Thunder Road: Sparking a Revival for the Electric Car

August 12, 2011Sectorby David Smith

Thunder Road: Sparking a Revival for the Electric Car

Back in 2006, Californian filmmaker Chris Paine announced the premature demise of the electric car in his cult, prize-winning documentary Who Killed The Electric Car? Now, just five years on, Paine has proclaimed the rebirth of the electric car in the sequel Revenge Of The Electric Car.

In the new film, electric vehicles, such as the Chevy Volt, Nissan Leaf and Tesla Roadster, are returning to production after being scrapped just a few years ago. Paine – who owns all three of these cars - took a gamble when he began filming that the cars would all sell successfully. And he was proved right. At the moment of release at the start of summer, Nissan’s Leaf had sold out, and GM’s Volt was back-ordered for six months. Both companies are revamping their factories to cope with anticipated rises in demand in 2012.

The Tesla Roadster was also doing pretty well. It had sold about 1,500 Roadsters in April, a figure Paine expects to rise steeply as the electric car becomes a mainstream option.

“I’m bullish about the electric car at the moment,” he said. “I don’t think they will replace gas cars totally, but I do think they could become a huge chunk of the market in our lifetime. I think we’re seeing a revolution.”

Although it is difficult to estimate the size of the market, Paine says there are around 200,000 early adopters in the US and only 40,000 to 50,000 cars available. In the film, Nissan’s Carlos Ghosn predicts that EVs could become 10% of the market by 2020.

These optimistic predictions are a far cry from the scenario in Who Killed the Electric Car? Paine’s first film lashed out at several major carmakers, including Ford, Toyota and Honda. But it reserved its greatest censure for General Motors, which terminated production of its EV1 car.

GM claimed there was not enough consumer demand for the EV1, but Paine’s film attempts to refute this excuse. It alleges that there were darker motives afoot. It contends that oil companies were afraid of losing their monopoly on transportation fuel over the coming decades, while the auto companies feared short-term costs for EV development and long-term revenue loss because EVs require little maintenance and no tune-ups. 

Whatever the reasons, GM - which had produced about 1,000 EV1s - began systematically recalling them. They were normally shipped straight to the car crusher to be destroyed. Some electric car enthusiasts were so angry that they maintained a vigil at a padlocked GM lot in Burbank where the last 78 EV1s were locked away.

The film rapidly developed a cult following and GM became so worried about potential damage to its image that it ran full-page newspaper ads to circulate its version of the story, and also paid for sponsored links on Google.

A Car For The 21st Century

There is no longer any need for such defensive moves. Revenge of the Electric Car tells a different story of manufacturers waking up to the potential of the EV market in a world of soaring oil prices and heightened awareness of the need to reduce carbon emissions. Paine, however, says that environmental concerns are not the car-makers’ chief concern.

“This revolution is not because of the environment,” he said. “It’s because they can make more money from selling them. For the consumer, EVs cost less money to drive, and as manufacturing costs amortize, and as battery prices come down, prices will get even more competitive. You might pay more for an electric car right now, but maintenance and fuel costs are much lower over five or 10 years. I also think oil prices are going up, which gives people more incentive to try these cars.”

Related: High Oil Prices: Caught in a Sea of "Vicious Cycles"

The projection of positive ideas about modern, eco-friendly living onto the EVs has also helped to make them sexy.

“They have revived optimism about the future of the car and made it sexy again. EVs promise a re-sexification of the car,” according to Paine.

The so-called ‘revengers’, who have embraced Paine’s films, are certainly convinced about their cars’ sexiness. One ‘revenger,’ who drives a Nissan Leaf EC1 in San Diego, called Joe Cesare, said: “I waited a year to receive it, but I was not disappointed...

"It is truly a 21st century car. If I forget to plug it in, it emails me. If it gets low on charge, it calculates a route to the nearest charging station. It has timers to charge during off peak hours and timers to pre-heat and cool the vehicle in summer and winter. If the car has been sitting in the sun for hours, I can turn on the A/C from my computer or smart phone. ie before I leave the building. I get instantaneous feedback about my driving habits, allowing me to drive smarter, stretch my mileage and reduce my costs. The telemetry is impressive and I have access to an incredible amount of data.

 “This is the perfect commuter car for me. I live in San Diego, which has ideal weather conditions for an EV and, ironically, some of the highest gas prices in the country.  Instead of filling my tank for $70, I’ll be plugging in my EV in my garage for about $9. My cost is 4 cents a mile… no oil changes, no tune-ups, no transmission fluid, no air filter, no hassles.

Another sign of the steep upward curve in the market is the expansion of electric car-charging stations in the US. There are about 750, with 60% of those in California, according to the Energy Department.  But that number is growing fast as retailers realise the commercial advantages of offering the facilities. For example, the retailer Walgreens has announced installations at 800 of its stores by the end of the year. Similarly, the superstore IKEA has plans to roll out charging stations at its US sites with partner ECOtality, as part of its $230 million EV Project with the Department of Energy (DOE) to install around 14,000 charging stations across the US.

The sites will be needed to satisfy demand if the electric car market grows at the rate predicted by Albert Cheung, a Bloomberg New Energy Finance analyst. He expects US sales of hybrid and electric vehicles  to reach 1.6 million by the end of the decade, or 9% of all cars. By 2030, he says sales could reach 4 million vehicles. 


Are Electric Cars The Answer?


There is no doubt that the tide has turned for electric cars, but a more sober view of their role in a more carbon-efficient world is provided by Lancaster University’s Professor Roger Kemp, who carried out a study of electric car infrastructure in the UK for the Royal Society of Engineering.

“I am suspicious about people who are evangelical about anything, whether it’s electric cars, fighting Satan, or invading Iraq,” he said. “There’s no magic bullet we can point to and say: ‘Bio-fuels are the answer’, or ‘electric cars are the answer’.

"Whether an electric car is suitable depends on circumstances. For example, I live a mile from the university and go by bike. My car journeys are long-distance, which is inappropriate for electric cars. For long journeys we’d need batteries we don’t possess yet, and a lot of huge car-charging stations which would look like electricity sub-station, with pylons and transformers.

“So, for the foreseeable future, electric cars can only cope with short to medium distances, which is brilliant if you commute 50 miles a day. You plug it in each night at home. For longer journeys hybrid cars are an option, although there are many on the market yet. I also believe that when oil runs out in the 50, or so years, we will replace it with another source of fuel in similar types of cars. The electric option will remain an increasingly significant, but smaller part of the market.”

The main justification for electric cars is, of course, that they cause less damage to the environment, but how much difference they make depends on the source of electricity.

“With the current mix of sources in the UK, an electric car produces about 100g of carbon per km, compared to 150g per km for a normal car,” said Professor Kemp. “But in France, where most electricity comes from nuclear energy, an electric car produces only 10-15g.”

However, if electric cars are charged at night, they become more viable for the environment.

“You can’t store electricity in the grid, so it’s far better to use the electricity which is created by renewable energy from wind turbines and wave machines at night when it’s otherwise being wasted,” he said. “Charging them at night would make it viable to build bigger fleet of wind turbines, without risk of waste.”

David Smith,

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