So why can’t I go out and buy an electric car today?
The truth is I can. Kind of. Recently I promised to write about the lack of reasonable choices for full electric solutions. It’s time.
First the good news. There is more and more news about electrics hitting American streets, including the Chevy Volt and the Nissan Leaf. The bad news? These cars always seem just out of reach or ridiculously expensive. We’ll see in a year or two if we have some real choices.
In the meantime, we occasionally get to see an electric car in a parking lot and we all walk up to it and marvel. But if you’re like me and don’t have a lot of friends with Teslas, most of the electric cars you’ve seen up close are glorified golf carts such as the GEM.
Why is this? Because without proper safety equipment, the law limited many of these Neighborhood Electric Vehicles to roads with posted limits of 35 mph or less and the speeds limited to 25 mph. Weak! There is a Medium Speed Vehicle classification as well and many NEVs can be modified to go 35 mph. But the crux of the issue remains the same. Electrics are at a power disadvantage compared to internal combustion-based cars and thus have a harder time pushing the weight of all that safety equipment around. This might be the second greatest irony of Ralph Nader’s life.
Now don’t get me wrong. This safety equipment has been a positive development. It’s probably saved my own life and lives of many people I know. And no wants to scrape brains off car batteries, so of course safety laws make sense.
But we already have various classifications of vehicles. For example, motorcycles are already allowed on public roadways, including highways. No one would argue that they’re safer than a large SUV in a collision. People accept the risk and the law requires the minimum safety equipment such as helmets and headlights. Should people who want to drive electric cars should be allowed to accept some larger amount of risk in exchange for some loosening of safety requirements? Or should larger vehicles pay more in taxes and in insurance rates since they’re doing more damage?
I’m not sure what the solution is, but it’s obvious that we’re in a vicious circle right now where vehicles continue to get larger and heavier to defend themselves from other large, heavy vehicles. Would we even need, for example, side impact air bags if cars had evolved to be smaller and lighter in stead of bigger and heavier? As bumpers get heavier, more padding and beefier car frames go up in defense. At some point this has to stop.
That’s why this news today came as a welcome development:
TACOMA, Wash. – Two Washington legislators are looking to move golf carts from fairways to roadways. A bill by Rep. Tami Green of Lakewood would let people drive golf carts in bike lanes and on sidewalks throughout the state.
I’m not sure about the sidewalks part, but this is the future. I can easily envision cart paths separated from normal roadways for longer distances and allowed anywhere cars are allowed on roads of 25 mph or less. Recently on a trip to Catalina Island, I tooled around in a golf cart, mingling with traffic just fine. (OK, a little scary at first, but it was fine once you get used to it.)
I don’t claim to have all the answers, but it’s clear to me that the dynamic we’ve been operating under for decades needs to shift. My job is a relatively short 9 miles from my house. I drive to work since I sometimes need to drive during the day, although I carpool, which definitely helps keep the carbon down. But it just feels silly to haul all this metal around everywhere I go. So it’s not going to be enough to simply replace gas engines with electric motors. Cities need to adapt now to face a gas-free future. Those that don’t face up to this procrastinate at their peril.
I get questions:
Nick, what are your thoughts on this article in the NYT about the downside of electric vehicles? I thought that they more than a 40mpg range. We’re gonna have to develop cars that don’t need gas at all:
It’s a great question. As I mentioned in the past:
I see plug-in hybrids as a critical transitional component of the move toward sustainability because they offer the trust of being able to reliably cover some distance with the sustainability of electricity.
In other words, the gas-assist engine isn’t as much a range-extender as much as it is a confidence-extender. Getting stranded alongside the road is probably one of the greatest American fears specific to our culture. I believe that fear has by far been the biggest support the foreign car manufacturers ever had. American companies continued to turn out low-quality, unreliable crap while Americans increasingly turned to Hondas and Toyotas. So it’s not a fear to be taken lightly and it’s pure genius of Chevy to go with a small engine that simply recharges the batteries. (Traditional hybrids combine electric and gas engines for power.)
So this gas-assist concept is designed to create trust in the vehicle so you might consider buying it.
However, the real crux of your question relates to what you described as the “40mpg range”. And this is a common point of confusion.
Note the details from the NYT article:
G.M. engineers say that a fully charged Volt is capable of 40 miles of purely electric driving before the computer calls for the generator, which has an output of 53 kilowatts (about 71 horsepower), to start and sustain the battery’s minimum charge level — the “extended range” operating mode.
In other words, it can run for 40 miles on the battery, then the gas is used to recharge the batteries (while you’re driving). That’s different than mpg or miles per gallon. I’m not sure what they’re saying the total range of the car would be and a cursory search around the Internets didn’t turn up anything. In other words if you filled up the gas tank and took off down the road until it died, how many miles could you go? Not clear.
But maybe it’s somewhat irrelevant. It’s being sold as a commuter car and that should allow it to get most of us to work and back home every day and possible even some trips to the store before you’d need to plug in. That means the gas engine might never kick on for many of us.
Right now the main agenda for the U.S. is to build out an infrastructure that can support the Volt and cars like it. My commute is less than 10 miles. I could actually get by with a full electric car if there were currently some reasonable choices, something I’ll post about soon. Supporting electrics with plug-in stations along the highway, at work and along city streets will be desperately needed. If the Volt can help us reach the critical mass needed to force the building of that infrastructure then bring it on. Then, eventually, we may not need gas at all.
Lately here in Seattle there has been a lot of discussion about transportation issues and solutions. A lot of them surround a big transportation tunnel issue, which I hope to post on very soon.
All of this discussion got me to thinking about the right solutions for some of Seattle’s own issues. And, interestingly, it seems like so often in our cities, the most commonly used, cheapest, cleanest and healthiest system is forgotten: walking. In Tokyo, famous for squishing people into cramped trains at rush hour, walking is one of the best ways to get around.
Before I get to that, though, here’s how I think about transportation issu es. Basically there are four levels:
- Movement of very long distances: Cross-country or between countries. In the U.S. this basically means flying. There is a car and a train option if you have a few daysto kill, but generally if West coasters feel the need to visit the East coast, they’re buying expensive plane tickets.
- Then there are mid-range distances. I define these as distances you could drive, but would rather not if you had another choice. To me, that’s generally anything over three hours, but it’s a line everyone chooses for themselves.
- Next you need ways to move across cities. Typically that’s going to be a subway or light rail system of some sort. Until recently, Seattle was strictly a bus or car city, which means a lot of people drive very short distances. Our light rail system opened this summer but until it expands, we’re still pretty reliant upon either cars or buses here.
- Finally we have very short distance movement, or simply walkable distances. And, again in Seattle people tend to use cars for distances that could be walked. There are probably many reasons for this, but a few would include the weather (often wet) and it’s quite hilly here in places. It can also be rather slow as we wait at large intersections for cars to pass (in the rain). And goodness knows, a Seattlite would NEVER DARE cross an intersection when the red hand is showing.
It’s not hard to apply sustainability principles to these various levels and realize that a healthy, efficient transportation system would include high-speed rail between cities (like Japan’s). This covers your long-range and mid-range distances as the collection of mid-range jumps would take you very long distances. Then, in cities, you must have a fast, clean transit system to move people from one side of the metropolitan area to the other. Finally around each stop, you need an easy way to move people around that small vicinity. And walking is the best way to accomplish that.
Of course, there is a possible gap between the subway stops and distances that could reasonably walked (it can be pretty hard to get a subway or light rail to go everywhere you need it to). That’s the role of buses (hopefully electric) in my opinion: Relatively short, simple runs, fleshing out some of the gaps to give everyone good access to each area of the city.
The pictures above are meant to help illustrate what I think is a great vision for cities supporting a walkable environment. These are all from Tokyo and show an innovative way to look at moving about the urban environment.
One of the things I really liked about this approach was that it took the sting out of some of the hills. Often rises that grew over a long horizontal distance were crossed in a series of platforms so over some distance you wouldn’t realize how much you’d climbed. In other areas, gentle slopes let you stroll along naturally as you went up some height. There were also some escalators and elevators that helped you along and often these were inside buildings and they seemed to use the escalator as the draw to get people near shops. Sort of the walking equivalent of putting your sandwich cart near the train station.
Now certainly there are plenty of typical cement city sidewalks in Tokyo. What’s interesting is how it’s all integrated together. So you might see a sidewalk continue down a street, with an option to go up stairs. The stairs could take you another direction or to a path that meets with a train station. Or that meets with another sidewalk network. It sometimes made it easy to get lost, but of course locals were loving it.
Often these walkways were like small parks. They would be very nicely landscaped and extremely pleasant areas to walk along. Lots of benches and at lunch time in business districts you’d see many folks outdoors enjoying the fresh air.
It was interesting to me how they integrated the sidewalks with the buildings. They’d wrap around buildings, dropping up and down to meet various entrances with lots of stairs down to the ground. You could walk along a level sidewalk as the ground drops away below you. You would then enter buildings at a relatively high floor. Take an elevator down or up to another area. Simple concept, very well executed.
My favorite part was that these elevated sidewalks didn’t stop for cars. Raised high above traffic, it made a huge difference how quickly you could cover long distances. Here in the U.S. we will typically build pedestrian bridges over busy streets or intersections. There’s a big one near the Rainier and MLK intersection, which locals will recognize. But I would say that well-intentioned pedestrian bridge is a failure because it’s still a nightmare of people running across the street. Taking the bridge is not done because it’s a lot of stairs and will definitely take longer.
Now the big negatives of these elevated walkways are probably the costs and the issues of integrating with existing buildings. On the other hand, retail business would welcome the extra foot traffic and the costs are obviously going to be much less than any transit system involving moving parts, such as a train or bus. So not only should we not compare the costs to those systems, there may be some savings by eliminating some other transit costs.
Final thought: It’s rainy here in Seattle, which discourages walking. But what if our version of this approach included a cover along the edges to keep you out of the rain? And, and while we’re at it, how about we throw some solar panels up there? Seems doable to me. When can we start?
Here at Moving Like Water, we’re always hot to jump on something that’s new and different. Which is why I’ve been sitting on this from ecogeek for a few weeks now.
The company, Unimodal, is claiming to be developing a new transportation system that is very low cost, better for the environment (runs on electricity, obviously) and maintains the freedom of the car by eliminating fixed routes.
Now I don’t know how realistic their vision is or how advanced the development is, but I know if I was a shark on Shark Tank, I’d be asking “Do you have any sales??”. Because it’s an interesting idea, but it’s hard to imaging a municipality springing for such an untested concept. And while it may be admittedly cheaper per mile than, say, light rail, it would also demand a much larger footprint to fulfill their key benefit: not being tied to a specific route. In order to get where you need to go, SkyTran would need to have a full city map of possible destinations pretty much at the outset. Otherwise, you have an expensive amusement park ride. Which means, I think, that you could have higher start-up costs than traditional rail by needing more miles for a first phase. But I suppose the counter argument to that is that with the same money, you’d serve more area so it may be worth discussing. (Or maybe I’m just cynical due to Seattle’s history of being suckered by monorail system proposals in the past.)
Now one of the reasons I love trains is the same reason my Republican friends hate them: they work as equalizers in society. In countries that rely on transit, you’ll see wealthy businessmen in suits sitting next to boot-wearing laborers, teenagers with headphones and everyone in between. It becomes impossible to pretend that people who aren’t like you don’t exist and it becomes crucial to think in terms of our common interests instead of your personal self-interest. For example, the fantasy that you’re not affected by your neighbors without health insurance becomes impossible when someone coughs next to you on a train. A healthier society is much more immediately tied to a healthier you. It’s easier to pretend to be unaffected by others when you’re sitting high in your SUV above a homeless person at an offramp.
Unfortunately the SkyTran concept retains the separate pod concept of today’s cars, where we don’t need to interact with others and we can speed along ignoring those around us.
Additionally I’m not totally sold on the argument that systems such as this are cheaper. I once had an argument with someone who claimed you could simply run electric trolley buses on a separated (paved) track and not bother with building the full systems required by rail. And it’s not a completely dumb idea. In a way, it’s taking the best part of trains (largely separating them from traffic) and the best part of buses (supposedly cheap) and rolling it out across the system. But personally I think it depends what time horizon you’re looking at. Buses would be cheaper if you talked about a one-year horizon, but would be vastly more expensive if you talked about 100 years. But maybe SkyTran has a chance of making their affordability argument. When even proponents are stuck in the mindset that buses are cheaper, they might be able to convince some leaders this is the way to go.
That’s why I’m sticking with the tried and true concept of integrated train systems. Seattle, where I live, is finally getting its act together on effective transit systems. It’s not the heavy rail system I’d like to see, such as San Francisco’s BART system, but it’ll do. Experienced transit users know changing trains is not that difficult and can be a very efficient method of getting across a city. The trick is having the political will to build the transit systems we’ll need for the future. And if there were a system like SkyTran here, I’d love riding it, but I’m not holding my breath waiting for it to be built. I’ll be watching it closely, but I don’t think I’ll be investing my money just yet.
When we talk about using “green jobs” to leverage our way out of our hollow economy, this is what we’re talking about.
An idle 320-acre Ford Motor Co. plant, which during its 52 years of operation assembled 6.6 million Lincoln Continentals, Ford Thunderbirds and other vehicles before halting operations two years ago, is getting reincarnated as a renewable energy equipment manufacturing park.
How cool is that? And if you’re even remotely aware of the extent of Detroit’s decay then you’ll be delighted at this news.
From the Earth2Tech article, it sounds like it’ll be more than just a straightforward plant, leasing some of the space to other companies and will have a training center, presumably to gear up the workforce for this new industry. And worth noting that the deal was dependent upon government involvement (ie, money), all of which I’m sure will come back to it in tax revenues as their devastated economy kicks into gear again.
Nice job, all around!
Well, right on the heels of the ultra-coolÂ Tesla Model S announcement the other day comes word that Detroit Electric had made a strategic partnership to mass produce full electric cars. The very plain-looking sedan may look boring, but according to the spec sheet, it does 0-60 in 8 seconds and boasts a top speed of 112 mph.
The battery pack will come in two options: a short-range and longer range. The short range should get you about 112 miles (which you could do in one hour at top speed – heh!) . The long range version can make it nearly 200 miles on a charge.
The price is much more reasonable than the $50,000 Tesla. It’ll start at $23,000, which is a price for a product launch. Launch is planned for early 2010 in Europe, with the U.S. market hopefully to follow very soon after. 2010 may indeed be the Year of the Electric Car.
Sounds sweet, right? So what’s the downside? Just this: Don’t be fooled by the name. This isn’t an American company (although it does have a long and storied American history) and the cars won’t be built here. So. Incredibly. Frustrating. Still, that’s no reason to boycott since it puts it in the same boat as just about every other car right now, but it sure feels like a big lost opportunity.
I’ve been beyond busy lately which has naturally affected my blogging frequency. But this just couldn’t wait: The Tesla Model S pictures and specs are out. And it’s sweet. Oh, so sweet. I must have one.
For those of you who haven’t been waiting anxiously for the Tesla sedan to be announced, here are the basics:
- 100% electric
- 300 mile range
- 0-60 in 5.6 seconds
- Seats 7 (this I have to see)
- Plug into any normal outlet
- Looks sweet
Drool, drool, drool.
Regular readers know I believe that a fully electric car is a key building block to a sustainable society and, particularly, to solving the global warming catastrophe. We have an existing road infrastructure that’s not going away any time soon and a generally car-dependent lifestyle. I’d love and prefer to see a move to mass transit but it’s just not realistic in the near-term. With a 300 mile range, the Tesla Model S could become the commuter car of choice. The range will give you the confidence to drive it to work or on a short trip without worry. Drive to work, drive home and plug in for the night. Now if I could just pop a windmill on the roof to provide the free power, I’d have my freedom, baby!
I’d be remiss to not point out the bad news: $50,000 price tag (yikes!) and not available until 2011. Oh well, gives me some time to save up.
Recently I was stopped late at night at a Seattle intersection. It was dark out, not a car around except for mine. And the light stayed red and stayed red. Then, almost as if the stoplight could read my mind, I was about to give up and go anyway when it finally changed to green.
There’s something programmed in us from when we first started driving that freezes us in place if that little red circle is showing. We sit there. And sometimes sit and sit. And now we need to fear photo-based traffic tickets.
In many ways stoplights have been an amazing invention. They’ve certainly saved many lives and keep traffic generally moving. In fact, long streets with a series of traffic lights are often better bets in heavy traffic compared to freeways that typically suffer complete system collapse once volumes pass the levels they were designed to handle. That’s why certain freeways are absolutely guaranteed to come to a near halt at certain times each day.
Which brings us back to the classic American traffic light. First used in narrow downtown cores where space was limited, the traffic light has spread to every suburb and has become a point of pride for small towns rolling out their first traffic light to great fanfare.
But as I sat alone at that intersection getting zero miles per gallon, the dark side of traffic lights became quite apparent. Multiply the minutes I spent sitting there across the other drivers sitting across the country and you’ve got a heck of a lot of carbon being produced unnecessarily. Fortunately there’s a solution: The Traffic Circle or Roundabout.
It can be amusing watching an American encounter one of these for the first time. They’ll sometimes freeze, panic or make an erratic move as they try to figure it out. It’s understandable, really. They’re relatively rare and often not signed well. And if you’ve ever gone through one in another country, you know the locals don’t slow down or tolerate unexpected movements. I had quite the experience on a Vespa in Rome trying to get to the outside lane so I could jump out at the street I wanted.
That said, roundabouts are remarkably efficient, really just a circle with a road wrapped around it. They do take more space so it could be problematic converting some intersections to this solution. But, best part? No stopping and no idling. And they’ve got to be cheaper to create. Maybe not ideal for every situation, but it’d be great to see city planners embrace this solution wherever possible.