Paris Motor Show reveals industry’s electric obsession

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The recently concluded Paris Motor Show showcased the industry’s newfound obsession with all-electric and electric hybrid vehicles. I am neither a) a car guy, nor b) particularly turned on by Jetsons-inspired concept cars, so I can only offer the most outsider-y thoughts:

**Thought 1: this is real**

Electrics are no longer being touted as some sort of green window dressing. And the driving factor isn’t gasoline prices. It’s batteries.

> “We have just in the past couple of months become comfortable about a method of making lithium batteries for cars,” Moos said. “Now some people are starting to quote Obama: Yes, we can.”

> Both Mercedes-Benz and BMW unveiled full-size luxury hybrid production models with lithium batteries: the S400 BlueHybrid and the 7-Series hybrid, respectively…

> “This is just the beginning,” Zetsche said. “With this technology, we can hybridize all of our models in rapid succession. This car proves Mercedes will be able to downsize its emissions without downsizing its products.”

Until recently, engineering constraints put green vehicles in a pretty tight box. Those constraints haven’t disappeared entirely, but they’ve loosened to the point that carmakers have begun to speak confidently and put real muscle behind their plans.

For $500,000 you can have an an all-electric vehicle with gull-wing doors and motors in its wheels. Hotcha! Image courtesy of Jalopnik.

**Thought 2: the Chevy Volt may have a tough slog**

GM’s big bet, the Chevy Volt, has won praise for managing its engineering tradeoffs with relative deftness. At $40,000 the car is expensive, but not Tesla expensive. The 40-mile range on battery-power alone is just enough that many owners may never have to hit a gas station.

But all the cleverness in the world doesn’t guarantee the car will find a market. The industry is about to cough up a pretty wild diversity of electrics — even Lamborghini is threatening to get in on the act. The problem for GM isn’t that they’ve done anything wrong. It’s just plain hard to hit a bullseye in this sort of environment. Markets shift; technology jumps; gas prices bounce; the economy stumbles. Who knows what cars people will be buying in three years?

Against this backdrop, though, low-priced hybrids sure seem like a safer bet.

> Honda’s new Prius-fighter, the Insight, due in the U.S. next spring, uses an evolution of the company’s Integrated Motor Assist technology. The car, expected to be priced at about $19,000 (thousands less than a Prius), won’t be able to move under its own electrical power and so isn’t a candidate for plug-in adaptation.

Honda and Toyota have been quite cautious on the topic of plug-in hybrids. Honda and Toyota have also crushed the competition by building efficient cars that people like to drive. I’m inclined to trust their instincts.

**Thought 3: why aren’t there more cute cars on the road?**

I’m a little surprised that we haven’t seen more of a “cute” aesthetic in American automobiles. There has to be a substantial minority of car-buyers out there who, like me, don’t know what torque is. I rented a Smart Car in Europe and thought it was pretty awesome. The new Volkswagen Beetle and Mini Cooper seemed to demonstrate the existence of a market for smaller cars with more personality. The ascendant Apple design aesthetic is all about rounded corners and seamless surfaces. The advent of a new carbon consciousness and $4-per-gallon gasoline should make people more eager than ever to get their hands on an anti-Hummer.

Such as this all-electric hatchback from Pininfarina. Honestly, just saying the word “Pininfarina” makes me smile. Also, it has a range of 153 miles, and apparently it’s going into production in 2009.

pinifarina-b0.jpg

Awwwww! Photo courtesy of, you guessed it, Jalopnik.

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22 Comments

  1. mynalee johnstone

    Perhaps these cars weren’T at the show: the Think and the Zenn.
    Also, many people are converting their own old favorites to electric; so… I would prefer a more extensive report on electric as well.
    For me what I appreciate about ELECTRIC is : LESS NOISE. The roar of traffic for me is more a factor to replace the fossil fueled mode of mobility than the emissions factor.
    Also, I suspect that drivers who chose to go electric will be far more conscientious of their driving habits and mood than all the current discourteous drivers out on the roads right now.Everyday my life is threatened just to cross the street on a Xwalk.

  2. Stephen Koehler

    There is a new technology that is just coming out to greatly reduce the power factor problems of cfl lights. The new green technology company, Purespectrum, Inc. out of Savannah, GA, has developed a high power factor (this is huge for utilties that are struggling with harmonic distortion issues in the power grid) bulb that is a near perfect .976 cfl. Check this technology out because their new science is going to help deal with huge lighting issues that will impact our new green world.

  3. Dennis Williams

    IT’S ABOUT TIME!! If the American car industry had invested their research dollars in batteries years ago, we would have been much better off with many more choices today.

  4. Sara Salter

    There is one drawback to electric cars and hybrid cars that use electric power at idle and low speeds, and the first poster nailed it on the head – they are SILENT. I have friends that are blind and these silent cars pose a significant danger to them in parking lots and at crosswalks, because they can’t hear them. The blind community has been trying to put together a petition/movement to get some sort of “noisemaker” on the car to help them realize the cars are around.
    I found a couple of websites about the issue, but nothing terribly recent – http://www.autobloggreen.com/2008/04/09/the-blind-and-electric-drive-cars-death-by-silent-hydrid-commit/
    http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/21112810/
    I think hybrid/electric drivers (and I hope to be one within the next 6 months!) just need to be made aware of the issue and be more cautious around pedestrians of all sight abilities. Because sometimes even the fully sighted are just simply not paying attention when walking :).

  5. Alex Censor

    One poster mentioned the Think and the Zenn electric cars. There are several others like the Zenn. These are 100% electric. They are Cheap (all under $16,000 — some down near $10,000.)
    What’s the catch? These are classified as Urban Electrics. They typically have top speeds under 40mph (and take quite some time to get up to top speed) and ranges under 40 miles on a charge.
    They are suitable if you drive around town and/or have a well defined commute under 40 miles or so on city roads.
    I have driven several of these. Although they look kind of neat and slick in the promotional videos these are pretty crude cars — fancy closed golf-carts. They are a bit noisy, ride rough and stiff. Unlike the cars touted at the show these are not cars anyone could consider owning as their main car and for many people woud not even work as a second car.
    AND: Their operating costs are not as low as they initially seem when you see figures like “you can charge it up to a full 40 mile charge for about 50-cents worth of electricity” that’s misleading. Remember you will have to replace the batteries in about 5 years for about $2000. I compute that the driving “fuel” cost, after you add in the battery replacement is ABOUT equivalent to having a gas car that gets about 65 miles per gallon. Impressive, but not quite as impressive as at first glance.
    Finally: Electric cars are not pollution free. On net the do reduce pollution/CO2 BUT remember that the electricity is mostly produced by burning COAL.
    Electrics, and particularly the yet-to-be-widely-available plugin-hybrids, can be a significant way to reduce carbon and to get us off oil, but there is no magic bullet that will let us continue to drive as much as we presently do without serious environmental consequencs.
    Alex

  6. Craig Hunter

    I agree Alex. It’s only false hope to believe there’s a profitable trade-off between oil carbon and electric carbon; hmmm.
    Robert Frost wrote,

  7. Michael Tripodi

    Well I am glad that somebody finally pointed out where the electricity for all these electric cars comes from. There is no free lunch. The more people plug in their cars, the more power plants we need. We need to think the issue all the way through. The power source is at least as important as the storage and transport.

  8. Donny

    Yes, electric is not carbon-free – but this too has been studied. Electric cars and PHEV’s – even with our incredibly dirty coal-powered grid – reduce CO2 emissions greatly compared to today’s cars.
    I personally advocate switching to hybrids and electrics as fast as we can, reaping environmental benefits now, and AT THE SAME TIME retiring old coal plants and building wind and solar for peak demand, and geothermal for baseload, going as fast as our budget and political conditions allow.
    Even at best, it will take a long time to fully replace the power grid – decades. But by switching to electrics _now_, we help greatly _now_. And by doing so we buy ourselves more time (and more incentives!) to “green the grid”.

  9. JD Howell

    All the concerns mentioned thus far are real and not surprising. And for each, there is or will be a solution. Perhaps soon, we will revisit the Laws of Thermodynamics and Physics and realize that weight, speed and rolling resistance all have penalties translated as a need for more energy, and more strain on our resources. If we were to develop products 100% recyclable (cradle to cradle concept) that were lighter, more efficient and least carbon footprint – then all that’s needed is a clean source of energy. This can be solar, wind, hydro, chp, wave, even responsible bio-fuels. Regardless, early adoption is critical to reaching sustainability… we will not have all the answers immediately… and, conserving is the number one way to reduce carbon footprint. As for me and mine, we’ll see you out there, on our bikes of course.

  10. michael

    Re cute cars…domestic auto makers dumb us down Adam. Ford is bringing the fiesta back and hopefully as promised, completely in a state of European tune. The early 80s Fiesta was the same; from Germany with all the feel and handling one expected.
    For whatever reason, we Americans get the unemotional models with overly boosted steering and zero feel. More purity in content to match the form would be very nice for a change.

  11. Jonathan

    regarding the coal debate: ev’s have around 80% less emissions/pollution when charged by coal generated electricity, than internal comb. engines. My city is 80% coal generated. i have a ZAP pickup for local utility (40 mph, 20 mile range, 1000 lbs carrying capacity), and an electric scooter (46 mph, 30-40 mile range) just for fun (i bike to work). I decided to forgo coal altogether. i put a solar array on my roof that can directly charge the vehicles or feed onto the grid. i am a grocery clerk, so if i can do it financially, most anyone can. btw, i sleep very well at night:).

  12. Craig Hunter

    Here’s the big problem or rather the argument. Even if we were to create the perfect “green” vehicle tomorrow; is this in fact the answer to the issue of GW. In the words of Al Gore (and others);
    “We must abandon the conceit that individual, isolated, private actions are the answer. They can and do help. But they will not take us far enough without collective action. At the same time, we must ensure that in mobilizing globally, we do not invite the establishment of ideological conformity and a new lock-step “ism.””

  13. Alex Censor

    In my earlier post point out some of the limitations of electrics and saying there is no magic bullet that will let us continue our drivng lifestyles unchanged without paying serious consequences, I did not mean to say they have no value. Electrics and plug in hybrids DO impact the environment less…. and if we could magically turn our whole auto fleet to electrics and plug in hybrids tommorow it would be a significant improvement in our situation.
    But as others imply we need widespread structural changes to keep this titanic we’re on form hitting the iceberg we’re bearing down on.
    That doesn’t mean that individual and partial solutions should just be discarded.
    Alex

  14. Mark S.

    A note on Thermodynamics is in order to fully appreciate electrically powered machines. Electric motors are inherently far more thermally efficient than any combustion engine. Even the most efficient gasoline powered hybrids only convert about 25% of the gasoline’s chemical energy into output at the clutch or transmission. Only about 1% of gasoline’s chemical energy is actually used to accelerate the car (according to Amory Lovins). The other 99% has been wasted as heat, much as noise and friction (warming up our earth along with the sun’s radiation collected by the carbon emissions).
    An electrical machine, in contrast, is 80% to 90% efficient at converting electricity to power output. This is why the size of motor for an electrical car with a comparable power output to the internal combustion engine is much much smaller than that of the ICE. If batteries of high power density were made to be very light and the generation of electricity done through wind, geothermal and wave energy, electric cars would be many times more efficient and green than any combustion powered car.

  15. badgergirl

    Another thing to keep in mind is that plug-in hybrids tend to use electricity at non-peak hours, which is much more benign than many forms of electricity demand.

  16. t4mk4t

    I really can’t wait for the new Insight! I believe that in today’s teeter-totter market, a hybrid car with as few as possible carbon emissions is really the best answer – when you can’t bicycle, that is! 🙂 Electric may or may not ever have its day; I believe better mass transit and more biking/walking friendly cities is the answer – not more cars!

  17. t4mk4t

    PS – If we converted Americas autos to fully-electric, what do we do with all of those batteries when they reach the end of their life? Air and noise pollution concerns become soil and water pollution issues.

  18. Pio

    Gasoline prices ARE the driving factor. High gasoline prices are driving consumers to seek higher mileage vehicles, which in turn drive the auto manufacturers to produce higher mileage ICE cars and hybrids and electrics with greater range. But, their has to be a demand for these vehicles. Honda quit making the Insight because it wasn’t selling. I believe they also quit making the hybrid Accord for the same reason. If the current downturn in the economy drives the price of gasoline below $3/gallon, most of the new hybrids and electric vehicles will probably not make it to the showroom. However, I am sure the hybrid Escalade will sell like hotcakes and with its 50% increase in mileage, it is sure to stop global warming in its tracks.

  19. mynalee johnstone

    Well .. Iam saying that all drivers need tob stand beside traffic for awhile everyday or.. get their kids out with them to try to cross a street, even on a Xwalk or….. just LISTEN to the noise, watch the traffic accidents and really bad drivers. Their onl complaint is the PRICE of GAS or the condition of the ROADS.

  20. mynalee johnstone

    Please do not ignore the NOISE factor. I know the Blind have issues with electric but something could be worked out. Also… to the Blind and others… I would like to suggest that I believe drivers of electric vehicles will be a whole lot more mindful of drivers than any fossil fuelled drivers. They show this just by their choice.

  21. Sandy

    Anyone know what happens to the big old batteries that have come to the end of their application life?

  22. Mark S.

    Regarding the question from Sandy, I believe that all the components of automotive Lead-acid batteries are recyclable. This includes the plastic case, lead plates, steel components, electical terminals and spent acid.
    Most automotive shops are required by law to collect the old batteries and render them to a recycling facility.
    Although backyard mechanics are encouraged to do the same, it is worrysome to think how many would not be very conscientious about this kind of disposal and allow old batteries to end up in the environment. Does anyone have any stats on this?