Sunday, July 23, 2006

Creating the ultimate electric car

There was a lot of coverage this week on the Tesla Roadster. Articles like this one are typical:

Electric car a shocker in speed (and sticker price)

This car is funded with $60 million raised from Silicon Valley bigwigs like Larry Page and Sergey Brin along with executives from eBay and PayPal.

The car is both impressive and useless: Impressive because it goes from zero to 60 in 4 seconds and has a 200 mile range; Useless because it costs $100K.

Wouldn't it be interesting if, instead of a $100K sports car, what we were developing were a real, useful electric car that would solve a big problem for America? Some of the features of this car would be:That third feature is essential, because it would allow the same sort of rapid advancement and commodity pricing that we see in the PC marketplace. Imagine being able to buy the car's body from one place, the motor from another, the batteries and controller from a third, and then bolt them all together to create a car that works. Hundreds of manufacturers could participate in an open marketplace and the price of cars would fall dramatically. We would also see rapid advancement. If someone developed a fuel cell to replace the battery pack, then people could switch over to it easily without having to buy a new car.

As an unexpected side-benefit, Dell could start selling cars. Maybe that would help its stock price.

This would be a great way to invest $60 million. Why didn't they go this route?

California tried to legislate electric cars in the mid 90's, and it ran afoul of some gigantic political opponents. Of course Big Oil tried to monkey wrench it big time, but also other interests like the car companies themselves fought against them as hard as they could. (eg. gas ICE cars generate huge revenue in after-market parts; oil filters alone is probably a billion dollar industry).

The California electric cars were so popular that when the car companies recalled the leases, their owners held a round the clock vigil at the GM parking lot storing them. The cops had to arrest the former owners (who offered GM almost $2M to buy their cars back!) when GM trucked them be crushed.

It's a really sad story, and very well detailed in a great movie called Who Killed the Electric Car. The movie is a must-see if you're interested in the topic.

I'm sure the Tesla guys chose the route they did because a $100K toy for the rich isn't going to raise the hackles of big, nasty, established automotive interests in this country. It explains why the US auto companies keep promising that "someday" the Hydrogen Fairy will solve all our problems. And it probably also explains why you can't even recharge your Prius at home, even though it would add only $1K to the cost of the car and let you do your daily commute without burning a drop of oil.

It's not a technology problem. It's a political one.
Check out the Tango, from Commuter Cars. It's been in development for some years, with less funding but more transparency in the process than Tesla had. As with Tesla, their first offering is a high-performance "rich man's toy;" they've already sold one, to George Clooney. But they're also working on more reasonably priced consumer versions (to the tune of $20K).
Frankly I think you are incorrect on this Marshall. As I read somewhere, *all* new products start out as expensive, boutique items - computers, DVD players, cellphones, cars (100 years ago) etc. Then if the product appeals to early-adopters, it is much easier to move into the mainstream.
Just to follow-up on John's comment, this is the GM car discussed in that movie:

Just saw the movie yesterday. Interesting stuff.
Well we need to pour the money into Batteries that we poured into dot.coms!

I would buy the GEM if it could do 40mph to let me use 45mph roads. I could replace 70% of my trips of 12 miles or shorter.

GEM's are $8,500 with a few features. I would pay $10,000 if it met my goals. Of course state and federal laws on NEV's would have to change.

Make it easy to set up a shop converting old used light cars like Volkswagens into electric cars with minimal federal and state hassle.

Grant diesels and exemption so Americans can buy them. The smog freaks have shut down the Jeep Liberty which sold out its production run and other diesels. Give them a break!

Lastly... Let SMART import 10,000 used smarts to the US at cheap prices without conversions. Same with other car companies with a glut of high MPG vehicles on used car lots.
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