Polymath A (mostly) technical weblog for Archivale.com

November 20, 2012

The little electric car that should

Filed under: Personal — piolenc @ 3:00 pm

What the world needs is a low-cost, low-tech, short-range electric commuter car.

What it is offered is a $40,000 car that costs twice that much to build, has a battery pack that costs thousands of dollars to replace and lasts (maybe) three years and is loaded with expensive, high-tech gear that nobody knows how to fix. All this to satisfy a market that, if it exists at all outside the enviro-guilt-ridden, Global Warming true believer precincts of Hollywood, is a tiny fraction of world automotive demand.

This is the result of what the military calls “mission creep.” The taxpayer – not the seller or the prospective buyer – is paying for development, so why not set the bar a little higher – insist on 150 miles range between charges instead of the 50 that most commuters in the world will need. So what if that makes the car unaffordable to most motorists, even with subsidies – it looks great on a corporate brochure and it provides unimpeachable political “green” credentials for the company.

It doesn’t have to be that way. A century ago, clunky batteries and primitive drive trains controlled by simple switches propelled delivery trucks that served major city centers quietly and smokelessly. Electric cars got people safely from home to work, to the store and back. The greatest success story for electrics is one that is almost unknown in America, and that is the classic British milk float, making its early morning milk deliveries without even waking the family dog.

When the US government first got into the business of trying to revive electric vehicles in the 1970s, it sensibly concentrated on fleet vehicles, specifically local delivery vans. Its battery development effort emphasized updates to existing battery technology – longer-lived and lighter lead-acid, cheaper and more power-dense nickel-iron cells. Progress was made, but then the shortages ceased, petroleum prices dropped and program funding evaporated. The accumulated knowledge is still out there, though.

Now entrepreneurs like Jesse Blenn and his associates, operating on a shoestring, are trying to do something really radical, namely give the world a product that real people might actually want to own. Their product is the CambyoCar – small, light, cheap… and supremely adequate. Typically, while billions of dollars of the taxpayer’s money go into the sinkhole of politically favored “green” industry, Jesse is trying to raise a few tens of thousands of dollars – and having a really hard time of it.

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