A Free-Market Energy Blog

EVs in the 1990s

By Robert Bradley Jr. -- August 6, 2023

“‘People are willing to pay a premium for environmental goods,’ Mr. Dables said. “It’s one thing to buy a box of soap and pay 20 percent more; I don’t know anyone who wants to pay 20 percent more for a car.”

It has taken a basket of mandates and subsidies to get battery-driven vehicles (EVs) on the road in the last decade. Start with a $7,500 per vehicle tax credit. Continue with automobile dealers having to get credits from electrics to meet their corporate average fuel economy standards (CAFE) obligations. Add-in never-ending taxpayer-financed R&D from the US Department of Energy and a lot of jawboning by the Presidents from Clinton to Obama to Biden.

Think back to the 1990s, when natural gas vehicles and methanol-powered vehicles were in play. Electric vehicles had interest too. Thus a re-read of Matthew Wald’s “A Tough Sell for Electric Cars.” (New York Times, November 26, 1991) is pertinent.

For 20 years, the people who pioneered electric cars believed that the price of electric vehicles would decline to reasonable levels if a mass market developed eager to snatch them up. Now, even though 12 states have mandated such a market, the technology to make a practical electric car is lagging.

For example, Mercedes-Benz provided an electric pace car with a sodium-nickel-chloride battery for the New York City Marathon this year. But the company estimated that because the car’s battery was expensive and could only be recharged a few hundred times before needing replacement, its operating cost — not counting the electricity to charge the battery — was about a dollar a mile. In comparison, the average gasoline-powered car costs about 38 cents a mile to run.

Plans by Ford

And although the Ford Motor Company plans to begin selling electric vans to utilities in early 1992, its Ecostar van, which is based on its Escort wagon, can go only about 100 miles in city driving before needing about six hours to recharge its sodium-sulfur battery.

In the last month, more states have climbed aboard the “low emission vehicle” express, aiming to put as many electric cars on the road in 2003 as there were Honda Accords sold in America last year.

California, which was the first state to adopt such a program, and nearly all the states in the Northeast — Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia and the District of Columbia — joined in the effort. That means that about 70,000 electric vehicles must be on the road in six years, beginning with the 1998 model year. Other large states and cities are considering the idea. If they actually commit to it, some 500,000 vehicles sold in the nation will have to pollution-free by 2003.

But auto makers, battery scientists and marketers question who would want a vehicle that costs far more to buy and operate than a gasoline model and only runs 100 miles or so before it needs several hours to recharge its batteries.

“It’s a mandate to sell, not a mandate to buy,” said Ric Geyer, who is in charge of marketing electric vehicles at Ford. “At what price,” Mr. Geyer asked while addressing a conference here earlier this month, “will we be able to entice six or seven or eight thousand people to buy these vehicles?” He was referring to the number of electric cars that are needed to be sold in California to meet emmission goals.

A variety of groups outside the auto industry are trying to help. In Boston, the Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management, an eight-state association that two years ago required oil companies to make cleaner gasoline, wants states to offer incentives to electric vehicle buyers. Possiblities include exemption from bridge and tunnel tolls, free parking and free battery recharges at office buildings or shopping centers.

“Since we’re going to be mandating it, we feel some responsiblity for assuring they are bought,” Michael Bradley, the executive director, said in a telephone interview.

Vexing Problems

What the car makers need is something better to sell. Some of the cost problems are likely to be solved easily, like using electronic controls that are akin to computers and likely to fall in cost. But making suitable batteries to power electric cars has vexed everybody since Thomas Edison and Henry Ford.

“It is a misconsception that there is some kind of invention lurking in the wings, waiting to be introduced,” said Robert Nichols, an alternate-fuels researcher at Ford and spokesman for the United States Advanced Battery Consortium.

The consortium is a research partnership formed last month by Ford, the General Motors Corporation, and the Chrysler Corporation and partly supported by the Department of Energy. But the consortium’s goals assume an ambitious accomplishment: producing a battery by 1994 that stores 150 to 200 watt-hours per kilogram of weight, about twice the level of one of the most promising batteries today.

The State of Technology

That would seem a difficult task, considering the state of battery technology today. A standard lead-acid battery stores about 33 watt-hours per kilogram of weight, Dr. Nichols said, and a sodium-sulfur battery, a type invented by Ford in 1965 that shows promise now, stores 85 watt-hours. The drawback is that sodium-sulfur batteries cost more than twice as much as lead-acid batteries.

Gasoline is cheaper, weighs less and takes up far less space than batteries: A kilogram of gasoline stores 12,000 watt-hours. Even adjusting for the fact that electic motors use battery power more efficiently than gasoline engines use the energy in gas, gasoline still stores energy in roughly 80 times less weight than conventional lead-acid batteries do, according to engineers. By volume, gasoline takes up 60 times less space.

Right now, battery technology is in such flux that cars are being designed to begin life with one kind of battery and to be able to switch to another type if technology produces an improved version.

Some Advantages

Electric cars do have advantages: They are so quiet and vibration-free that they can be relaxing to drive. But because electric cars have a driving range between lengthy rechargings of only about one-third that of gasoline-powered cars, the auto industry has a tough selling job ahead.

Selling electric vehicles is hard work, as the electric utility industry found out last year. The Electric Power Research Institute, a utility group, is trying to sell 500 electric vans based on a G.M.’s Vandura full-sized gasoline-powered vans. But so far, only 150 are on the road. Although some electric utilities have resisted buying the van, its modest success still makes it the most successful electric vehicle sales effort so far.

Everyone who has considered the problem believes that electric vehicles will be more popular with fleets than with individuals, because fleet managers will be more likely to give them a try and recharging arrangements will be more convenient for fleets.

But fleets will not be enough. According to the Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Association, the number of cars in fleets of four or more is less than 8 percent of the cars on the road today. Delivery trucks are another potential market, but many fleet vehicles — including police cars, rental cars, long-haul trucks and cars — are poor candidates for switching to electricity.

The Personal Car

What, then, about the average shopper looking for a personal car?

General Motors has done some market research. Speaking at the conference, which was sponsored by the Edison Electric Institute, the association of investor-owned utilities, John R. Dabels, G.M.’s director of market development for electric vehicles, said the highest level of interest in electric cars was shown by people aged 30 to 50, with 20 percent over age 60. Interest was highest among those with more education, and among consumers who were “moderately affluent,” he said.

Last January, General Motors announced that it would sell the Impact, a sporty electric two-seater beginning in the mid-90’s. But Mr. Dables wondered aloud how it would happen.

In normal use, G.M. estimates that the Impact will go between 80 and 100 miles before needing a recharge of about three hours to restore 80 percent of its power. It can go 60 miles an hour, and its acceleration is impressive: 0 to 60 miles an hour in about eight seconds.

“People are willing to pay a premium for environmental goods,” Mr. Dables said. “It’s one thing to buy a box of soap and pay 20 percent more; I don’t know anyone who wants to pay 20 percent more for a car.”

Final Comment

This was thirty years ago. Government subsidies are as needed today as then. End the federal subsidies–and the EV boom will fade. The major automakers have already paid the price to date. But much more disappointment is ahead to the extent that the government gravy train slows or is taken off the tracks.

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