Oh, the Hostility! – Of the Automobile Industry Toward Electric Cars

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Reading the article by the Times’ car writer Phil Patton on the design of electric cars  in the January 6th issue is déjà vu all over again, as the Yankee catcher Yogi Berra famously said many decades ago. In the article Patton couldn’t contain his contempt for the subjects of his concern. Describing the Nissans Leaf’s rear end as “an effort to hide its awkwardness,” Patton claims the "Many designers have resorted to visual tricks to keep electrics from looking gawky or humpy."

 image imageOne look at the Leaf (blue) beside the Ford Edge (red) shows you that the awkwardness or gawkiness is entirely in the eyes of the hostile beholder. The Leaf is no more awkward or gawky than the gasoline-powered Edge, but in Patton’s eyes, there is no comparison.

The profound prejudice within the car industry against electric vehicle has a great deal to do with electric cars’ slow acceptance. But the hostility is natural. Electric cars will have a profound effect on an industry that makes a lot more money from car parts than from the cars themselves. Reciprocating, internal combustion engines have hundreds of small moving parts which are subject to intense heat and have to be periodically replaced. To generate motive power, sparks ignite hundreds of small gasoline explosions every minute to drive pistons, cams, valves, rods and finally the drive shaft. In an electric vehicle, the drive shaft is turned by electricity from the battery, which just lies there. There are very few moving parts, and the parts industry will soon shrink into a ghost of its former self as the internal combustion engine becomes the province of aficionados of the retro.

The automobile industry is being dragged kicking and screaming into the age of electric and true hybrid cars. Up to new, even they "hybrids" that seemed so avant were really faking it. Their electric capacity was primarily an assist to the internal combustion engine, which took over as soon as the car was being seriously driven at other than city street speed. In the new hybrids, like the Volt, it is the gasoline engine that is an assist to the battery, charging the battery when it runs out. In these new hybrids, it is the battery that runs the car.

image GM developed the hybrid system it is using in the Volt in the early Nineties, when the design was one of the ones considered for the development of the Impact, GM’s all-electric car – later issued as the EV1. Pressed at the time by California zero vehicle emission strategy (which was later abandoned) GM developed a completely viable electric car that was more reliable and had a greater range (150 miles), 50 miles more than the Volt or the Leaf achieve today. In 1999, Chevron bought up the rights to the patents on the battery and took the battery — and consequently the car — out of circulation. The battery still drives some 800 Toyota RAV4’s, which still ply the roads, maintained by their devoted owners, putting the lie to the industry’s claim that battery-operated cars won’t last.

But back then, the writers could not badmouth the EV1 enough. They decried GM’s waste of time and money, insisted Americans would never abandon the gas-powered engine, and generally treated the car as if it were a fundamentally defective device, a hopeless gambit by a few dreamers in the car industry. GM’s own advertising did not help, using weird black-and-white television ads with witchy voiceovers with a sinister tone, in stark contrast to the romantic full-color ads that touted  gasoline-powered models.  Until recently, this advertising policy was continued by the early ads for the Volt, in which a lone electrical outlet, like an anxious face, told viewers not to” be afraid” of the car – hardly a selling point.

image GM has changed its tone as demand for the Volt has outstripped supplies, despite its $40,000-plus price and the lack of the charging stations that will be essential to its success. Nissan has experienced the same contrast between demand and supply for its Leaf. And now Tesla has put its elegant Model S into production. While the price is still high at nearly $60,000, the Model S is in the familiar realm of Cadillacs rather than the rarified air of Maseratis. The is nothing “awkward,” or “gawky” about the Model S, so that even Patton concedes that it “achieves the sensuous lines of a traditional sports car.” So much for the inherent “problems” of electric car design.

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