April 1, 2023 | View PDF
Electric cars are not new; they have been around for more than a century. According to Wikipedia, the first one was built by Robert Anderson in the 1830's. In 1884, Thomas Parker built one and equipped it with “his own specially-designed high-capacity rechargeable batteries.”
In 1888, Andreas Flocken created a “Flocken Elektrowagen,” which some people claimed was the first “real” electric car.
In September, 1910, two Bailey Electrics completed a 1000 mile endurance run from New York to Mount Washington, New Hampshire, and back, “to the amazement of many.” The Baileys were equipped with Thomas Edison's “state of the art” NiFe batteries, possibly his 60-cell A4 version that was being tested from 1908 to 1911. Edison claimed a range of 100 miles per charge, albeit on a level road at 25 mph.
Edison battery longevity is legendary. People have claimed some that are over a century old still work like new. The only maintenence required is occasionally changing the water and potassium hydroxide (lye) electrolyte. But they did have a drawback; charging them electrolyzed the water, wasting some of the charging power and generating explosive hydrogen. Since they contain a great deal of scarce nickel, they are expensive. You can still buy new ones if you are willing to pay a stiff price.
The idea of electric cars' simplicity seemed promising, but the great mass to capacity of batteries in those days gave them limited ranges. They were only useful for short trips to putter around town. Many people had no electric service and could not recharge their batteries.
In the early 20th century, internal combustion engines (ICE) were becoming popular, and when Ford introduced the affordable Model T in 1907, the idea of many people driving electric cars faded away while gasoline became abundant and cheap.
Gasoline and diesel fuels were plentiful and affordable throughout the 20th century, until the OPEC nations, already mad at the U. S. for providing aid to Israel, decided that their petroleum was too cheap and imposed their infamous embargo in 1973. Since then, the resulting shortages and higher prices along with government-imposed mandates demanding lower emissions riled angry consumers who began seeking alternate and more affordable transportation.
After rejecting hydrogen and other unworkable ideas, engineers decided that electric cars might actually become practical. But there was one caveat—batteries were just too heavy and bulky. To be practical, battery technology required a quantum leap to lower their masses and increase their capacities. As a compromise, auto manufacturers developed hybrids—part electric and part ICE.
All-electric cars have been slow to develop at first. In 1999, General Motors introduced its EV1, which had a range of 160 miles on a full charge, powered by (then) newly developed nickel metal hydride (NiMH) batteries. In 2004, Tesla Motors developed and built its first car, the $98,950 Tesla Roadster, and made its first deliveries in 2008. It was “the first highway-legal all-electric car to use efficient lithium-ion (LiFePO4) battery cells and the first production all-electric car to travel more than 320 km (200 miles) per charge.” In 2009, Mitsubishi introduced its $22,995 i-MiEV, and in 2010, Nissan brought out its $33,600 Leaf, which became the best selling EV in America at that time. Tesla had some delays, but by March 2020, it had sold more than 500,000 $35,000 Model 3 sedans, and by June 2021, sales jumped to more than a million.
The lithium-ion battery pack in a base rear wheel drive Tesla Model 3 (now $43,990) has a capacity of 50kWh, weighs about 1000 pounds, and travels 272 miles on a full charge. Tesla claims they can last for ten years or more with thousands of charge/discharge cycles. That same capacity would require 120 40 lb 0.5 kWh typical lead-acid batteries costing about $12,000 and weighing 4,800 lbs—nearly five times as much mass, and they would last at most about five years, provided they are kept fully charged most of the time, which is impractical for any EV.
Unfortunately, not everybody can afford a Tesla, or even a Leaf. China and General Motors have a solution for that with the $4,500 Wuling Hong Guang Mini—the world's lowest-priced, most economical, and best-selling EV. Practically anybody can afford one. It’s small and light—1466 pounds with a 15 kW (20 hp) motor powered by a 9.3 or13.9 kWh battery pack that weighs only 250 pounds, a fourth of a Tesla’s. It can go 75 miles with the 9.3 kWh or 106 miles with the13.9 kWh at up to 62 mph on a charge, adequate for most Chinese and many Americans. And being much lighter, it consumes less power per mile than any American EV. The 9.3 kWh version delivers 8.06 miles/kWh; the 13.9 kWh version is slightly less at 7.63 miles/kWh. That makes the Wuling the “greenest” of all EVs. A Tesla delivers 5.44 miles/kWh by comparison.
The Wuling is utilitarian, but standard features include seating for four, air conditioning, power windows, a stereo system, anti-lock brakes, tire pressure monitoring sensors, and rear parking sensors. Wuling parts are largely off-the-shelf, which makes them more readily available from third parties and at a lower cost. Since its introduction in 2020, China sold over half a million by January, 2022. But there is a drawback; America's “safety nazis” will not allow it to be sold in this country.
How do electrics compare to ICE vehicles in energy consumption? This is measured as MPGe, the electric equivalent of miles per gallon. Here is where the electrics really perform. A typical Tesla Model 3 (America's most popular EV today) gets EPA ratings “between 113 to 141 MPGe,” equivalent to 113 to 141 miles per gallon vs the average 32 MPG of a typical new ICE car—a four times greater fuel efficiency. Stop and go city driving has even greater efficiency since a stopped EV does not idle and consume energy, and when the driver applies the brake, the EV generates energy into the battery and limits wear on the brake pads and rotors. This should make everybody happy—from the OPEC-hating consumers to the climate change doomsayers. This efficiency alone is a compelling reason for the great majority of people to switch to EVs. Electric trucks are also on the market—in all sizes—from pickups to semis.
A huge bonus is massive conservation our petroleum—in two ways. Not only will electrics consume a great deal less fuel, but they can charge up with fuels other than petroleum products—solar, hydroelectric, geothermal, nuclear, and coal (which is expected to last 2000 years compared to oil at 200 years). If we burn up our oil before we can develop alternatives, how will we make lubricants and plastics?
Right now, because of rapidly increasing demands, low production, and limited supplies, EVs are overpriced. But they are far less expensive to manufacture. Look at what's missing in an EV—starter motor, water pump, radiator, anti-freeze, muffler, catalytic converter, oil changes, transmission, and of course a huge, heavy, expensive complicated engine loaded with government-mandated anti-emission gimmicks that reduce efficiency and can cause breakdowns. If the Chinese and General Motors can build and sell a $4500 EV, why can't we? In the future, when production cranks up and supplies expand, lower priced EVs will become attractive to everybody.
Another bonus will be reliability. Most of the problems with ICE cars involve the engine and transmission, which are much, much simpler in an EV. Routine maintenence is also greatly reduced.
Some people have expressed concerns that lithium is a scarce resource and that mining it generates a lot of toxic waste. But unlike beryllium and scandium, lithium is actually abundant, although not as much as sodium and potassium. There are ample supplies in the Great Salt Lake, the Salton Sea, and surrounding areas. There is also plenty in sea water, although the concentration is less. It is the lightest of all metals, and that is its essence in creating high capacity to mass batteries.
Governments in many states and parts of Europe are striving to eliminate new ICE vehicles by 2035. The current EV production may not be sufficient to do it that quickly. Nevertheless, they are coming, and this time, it's for good.
If governments want to conserve resources and minimize emissions, they need to seriously change their tactics. Instead of regulations, mandates and penalties, they need to back off and let the producers and consumers agree on what is best. A free market is always the best market, and that is the means to ramp up clean and affordable transportation. Our federal, state, and local governments should do that one thing that will make it happen—get out of the way and leave things alone.
1. Wikipedia, Electric Car,
2. Metz, Ancilla Jerez, Thomas Edison poses with a Bailey electric car in 1910. The Bailey featured Edison’s state of the art battery that got 100 miles on a full charge. Vintage's World, Feb 19, 2023.
3. Wikipedia, Tesla, Inc.
4. Wikipedia, Wuling Hongguang Mini EV. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wuling_Hongguang_Mini_EV
5. Wang, Brian, Shopping guide for Electric Semi Trucks, Dec. 29, 2022.