Op-Ed: In Truth, EVs Are The “Normal Cars” and ICE Vehicles are “Niche Cars”
We’ve all heard and read the slurs that EVs are not “real cars”. According to what is till the conventional wisdom EVs are novelty toys, or they are nonviable, or they are “golf carts”, etc. Analysts using more politically-correct language call EVs “niche cars”.
Ok… so what is the niche? To answer that, we need to list the common use cases of the private automobile. In the urban/suburban industrialized world (where most private cars still are), these would be, in descending order:
- Commuting to and from work;
- Leisure and errand drives to destinations around town;
- Occasional (or rare) longer drives, mostly on weekends and vacations, for day-trips and road-trips.
How well-suited are ICE vehicles to these tasks? They literally suck at #1 and #2, our most common use cases. Not only do they waste energy and release pollutants while idling at stoplights and traffic jams; the stop-and-go is against their grain. It causes far more wear and tear on their engine, cooling and other systems than high-speed driving. Face it: ICE vehicles were designed for the wide-open road trip – a use pattern that most of them only experience rarely, if ever.
By contrast, EVs are perfect for tasks #1 and #2. In reasonable weather they will spend no energy sitting in jams. In extreme weather whey will need some to keep you comfortable – but it will take hours for them to run out of juice on heating/cooling alone. In any case, while in traffic they will emit no tailpipe pollutants into the lungs of stranded drivers and pedestrians.
A side comment: by rights, for task #1 (commute) the normal mode of transportation should be public transit. But if you must take a private vehicle, then EVs are far more natural for the task than ICE vehicles.
As to task #3, the capabilities of current first-generation modern EVs vary from minimal to reasonable, depending upon the car (the high-performers would be the Teslas). But to accomplish specific drives beyond your BEV’s ability, you can always take an ICE vehicle (rented/swapped/your own). This is the very definition of “niche”. Or, if those drives are fairly common for you, get a PHEV/EREV instead of a BEV.
Insisting that ICE cars are “the only real car” because they’re better on road trips, and that EVs are a “niche car” – is like hauling an 80-liter rucksack to work and school every day instead of something more reasonable, and boasting that “this is the only real backpack“. Sure, you can plop your school folder and lunch bag into the rucksack and there’s plenty of space remaining; and taking your day-to-day bag on a backpacking trip is infeasible. But there’s no question as to which one is “normal” and which one is “niche”.
As it stands, current BEVs are already superior to ICE vehicles on every major aspect except for three. The first aspect will forever remain an ICE specialty: the deep off-grid/off-road adventure. If you want to tour the back roads away for civilization for a week – a 4×4 ICE vehicle with a full tank and an extra jerrycan will remain your best bet.
The other two aspects where ICE still has a clear edge – range/charge and extreme-weather resilience – are current areas of focus and quick progress for the emerging EV segment. EVs might not exceed ICE vehicles on these two, but being “close enough” will be sufficient, because EVs beat ICE on everything else, and are much better suited for most drivers’ most common needs.
Furthermore, it is widely overlooked that besides being “niche” on use cases, ICE vehicles are by design a niche technology. They are closely tailored to take advantage of an extreme and unique biogeochemical phenomenon: the ultra-concentration of energy in liquid petroleum distillates. The ICE is essentially a narrow-use mobile thermal power plant, converting this energy to linear piston movement (losing a ton to waste heat in the process), and then to the circular motion needed to turn the wheels (incurring more losses).
This monopolistic reliance of a huge segment of modern human activities upon a niche technology, with a niche single-source specialized fuel, is one of the main reasons for the distortions underpinning so much of our economy and politics, distortions that are now hurling us towards the abyss of global warming.
By contrast, a BEV integrates 5 mainstream, generic, multiple-source, well-established technologies:
- The “glider” or the vehicle body: – the frame, steering, wheels, brakes, etc. – essentially the same for any car regardless of motor type. This is tech that has been around for >100 years, and arguably for thousands of years (if you count pre-motorized versions);
- The electric motor – tech that has been around for >100 years;
- The rechargeable battery-pack – tech that has been around for >150 years;
- Computerized control and coordination of the whole thing – younger, but still tech that has been around for decades and is rather mainstream nowadays;
- The electrical grid itself.
The final testament that EVs are more “natural” cars, is how relatively easy it has been, already in the technology’s first decade of mass proliferation, for so many automakers to churn out EVs that win multiple awards and recognition in all-vehicle comparisons. The pinnacle is of course the Tesla Model S, but the Leaf and Volt have won their share of awards and score very high on user satisfaction. Even BEVs made solely as “California Compliance Cars”, with minimal investment, have somehow managed to turn out much better than their ICE counterparts (the Fiat 500e and the Spark EV come to mind).
In short, the next time someone blabbers to you about EVs being “niche cars” or worse, you’ll know what to say to them…
Happy Holidays everyone, and may 2014 be the year EVs broke Big Oil’s back!
Note: this is an abbreviated variation of my longer post about EV technology at DailyKos: