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Plug-In Electric Cars Are Not the Future

tesla2Earlier this week, we caught wind that Daimler is purchasing a 10% stake in Tesla Motors. The idea isn’t so much for the German automaker to cash in on the sales of the Tesla Roadster and Tesla Model S as much as it is about the partnership that will soon yield electric Mercedes cars. The first electric Mercedes-Benz is being slated for next year with the option for full-electric Mercs hitting the entire line by 2012.

With this news and the merging development of a full-electric Toyota Prius (among other vehicles), we’re almost led to believe that the concept of a plug-in electric car is the wave of the future. We will no longer be bound to the prices at the pump, because we’ll just plug our cars into wall outlets when we get home. Nothing could be more convenient and economical, right?

I beg to differ.

There are two very pressing reasons why plug-in electrics may sound like fun but cannot be viable in the long term, at least based on what we know so far about the technology.

Plug-In Electrics Are Inconvenient

First, the convenience factor simply is not there. With current diesel and gasoline-powered vehicles, you can hit up the gas station when you run low and top up your tank as needed. You effectively have near limitless range, so long as you have access to gas stations. The fill up process only takes a couple of minutes. With plug-in electrics, you typically have to plug in the car overnight and even then, the range isn’t astounding.

This is fine for the daily commute to the office, since it’s unlikely you’ll be racking up more than a couple hundred kilometres driving to work, but what about longer trips? You can’t possibly take a road trip and the tech is not viable for work vehicles like taxicabs.

A proposed solution would involve a network of power plugs like the one shown here:


The idea is that you get yourself a smart card linked to your electricity account, you tap the card when you arrive at a station (like at the parking lot at work), and you plug in the car while you imprison yourself in your cubicle. This way, the battery can keep getting charged. However, this still doesn’t work for extended driving. The convenience factor simply is not there and until it is, perhaps with some miraculous “instant charging” technology, this won’t work.

Electric Cars Simply Divert the Environmental Impact

Second, since the electric car itself does not have any harmful emissions, many people assume that these cars are as clean as can be. However, all they do is divert the environmental impact back to wherever you get your electricity.

For places that get their electricity through hydro power, the impact isn’t so bad. For places that use nuclear, there are inherent risks, but it is generally “clean” if managed properly. However, many places still have their electricity generated through the burning of fossil fuels.

An electric car may be a little greener than its internal combustion-powered counterpart, but it’s still polluting by proxy. Further still, I don’t think that the current electric infrastructure can handle the increased demand from millions of electric cars. Something fundamental has to change.

Then What is the Future?

Hybrids? No, I don’t think so. They’re an intermediary, because they still rely on gasoline to a certain extent. We’re going to run out of that stuff eventually, so we need our vehicles to run on a renewable “green” energy.

Solar? That’s not generating enough power to push a car at an adequate speed just yet. The solar panels can be useful for secondary applications, like your radio or air conditioning, but not for propelling the car.

It may sound a little dangerous and a little scary, but I really think that hydrogen fuel cells are the wave of the future. You are effectively driving a hydrogen bomb, but our current cars are also powered by controlled, rhythmic explosions. With hydrogen fuel cells, you can top up at a hydrogen station, just like how you do now at a gas station. This addresses the convenience factor and hydrogen is an inherently green energy. They need to improve the efficiency and safety, but this, I feel, is the way to go.

Are you listening, Detroit? (…and Japan… and Germany.) Make it happen.



About Michael Kwan

A freelance writer and tech geek from Vancouver. Find me at michaelkwan.com and follow me on Twitter @michaelkwan.

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  1.  But it is run by a battery so it is electricity run it. And needs to charge while your doing your job..

  2. Hydrogen fuel cells are absolutely nothing like a hydrogen bomb. Hydrogen does exist by itself as H2. The exhaust of a hydrogen car is water. Electric cars are by no way green. Majority of power plants in the US are coal fire plants. This means the electric car is actually running on coal.

  3. Dude, How are you going to get your hydrogen? Doesn't exist by itself on earth.

  4. To say the Hydrogen is the end-all solution is simply stupid. It is pollutant by proxy exactly the same way a plug-in electric car is. Pure hydrogen doesn't exist anywhere on the planet. It has to be extracted from other molecules, and that extraction takes energy.

    Plug-in electrics are the ideal short term solutions to avoid costly fossil fuels because we already have the technology, making it cheap to design and produce these cars. I can see advances occurign in the battery world to increase range as well. And, when battery prices drop because of the growth of suppliers, and the size of batteries decrease, I can see "gas" stations where you can simply swap your low battery for a fully charged replacement. That would be even faster than a gas fill-up.

  5. How about running car on water? Is it real or just a lie told to scam money?

  6. I've been driving my TWIKE electric vehicle for 10 years now : <a href=”http://www.twike.de” target=”_blank”>http://www.twike.de
    It fully charges in about an hour if need be. Normally, I charge it overnight at lower rates. Electricity costs are about a third of a euro (half a dollar) per 100km.
    It is absolutely true that you need to plan charging stations and periods differently from the way you are used to with fuel combusting vehicles. But it is totally worth it !!! Even if I am running low on batteries, I usually manage to get to my destination by pedalling (yes, a TWIKE is a true hybrid : it burns electricity AND carbs !) And if that is not enough, I just stop and ask. I charged my batteries at a french fries stand in Brussels, at a tourist shop near Liège, at a wedding party in Antwerp, and in a soccer canteen during the first half (just drove right it to the bar, where their only power outlet was situated). I asked an old lady tending her front garden to charge my batteries and she was delighted : her husband was inside dying of cancer and besides the doctor and her family, I was the first visitor in a long time to drop by. We had a wonderful talk.
    It is true that electricity is polluting by proxy. But not if you take a green power contract with your power supplier, as I did. Whatever I pay the company has to be re-invested in the construction or maintenance of durable power generation (wind, water, bio…)
    Power lines are lossy. They lose about half the energy along the way. So it is better to generate the electricity you need as nearby as possible. Hence the boom in electrovoltaics.
    Bottom line : traditional fuels are going the way of the dodo anyway. Hydrogen power is very costly to produce. Soon we'll all be calculating and planning our next trip. At least until a fast-charging battery comes up. Sony is said to have one that charges in 2 minutes. That's about the time it takes to "fill it up". Consider contraception : some decades ago, women had to take their temperature and look at the calendar. Then came the pill. Both methods are effective, if applied correctly. But technology will drive the future, as it is driven itself by convenience. Enjoy your fuel combusting cars while they last. There will be a transitional period, and then something will occur which will make you reluctant to ever step in such a stinky noisy death trap again.

  7. I am terribly disappointed in the journalistic quality in this article. You raise valid concerns but present them as fact. This is completely irresponsible. Your claims are unsubstantiated, have you heard of finding sources?

    I admit, I am a proponent of electric cars. I'm not asking you to envision what electric cars might become in 10 years, but rather to acknowledge their current status. All of the problems that you have described, already have viable solutions today. Brilliant people are working and competing to become the first ones to dominate this emerging market. You will be eating your words, if you have not already.

  8. BHY: This is a blog about all mobile technology, not just phones.

    Regarding the convenience factor, the way that we interact with our phones is fundamentally different from how we interact with our cars. With phones, you can carry extra chargers, car chargers, extra battery packs, etc. With the car, if you're going on a bit f a drive, you can't exactly stop for 8 hours to "refuel" every couple hundred kilometres. How would taxis be able to operate? Shuttle vans? Etc.

  9. Here's another strike against hydrogen versus plug-in electric: Do I want to buy my hydrogen fuel from an unregulated but semimonopolistic entity like Exxon Mobil (perhaps literally Exxon Mobil)? Or do I want to buy my electricity from a regulated utility? I'll take the regulated utility every time. (Cue the capitalist howls, stage right.)

  10. Let me get this straight: this is a blog about mobile phones and you are arguing that it is inconvenient to plug and recharge at night while you sleep. WTF?

    Why don't you start advocating hydrogen powered phones, because it would be so convenient to just visit a hydrogen service station whenever our phones run down?

  11. I agree with Sean at the top of this string. Electric is the near and mid future for second and city cars. (No one knows what the distant future will bring.) Think "second car," folks. Electric cars don't have to haul 5 kids. They don't have to go 400 miles at the drop of a hat. They only need to serve as that second car so many people have for commuting, grocery runs, etc. All the "obstacles" thrown up about electric cars are not obstacles at all for a second car.

  12. The author knows more than most of these commenters. Here's some data to back up this key fact: A scenario which initially includes a mix of alternative vehicles, and is later dominated by hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles sales is the only way to simultaneously:

    * cut greenhouse gas pollution by 80% below 1990 levels;
    * reach U.S. petroleum quasi-independence by mid-century; and
    * eliminate nearly all controllable air pollution by the end of the century.


  13. I agree with Kwan that plug-in electric cars are not the future. Hydrogen is a much better alternative. Hydrogen is everywhere around us and can be extracted quickly and easily. Hydrogen extraction methods are steadily improving, and will become more efficient over time.

    Battery technology is also becoming more efficient, however batteries still have the major issue of disposal and recycling. You may be trying to help the environment with electric cars, but a major component of the car (the battery) contains chemicals and materials toxic to not only the environment, but to living beings.

    Hydrogen, on the other hand, while it may be inefficient to extract using our current methods poses no danger to the environment and no danger to living beings when properly contained.

    Additionally, if you're hoping for a single standard battery that will be used in all electric cars, don't start holding your breath. Automobile manufactures will produce and use proprietary batteries in their electric cars. Do you really think these "swap stations" are going to be able to handle a couple dozen different models of batteries?

    Storage and transportation of Hydrogen will be no more of an issue than it was for gasoline. You don't hear anyone complaining about the safety of transporting gasoline, do you?

  14. Take it from someone who has worked in the industry: you will never, ever, ever, EVER, ever, see a commercially available fuel cell car. Ever ever.

    You know what else you can do with that electricity sitting out on the grid that nobody is doing anything with? CHARGE YOUR ELECTRIC CAR. The "convenience factor" that the author cites is less about convenience and more about the author refusing to rethink the way people might use transportation. A couple hundred kilometers driving to work? Why do we need to tailor our car industry to people who live their lives this way? The answer is, we don't. When fully electric cars are available I will be one of the first to buy one.

  15. Thank you… agree w/ longer term vision of hydrogen distributed as a solid (e.g. MOFs/adsorption) over retail shelves and 'swap out' stations. I'm a big fan of electric propulsion but cars are not iPods– and plugging in is a bad idea (and investment!) It's a misguided vision of the future. Plugging in? The whole world is trying to unplug — why would be integrate cars into a stream of electrons. Nature stores energy in chemical bonds–we should take this advice.
    Garry G
    The Energy Roadmap

  16. People were defending hydo-fuel as passionately a few years ago. A few years from now it will be something else. Look, people, maybe he doesn't have the right idea, but it doesn't matter which route we choose because some big company is just going to exploit the service and make millions off of it. You think they're going to sell the "battery cars" for cheap? Or that the charging service will be free? We're screwed either way. Don't get so upset about it.

  17. When you arrive at the station with your electric car you swap out a fully charged battery for the old depleted battery and go on your merry way. Very simple solution that eliminates the need to wait to recharge the battery. The battery is recharged at the station for the next customer. Standard batteries would be used for all electric cars. When battery is no longer holding a charge it would be recycled.

  18. Thank you Michael Kwan for writing the dumbest anti-electric vehicle article I have ever read. To inform you of a few laws of physics that you apparently are unaware of:
    You claim that electric cars are not the way to go. One of your arguments is based on the fact that alot of the electricity we use is produced by fossil fuels.
    Next you say that hydrogen IS the way to go, ignoring the fact that using electricity to power a car dirrectly is MUCH more efficient that using it to produce hydrogen, which does not exist in free form on the planet earth. (Law of thermodynamics). Furthermore, the transport of hydrogen is much less efficient that the transport of electricity. Producing hydrogen on the spot is also not do-able because you would need much more electricity than you would if you just used the electricity to power the car diectly.

    So, if using fossil fuels to produce electricity to run cars is BAD, in your opinion, then HOW ON EARTH is using EVEN MORE electricity to produce hydrogen to power them, the "wave of the future" as you claim. I really wish people would do some research before posting nonsense like this.

  19. Plug-in electric cars will probably be the future, with one option to get past the long range and inconvenient problems pointed out in this post – an on board generator. Witness the Chevy Volt, which is a reality next year. Basically you plug in your car for regular driving, but if your trip takes you further the generator kicks in. The generators can be gas, propane, natural gas, diesel, or whatever. The good part is that electric motors are way more efficient at stop and go driving than gasoline, but your generator would be tweaked to run at the most efficient setting all the time, as vehicle speed is not a factor. Essentially the generator provides the power while the electric motors regulate it. This is only, of course,if you need it, 75% of driving can be taken care of without the generator at all.

  20. There is no need to wait on charging batteries. All that is needed is a battery swap. When you roll into a "refuel station", you can just unplug your battery, and trade it for a newly charged one, and then be on your way almost without stopping. Perhaps eventually, without stopping.

  21. Wow — what journalistic rubbish!

    First, the assertion that electric cars simply "divert the environmental impact " is technically correct, however the "impact" is much, much smaller — even for coal-fired power plants. And, it's much easier to clean up the emmissions of a few hundred power plants — with newer techniques, "scrubbers," etc. — than it is to control the emmisions of millions of gasoline-powered vehicles.

    Secondly, hydrogen production is a very energy-intensive pursuit. Depending on the process, it takes anywhere from 50-80% of the energy produced to create it. (i.e. — it may require 7000 watts of energy to produce enough hydrogen to give 10000 watts of energy) Additionally, the infrastructure required would take decades and cost billions to fully implement — most likely, just in time for some other breakthrough to render it obsolete. The cars are also immensely complicated (especially when compared to a pure electric car) and would be carrying a potentially-explosive.

    At its most basic, to charge an electric car requires a wire and electricity — something our country is covered with and that can easily be added almost anywhere very cheaply. Further, because of the economics (and politics) of oil, high-capacity battery technology has remained almost stagnant over the past century compared with the technological advances in other areas of electronics. Now, all we have to do is catch up. Imagine what batteries would be like, today, if we had focused our energies on developing them instead of making the oil companies rich.

    Hydrogen is DOA; gasoline is struggling on its deathbed. Unless some other completely unknown energy source is discovered in the next few decades, electric cars are the best option, period.

  22. The poster of this article understands what he reads, or knows. Which is limited. Electric, Hydrogen, Solar, wind are all part of the solution. It will happen- the tipping point has been reached. I say within 10 years, re-read this and you will be laughing…

  23. Point of use generation is possible with both solar and hydrogen. You don't need to transport hydrogen if you have water and electricity…… imagine solar powered hydrogen refilling stations conveniently located at your local service station…. just add water! All the necessary infrastructure exists today… the efficiencies to surpass fossil fuels are coming soon!

  24. if battery powered cars wern,t the a good way to go would they have quit making them. would have been profected by now

  25. You know it is always funny that electric car critics always mention the fact that they are not green because of dirty electricity generation. But they never seem to mention the pollution caused by the manufacturing and distribution of petrol and diesel. Where do they think petrol and diesel come from?

  26. Your arguments go up in smoke before you even finish formulating them. Go watch "Who Killed the Electric Car" and do some real research. Maybe a site or two about NiMH, the advantages of "vehicle to grid" technology, or the 4 door, 100+ mile range Toyota RAV-4 EVs that are charging (right now!) off folks rooftop solar systems (hows that for infrastructure?).
    Maybe start at pluginamerica.com or EV1.org?
    Just a thought.

  27. Hydrogen can be made on site

  28. are you f**king stupid or just working for a gasoline company? hydrogen is the way of the future yeah, yeah, yeah, Nooooo. i takes more electricity to get the hydrogen then it does to straight power an ELECTRIC car. and you would have to transport the hydrogen by trucks even less eficiency….. unlike wires… you also say that where we get our electricity is dirty, and it is THATS PART of the PROBLEM. we need to consume less and be more intelligent and effiecient. public tranportation for longer trips? you also say that you are driving a hydrogen bomb, thats not a big deal…wait i think hiroshima and nagosaki would have to disagree….. electric car a bomb, not quite. keep up ur research so that maybe you could rewrite this article and change your views.. i hope you got some good money from some oil company to write this. im not insult to u just to ur work.

  29. A couple of months ago, researchers at MIT announced new battery technology based on nano-tech that allows batteries from small ones to those projected for use in electric cars that can charge 30 to 60 times faster than todays batteries. The car batteries can suck up power faster than house circuits can supply it. These batteries can be manufactured on todays manufacturing equipment and should be on the market in 2 to 3 years. Others are working in this field also. This will make many new applications possible. In a few years, advances in solar cells with nano-technology will make solar power cheaper than power from oil and coal. This will be the tipping point for solar tech and it will continue to advance, producing cheap, light, and flexible solar sheets that will be many times as efficient as those today. Expect oil to drop to a few bucks per barrel as cheap solar power becomes the predominant source of power throughout the world. These and other advances from nano-technology will make energy and many other items cheap in twenty years, with oil prices starting to drop in a few years as the world recognizes the end of the fossil fuel era is coming soon.

  30. Dude, How are you going to get your hydrogen? Doesn't exist by itself on earth.

  31. Thanks for sharing your view Michael Kwan. However next time research what your writing about instead of using 'hearsay'. A five year old with access to Google to do a better job.

  32. hydrogen is difficult to store for long time under pressure. The smallest molecule can escape from tightest tanks & lines.
    Batteries have more promising future.

  33. It's irresponsible to say electric cars are not the future – nothing could be further from the truth… Only 2 things need to happen to make this technology viable and completely green. Increase availability of electricity from renewable sources & improvements to battery technology to move from the current maximum 300 mile range (already demonstated) to 400 – 500 mile range (only just around the corner).

    Augment these attainable advances with a reduction in costs (due to manufacturing efficiencies / mass production), quicker charge times, convenient charging outlets (all completely viable within the next few years) and you have yourself a revolution…

    Peoples listen up… Plug-In Electric Car are indeed the future and the more we fast track its development to wide acceptance / adoption by consumers, the better for the environment and our pockets. Get on board!

  34. strangethinginthelan

    well, i appreciate the reasoned argument, but have to disagree with the conclusion based on two points:

    1) you're certainly right that most of the electricity today is produced by coal plants, hence the transfer of pollution from the car to the power plant. however, running the actual numbers on the amount of pollution, the comparison isn't even close. This is largely a result of the relative efficiencies of the power plants (decent), the internal combustion engine, including its transfer to the drivetrain (horrid), and the electric motor and electric drivetrain (excellent).

    2) the difficulty in building am electric car infrastructure (initially supplementary to home charging/commuter use) is much simpler than building the hydrogen fuel cell infrastructure (which right from the get go has to be the primary mode).

    just sharing :-)

  35. ……………wow…. ok, so, you are an oil executive in disguise, a major stock holder in oil or have never used your imagination… what a visionary! …a monopoly that would now control the hydrogen and what's left of oil…..I would like to read this archived article in less than 10 years from the dashboard news reader on the inside of my plug-in electric car that I charged in my off grid solar garage, here in southern california, oh yes,…. and my other plug-in is fully charged right now because the ECV's are so inexpensive I have two in the garage… it's coming and by 2011 the writing is on the wall for the big shift…maybe from Nissan…I look forward to your next article …. "I did zero research and was completely wrong about electric cars" by Michael Kwan

    • Arthur teubner

      Brian, I have a 5.5 kw Pv on my roof and want to buy a plug in electric . What are you using and share yourexperience?

  36. I completely disagree! Hydrogen is dead. It is not that green when you consider the whole process. Better to cleanly burn a petrolium derivative at high temperature with greatly reduced emissions and use the heat to power the car either directly or by conversion to electric. Also, plug-in hybrids meet the need to go when the electric charge is not avaiable such as an unplanned excursion.

  37. Aha! Fuel Cells for sure! My wife and I were the first public drivers for GM's Project Driveway, back in 1/2008. We had the car for 3 months and absolutely loved it. You guys will be amazed, and once the government figures out how to handle the infrastructure, we are set. The thing that is amazing about hydrogen is that it can be made from water and surplus electricity that sits out on the grid at night. Anywhere you have a source of water and electricity, you can LITERALLY make your fuel. And the cars are not mobile hydrogen bombs. Sheesh.

    • ur kinda stupid, without the kinda, do you know how ineficient it is to make hydrogen (you could use the electricity it take to make hydrogen in an electric car and go a lot further,) second do you know how much it costs to fill up a hydrogen car? (if they charged u they didn't charge you much) and u are driving a hydrogen bomb, i mean compressed tank, same thing, its just protected in case of accidents. so go out there and join the electric car revolution……!!!!!!

  38. The solar revolution will create millions of jobs and solve the power problem… Check out (project better place). For a solution to the battery problems. Chevy volt? Solar installed at prices comparable to coal.

  39. I suppose one might find a more ignorant view of electrically powered vehicles, but I seriously doubt that.
    Batteries now exist andmore will soon exist that not only allow very fast (less than 10 minutes) recharging of batteries,
    but a battery driving range of over 300 miles. Hydrogen is dead and buried – not one single automaker (even the diehard Honda folks) is pursuing fuel cell technology. Even if fuel cells were affordable or practical, the means of distributing hydrogen
    efficiently does not (and cannot) exist nor does a practical the means of producing it, other than using natural gas.

  40. Leave the hydrogen on the sun. Electric cars are the future, and battery technology is a better bet than hydrogen fuel cells. http://www.iwanttobuyanelectriccar.com/default.as

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