Electric Vehicles and the Glacial Pace of Change

Months ago, I knew nothing about electric vehicles.  Decades ago, I knew even less.

I had long been certain that electric cars would fail.  Like most people in the 90’s, I felt confident that fuel cell technology would revolutionize personal transportation like the internal combustion engine did.  I remember a television commercial featuring a pickup truck gliding across the country with a bathtub full of water in the back and nothing but harmless vapour from the tailpipe.

Ethanol didn’t fool me, but there was a time when people were buying corn futures in anticipation of windfall profits.  It seems comical now, but there was serious discussion about the effect of diverting food crops to fuel production on grocery prices.  Although the ethanol production seemed as primitive, like making whisky from sour mash, the consequence of deriving fuel from corn appeared to have global implications.

Electric vehicles didn’t have any of that futuristic feel.  Clunky batteries held no mystery for us for us anymore.  Hybrid cars seemed like descendants of D-cell flashlights and brick-sized cell phones.  Car batteries are still the size of cinder blocks, only heavier.  Early prototypes of battery powered cars had abysmal power-to-weight ratios because the batteries were so big and inefficient.

And those are just the electric cars we remember.  They were mass produced a century ago on both sides of the Atlantic.  They competed with gas powered vehicles back when Thomas Edison’s company was still supplying the lead-acid batteries, and Ford Motor Company was still a start-up.

When hydrogen fuel cells dropped from the headlines, it looked like we were going to be dependent on fossil fuels until the oil companies priced their product out of reach.  Despite all the geopolitical, economic, and environmental hazards this implies, there’s probably enough oil in the ground to last another generation or two.  Even if you’re a “peak oil” believer, speculation and price manipulation could be reformed to keep costs in reach for a while after known reserves dry up.  Or so I thought.

But EV’s have become contenders again.  In the market, the gradual acceptance of hybrids has been an important step.  The introduction of completely electric cars by industry leaders is another step.  The R&D investments and technology breakthroughs bring the envisaged future of electric cars even closer.  Tesla’s decision to share its patents with competing companies is a strategically brilliant way of accelerating innovation and commercialization.

I was speaking to someone from a Canadian non-profit organization that is dedicated to the creation of EV infrastructure.  Her organization hasn’t made plans to be around much beyond the next five years because they hope they’ll have worked themselves out of a job by then.

Think again.  Change is slow in an industry that has made massive investments in the status quo.  The auto industry will spend on innovation for the future, but in the present, they have a legacy of infrastructure and labour obligations to pay for.  Metal stamping mills aren’t going to be replaced by carbon fibre forms and moulds any time soon.  Engine assembly plants and their workers can’t be retooled and retrained fast enough to keep up with the pace of innovation and market acceptance.  Timing is everything, and for a time, it will make sense for conventional automakers to lock up patents and slow down the introduction of new technologies.

Look at the introduction of hybrids.  They appeared in North American dealerships over 15 years ago (the Prius was introduced in Japan in 1997), but still account for a little less than 1% of cars (about 2 million) on the road.  Despite their proven reliability and fuel efficiency, the rate of adoption has been very low.  Sales are picking up, but they’ve got a long way to go.

EV’s are facing the same long, slow climb to public acceptance.  In fact they’ll be competing against their hybrid predecessors, which at some point in the future will look like the more reliable and familiar technology.

The annual replacement rate of automobiles is roughly 10% per year, so at any given time, it’s only possible for EV’s to compete for a fraction of a fraction of total car ownership.  If it required 15 years for hybrids to replace 1% of cars on North American roads, how long will it take for EV’s to establish themselves as a serious alternative?

The oil companies are betting it will take a long time.  I was fuelling up at a Petrocan station recently and noticed an advertisement for a contest glued to the pump.  The prize?  Fifty years of free gas!

Talk to an EV advocate, and they might tell you that demand for gas will have fallen until it’s free to everyone 50 years from now.   Unfortunately, the numbers don’t bear this out.  Once the technology proves adequate to the task, the job of education and marketing begins.

Maybe EV’s will benefit from climate change and attitude change.  As with smoking in public, blowing fumes from your tailpipe will be considered rude someday.

I look forward to that day.  I hope my colleague’s organization plans to stay in business until then.

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