Why We Aren’t Ready for Electric Cars. Yet.

The area of alternative fuels is one of the most interesting areas of technology out there.  Concerns continue to focus on global warming, local production over foreign sources, and sustainability.  Probably nowhere is this seen more than in automobile technology.

There’s a lot of competition for what technology will dominate: hybrid gas/electric, pure electric, hydrogen, biofuel, and biodiesel.  The market can’t sustain all of these divergent models, so just like in the HD-DVD vs. Blu-ray battle one will eventually reign supreme.  Right now the main contenders seem to be the hybrid models like the Prius and electrics such as the Chevy Volt.  Hybrids have a lot going for them right now, but are we really any closer to moving to pure electrics?  Unfortunately, while the automotive world may be ready to switch, the real world just isn’t ready yet.

The problem isn’t just with electric car technology or even with their relatively high cost – it’s with our infrastructure.  Car companies and pro-electric groups state that powering your car is simple: you just plug it in, charge it, and go.  While this sounds simple, there’s a lot involved in getting that plug to that car.

In reality, this model only works right now if you can safely park your car overnight in your garage or carport to charge it.  The key words here are garage and overnight.  While you don’t necessarily need a garage, are you going to run an extension cord out to your lawn-parked car every time it needs juice?  Probably not.  Are you going to run one out to the one parked on the curb?  Down a couple flights of stairs from your apartment?  Absolutely not.

This identifies problem #1: our residential areas, especially urban areas, don’t have the infrastructure in place to be able to charge electric vehicles easily.  For those without garages or carports, a solution could be running a residential wire out to a charging post which is linked to your home meter.  The post would need to have some sort of lock so that any yahoo can’t just pull up and charge their Volt on your dime, but that’s not too difficult.

So you can charge your car at home – what about on the road?  If you need to charge your battery, where would you do so?  Right now, only in a scant few parts of California.  This identifies problem #2: there isn’t the commercial or public infrastructure available at present to support electric vehicles for common use.

Now assume that as we’ve made the switch from gas to voltage, our gas stations are now charge stations (I like “juice bars” myself), so availability isn’t an issue.  Even so, if you’re charging up via a typical 240-volt household circuit, as you have for an electric clothes dryer, it will take about 4-5 hours to fully charge a car battery, which basically means overnight.  Depending on how far you drive your car daily, you may need to charge it up during the day as well.  While there are researchers trying for practical 10-minute charge times, we aren’t there yet.

That doesn’t mean that electrics aren’t the future, but they aren’t the near future.  Right now hybrids work and easily fit in to our current infrastructure and lifestyle while lowering emissions.  Who knows, one breakthrough may  push competitors like hydrogen fuel ahead of the curve.

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Posted on November 8, 2009, in Tech News and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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