The Trouble With Green Cars

This was written a few years ago but sadly, not much has changed.

When the Toyota Prius first came out, I was really happy to see it.  At last, a major automaker was trying to address the problems of dwindling world petroleum supplies and environmental pollution.  True, GM had introduced the EV-1 battery-powered car back in 1996, but it was soon obvious that it was a token effort, quickly withdrawn from the market.  Other hybrids like the Honda Insight also appeared, but did not achieve widespread acceptance for a variety of reasons.  The Prius was the first hybrid to gain a significant (but still small) market share.

After looking closely at the design of the Prius, I was not so thrilled.  It was terrifyingly complex.  An engineering tour de force, but what would happen as the miles mounted?  It looked like a maintenance nightmare.

To Toyota’s credit that does not appear to be the case.  I know people who have put well over 100K miles on their Prius with no major problems.  The mileage claims were a bit overblown, though.  A realistic number is probably around 45 mpg.  Still much better than the monster SUV’s, vans and pickups that many people drive, but a small diesel-powered car like the VW Golf or Jetta TDi does nearly as well, and it is a much simpler machine that costs significantly less than the Prius.  The newest version of the Prius has actually gone up in price, as Toyota appears to be aiming the car at a higher-end market.

Nissan has recently entered the fray with a battery-powered car called the Leaf.  I have long believed that for many urban and suburban residents, a battery-powered second car makes a lot of sense.  The driving range of the Leaf is around 80 miles…sufficient for many commuters and for ferrying kids to school, shopping trips and local errands.  However, market surveys have shown that many people are uncomfortable with such a limited range.  Increasing it to around 150 miles would greatly increase the potential market for the car.

There is another problem with all “green” cars, though:  The price.  The Prius now lists for well over $30K, and the Leaf, even after rebates and tax incentives, is even higher.  These cars do not represent an economic bargain in their current state of development.  The buyers are relatively affluent folks who are willing to pay more for a “feel good” car.

This is apparent in the design of these cars.  They all have sophisticated computer-driven displays that give the driver detailed operating information.  Is it running on battery or engine or a combination of the two?  Is the battery recharging from the engine?  What is the miles-per-gallon or miles-per kilowatt-hour since the last fill-up or charge? What is the number at this instant?  What is the projected range, based on current speed and instantaneous mileage?

Most of this information is irrelevant to the operation of the vehicle.  In effect, it offers a “video game” to the driver, who should be watching the road and other vehicles, not his computer toy.  But apparently this automotive ‘bling’ appeals to the people who buy these cars, and the extra cost is not a problem for them.

I recently had a chance to look closely at a Nissan Leaf.  It is a beautifully finished piece, with pleasing exterior lines and an elegant and spacious interior, with big, comfortable leather-covered seating for four adults, and a fair amount of space for luggage or whatever.  But, as a commuting vehicle, how often will it carry four adults?  How often will it carry more than the driver?  As a “feel good” purchase, it’s fine, but that is a pretty limited market.  If we want to break our “oil habit,” we need a much more practical car…smaller, lower-priced, with better range.

Most people don’t need the video games.  They need to know two things:  How fast they are going, and how much charge is left in the battery.  Projected range based on current speed is irrelevant because the car is not going to travel at that constant speed for the next forty or fifty or a hundred miles.  The driver will learn through experience, by looking at the charge gauge, how far he can safely travel before needing a recharge.

In short, a battery-powered car needs to be simple and inexpensive.  Maybe carmakers recognize that they cannot offer real economic value at this point, so they are adding the gadgets to appeal to the “feel good” types.  At least the builders are gaining some experience in building these cars, but the currently available products are not doing much to attack the problems we face.

The game changer will be a breakthrough in battery capacity and cost.  If that happens, the market for battery-powered EV’s will explode in urban and suburban areas.  Whether battery-powered vehicles take over the automotive market completely depends on the development of quick-charge or battery-exchange technology.

Since I wrote this, the Prius has become even more successful, and several more battery-powered cars have hit the market.  In fact, I own one…a Honda Fit EV.  If you would like to read about my experiences with an “electron burner,” click the link below.

Driving an Electric Vehicle

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