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Electric Cars Aren’t Your Father’s Oldsmobile — Deal With It

While I was plugging in my LEAF one day last week, a man who happened to be walking by stopped to ask what I was doing. He had never seen an electric car before. “Charging my electric car,” I said, hoping this might be an opportunity to share the good news about electric vehicles and thereby move the EV revolution a tiny step forward. “What does it have for an engine?” he asked. “It doesn’t have an engine,” I replied. “It’s 100% electric.”

He looked puzzled. After taking a moment to take in this dramatic news, he said, “I heard these cars can go about 400 miles.” Now it was my turn to be nonplussed. I explained the LEAF had a range of about 85 miles. “Bah!” he exclaimed, making a dismissive gesture. “That’s no damn good. No one would ever buy a car like that,” totally missing the point that I obviously had done so. Then he walked away.

I never got a chance to explain about how the battery is fully charged whenever I need it to be because I have an outlet right in my parking space. I never have to go to a gas station. The LEAF has more than enough range to get into town and back. Since October it has been my sole means of transportation and I have never once been prevented from going where I wanted to go or do what I wanted to do for fear of running out of battery power.

Sadly, my encounter seemed to have set the EV revolution back rather than moving it forward. But as he stomped away, so sure of himself and his opinions, I heard his wife mention how she had heard electric cars were cheaper to own and how she and her husband never drive more than about 20 miles a day anyway. They say women make most of the buying decisions, so you never know. Maybe something good came out of this encounter after all.

Electric Cars Are Not Like Conventional Cars

In 1988, Oldsmobile was faced with a problem. The world of automobiles was transitioning away from front engine, rear-wheel drive cars. Front-wheel drive was the wave of the future, but lots of people had a hard time wrapping their heads around the idea. 6-cylinder and 4-cylinder engines were taking over the marketplace, much to the consternation of traditional motorists who grew up associating the beat of a big, slow turning, American V-8 with the sound of a “real” car.

To meet the challenge of changing people’s attitudes, Oldsmobile came up with one of the best ad campaigns in automotive history. (Far better than the rather silly electric car ad GM just created for the Stupor Bowl.) It was called “This Is Not Your Father’s Oldsmobile.” Here’s what it looked like.

Of course, the lesson is that Oldsmobile is now out of business, one of hundreds of car companies that have passed from the scene as changes have swept through the industry since it began more than 100 years ago. One can only wonder if the suits in the C Suite at GM headquarters are students of history and appreciate that the only constant in life is change. At least Oldsmobile was actually selling the cars shown in its ads. GM has yet to roll one of its long promised new electric cars out the door and into showrooms.

EV Owners Drive Less. A Lot Less

One of the factors that will roil the auto industry is a change in the way people use electric automobiles. Are industry leaders aware of these trends? Do they appreciate what those changes mean for their business? A study published this week by the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago finds the EV owners in California drive their cars about 5,300 miles a year — less than half the national average of 12,000 miles. The electricity used to keep them charged averages 2.9 kWh per day. That last figure is much less than the 7 to 8 kWh a day state regulators and utility companies anticipate will be the norm as the EV revolution moves forward.

The study is flawed, primarily because it uses data from 2017. The world of EVs has changed a lot since then. There are more public chargers available, for one thing, and the range of the electric cars on the market has been increasing year by year. There’s one more thing that needs to be pointed out as well. For Tesla owners, the average miles driven were a lot closer to conventional cars than they were for non-Tesla electric cars. One could conclude that as range and charging infrastructure increase, usage also increases. “If I’m interested in taking my EV on long trips, I’m more likely to invest in a Tesla than if I’m using it for trips to the grocery store,” says Fiona Burlig, an energy and environmental policy professor at the University of Chicago and one of the authors of the study.

Electric Cars Are Different

Electric motors are more efficient than gasoline or diesel engines. They can convert 80% or more (sometimes much more) of the electricity supplied to them into forward progress. By contrast, those infernal combustion engines often struggle to struggle to reach 30% efficiency — meaning more than two-thirds of the energy in a gallon of gasoline or diesel is wasted.

But in order to maximize the efficiency of an electric powertrain, the cars they are installed in have to be more efficient as well. Mark Dahncke, a spokesperson for Audi of America, tells the New York Times, “You have to realize that everything on the car you now take for granted — wheels, brakes, tires — you have to optimize for efficiency. You have a juxtaposed target: On the one hand you have to manage and withstand the weight of a battery powered car with stronger brakes, stronger axles, strong suspension. At the same time, you need to optimize everything for aerodynamics.” And making the car lighter to offset the weight of the battery is vital as well.

Ian Coke is the chief technical officer in the United States for Pirelli Tire. He tells the New York Times that developing electric cars requires close collaboration between suppliers and manufacturers. Together, they must rethink such components as brakes and wheels, which have to be strong enough to manage the weight of electric cars. Side mirrors have to be optimized to reduce aerodynamic drag. And because electric cars are so quiet, noises that used to be masked by the sound of the engine and drive train now take on greater significance, such as wind noise, chassis noise, and tire noise.

Tires for electric cars will be different that tires for traditional cars, Coke says. His company, which is currently developing tires for Rivian, is focusing on reducing rolling resistance in order to extend the range of electric cars. “Our compounds are designed with a high content of silica to deliver very low resistance,” he says. “Our challenge is to balance that with handling, braking wet and dry, and tire life. And in an E.V., we try to tailor the tires to the application: if the vehicle is front, rear or all wheel drive; if the use is for summer, winter or all season.”

Then there is the issue of torque. Americans say they are in love with horsepower but in truth it is torque — that invisible hand that forces you back into your seat when you toe the go pedal — that puts a grin on our faces. “There’s immense torque in E.V.s,” Coke says. “The tendency to put your foot down and deliver that power is obviously a tendency that wears out tires very quickly. So you need to have grip, but you don’t want too much resistance.”

The Takeaway

Electric cars are definitely not your father’s Oldsmobile — or any other traditional car, for that matter. Early in the EV revolution, many established automakers thought they could just rip out the old internal combustion engine, shove in an electric motor and some batteries, and carry on doing business in much the same way they had for the past 100 years. One Audi exec even said they could put batteries in the glove box and cargo pockets of the doors. Making electric cars was no big deal, he said in all seriousness.

That fellow who scoffed at my LEAF the other day reminded me of how attitudes change. People who used horses never thought they would own an automobile. Until they did. People said they would never fly in an airplane. Until they did. People said they would never buy and LED light bulb. Until they did. People said they would never allow the government to track their location. Until they did by making cell phones an indispensable part of daily life.

People’s attitudes about electric cars have changed dramatically in the past decade. Nations are talking about banning internal combustion engines by 2030. The President of the United States wants to replace all the vehicles in the nation’s fleet with electrics. In the next few years, lots of folks who thought they would never own an electric car will do just that. The momentum is building. Personally, when I started writing for Gas2.0 in 2010, I never thought I would own an electric car. Then I did. Who’s next?

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Written By

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. 3000 years ago, Socrates said, "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." Perhaps it's time we listened?


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