Green Update: Is Green Ever Going to Happen?

The first factory-built Fisker Karma, Paris, 2010

You could call it the Green Revolution, but that would be a real misnomer. It’s more like an evolution—not as slow as Darwin’s, but it ain’t gonna happen in two years, or even five.

But it will happen, because the petroleum-based economy is untenable—for reasons you all know. Let’s look at some of the impediments and some of the things that must change before we get to any significant market penetration of green cars (hybrids, EVs).

The biggest problem for most people even now considering a green car is cost. The cost/benefit ratio doesn’t compute for most buyers, for a couple of reasons. The biggest factors are the cost of fuel and the cost of the technology.

A recent Deloitte study showed that “78 percent of consumers in the United States would consider purchasing an electric vehicle (EV) when fuel prices reach $5.00 per gallon.” But gas-powered (ICE) engines continue to improve, and 68 percent would be less likely to consider an EV if they could find an ICE with 50-mpg fuel efficiency.

So one challenge is to get the cost of production down, with batteries being the biggest offender. Carmakers also have to answer the charge that production of green cars makes more pollutants than making ICE cars. In fact, “an electric vehicle generates 46 percent of its expected lifetime carbon footprint (estimated 18 tons of CO2) before it even leaves the factory.”

Production ramp-up has been slow, as we saw with the Volt, and disrupted, as we continue to see with the Leaf. The Prius has an enormous lead in popular acceptance, one that will be difficult for the competition to overcome.

Since their inception in 1999, a total of 1.9 million hybrid electric automobiles and SUVs have been sold. The top-selling car in the U.S. is the Toyota Prius, with cumulative sales of 1 million units by early April 2011.

The marketing and sales structure for these cars will have to change radically for them to be successful, in my opinion. To their credit, smaller companies like Tesla have begun to challenge the standard dealer model, and other companies like Coda are experimenting with different storefront models.

Infrastructure—particularly for charging stations—needs to be built out, and there are signs that this is happening. Few seem to seriously consider natural gas as a power source, and that is a shame.

How to charge your Volt

Finally, the industry needs immense amounts of R&D to generate new technologies for batteries and other propulsion systems. I think these will come, but for the moment we are limited to small improvements, like auto stop-start for gas engines. One study predicts 37 million stop-start cars sold annually by 2020.

There will be more such fringe solutions to come, probably, and so the evolution will take time, lots of time.

In our evolution toward a greener automotive economy, should we be looking for more breakthroughs (and who will fund them?) or leave it to small steps?


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Used Toyota Prius


  1. One of the biggest barriers to customer acceptance is the simple fact of who is supplying the car. Would you pay $35,000 to $70,000 to a company that may not last the life of the car? That’s something to think about when you’re talking about a battery life of four or five years and extemely complex systems like hybrid-electrics. I sure that has something to do with the acceptance of cars from larger companies like Toyota, Nissan and GM.
    As for pure electrics, be careful what you wish for. If ten percent of the people in this country switched to pure electrics in a single year, the power grids in our large cities would simply collapse because they could not charge these power hungry monsters at the same time. (They make your air condition look like a toaster in comparison.)
    If electrics proliferate in large numbers, power companies will have to rewire their entire grid to handle the load, and you’ll actually see the cost of power for electric car users go way up because the new “peak” demand period will be overnight while these cars are charging. You’ll also see a lack of charging facilities at employers who might be looking at trying to charge several hundred or even several thousand cars during the day.
    Instead, I think what you’ll see is the differentiation between commuter and pleasure vehicles, with commuter vehicles become very tiny and fuel efficient, and even adding features like autonomous guidance or platooning which will make it possible to drive to work and only put your hands on the steering wheel for the very beginning and end of the trip.
    Don’t forget urbanization and concentration that helps cluster jobs and living in ways that make mass transit practical and desirable. Taxation and access control/tolls can also discourage individual cars from using core city areas where congestion is very high, and generate revenues to support mass transit. I think most drivers would look at alternatives if they had to pay $20 a day extra to pilot their big empty pickup truck or SUV into the nearest city to work.
    This will be a big adjustment in backward areas like Michigan where roads are poor. We’ve got 21st century congestion on roads dating from the 1950’s. Michigna loves gimmicks like computerized traffic lights that don’t work well, traffic roundabouts, and the dreaded and idiotic “Michigan left turn” while still allowing trucks fully twice as heavy as allowed in any other state in the union, all on roads that are more patchwork than road.

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