Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Plug-in cars - why gasoline isn't dead yet

Yeah, this is not my typical topic, but with all the hype around electric cars lately (gas at $4/gallon will do that), I'd like to point out exactly why the internal combustion engine as we know it isn't dead yet, and may not die in the foreseeable future, either.

It's a simple bit of everyday math. I can pull into a gas station and fill my car with about 20 gallons for gas in 3-4 minutes. Maybe less. That 20 gallons of gas will give my Honda Pilot (I bought it about a month ago to replace my trusty Kia) enough fuel to travel between 350-450 miles, depending on the kind of driving I do. Or a full day on the road, realistically, assuming I am on a long trip of some sort.

On the other hand, even assuming twice the battery performance of today's battery packs, I will at most get about 250-300 miles out of a charge, and the car will have to be substantially smaller to do that. Plus I will need to charge the car for at least an hour or more to charge an empty battery - not the several minutes that it takes to fuel up.

Now granted that electric cars are far gentler on the environment in almost every way (batteries usually have a decent load of toxic metal in them), especially because from an infrastructure perspective it is far more efficient to simply get power from the grid than it is to transport large vats of gasoline in trucks and tankers. No-brainer there. But if electric cars could take a full charge in about 5 minutes or so (maybe even 10) and then provide sufficient power to take a small crossover SUV-ish vehicle (like a Honda CR-V or maybe a Chevy Equinox) for 300 miles, that's the point when they will rule. But for now fossil fuels are still a far more effective way to get power to a vehicle.

I think ultimately plug-in hybrids will be the best answer, maybe eventually fuel cells as well. But the combination of power from the grid combined with easy chemical generation will give us the best overall flexibility, plus maximum compatibility with the existing infrastructure.

On the other hand I'm one battery generation away from buying a Segway. When they can get a range of about 30 miles (they're good for up to about 20 right now) and recharge in a half-hour to 80% capacity I will jump onboard and do most of my local travel that way. Add a 6-foot retractable power cord so I can top off wherever I am easily and all will be well with the world.