would be very different. Fortunately, there are traditional designs that could be almost copied. And here is an opportunity to have some real fun. I could have a low-cost car that would really be charming to see on the road. It might even turn heads as well as an Aptera.
My choice would be a reprise of the Baker Electric car of the early twentieth century.
Now I want to make a bet: If Elon Musk decided to make an ordinary people’s EV as a medium-speed vehicle aimed to sell to people with limited resources, the 38 or so states without laws allowing them would develop the laws pretty fast. And the world would be a better place for it. (Come to think of it, introducing such a vehicle could have this effect even if one of the lesser car companies did it, like GM and Ford.)