[Opinion]The Thousand Dollar Challenge This is about taking a step back from what we think we know to find real answers. Tesla Roadster - Current king of the EVs [xfloat=right]http://www.cleanmpg.com/photos/data/501/2008_Tesla.jpg[/xfloat]Tim Smith - CleanMPG.com - February 27th, 2009 I know things are tough here in the US. It started with a cascading cycle of foreclosures and property values declining, first ruining the homeowners and then the banks. Ruined banks quit lending, which ruined even more banks, which also quit lending and dragged other businesses into the fiasco as well. People who had been doing just fine up to that point started losing their jobs, making them unable to perform the essential task of buying things and paying their mortgages. And now it's a full-blown disaster. The Detroit automakers were already in trouble before any of this happened. I remember preparing to graduate with my engineering degree in 2004 after having dedicated my studies to such technologies as advanced internal combustion engines and the application thereof. It seemed like a great career path when I started it circa 2000, but I later realized that there were no jobs to be had in the US auto industry because consumers had already cooled to the idea of buying American in the face of competitive and reliable Japanese alternatives. That was more than four years before the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the point at which we could no longer shrug and say "it's not that bad." GM EV1 - Beloved to its drivers [xfloat=left]http://www.cleanmpg.com/photos/data/506/EV1_on_the_road_2.jpg[/xfloat]The combination blow of an ailing industry plus the economic climate makes it very tough to justify investing in the kind of fuel-saving technology that the likes of your average CleanMPG member want to see. Even if Detroit weren't staring down the barrel of bankruptcy, the price of oil is so low that your average consumer (of the handful still consuming) doesn't want to spend an extra $2k on a hybrid drive or a diesel engine. The cry "hybrid premium!" and run straight for the V6 upgrades. (Remember when "premium" just meant "really good"?) But that just won't do. We know that the markets will start turning again somewhere in the world. Somebody...it doesn't matter who...will get that tingly feeling of upward mobility. With that will come a new wave of consumption. They will buy new cars, they will drive them new places, and one way or another oil will get very expensive again. And we just can't afford to explain away our lack of preparedness by acting surprised...again. I think the real surprise is the answer to our problem. Something we have rejected...sometimes despised...for decades. Something usually described as "impractical" or "just not ready". Something that requires us to eschew our tradition of big noises to achieve big speeds. And something that, from where I am sitting, could be so much better in just about every way. Think City EV - 126 mile range on its home turf [xfloat=right]http://www.cleanmpg.com/photos/data/501/Th_nk_City.gif[/xfloat]In many ways, electricity is the ideal transportation "fuel" to solve our problems. Its value lies in the reason I put the word in quotes: it isn't a fuel at all, so much as a universal energy carrier. Literally any energy source can be converted to electricity and moved around at will: coal, gas, oil, nuclear, wind, solar, geothermal, well-fed hamsters...anything. It makes our energy system infinitely flexible. What's more, it is so simple to use on the other end. An electric motor has one rotating assembly and some control circuitry. That's it. Naturally, there's the problem of what goes in the middle. There aren't many extension cords that will make it all the way from your home to your job, so that's out. Slot cars are great but that would make road-building awfully expensive. (Although it would solve the problem of people changing lanes without signaling.) Clearly, there has got to be a way to carry the energy around with you just like we can with a gas tank. It has to be robust, cost effective, and safe. And that's the challenge. Batteries are getting better every day, ultracapacitors are technically possible, and there are other options on the table as well. But cost is a big problem. I imagine that this energy storage medium...whatever it turns out to be...has got to cost under $1000 for every 100 miles it can take your average family sedan. And you ought to be able to get at least three modules of that size into a mid-size car. (The math gurus have figured out that this is a 300 mile range, which is more than enough for commuting and ought to take care of most weekend driving comfortably.) Ideally that price should come down by about half to gain mass acceptance. Chrysler EV Minivan Concept - EVs could work for a family, too [xfloat=left]http://www.cleanmpg.com/photos/data/501/Chrysler_Minivan_EV.jpg[/xfloat]But imagine the consequences if we can pull it off. Consumers get vehicles with bullet-proof reliability owing to the simplicity of electric drive relative to a gas engine and a transmission. They also get easy maintenance (no oil changes!) and the neck-snapping performance associated with a motor that builds all its torque from a dead stop. No more trips to the filling station, either, aside from possibility of quick-charge stations down the road. What does society get? How about energy independence without the need to completely re-think our infrastructure? Can you imagine how complicated and expensive it would be to replace our cars entirely with public transportation? And can you imagine how much people will complain even if it works perfectly? This country is huge and sprawling, and we like the freedom to roam about on our own schedule. If you think that can be overcome, first try collecting all the hats from Texas, the lattes from Seattle, and and then ask the NFL, NBA, and both baseball leages to shut down voluntarily "to give people more time for other things". Let me know how it goes. More importantly, we get our pride back. I'm sick and tired of watching Detroit die. I'm tired of the fact that the Japanese are so far ahead (I'm sorry but they are) when it comes to energy-efficient cars that you can actually buy. And it's high time we come up with something we can export that doesn't go **BLAM** when it gets to the end-user. It makes sense. Now let's quit whining that it's too hard and start innovating.