Will electric cars work? Well, we know they work, but will we soon have the ubiquitous fast charging stations -- at home, at the job, in the shopping centers -- necessary for them to be successful? Slate’s “Big Money” car blogger Matt DeBord and I disagree on how things will roll out in the next few years. Where I see smooth charging, DeBord sees some likely short circuits. His version of this piece is here. Let’s plug into the ongoing debate:


Jim Motavalli: When it comes to battery cars, Americans are beset by a phenomenon called “range anxiety.” It’s the fear -- perhaps irrational, say studies, since most people travel 40 miles or less in their daily commutes -- that they’ll get stranded by a vehicle that can do no more than 100 miles between charges. With present technology, battery packs would have to be very big indeed to propel the average sedan 300 miles -- about what people expect from their gas cars today. Will we get learn to live with range anxiety? I think so -- after all, some people thought the noisy, smelly horseless carriage would never replace the horse. The big question is, will battery packs continue to improve in a version of Moore’s Law? Or will they always be heavy, expensive and bulky?

Matt DeBord: I’m optimistic that battery technology will improve very significantly, increasing range for electric vehicles, driving down the size and weight of the battery packs, and so on. I don’t think it’s going to follow Moore’s Law, because there are currently some impediments to battery development that involve the chemistry of making the things. So it's going to take a while to have EVs that can challenge the range of conventional gas-powered cars. Meanwhile, General Motors has come up with the best solution to range anxiety I can think of, by designing the Chevy Volt, GM’s forthcoming “extended range electric vehicle,” with a battery that can fall back on a gas engine to provide more power when the 40-mile electric charge is exhausted (producing a claimed 230 mpg). But people can also charge it at home, overnight, which means that if you never switch over to the gas engine, you can run it in all-electric mode all the time. If GM succeeds with the Volt -- and it needs to -- it will go a long way to easing the public's range anxiety. Of course, more EVs (and hybrids, and plug-in hybrids) means more batteries. Some worrywarts think we're going to end up with a dependence on Asian batteries, much as they think we're now dependent on Middle East oil. They argue that we need a strong homegrown battery industry. I’m not so sure…


Motavalli: Yes, GM needs the Volt to be a hit, but that doesn’t mean it will be. I’m not positive the Volt will be a mass-market phenomenon -- though its role as a green image enhancer for the company is assured. At $40,000 it’s not likely to be the savior of GM: For that, the company needs credible, affordable battery electrics and conventional small cars (like the forthcoming Cruze, aimed at a global market). Charles Gassenheimer, CEO of Ener1, which makes lithium-ion batteries for Fisker and Think (and just bought 30 percent of that company), told me something interesting this week: When the Think City battery car comes to the U.S., it will have a bigger electric motor for highway cruising but not a bigger battery pack. Why? Because he wants to keep the car affordable, and is counting on a nationwide smart-charging network being in place to kill range anxiety. By 2012, Americans in many cities should be able to plug in to fast charging units at home, at work and in big-box stores that will jump at the business advantage to supply it to customers, even free. Who’d worry about 100-mile range if charging was everywhere, fast and convenient?

 DeBord: There’s an element of leapfrogging here. We have the national infrastructure to deliver gas and diesel, but not to provide ubiquitous fast-charging. So some EV supporters are saying, “Make the juice widely available, and make it so that folks can charge up in the time it takes to order a nonfat latte (say, 15 minutes), and the kinds of batteries and vehicles that fit into that will follow.” Of course, right now we have no fast-charging infrastructure to speak of, but we have EVs coming to market in the next few years. This could mean that the early EV experience is one of short commutes and charging at home, overnight, off the household grid. Frankly, I think the idea that we’ll have a very evolved fast-charging infrastructure in the near future is a bit of a Hail Mary pass. I’m also not sure about the logistics, the management, etc. I can see EVs that are supposed to get 100 miles to a charge getting less than that, for a variety of reasons, which would mean a lot of trips to Wal-Mart to replenish the electrons. As for the Volt, I strongly suspect GM will price it closer to $30,000 than $40,000. And even if it is around $40,000, there will be a Prius effect, with people who can afford a more expensive gas-only-powered car going for the Volt. And given that GM may still be majority-owned by the Treasury when the Volt arrives, I can see some creative incentives being offered, and I can see some favorable financing on loans in the picture, as well.

Motavalli: The fast-charging network is crucial, and there’s no major technical obstacle to it. I’m not even sure it needs major federal subsidies. The reason companies like Better Place, ECOtality, the Renault-Nissan Alliance, Aerovironment and Coulomb have rushed into this space is that it could be very profitable. There’s no shortage of cities, states and whole countries willing to sign with these firms, because nobody wants to be left behind when cars plug in. And would Home Depot want to be left behind if Lowe’s was attracting customers with free, parking lot fast-charging? Parking lot ports will not only bring in new shoppers, but they’ll stay longer while waiting for their batteries to top up. Sure, it’s a Hail Mary pass, but some of those get caught. We need to dream big here. I hope they do price the Volt at $30,000, but unfortunately losing money on every car sold won’t do GM’s bottom line any good.

DeBord: GM may lose money on the Volt, but if it can capture hearts, minds, and market share with the plug-in, extended-range EV segment, it could have the killer platform for this next phase in our transition toward an eventual all-electric future. Also, if there are a lot of Volts -- and other vehicles using Volt technology -- out there, we could see the pace of battery development intensify, to move toward 100, 200 miles per charge, but still with the gas fallback. Given that scenario, a large-scale fast-charging commitment could be too far ahead of the curve. It’ll end up serving a niche-oriented, urban market that would be content with 100-mile (if that) range. Regardless, batteries are going to be important, whether they’re hooked up to gas-engines or providing all the power themselves. Right now, the market for vehicle batteries, of the lithium-ion type, is still pretty small, less than $5 billion. Are we worried that when it does explode, Asia will be positioned to dominate it? Or will batteries just become like many other manufactured things, their cost driven down so much that it won't make sense to make them in the U.S? Our debate so far has led me to think that we’d be better off developing the system that charges the battery, and then allow that to dictate what kind of batteries we need. It’s true that we need to think big, but maybe we need to think big in a bunch of different directions. For example, I’ve been talking with some advanced mobility experts who aren’t sure we should even have a future that includes cars, electric or otherwise.

Motavalli: Oddly, I was talking to one of those experts, too, John DeCicco of the University of Michigan, and he thinks people won’t want to waste their time driving in the near future. Experiments are underway in both Korea and Israel powering EVs from electric inverters in the roadway, and carmakers (including GM with its recent Project PUMA) have long talked about hands-free driving. But I think we’ll have ubiquitous fast-charging for electric vehicles long before that. Give peak oil and climate concerns, we need a Manhattan Project to make sure battery cars hit the road running. The charging stations have to be there when the cars go into the showrooms, or it won’t work. I like plug-in hybrids, and the Volt, but I see them as transitional to full battery power.

DeBord: Well, we have a lot happening right now in terms of potential ways to “go electric.” Battery swapping schemes, like what Better Place proposes. Fast-charging of medium-range EVs. Plug-in gas-electric hybrids. The Volt. The big, expensive batteries of the Tesla Roadster and Model S Sedan. One or two of these is probably going to achieve traction, so to speak, and define the EV market for decades. I don’t think we’ll be moving to numerous all-electric EVs that are dependent on fast-charging for at least another 10 years, because the existing fuel infrastructure makes some kind of gas-burning aspect so much easier. Prius begets Volt, which then begets an EV that truly overcomes range anxiety. I do worry that ubiquitous fast-charging could be a bust with consumers (Do I really want to wait 15 minutes to juice up when gassing up takes only five?), leading to a bunch of idle charging capacity; and that it could stall battery development if manufacturers start optimizing for 100-mile range. Once again, our main difference isn’t that we disagree about the advent of the EV -- it’s that you hope we move massively toward an infrastructure that supports rapid widespread electrification, while I want to use the existing oil infrastructure to get there more incrementally. The $64,000 question is what kind of pace climate change will dictate. So again, Jim, thanks for another lively debate.

Read previous installments of MNN vs. Slate:

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Jim Motavalli ( @jmotavalli ) writes about cars, technology and the environmental world to anyone curious enough to ask.

MNN vs. Slate, round 3: The battery debate
Carmakers say they're ready to roll out EVs, but we're going to need plug-ready charging stations, too. Some say Chevy Volt-type "range extenders" will work bet