The present and future of alternative automotive choices
Nothing was settled in the early days of the car: Three wheels or four? How would you steer—a ship’s tiller? Which side would you drive on? Would you sit side by side, or facing each other, like a carriage? All of those answers then are not the ones we in our four-wheeled, left-hand drive, forward-facing, be-steeringwheeled cars have today. And if you think that was a mess, what with all the people driving backwards on the wrong side of the road, it’s nothing compared to what we went through trying to find the right fuel.
By 1895, there was enough of a motoring scene that the first American car magazine was launched, The Horseless Age (France, a hotbed of automotive innovation, had one in ‘84). Page one was a full-page ad from Daimler (which was soon joined by Karl Benz and a car named after his daughter Mercedes), which had a large factory in Queens on Long Island. They advertised natural gas, gasoline and kerosene-powered cars, which wasn’t even scratching the surface of late-19th Century roadgoing propulsion.
The following pages of the magazine described engines, which may or may not have worked or even existed, running on springs, compressed air, kerosene, oil, natural gas, gasoline, electricity, acetylene, steam, ether, springs and steam, air-gas, hot air via stirling cycle, hot air expansion and carbonic acid (which I guess was compressed carbon dioxide). Engines were singles, twins, rotaries, horizontal and they didn’t even always power the tires, because there were a few oddballs who thought a giant whirling propeller of death was the answer. Within another 10 or 15 years, there were even what we know as hybrids today, gasoline engines that ran generator and battery systems.
Steam power had an early lead, but the real competition was between electric and gas, especially in urban environments. Eventually, the inherent advantages of gasoline itself won out (Airbag, September 2014): you need 33.7 kWh of battery to equal one gallon of gas. Tesla’s new $7,340 (installed, not including solar panels) Powerwall residential battery is rated at 6.4 kWh and weighs 214 pounds. That’s about the same hourly output as you’ll get from half-a-gallon of gas in a $750 portable generator. If gas costs $1.90 downtown, the difference pays for 3,468 gallons, which will take a moderately efficient car 100,000 miles.
So electric power for cars was not a mature field before World War I; nor was it after World War II, as inventors with surplus technology tried to upend what they saw as a sort of cabal by the major automakers. Geniuses and crackpots alike, they never really got anywhere. Major manufacturers like Mercedes-Benz also kept alternative power programs ticking over.
The second major flowering of hybrids came with the 1973 oil embargo. Insurance rates and the Clean Air Act had already started to kill the big engine cars of the Sixties over the previous two or three years, so it was a logical progression into electrics. The cars themselves, however, were generally anything but, like the horribly doorstop-shaped 1,300-pound, 25mph CitiCar and its 40mph successor, the Commuta-Car; the AMC Hornet-based Electroport; a car from Sears, Roebuck; one from Braun (the electric shaver people); and many others. Largely intolerable monstrosities, assorted fruitcakes bought thousands of them through the Seventies.
But in 1989, General Motors brought EVs into the 21st Century, with their prototype EV-1. Introduced to the public in 1990 as the Impact, what was eventually known as the EV-1 didn’t actually become available until 1996, and then solely as a three-year lease with no option to buy, and only in certain states. But the thing was, it was a good, useable car, and they sold 1,117 of them. In 2003 they took all but a handful back and crushed them (about which there’s an entire movie, Who Killed the Electric Car). As the first practical modern hybrid, however, it was a success, and the gas-electric Honda Insight was offered in America in late 1999, followed by the Toyota Prius seven months later.
In August of 2008, the national average price for a gallon of gas hit $4.10 and the hybrid car industry as we know it was born. Thanks to the years it takes to develop new technologies and our disdain for fuel economy prior to that, Toyota largely had the market to themselves, as Honda had discontinued the Insight in 2006 (it was back in 2010, victim of that long product development cycle again). By that time, there were 18 other gas-electric hybrids on the market, including the Prius and the all-electric Tesla Roadster.
The 2016 model year has about 65 assorted electrics and hybrids from 21 makes, and there are a dozen already announced for 2017. Every segment of the market is covered, from the $20,000 you-rather-walk all-electric Mitsubishi i-MiEV; to Porsche’s big $95,000 Porsche Panamera S E-Hybrid and $850,000 918 Spyder supercar, and Ferrari’s $1 million, 945hp LaFerrari. Most manufacturers offer an affordable everyday hybrid under $30,000 like Chevy’s Malibu or Toyota Camry, and while there’s a lot of competition in that segment, there isn’t much room for growth.
Where growth will come in the next few years is upmarket from that, in the aspirational luxury and near-luxury area, which as a segment as a whole is just beginning to catch on in America. Maybe the first hybrid among those is the Audi A3 Sportback e-tron, a premium five-door hatchback almost identical in size to the VW Golf—unsurprising, as it’s on the same MQB Modular Transverse Matrix platform.
Where they differ is the $40,000-plus A3 e-tron is competing with the 2016 Mercedes-Benz C350e and upcoming 2017 BMW 330e iPerformance, as well as things like the Lincoln MKZ, Infiniti Q50 and Acura RLX. Audi’s price point is really nice, coming in well-equipped around the Mercedes’ base MSRP, and way under the $51,000 Mercedes. Many more cars between $50,000 and $100,000 are already using small, highly turbocharged engines, like Cadillac’s CT6 (available as a plug-in hybrid next year), BMW’s 5-series, the Jaguar XF, Lexus GF and on up into Maserati territory, so it’s a natural place to use (still very expensive) batteries and electric motors.
Is electricity really going to be the future this time? There are some other alternative fuel ideas moseying along out there—a number of manufacturers are playing around with hydrogen fuel cells, where the hydrogen isn’t burned, but used to generate electricity directly by combining it with atmospheric oxygen through a proton exchange membrane. It’s exactly as complicated and difficult as it sounds, and how’s your neighborhood’s retail hydrogen distribution infrastructure? Good?
Batteries have problems looming in their future, too. We may run out of oil someday, but there are billions of tons more of it in the ground than the assorted rare earth elements we use in fancy batteries; and almost all of those come from China. Electricity is generated in plants that primarily burn coal, oil and natural gas—only 7 percent comes from renewable energy. There’s about 50 pounds of copper in a regular gas automobile; hybrids and electrics have additional motors. A 4,600-pound Tesla Model S is about 10 percent copper by weight.
Copper is largely mined in the southern hemisphere and is one of the environmentally ugliest industries in the world. China, again, is the world’s biggest producer of the lightweight aluminum in modern cars’ bodies and frames. Oh, and solar panels and wind turbines and everything else is full of exactly the same elements.
If that sounds like “no easy answers,” that doesn’t even begin to describe the problem. Over 74 million cars will be sold this year, and it’ll probably hit 100 million by 2020 which, if you haven’t been paying attention, is about 41 months away. That’s five billion tons of copper a year at a bare minimum, just for cars. The need for an alternative is dire and nothing will do away with the 1.5 billion cars already on the road, nor their trillions of gallons of annual gas consumption.
The bright spot is that we humans have yet to meet a problem we couldn’t overcome. This big ball of crap that includes climate change and all the human factors powering it could be the one we don’t; or it could be that the solution involves having more or less no cars at all. But the smart money is on the smart monkeys figuring it out.
We have an unbroken track record of getting the things we want, and right on the top of our wish list for the next 100 years is a planet we can live on and cars to drive on it. The rising middle classes in China and Southeast Asia, in Africa and in South America want the same thing and are not going to be interested in wealthy Americans and Europeans telling them they can’t have it.
That just makes it something for all of us to work out, not just some of us. “What to drive” has the potential to be the issue that forces us to make progress as a species, to get over this hump and into whatever the next epoch of humankind is.
I suggest the Audi.