default blog post image

Electric speed freaks

When it comes to a love affair with a car, Americans want to know one thing – how fast can it go? That is why America is soon going to fall in love all over again, just like it did for the Mustang, the GTO, and the Shelby Cobra’s pedal but this time it will not be for loud internal combustion engines but instead for quiet electric cars. This became apparent to me last week when I hit the accelerator of an all electric Ford Focus while test driving it on the Microsoft campus in Redmond, Washington, and suddenly felt like I was the pilot of a spaceship in one of Microsoft’s X-Box computer games, zooming through space with the acceleration of warp speed. When I hit that “non-gas” pedal, the tires spun on the wet pavement, the fall leaves flew about in our wake, and we took off in a silent tornado. I did not violate the speed limit, of course, because I am a U.S. Congressman, and that would be wrong, but I felt the same rush as teenager in the 50’s racing a roadster on a desert highway. I had gone to Microsoft to address a conference called “Beyond Oil” which was sponsored by a group of business and community leaders who were preparing the State of Washington to become an epicenter of the coming transition to electric cars. Their interest, and mine, was principally to hasten the development of both an American industry that can manufacture electric cars, and a utility infrastructure that can efficiently deliver the needed juice to thousands of charging stations for those cars. The benefits of these wonders of automobile wizardry are legion. First, they are zero polluters of global warming gases, at least in their operation itself. The term, “clean machine” could have been coined uniquely for electric cars. Second, they are cost effective to operate. It will cost about three cents a mile to operate an electric car compared to operating an internal combustion engine powered car. Not only is electricity cheaper than gasoline, electric motors are more efficient than the ancient technology of internal combustion engines, hence the attractive cost differential. Third, when we drive an electric car, we use domestic fuel, not the foreign stuff we have to import from the Middle East, an addiction that embroils us in eternal national security problems. Electric cars will be as big a step forward as the internal combustion engine was a step forward from the one horse buggy. Their advantages environmentally, economically, and in terms of energy security are intellectually obvious and compelling. But it is not the charms of the intellect that will sell the electric car. Speed sells and speed will sell the electric car. When Americans feel that instant torque propelling them forward, freed from the sluggish inertia of gunky and ancient pistons, America will be propelled into a new age of electricity, this time in our cars. Americans will jump into electric cars not because of a thought in the intellect, but because of a feeling in the viscera, the feeling of unconstrained speed. Americans don’t want old wimpy cars. When they get behind the wheels of electric cars, they will have all the muscle they could dream of, without the pollution. Two years ago I predicted the arrival of this vision when I coauthored the book, Apollo’s Fire: Igniting America’s Clean Energy Economy, and many said this was a hallucination, born of unreasoned and blind optimism. But I trusted in both the creative innovation talents of Americans, and the certainty that we had no choice but to wean ourselves off of dirty foreign fuels, so my prediction has come to pass. Even in the depths of our horrendous losses in the auto industry, we are moving forward. Ford will now produce in significant number an all electric van in 2010 followed with production of their Ford Focus in 2012 that will have a range of 100 miles between charges. General Motors will produce the plug-in Hybrid Chevrolet Volt in 2011 that will run on all electric mode for 40 miles and then in hybrid mode for about an additional 200 miles. This tandem of electric cars will give American domestic producers a one-two punch in the electric space. The Ford Focus will be the perfect second car, able to provide two days of typical driving without recharging, since 60% of all daily driving is less than 40 miles. If a family wants the freedom to have one car, and make sure it can drive across our state, it can use the Volt that relies upon just electricity in that first 40 miles of usage and can switch into hybrid mode thereafter. This domestic development is of the highest importance to the industrial and job base of the nation. Having spent a week touring the burgeoning renewable energy and electric car and battery plants in China, I can say that if we do not get into the race to manufacture electric cars and their powerful batteries, the Chinese will dominate this industry shortly. That is why we were both smart and timely to put $2 billion in the stimulus package this year to spark the birth of n American advanced battery industry. It would be the height of short sightedness to miss his technological revolution and thus trade an addiction to Middle Eastern oil for an addiction to Chinese lithium ion batteries. But we are not going to miss this grand opportunity. Our Clean Energy Bill now pending in Congress is going to create a huge demand for these novel cars and provide Americans a smorgasbord of benefits to help them obtain these cars, from tax breaks for new car buyers to assistance for domestic producers. The cap and trade bill will itself create a demand for these cars by making it more attractive to drive a car that does not pollute. We will have to build a cleaner utility grid, of course, because an electric car is only as clean as the fuel that generates the electricity that powers the car, but with our advances in solar photovoltaic, solar thermal energy, offshore wind, engineered geothermal and someday sequestered coal, we have a chance to do just that. These cars will of course cost more than equivalent gas cars, but both their less expensive operating costs and the fact that they will surely come down in price as the go up in industrial scale make it a sound bet that they will be cost competitive in the very near future. And when Americans learn that they can make money by “renting” their car’s battery to their utility company to store their power, and feed it back to the utility in the morning, American’s will love seeing their electric meter running backwards to their profit. So, yes the electric car has been a bit slow to arrive, inasmuch as the very first cars in the 1800’s were electric, and now after over 100 years are finally becoming standard operating procedure. But what took a while to arrive is now ready to blow the doors off of any old internal combustion car on any starting line in the country, or at least in every driveway. We needed a very fast car to save the planet. You’ll have a chance to plug in just such a car in your garage and try to keep under the speed limit on the way to work very soon. Cars that accelerate at the speed of light, that’s a bright American future.