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4 reasons conservatives should embrace electric cars
Sunday, 08 September 2013 22:05
Special to the Daily Planet

It’s an odd fact of modern American life that technologies are now assigned political views, regardless of the technologies’ merits or their practitioners’ politics.  Plug-in electric vehicles (PEVs) have been deemed liberal.  As a result, many conservatives instinctively oppose PEVs, whether pure battery vehicles (BEVs) like the Nissan Leaf or plug-in hybrids (PHEVs) like the Chevy Volt.

This silliness reaches full flood in the online forums accompanying media coverage of PEVs.  Detractors ignorantly parrot partisan political disinformation, like Sandy Munro’s contorted claim that it costs $75,000 to build a Volt.  Many comments boil down to a simple declaration:  “I wouldn’t buy one of the available PEVs.”  Do these people really think anyone cares about their tastes?  Do they gripe that Corvettes are lousy for hauling plywood?  Do they resent a Bentley’s six figure pricetag?  Do they haunt the Edsel Club website, moaning that members’ cars are, ... , well, ... , Edsels?

Maybe they work for oil companies, or shorted Tesla’s stock.  Regardless, the topic deserves a more mature discussion.  Toward that end, here are four reasons why true conservatives should welcome PEVs.

Reason 1 - PEVs Conserve Their Owners’ Money

Gasoline contains 33.7 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of energy per gallon, so electricity at $0.12 per kWh equates to gas at $4.05 a gallon.  But that’s only half the story.  PEVs use purchased energy far more efficiently than internal combustion vehicles (ICVs).  A Leaf from Nissan’s Tennessee factory consumes 290 watt-hours per mile, equivalent to 116 miles per gallon on gasoline.  American drivers average about 1000 miles a month.  If gas costs $3.00 per gallon and electricity is $0.12 per kWh, a Leaf uses $418 worth of energy per year, a Prius (50 mpg) takes $720, and the average 2013 car (23 mpg) consumes $1565.

Modern PEV batteries and ICV engines have similar costs and lifespans.  Electric motors and controllers cost less than automatic transmissions, and PEVs require less maintenance than ICVs.  All new cars are expensive, but as PEVs are sold used, we’ll see a wider range of prices.  Eventually, simplicity and volume production will make BEVs cheaper than ICVs.

Reason 2 - PEVs Conserve All Drivers’ Money

Gasoline is one of the world’s most price inelastic commodities.  A one percent change in supply or demand changes the price twenty percent.  If five percent of America’s drivers switch to electricity, the other 95 percent buy fuel at half price.  A savings of just $0.25 a gallon leaves over $30 billion a year in U.S. consumers’ pockets.  Every contractor who depends on a 12 mpg pickup for his living should hope his neighbors buy PEVs.

Those savings will more than offset the federal subsidies on each manufacturer’s first 200,000 PEVs.  In 2012, GM sold 2.6 million cars (including 23,461 Volts) in a total U.S. market of 14.5 million.  At that rate, GM would need eight years to collect its limit ($1.5 billion).  And, contrary to divisive partisan rhetoric, subsidies support the manufacturers developing PEVs, not the well-heeled early adopters buying them.  Automakers and their dealers sell vehicles for the highest price the market will bear, finagling sticker prices, discounts, rebates, financing, and trade-ins to stack the deck.  Subsidies are just one more card in the game.

Reason 3 - PEVs Enhance American Security

The U.S. simultaneously imports and exports oil.  Net imports (imports minus exports) presently represent about 40 percent of U.S. consumption, a historic low due to major recent increases in domestic production.  About 30 percent of net imports come from the Persian Gulf.  In other words, one of every nine barrels of oil we consume was bought from folks with names like bin Laden, and required the taxpayer-subsidized protection of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet.

If you’d rather avoid giant energy companies (oil and electric) altogether, local solar installers offer an alternative:  off-grid photovoltaic (PV, solar electric) systems.  You may want to look more kindly upon the power company, though.  Financially, on-grid PV is the alley-oop pass to a PEV slam dunk, equivalent to locking in American gasoline at under a dollar a gallon for several decades.  That’s why a third of PEV owners already have sufficient PV to charge their cars, and another fifth intend to install it.

Reason 4 - “EV” Means “Excellent Vehicle”

To engineers, vehicles are a design space, like a sculptor’s chunk of stone.  The design envelope for hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs) completely encompasses ICVs, BEVs, and much more.  At worst, an HEV design whittles down to an ICV or BEV.  In practical terms, this means that an HEV can be designed to perform any mission at least as well as an ICV, usually better.  Numerous missions can only be accomplished by HEVs.

Racing fans can finally observe what engineers have understood for years.  HEVs are now the fastest cars in the 24 Hours of LeMans.  They’re so dominant that race organizers had to rewrite the rules, handicapping HEVs in an attempt to keep existing ICV racers at least marginally competitive.

Motorsports are also showcasing BEV potential.  BEVs have run quarter mile times (6.940 seconds) and trap speeds (201.37 mph) that would have beaten unlimited Top Fuelers in the mid-1960s.  The winning motorcycle in this year’s Pikes Peak Hill Climb was a BEV.  Anyone who’s seen a Tesla Roadster in an autocross knows that BEVs can combine 200 mile range, supercar acceleration, and razor-sharp handling.

Teslas are expensive, and Volts are terrible pickup trucks.  But electric motors have stump-pulling torque, perfect for towing.  They’re whisper quiet, with low NVH (noise, vibration, harshness) levels that customers covet and ICV engineers spend millions trying to match.  A critical mass of the auto industry’s top executives now expect electrified drivetrains (HEV and BEV) to populate most of the market, with many niches filled by PEVs.

Transportation’s future is accessible today.  If you’re hesitant to go, you’re welcome to wait.  It’s a free country.  But, if you’re one of those people who reflexively shout down PEVs despite having no actual experience with them, please turn up your hearing aids and merge right.  You’re blocking the fast lane.

EDITOR’S NOTE: In 32 years as an automotive engineer, Dave Erb has developed vehicles using gasoline, diesel, biodiesel, alcohol, natural gas, electric, and (since 1986) hybrid electric powertrains.  He will be speaking on “Sustainable Transportation:  A Future Worth Creating” at 4:30 p.m. Oct. 15 at UNC Asheville’s Reuter Center.



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