Plug and play!
After many false starts, the technology industry is finally getting charged up about the electric car
Hitting $100 oil may be just a symbolic milestone, but it certainly brings into focus a sobering reality: the price of this finite resource is more likely to go up than down. And as it goes up, so too does the exploration and development of lower-grade, dirtier oil — so dirty, in fact, that the lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions they represent are expected to offset any gains we’ll see in vehicle efficiency over the coming decade. This has more energy and automotive experts talking about the electrification of transportation as a necessary way to wean society off oil. Bob Lutz, vice-chairman of auto giant General Motors, made this thinking shockingly clear in last week’s Newsweek magazine. “I believe strongly that this country has to get off oil . . . The electrification of the automobile is inevitable,” he told the U.S. magazine. GM showed off a prototype of its plug-in electric Chevrolet Volt last week in Detroit for international media. The company sees the Volt, an electric car that is charged from a power outlet, as its chance to outshine rival Toyota in the green-car race. But GM, for all the attention given to the Volt, is being a follower, not a leader. The real leaders are a stable of new ventures that are slowly
coming to market with their own electric hybrid or all-electric plugin cars. Telsa Motors is perhaps best known among them, but the list also includes Miles Automotive, Phoenix Motorcars, Universal Electric Vehicles, ZAP and Canada’s own ZENN Motors. The trend is undeniable. There are industry rumours that Ford and Toyota are secretly discussing a joint venture that would manufacture plug-in electric cars. The founders of Google are hot on electric, and so too are automotive icons Carroll Shelby, Lee Iacocca and Malcolm Bricklin. Bricklin, the man who brought Subaru to North America and built the famous gull-winged Bricklin SV-1, is chairman and chief executive of Visionary Vehicles. He told the Washington Post last year that his company plans to develop an affordable plug-in electric car that, on grid power, would drive the equivalent of 42 kilometres on a litre of gasoline.
Meanwhile, U.S. tech entrepreneur Shai Agassi wowed the industry in October when he announced the raising of $200 million to fund a wildly ambitious electric-car initiative called Project Better Place.
“The company will deploy regional and global infrastructure to support electric vehicles on a countryby-country basis,” according to the announcement, describing the creation of a widespread “grid of electric charging spots” and “battery exchange stations.”
Agassi argued that the world has crossed an historic threshold where the combination of electricity and advanced batteries provide a better transportation alternative to oil. “Existing technology, coupled with the right business model and a scalable infrastructure can provide an immediate solution and significantly decrease carbon emissions,” he said.
So why is electrification better? Propelling vehicles with electricity is generally considered more efficient and cheaper than using gasoline or diesel fuel. This assumes, of course, that battery technology will become less expensive over time and overcome certain distance, safety and reliability benchmarks.
Relying more on electricity, on top of bolstering domestic energy security, is also considered a better approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants.
In a purely electric vehicle, for example, tailpipe emissions would be zero. And while emissions are shifted to power plants operating on the grid, it’s generally believed that the grid is getting cleaner over time — moving toward local production of emission-free nuclear and renewable power and away from imported fossil fuels.
Now, the mass manufacturing of plug-in vehicles does pose some technical challenges for the electricity system. If thousands, potentially millions of vehicles plug in at the same time, what impact is this going to have on the stability of the grid?
As Ontario moves toward smart meters and time-of-using pricing, this question could apply generally to all appliances. For example, if prices fall to 3 cents per kilowatthour from 7 cents per kilowatthour at 10 p.m. in the evening, is there going to be a massive spike on the grid as hundreds of thousands of dishwashers and laundry machines — and cars — simultaneously switch on or start charging?
What’s needed is a way to manage these loads so they don’t overwhelm the system.
“Some smoothing of the network, something that can intelligently control the loads, that’s going to be so crucial,” says Matthew Stevens, a chemical engineering student at the University of Waterloo and cofounder of CrossChasm Technologies.
CrossChasm is developing a software system that would manage the connection between smart vehicles and intelligent grids.
“Software like this is going to significantly help grid reliability,” he adds.
The emergence of ventures such as a CrossChasm and Project Better Place is a telling sign. No longer is it just the makers of electric vehicles capturing the spotlight, but a new generation of companies are springing up to support an electric vehicle infrastructure.
With oil prices now a triple-digit concern, the timing has never been better.