Saturday, May 30, 2009

Terra Incognita 87 (part 2) Electric cars

Terra Incognita
Issue 87

“Written to enlighten, guaranteed to offend”

A Publication of Seth J. Frantzman
Jerusalem, Israel


May 31st, 2009

2) What is wrong with the electric/hydro/green car industry?: There is a lot of hype about electric cars or cars powered by hydrogen or wood or garbage. But with the hype is the obvious observation that none of these cars are affordable and most have a range of 40 miles and a top speed of a golf cart. However an exploration of the history of the original petrol fueled cars can tell us something about how long these cars may take to be affordable and useable. The question in the end is, should the government meddle in this industry and will it be successful so long as the petrol car is an alternative.

What is wrong with the electric/hydro/green car industry?
Seth J. Frantzman
May 23rd, 2009

The continuing flailing about of attempts to make ‘green’ cars is the ever present adoration of the media. Each week sees another new “invention” and another wonderful miracle on wheels that has no petrol and whose only pollutant is a few drops of clean water. The latest in a long line of these programs on the ‘car of the future’ was a BBC program on a hydro car in California. The car in question seems more reasonable than some of her cousins. It has a range of around 160-200 miles, burns on Hydrogen (the same substance used to power the Hindenburg) and can reach a top speed of 85 miles per hour. This is leaps and bounds above some other electronic cars which have a range of some 40 miles and reach a top speed of 35miles per hour, basically a glorified golf cart. Come to think of it we already had golf carts, which are battery powered, so is this such an innovation?

The problem with this industry, even when it is backed up by government funding and the major auto companies, is that it doesn’t provide a car anyone wants to drive, because despite the technology the cars don’t have the range or power of cars fueled by gasoline. Furthermore the development costs of these cars are astronomical and they are thus cost prohibitive to buy. As if that were not enough some of them require replacing the fuel cells every few years, yet another cost. And as if that were not enough, there is no place to “fuel” these cars. There are no charging points for the electric ones and no gas stations for the hydro ones. The industry is a great failure, almost as great as the old car industry in the U.S, which is a complete failure.

However the seeming failure should be seen in light of the original invention of the automobile and the barriers it had cross in order to become a mass market invention available to the average consumer. Let’s consider this history. The first automobiles were experimented with in the 1860s and 1870s in Europe and the U.S. There were steam powered vehicles even in the 18th century, and in fact steam was used to power locomotives and ships.

However the modern gas powered car using the internal combustion engine was only first put to use in 1860 by a Frenchman. In the 1880s Gottlieb Daimler and Karl Benz were both working on perfecting motorcycles and tricycles in Germany, powered with the gas cylinders first invented in the 1860s. Petrol engines were used in trams and carriages and also for fire engines. But there were no cars. Only in 1893 was the first gasoline powered car driving on America’s streets, and there was only one prototype of these. In 1896 Henry Ford built his first car and sold it the first year. But it was until 1903 that he sold another. In these days, according to one report, almost every major town in the U.S. had a “mad scientist” working on his own car. Automobile companies such as the Duryea Motor Wagon, came and went.

In 1899 Olds Motor Vehicle established a successful production making the “Curved Dash MotorWagon”, a sort of large bucket on four wheels that apparently turned a profit. By 1904 they were selling 5,000 a year. The years 1906 t 1925 represent the beginnings of the automobile industry. However these early cars, such as those made by the Duryeas and Rolls Royce, could only be purchased by the elite. Ford’s Model K of 1907 for instance was priced at $65,000 in today’s currency. By 1909 Ford’s Model T was selling at around 18,000 a year. By 1920 Ford was producing a million cars a year.
The ability of people to buy cars was linked to being able to re-fuel them. To that end the first gas station was built in St. Louis in 1905. The second was built by Standard Oil in 1907. Earlier attempts at selling gas to consumers was actually as a side business at pharmacies in Germany the 1890s.

But consider the inefficiency of the early cars in fuel consumption. The Model T got about 13-20 miles per gallon (5 to 9 km per litre). It had a 10 gallon tank. Thus its maximum range was only 200 miles. It could drive at a top speed of 45 miles per hour.
If we consider the length of time that modern car development took and the time it took before the average consumer could both afford and refuel it we see that it took some 40 years or more. If we consider that Iceland built the first commercial Hydro-fuel station in 2003 we are experiencing a similar slow-revolution in the direction of these ‘renewable energies’. Those prophets of electric cars and hydro gas are correct that economies of scale should bring the prices down, just as they have done with computers. The problem is that unlike cars, which were a true revolution from the days of the horse-drawn wagon, the development of new technologies today is not a great leap from the existing gasoline powered cars. Because the new technologies do not compete, but are in fact more expensive and rudimentary, it presents a real barrier to success in the market place. The government believes that it can intervene in this fight, making fuel efficiency standards higher and taxing gasoline or giving tax credits. However the success of the first automobiles were not helped through government intervention. Thus the government mandate for electric cars may not aid their entrance into the market, but slow and hinder it.

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