Technology's tortoise and hare

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The Sociological dynamics are now right for the electric car to eclipse its rival.

The Electric Vehicle and the Burden of History

Rutgers University Press: 2000. 256 pp. $20

History is not a linear progression of events. The history of science and technology is packed with unexpected basic advances that are not recognized until they have reached a critical mass and then surged forward to change the way we live, work and understand the world around us.

We live in an age when the foundations of the global economy — energy, transport and information systems — are being transformed. In the United States Jack Smith, chairman of General Motors, and Bill Ford, chairman of the Ford Motor Company, agree that no car manufacturer will go far in the new century with the internal-combustion engine (ICE). It is hardly necessary to survey the serious societal problems underlying these opinions. They are emphasized by the current global oil crisis, with its profound consequences for the world economy.

The transport system based on the ICE is undergoing a transition to the use of electric, hybrid and fuel-cell vehicles. The dependence of these vehicles on hydrogen — in metal-hydride batteries for electric and hybrid vehicles, or as the fuel for fuel cells — is initiating a new age: the age of the hydrogen economy.

How can we understand the emerging electric-vehicle industry? The simplest approach might appear to be to study the events of 100 years ago, when electric vehicles were overtaken by the incredible growth of the automotive industry, as the success of the ICE with an electric starter-motor made cars practical and affordable.

However, what if such a history turned out not to be truly relevant to what is unfolding now? David Kirsch's book is an informative history, full of excellent case studies of the various attempts to build a transport system based on battery-driven vehicles. Its strength lies in the fact that it takes a systems approach, combining social, environmental and business perspectives to provide a well-researched analysis of the early battle between the ICE and battery-powered vehicles. As history, it is an excellent, insightful book.

However, as the book reaches modern times, it lacks both technological depth and political understanding. Kirsch does not appear to be up to date with California's struggle to enforce the mandate set by its Air Resources Board that, by 2003, 10% of vehicles sold in the state should produce no emissions — despite heated opposition from various groups. The mandate will be enforced by the Air Resources Board from 2003. It is expected that car companies will comply rather than face possibly severe monetary penalties.

The problem now is not, as Kirsch believes, whether a breakthrough in battery technology has provided a dramatic increase in range, nor whether there is a market for electric vehicles, nor whether costs can compete with those of internal-combustion vehicles. The crucial hearings of the California Air Resources Board this September answered all of these in the affirmative so definitively as to result in a unanimous vote to continue the mandate.

Past is not prelude. Just as many generals fight the previous war, so it is a mistake to think that the present situation reflects the sociological dynamics of the turn of the last century. Heraclitus was right: it is not possible to step twice into the same river.

What is involved is the task of changing a huge, powerful, entrenched global industry, with enormous resources as well as financial and psychological investments, from a petrol-engine base to an electric one. It is a dynamic process of competing strategies and, for the automotive industry, a very traumatic event in a vital historical drama. The industry's attitude can be likened to that of St Augustine: “Make me chaste, Lord, but not yet.”

A recent report from the US Department of Energy provides data showing that electric vehicles propelled by nickel metal-hydride batteries based on new scientific principles can achieve a range of well over 200 miles, answering the question of viability of pure electric vehicles and hybrids. The electric vehicle's superiority in city driving was demonstrated in 1998 during a mileage comparison test between two Geo Metro vehicles, one converted to run on nickel metal-hydride batteries, the other a conventional petrol version. In heavy New York city driving conditions, the electric version demonstrated a projected range of 362 kilometres, as against 192 kilometres for its ICE counterpart.

The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers monitored a 347-kilometre trip from Boston to New York city by a four-passenger Solectria using similar batteries. It completed the journey on a single charge, with 15% energy remaining — having used the energy equivalent of less than one gallon of petrol.

Impressive as these results are, they are not the whole story. For, as the recurring problems of availability and affordability of petrol have shown, a city must still function. Global pollution and climate change have made the electric vehicle a necessity as a delivery vehicle, taxi or bus. In addition, hybrids, which can do 100 kilometres on 3.5 litres or less (80 miles or more to the gallon), using a small petrol-based engine and similar nickel metal hydride batteries, are becoming part of the accepted vehicle mix so necessary in establishing an automotive industry. Even now, the ICE automobile needs greater battery power to fuel the increasing number of electrical components it contains.

The question of affordability has been answered by Robert Stempel, former head of General Motors, the world's largest corporation. Stempel, a pioneer whom many consider to be the best automotive engineer in the industry, is the father of the first commercial electric vehicle, EV1. He gave testimony to the California Air Resources Board that an electric vehicle made in the same numbers as conventional cars today would be cheaper to produce than its petrol-based counterpart. Until such volumes are achieved, the industry should use the time-honoured mechanism of 'forward pricing' — introducing a new product at an affordable price so that it can achieve sufficient volume to become profitable.

It is clear that events have overtaken academic history in this field. The new electric vehicle does not carry the burden of history. On the contrary, in its various manifestations it is spurring new scientific, technological and social inventions and is the vehicle for the kind of change that is desperately needed in the new millennium.

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