The Future of Electric Cars

TED published an interesting interview with Shai Agassi about electric cars [1]. One idea that I hadn’t heard before is that of moving car batteries between regions as they lose capacity. An old battery for an electric car that can only handle short journeys may be useful in a region where journeys are typically short. On a similar note I expect that in a few decades the less prosperous countries will import old electric vehicles and fit them with 4 or more batteries. Last time I checked the Prius battery pack weighed about 120Kg, so the car would be usable with 4 battery packs if driven at low speeds.

Shai Agassi also gave a TED talk on this topic [2]. The real solution for the problem of providing convenient and affordable electric vehicles is to start by recharging the batteries whenever the vehicle is parked (at the office, shopping center, home, etc). Then on the rare occasions when the car is being driven for longer distances and the battery gets flat it can be swapped for a charged battery. They have apparently designed a robot for changing car batteries, so changing the battery would be like driving through a car-wash. He describes this as an economic model that decouples the expensive battery from the car, so you pay for the use of the battery not the ownership – just as with a petrol car you pay for the petrol you use not for a portion of the ownership of an oil well.

He also pointed out that cars produce 25% of the world’s CO2 emissions, so his plan for all electric cars everywhere seems to be an essential part of solving the environmental problems. He then compared this to the UK parliamentary discussion on ending slavery, at the time slaves provided 25% of the energy used by the UK. After a month of discussion the decision was made to make the moral choice and end slavery regardless of the cost.

7 comments to The Future of Electric Cars

  • One thing that I don’t have a reference for but was in the German equivalent of Scientific American was that grid and producer companies (where separate) also have an interest in “using” car batteries to buffer spikes, and possibly even draw from batteries when on short notice more energy is required.

    This, of course, requires a much smarter power grid, but at least in the EU smart consumption measurement devices will be deployed in the next couple of years (if I read the article correctly) which will also dynamically charge for power depending on the current demand, with high granularity. I suppose such anybody implementing such buffering schemes could then be reimbursed for that too.

  • etbe

    Johannes: Some electric systems (such as that in Victoria, Australia) pay people with PV systems reimburse customers for power fed back into the grid at a significantly higher rate than the sale price. This is set by government decree, but there is also a practical reason for it. The price of increasing the maximum capacity of power plants (which in Victoria is required on the hottest days of summer) is incredible. Paying 5* or more the sale price for electricity provided at those times can save the electricity companies a lot of money.

    So if instead of having a single power cable going to an electric vehicle that’s unused in my garage I had two cables and a smart meter to supply electricity back to the grid when it’s needed then it would have the potential to save a moderate amount of money for the electricity company in summer.

  • Anonymous

    Wow. Comparing CO2 emissions to slavery. So wrong, I don’t even know where to begin.

  • etbe

    Anonymous: The majority of the world’s population lives in coastal areas that will be inundated if the sea level rises by a few meters, also the majority of the world’s farm-land is also in low lying areas.

    If CO2 production continues at the current rate then the current population level will not be sustainable, so hundreds of millions of people will starve. Also there will be wars over the land areas that are still suitable for farming.

    Large-scale death from starvation may not seem as obviously wrong as slavery to people who have experienced neither. But the historical record indicates that when people are given a choice of death or slavery they tend to choose slavery.

  • While I tend to believe that electric cars are a leading contender for the future of personal transport – it’s worth pointing out that no power grid (that I’m aware of) is currently prepared to handle a widespread transition to such vehicles. That is both in terms of simply not having the sufficient capacity and more importantly not being ready from an environmental and CO2 point of view.

    That said it does *potentially* make a lot of sense from an environmental point of view – it’s likely to be much easier to sequester CO2 from a few large power stations than from a million cars (and of course there’s always renewables – although I honestly don’t see them having a serious impact for another four or five decades at least)

    As for batteries being replaced by robots – I just can’t shake the “Tomorrow’s World” image this idea gives me ;-) My feeling is that the problem of longer journeys can more easily be solved by hopping onto a high-speed train (electric naturally) possibly with a rental car waiting at the other end.

  • Debi Anne

    Cars running with electricity, ok, but my main concern is how obtain that electricity.

    Burning coal? Burning oil?

    Here in Spain, in spite of Spanish Socialist Government propaganda, alternative sources are a joke and we are heavy dependents on foreign energy sources.

    For instance, 80% of our gas came from Algeria and we don’t want Nuclear plants in our soil but we are purchasing nuclear energy to France.

  • etbe

    David: Most current electric cars can be charged from a regular power point, in Australia that runs at 240V and is limited to 10A. So charging a car will draw about the same amount of power as an electric heater and a lot less than an electric stove or oven. The electric grid can handle every house having an electric heater running in winter (the average is probably greater than one electric heater per house) so if home insulation was improved significantly (which is something that needs to be done anyway) then using the same power to charge cars wouldn’t be a big deal.

    CO2 sequestration doesn’t work, see my previous post at the above URL.

    I agree about trains. Having lived in Europe I’ve had a lot of good experiences of medium and long-distance train journeys. For most use I think that the “train taxi” idea implemented in the Netherlands (subsidised shared taxis for train passengers) is better than rental cars.

    Debi: Wind and solar power.

    Also keep in mind that the modern wind turbines are much more efficient than those you have in Spain.