The Electric Car - Fad or Future?
So what happened to the dire predictions? Back 1999 and 2000 when the first hybrid cars hit the market in the US as the Honda Insight and the Toyota Prius the media focused on the stories that made it seem like a novelty or joke, late night TV top ten lists were full of jokes about the toy electric cars, and the far right blitzed the media with horror stories of expecting exploding batteries, fires, unhealthy electro-magnetic fields, and the to be expected electrocuted mechanics and First Response workers that would have to touch these unsafe and untested vehicles.
After being a joke in the media, as the Toyota Prius became a Hollywood celebrity status symbol as potent as the Schwarzenegger HUMVEE of a decade earlier, then the claims of unfair subsidization made by Japan and Toyota to sell the Prius at a loss (made by Chrysler in claiming unfair trade practices) and that they must be losing millions, and the hoopla about the fact the batteries would soon become the next waste issue on par with nuclear waste so therefore would be a bane to the environment.
What has happened in the last decade in a half? Only that 9 million hybrid vehicles and another 1.2 million plug in electric vehicles have been sold worldwide taking this turn of the millennium butt of jokes into the fastest growing and one of the most profitable segments in the automotive marketplace. It is not only the public response, but the active pursuit of this market by the automotive retail industry that makes one ask if the electric auto is the next generation of personal transportation, or is it simply a brief side show on the way to hydrogen or some other technology as yet unfound by the public spot light?
The Infrastructure Battle
Radical change to the transportation industry faces some tall hurdles. More than public acceptance which was achieved rapidly in the case of the hybrid gas/electric and plug in electric vehicle, most technologies will require substantial changes to infrastructure as well. One example would be the use of ethanol as a fuel. While in the US most gasoline sold now is 10% ethanol, the majority of vehicles on the road are unable to burn a higher percentage of ethanol than 10%. This resulted in a compromise of flex fuel vehicles that are able to burn multiple ethanol levels.
That is not a future hurdle so much as the fact that availability of actual ethanol fueling stations is very limited in most areas. It sets the classic catch-22 situation where it makes no sense to build ethanol fuel stations where there are no cars capable of using it and you cannot buy an ethanol fueled car if there is no place to get fuel for it. Similar issues exist for propane and natural gas fuels, and the still futuristic hydrogen fuel vehicle has an even greater issue of the same making due to the radical difference in storage tanks and fuel delivery mechanisms.
The success of the plug in electric vehicle and hybrid gas/electric vehicles has come from the fact that infrastructure change is minimal. They can continue in production and sale even without endless public charging points. While every increase in charging facilities makes them even more appealing, and will be required to be more than a second car or city vehicle for many families and lifestyles, the fact is that they can grow in popularity and production at an equal rate to the modifications of infrastructure.
Other issues such as speed and range are being increased as a natural evolution of the technology and incremental improvements in performance that would be expected from ever larger production and demand. This change is more of a merging in technology of gas and electric motors (both of which have more than a hundred years of experience in engineering behind them) rather than a new technology. The infrastructure for gas and electric supplies already exists in every corner of the globe.
The Way Forward
Does the success and acceptance of the hybrid and electric vehicle mean that in 25 years they will be the majority of the vehicles manufactured and sold? While clearly a great advance over the straight gas/diesel engine in terms of impact on the environment, reducing reliance on fossil fuels, and air quality there is still much promise in other technologies. Some say the success in this segment will make the switch to even more efficient and cleaner (perhaps without battery disposal issues?) future vehicles easier by having proven that new can be economically viable.
There is another growing clamor that this was a half-step and that this love affair with electric vehicles may ultimately slow the progress towards better technologies by being just enough improvement to hinder the urgent need for change, while not really being the best available alternative. There is still legitimate concern about the amount of batteries and the long term disposal and recycling of these batteries. Even more concerning to many environmentalists is the fact while the electric and hybrid vehicles have made huge strides, many forecasters see them as little more than a blip on radar in the long term.
In the immediate future, the pace of change will be controlled by public acceptance and the ability to produce a profitable product by the manufacturers. The only way this will be greatly impacted is by radical regulation by a government coupled with a very large investment in infrastructure. This type of forced change appears to be unaffordable by most national governments that are already working with very unbalanced budges. That leaves it to the consumers who are willing to press forward on their own bearing the brunt of costs and the willingness of an industry to take a gamble on the future while sacrificing present day profitability.