Zero-emission Vehicles – Reality or (Exhaust) Pipe Dream?

Today, the head of the Renault-Nissan automotive alliance, Carlos Goshn, stated that they plan to produce and sell 500,000 electric vehicles per year, globally, by the end of 2013.  The alliance is banking on the fact that consumers will become more attracted to electric cars as the technologies associated with these vehicles continue to be improved and refined and, importantly, drive down the cost so that the vehicles are price-competitive with internal combustion engine vehicles without having to rely on a tax incentive to make this so.  Mr. Goshn predicts that one in 10 vehicles purchased will be electric.

Nissan’s Leaf, scheduled for production release later this year, is an all-electric design and is designed to go as far as 100 miles on a charge. Other planned Renault-Nissan vehicles include a commercial vehicle, a small city car, and a luxury car.

The all-electric strategy of Renault-Nissan may have some attraction to car buyers, but very real issues remain.  These include: 

  • The cost of installing a, special, 220/240V 40 amp charging station in your carport or garage – estimated to be $2,000.
  • Length of time to charge – the Leaf takes 7 hours to charge, but can be charged to 80% capacity in 30 minutes at a 480 volt Quick charge station.
  • Reductions in amount of charge over time – Lithium Ion batteries lose 30% or more of their charging capacity over time.
  • Driving or storing in extreme temperatures – This means that electric car buyers in areas which experience extreme temperatures (cold and hot – which represents most of the population of the United States) will see a diminishing of the storage capacity of the batteries and a reduction in battery life.
  • Battery life – As mentioned above, chemical-based batteries lose charging capacity over time.  Nissan has talked of selling the car, but leasing the battery pack to the vehicle owner.  This would allow replacement battery packs to be installed with much less cost – the battery pack is the most expensive component of the electric car.  The question is, does the vehicle then qualify for tax breaks when it is sold without the battery pack?
  • The need to establish a parallel infrastructure for charging vehicles away from the home-based charging system.

For now zero-emission (except emissions emitted in the generation of the electricity itself) electric vehicles seem wonderful in concept, but will likely not reach one tenth of the auto population.  There are, however, promising solid-state technologies, such as ultra-capacitors (See AFS Trinity or EEStor) that may make the eletric car concept more than a pipe dream.

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