02 December 2011

The Chevy Volt

It has two problems.  First:

New fires involving the lithium-ion batteries in General Motors Co.'s Chevrolet Volt have prompted an investigation to assess the risk of fire in the electric car after a serious crash, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said Friday.
One Chevy Volt battery pack that was being closely monitored following a government crash test caught fire Thursday, the safety administration said in a statement. Another recently crash-tested battery emitted smoke and sparks, the statement said.

And second:
Yahoo! Autos has found that Chevrolet Volt owners have been reporting a different problem for months: Overheating and melting of the cord used to charge the car from standard 120-volt household electrical sockets. While GM says the cords are safe and blames the problems on the owners’ wiring, it has replaced an unknown number of cords and made changes to its design.

I have no objection to electric cars, though I do question whether there are a) all that beneficial to the environment and b) more cost-effective than their gas-powered brethren (more on this later).  These two stories, though, do present a bit of a problem for the wide scale adaption of electric cars.  After all, who wants to buy a car that imposes a significant fire hazard* and comes with shoddy fueling equipment in the event you don’t fork out for a better system?

While gas cars were hardly better in their early days, in terms of safety, they benefitted from being in the market early, facing early electric cars and steam-powered contraptions.  Today’s electric cars—specifically the Volt—are facing a rather mature market segment and therefore have less room for error.  Granted, they have a lower operation cost per mile, but potential maintenance costs are radically higher since it requires highly trained experts to do anything with the electrical system, and the car’s cost starts at over $40k, not counting the direct government subsidy of $7500.  In essence, the electric car is pricier in every metric save for gas costs.  Toss in increased risk of fire as well the potential for being unable to charge the car at home due charger equipment failure, and you have a very compelling case against going electric.

Beyond that, though, electric cars aren’t all that beneficial to the environment.  I’ve addressed this in depth before, so I will simply reiterate that, in America, most electricity comes from the burning of fossil fuels.  As such, electric cars only shift demand along the supply chain instead of bypass it.

Also, one must consider how much additional energy it takes to produce electric cars.  The lithium batteries that power electric cars require massive mining, a good portion of which occurs in South America.  As such, electric cars produced in the united states require additional, more resource-intensive materials, which taken together requires a greater expenditure of energy.  Plus, given the limited range of all-electric vehicles, they cannot replace gas-powered vehicles for long trips.
Thus, electric vehicles likely do not offer any significant energy savings, at least on a short- to mid-term time horizon.  They may offer savings in the long run, but that conclusion is based on the assumption that electric cars will require minimal maintenance.

At any rate, the point of the Chevy Volt stories is to illustrate that there may not be much hope for electric vehicles.  Even the most die-hard enthusiast is going to have to pause and consider the potential costs of being caught in a lithium fire (which is remarkably difficult to put out if memory serves me correctly) or being unable to charge the battery for a while because the charging equipment melted.  And therefore it may be, after millions of dollars in federal subsidies, that consumers simply do not want electric vehicles.  Who could blame them?

* In spite of Hollywood’s insistence to the rather entertaining contrary, gas tanks on cars are not all that likely to explode.

2 comments:

  1. Given the PRICE differential alone, most people will choose gas cars. For example, a guy I work with had a Toyota Prius, a hybrid similar to the Volt. He got rid of it in favor of a BMW 335i; he said that the Beemer cost the same, yet offered MUCH better performance.

    Then, there's also the matter of replacing the battery packs. That can cost THOUSANDS of dollars; that's a lot of money! So, unless one drives a ton (say 30k miles a year or more), one won't save money with a Prius or another, similar environmentally friendly car.

    What concerns me though is the increased CAFE standards the Obama Administration is forcing upon us. Standards are to rise to 35mpg over the coming years. In order to meet those standards, the car companies will have to build cars like the Toyota Prius, Chevy Volt, et al. Judging by market behavior, most people don't WANT cars like that. Either they don't have the MONEY to spend on a car like that; or, they don't WANT to spend that kind of money on a car unless it has high performance (e.g. my coworker).

    Personally, I cannot afford a car that costs that much; actually, I could, but I'd like to spend money on other things. Anyway, if I were in the market for a car right now, the Ford Fiesta, Ford Focus, Mazda 3, Hyundai Veloster, and other cars would be in my price range; those cars meet my needs for money I wish to spend on a car. I RESENT being forced to spend money I either don't have, or wish to put to other uses-just to buy a car because some gov't asshole says I must! Then, these hypocrites ride around in limos & private jets!

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  2. @MarkyMark- One thing that is readily apparent about the argument for electric vehicles is that it is very short-sighted. Yes, gas costs decline, but all other costs go up, which generally indicate that manufacturing and maintaining electric cars is a very resource-intense process, which generally indicates that there is a lot of energy being used to produce the final product, therefore contributing more pollution.

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