Surely you’ve heard about the May partnership announced between Toyota and Tesla to start building electric cars at the recently closed NUMMI (New United Motor Manufacturing Inc.) plant in Fremont, California. For the past 25 years General Motors and Toyota had worked to manufacture cars together, seeing it as an opportunity to learn about each other’s production methods. The plant was closed earlier this year by Toyota as a cost-cutting measure; now it is being resurrected in the name of electric car development.
And who is Tesla? The only manufacturer of EVs in the United States at prices that none of us can afford. But that may change with Toyota acquiring a $50-million stake in Tesla and the two companies poised to rumble on the assembly lines together…but don’t look now…the Tesla-Toyota partnership may have competition.
At a Commonwealth Club meeting in San Francisco this month, speakers representing different spectrums of EV car development including a representative from General Motors, discussed the possibility of these electrically powered cars becoming the future vehicle of choice.
Tony Posawatz, Vehicle Line Director of General Motors’ New Chevy Volt and also Co-Chairman of the Electric Drive Transportation Association, announced that he had driven a Volt to the meeting, and offered that the car will be in retail development by the end of this year “with GM being the first to mass market electrically driven vehicles in the U.S. and around the world.” Currently, the Volt has a 40-mile range with an extending gas generator that produces enough energy to power the car along further on a single tank. Posawatz spoke of that initial range being upped from 40 to 100 miles and that the Volt is not “a single play for GM.”
Look around the corner. Motorcycles also are being slated for electric development. Jit Bhattacharya, CEO of Mission Motors whose new Mission One Motorcycle (funded with help from Silicon Valley venture capitalists) claims to be the fastest production electric motorcycle in the world, said that the company is looking to “improve range, performance, and cost.” Current EV technology is based on lithium-ion batteries, commonly housed these days in laptops, PDAs, cellphones, and the Toyota Prius.
Mission Motors is exploring a partnership he said with China, which is using electric bikes and scooters to help address the issue of smog. This was an environmental problem that was highlighted during the Beijing Olympic 2008 games. Apart from all other considerations, “The electric motorcycle is just more fun to ride.”
More fun, but what about practical, what about the massive infrastructure and development that needs to support the transition to EV? What about the growing demands on the power grid? Mark Duvall, Director of Electric Transportation at the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), an independent, nonprofit center for public interest energy and environmental research which receives most of its funding from member electric power companies, said “The industry has a responsibility to serve with a job to just deal with it.” He cited how power companies have stepped up to increase service as newer technologies like computers and plasma TVs draw more juice from the grid.
Technology is improving here also with the development of what many refer to as the “smart grid” giving buildings, most immediately those owned by the government, the ability to monitor light and heat usage by wiring systems together and controlling them from a central software panel. Ultimately, we will be able to monitor energy usage in our homes. All of this will require massive amounts of capital investment. The Feds have already kick-started the process, he said, with a 130 million dollar investment, but suggested that power usage may get more expensive with different pricing tiers, encouraging consumers to power up EVs during off-peak hours. There's even talk about being able to sell power from a EV car battery back to the power grid, much the way people today with installed solar sell electricity to local power companies.
Yeah, and what about plugging in those vehicles? How is that going to happen? Richard Lowenthal, a former Mayor of Cupertino, California, and founder and CEO of Coulomb Technologies, Inc., acknowledged as a leader in electric vehicle charging station infrastructure worldwide, anticipates that this will happen differently depending on different situations.
For example, in an urban area like San Francisco where the majority of people do not live in single-family houses, drivers may plug-in vehicles while they are shopping. “Most stations probably will not charge because businesses want people to shop in their areas.” He anticipates charging stations becoming “a normal piece of parking lot furniture." He also said that the home permitting system is changing to allow for these stations. “It’s just like installing an appliance. It’s not a big deal,” although Lowenthal did acknowledge that older homes will have to do “a lot more work.”
More immediately, the future of EVs “will be blended,” said Posawatz, with an exploration of lithium-ion batteries augmented by biofuels and flex fuels. The EV “is not only for enthusiasts and early adopters. This is a car every one will love.”
Who knows? The American automobile industry, supported by power companies and infrastructure development, may have some life in it yet.What do you think about our EV future?