February 12, 2013

Boys with (Electric) Toys

I'm sure you've seen it happen: a boy brings in his shiny new toy and excitedly starts extolling its virtues, surrounded by a clump of friends who are filled with equal parts admiration and envy. It's only a matter of time before one of them can't take the bragging any more and says, "Oh yeah? well, let's see what it can do!"

As the boys get bigger their toys also get bigger, but the dynamic doesn't change very much. Thus it is that among the car journalists who write polite and glowing reports on the shiniest new toy of them all, the Tesla electric car, there are always a few who push it to the limits to see what it can do.

For instance, John Broder reported in the New York Times on his trip from Washington, DC to Groton, CT. It is not up to me to say whether he planned to do the drive on a freezing day in February, followed by a night that saw the temperature dip to 10F, or whether that was simply the time slot that the Tesla Model S happened to be available for him to drive.

Whatever the case may be, Broder's trip in the Tesla pushed the limits of a car that was born in California's mild climate. EV batteries like that climate: it is optimal for both holding a charge and achieving a long life. At high temperatures, lifetime can be severely reduced, as owners of Nissan Leafs found out in the sizzling Arizona summer of 2012.

On the other hand, low temperatures significantly reduce the charge held by the battery, so the EV's range is reduced. That's before the driver feels the need to turn on the heat. A conventional internal combustion engine generates waste heat all the time, which can easily be harvested for warming the passenger space. But in an electric vehicle the heat is supplied by the battery, so on cold days the comfort of the occupants competes directly with the vehicle's range.

These factors: the length of the trip, the dearth of charging stations along the way, and the low temperatures, all conspired to make Broder's test drive less than flattering to the Tesla, despite the fact that the car was fitted with the top of the line 85kWh battery.

In addition, Broder was mum about his driving style, but really, what auto writer can resist verifying the spec that says a car can go from zero to sixty (mph) in 5.6 seconds? The electric engine generates 310kW. To translate: that's 416 HP, enough to jolt the Model S, despite its 4647 lbs kerb weight.

As they say, mileage may vary.

You would think that this was already amply demonstrated by the Top Gear team, another set of boys who love the vroom of their steel-on-wheels toys, and who are generally not kindly disposed toward green cars.

The maritime British climate is mild and eminently suited to the EV. So Jeremy Clarkson and friends found a different way to push it to its limits: they took the Tesla Roadster, based on a Lotus Elise, and set it to drag-racing a conventional, "petrol-powered" Lotus Elise at Top Gear's racecourse, under very British cloudy skies.

This little car, weighing quite a bit less than the Model S, can accelerate "nought to sixty" in 3.8 seconds. Which I am sure it actually did on that racecourse, judging by Clarkson's trademark glee brought on by high acceleration. The team estimated that the way they were abusing the car, its range was about 55 miles. To drive the point home, the offending BBC segment showed the car being ignominously pushed back into the garage, by human muscle. I don't think its batteries actually died - but hey, it made for entertaining television.

It's a pity.

For while controversy makes for well-read copy and amusing tv, it does no service to the cause of the electric car, which deserves better than to be thrashed under conditions for which it was not optimised.

But on the other side of this argument, perhaps Tesla Motors has done the electric car in general no favours either, by marketing its cars as muscle cars with intermediate range. It may have been necessary to assuage the range anxiety peculiar to its home market, the US, where distances are large. It may have been necessary to put all that power into a car just to impress the - still largely male - cohort of automotive journalists (boys in borrowed toys) who are to sing its praises. But in a way that misses the point, and certainly does not help the hoped-for mass transition to electric transportation.

Here's a different approach that still makes impact:

In May 2010 the Japan EV Club showed that you can drive an EV for 1000km (623 miles) on a single charge. This EV's battery consisted of more than 8000 laptop batteries made by Sanyo, hooked together for a total capacity of 74 kWh (only a little less than the 85kWh of the Model S driven by Broder), retro-fitted into a Daihatsu Mira. With its tiny 3.4m length, the Mira is quite a bit shorter than even the Lotus Elise, but taller. Boxy even, like all the offerings in Daihatsu's lineup: no aerodynamic streamlining to speak of. Compensating for that is the low weight: just 1800 lbs. Even its 0.6L gasoline engine could pull that.

This lovingly electrified Mira (35kW, 46HP) went from zero to sixty in never. Indeed, it took the JEVC team two days to achieve the range record: that's because they averaged 40km per hour (about 25 mph), apparently the sweet spot for the small electric engine in this car. Even so, they did achieve the 1000km record.

There is a place for Tesla. Like there has always been a place for Ferraris, Aston Martins and Maseratis. Nobody has ever demanded that such cars fulfill their range specification.

But the truth is that a serious contender for low-carbon transportation for the vast majority of people will be much more like the Daihatsu Mira than like the Tesla Model S: nimble in size and weight, modest power, limited range.

For longer trips, one might go the route of Better Place, that builds not charging stations but swapping stations where you can get your depleted battery replaced by a fully charged one in a matter of minutes.

And then there's always the train. The Mira EV will make it from Tokyo to Osaka and back: the round trip is just about 600 miles total. But at 40kph it would take 12 hours to drive one way, compared to less than 3 hours on the Shinkansen bullet train: also electric, that is the real way of the future.



1 comment:

  1. Wonderful post! It does focus on how hard it is to change society's mind and adopt better, Eco-efficient products. What I hope will happen, as the "boys" push electric cars to their limits is that manufacturers will rise to the occasion, consider the complaints nothing more than "bugs" to be worked out, and end up with a product which the "boys" can't complain about. It is, perhaps, unfair that Eco-friendly cars have to be perfect ... it's rather like women in the workforce who have to be better than their counterparts to be considered equal ... but that does seem to be a fact of life. In the long-run, the complaints will only make for a better product ... and that better product will be good for all of us.


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