As the data comes in and begins to accumulate in a meaningful way, some would argue that the outlook for on-road electric powered automobiles appears to grow dimmer—much like the dimmer switch you turn down for “atmosphere”. The bleaker outlook is not the result of a lack of trying or companies prepared to move with or into the market.
The principal drawbacks to the market come from two sources: First, and perhaps most important, is the lack of consumer interest (from the perspective of missed sales targets), despite very healthy government subsidies directly reducing the cost to the consumer through tax credits and grants and low-cost loans to battery and infrastructure development. The second drawback, more a concern to policy makers than to consumers, is the fact that electric vehicles draw upon the country’s electric grid system, almost 50% of which is powered by coal. Thus, the potential for dirtying the atmosphere on a net basis is dramatically increased by comparison to a simple measuring of reductions in vehicle exhaust pollutants.
A third issue is the lack of a supportive infrastructure for refueling. Distance anxiety remains a major concern among consumers, as well as is the inconvenience of long refueling times.
Redefining the Infrastructure Paradigm: The Obvious Overlooked
Examining the infrastructure and interrelated distance anxiety issues, it is clear that they arise because of “away-from-home” travel and the traditional concept of a transportation conveyance that is versatile enough to handle both long and short distances. If the supporting infrastructure is redefined into two different but complementary infrastructures, one for long distance, the other for short distance, a different market/product paradigm emerges.
In particular, the defining aspect of this paradigm is that long distances are navigated by the conventional on-road vehicle, while the short distances are handled by an electric low speed vehicle (LSV). Both conveyances are currently produced, and the supporting refueling infrastructures are already in place. The additional expense and use of resources, which accompany the current strategy of electrification of the transportation support system, not to speak of the added cost of electric on-road vehicles, evaporates.
But Can Implementing the Obvious Address the National Issues?
In a nutshell, the national issues are: 1) Energy independence; 2) Manmade climate change and its subset of pollution control; and 3) Achieving economic growth through sustainable energy development. Of course, all three are interrelated. And the nation’s transportation system is at the center of all three. A quick look at the U.S. Energy Information Agency’s 2011 global energy data, the main factor in the very moderate boost in transportation energy use in the United States over the next two decades is the increase in vehicle miles traveled per licensed driver (as opposed to the increase in numbers of individuals driving, thus more vehicles, which is the case in lesser developed nations).
Vehicle mileage can pile up as the result of longer trips or frequency of trips. Frequent trips are invariably local and that is the basis of the well-known statistic that the vast majority of daily mileage is at the 40 mile level or less. Of course, this is well within the range of most LSVs, with the possible exception of driving in mountainous areas.
Clearly, more LSVs on the road would mean fewer miles racked up by conventional automobiles, and, thus, reducing liquid fuel consumption and contributing to a better place with regard to the three policy goals. As noted above, the costs of converting to a pure electric or plug-in hybrid electric transportation system are avoided.
Can It Be Feasibly Implemented?
Wait a minute you may say, “How could you possibly expect such a long distance-short distance complementary system to be implemented?” It would take a while certainly, but so would the alternative of pure electric and plug-in electric hybrids, along with the supporting infrastructure—and it is worthwhile noting that this latter electrification strategy plays virtually no role in the EIA’s forecasts to 2035. To be brief, the LD-SD system gets implemented via incentives to:
- Taxpayers—credits on income and sales taxes;
- Municipalities—grants, interest-free bond issues and underwriting;
- Housing developers—a variety of incentives to promote LSV ownership.
Other Advantages of the LD-SD System
Some of the other advantages of the LD-SD system, which may be key to its success (i.e., widely adopted), should not be overlooked:
- Lead acid battery technology is a proven technology;
- Lead acid batteries are almost totally recyclable, meaning their production is essentially fully sustainable;
- Embedded energy used to produce lead acid batteries is less than other battery technologies;
- Energy requirements in terms of Kwhs are far less than those of the on-road vehicle, making a lithium ion battery pack much cheaper than that of the on-road vehicle, assuming that that might be an alternative to lead acid batteries;
- LSVs are generally cheaper than by half compared to the average on-road vehicle, meaning, among other things that incentives needed to promote sales, such as tax credits, would be significantly less;
- On a per vehicle basis, the advantages of less embedded energy and lower power requirements translate into less strain on the electricity grid.
In Summary, a New Transportation Paradigm
The LD-SD scenario portends a new personal transportation paradigm, which relies on “clustered” local travel (shopping, commuting, recreation) on the one hand, and less frequent “cluster-to-cluster” travel over longer distances. Clusters here refer to points of concentrated settlement; i.e., towns, villages, suburbs, metropolitan centers, and city centers.
This scenario needs no expensive additional infrastructure support, needs little vehicle reengineering, relies on proven technology, and is easily incentivized. In fact, the biggest barrier to its adoption is a psychological bias traced to the LSV’s generic origin, that of the lowly golf cart (with a “t”).