Friday, August 21, 2009

Money Being Put Into Electric Cars

The clunker program is a success, meaning a half million cars are now on the road that get better mileage than the cars they replaced. Is it a roaring success? Unfortunately, no. The world needs to think much bigger if we are to move into the future with some capacity and resilience to handle the economic turbulence of the coming years. The immediate future depends on high mileage cars. That means high-mileage compacts, hybrid cars, plug-in varieties and practical electric cars (hydrogen might be 20 years down the road but it will require a new energy infrastructure that's not even close to existing yet). The key in the year 2009 is the continued development of plug-ins and electric cars with hybrids playing an important transition role.

The AP has a story on Germany making a big push for electric:
Germany ... became the latest country to fast track development of electric cars, the government approving a plan Wednesday that aims to put 1 million of them on the road by 2020.

(snip)

...the government plans to spend some euro500 million ($705 million) on the plan over the next three years — including euro115 million ($164 million) to establish eight test regions examining how the cars could best be introduced.

Although Germany has resisted a stimulus package, this is a major step forward and, with a population of 82 million, it's comparable to Barack Obama's latest move on the auto front; here's a Reuter's story from a couple of weeks ago:
President Barack Obama opened a $2.4 billion war chest aimed at catapulting the U.S. forward in the race to develop and mass-produce electric vehicles and batteries.

(snip)

The grants are divided into three areas: $1.5 billion to help U.S. manufacturers produce batteries and grow recycling capacity; $500 million toward U.S. production of electric drive components; and $400 million for education and workforce training, and the purchase and testing of electric vehicles in multiple locations.

Obama has stated a goal of 1 million electric cars by 2015. Maybe a few million dollars can be set aside to develop software that can help consumers locate batteries and outlets and whatever else they need on a website accessible from a cell phone or even on the electronic panels showing up more frequently in cars. Transportation systems are going to have to be more flexible for a while to take advantage of various options and resources that will surely come into play. People will need a way to get information on the road that will keep them moving on the road.

When it comes to energy and the environment, The New York Times generally means well but there are curious things that show up. They too did a story on the money for developing electric cars:
Observers hailed the grants as a "down payment" for an industry that, in truth, isn't too far behind its overseas rivals and that could make a profound reduction in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

(snip)

Currently, the U.S. industry sources many of its parts from abroad. Energy Secretary Steven Chu, announcing one grant in North Carolina, said Japan produces 99 percent of the batteries for the hybrid cars on U.S. roads.

An industry that, in truth, isn't too far behind? And then: Japan produces 99 percent of the batteries? Surely, the reporters are joking? Or maybe their editors. Make no mistake, we are behind and we need major investment if we are to be a leader in new technologies and not merely the fat cat consumer with no industry to support our buying habits. Powerful, long-lasting batteries are going to be a key in transportation and many other industries in the years ahead. Even solar and wind are going to require some way of storing energy when they aren't producing. By the way, with the collapse of newspapers around the country and the lack of enough reporters on the internet news sites, we still need the Times. But I sure wish they would read their own stories.

Then again, although Japan is clearly the leader in battery technology and research, it may well fall behind if it doesn't commit more resources to electric vehicles. Here's another New York Times article:
Mitsubishi Motors started leasing its all-electric vehicle, the i-MiEV, in June. Next year, Nissan Motor is set to release its electric car, the Leaf. But Toyota does not plan to introduce an all-electric car until 2012. Instead, later this year, it plans to introduce a plug-in electric-gasoline hybrid, and only a few hundred initially.

Let's be clear: Japan is falling behind on the implementation of electric cars. It seems to have had a timetable prior to the recent economic meltdown. Part of the implementation involves better batteries. If anyone can think of how large old batteries can be easily replaced with new and better batteries, then perhaps there is no problem, and new technology can simply replace the old in good time. Japan's problem is not the technology but perhaps indecision about the timing of introducing electric cars. But we are in a different climate than just 18 months ago. With Germany, the U.S. and perhaps China committing to plug-ins and electric cars, it's time for Japan to get with the program.

Then again, it would be no surprise if U.S. automakers suddenly lose their nerve. When you have executives whose claim to fame is where to place the coffee cup holder, maybe a few more engineers need to move into the executive suite. The clunker program may be proof that Americans are ready for change. At least it ought to be used for such proof. This is where presidential and even media leadership can be helpful. What we don't need are fantastic claims one day about mpg of over 200 (I'm skeptical) and wobbly GM knees the next:
General Motors has cast doubt over the long-term future of the Chevrolet Volt by claiming it may not be commercially viable and other rivals may overtake it with superior and more advanced technology.

(snip)

The Volt is scheduled for a November 2010 launch, but the GM report claimed that the range-extender hybrid technology may not be fully developed in time to meet this target date. Pre-production Volt models began testing in June.

A $40,000 price tag may be the problem. But the government is talking about big incentives for purchasing such vehicles. Congress has never been shy about creating other incentives. Given the price of gas, any number of nonprofits need high mileage cars. For half a billion dollars, a lot of nonprofits could be helped acquiring such vehicles. That would help nonprofits and help electric cars off to a good launch.

Although there's probably no way the government can help, except to make licensing easier, I would like to see one other development. There are still a lot of home inventors and mechanics in the U.S.; whether in the home garage or the school auto shop, maybe reasonably affordable plug-ins are possible for the do-it-yourself crowd. There are a lot of teenagers who want to be green. There are a lot of old cars with burnt-out engines but reasonably usable bodies that might be converted. I may be just dreaming, but it's something to think about: a revival of American know-how.

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