Previous posts about CyberTran described next-generation mass transit systems.

But nobody expects automobiles to disappear from U.S. roads in the near future. We need to get efficiency way up, fast.

The automobile equivalent of CyberTran is the ultra-light electric car. Electric cars don’t have to be dull; Tesla Motors sells the Tesla roadster, a ~$100,000 electric sports car that can outrun a comparable Ferrari costing almost twice the price.

Solectria SunriseBut they also don’t have to be toys for the filthy rich. Solectria demonstrated the midsize four-passenger Sunrise in 1997. It traveled 216 miles from Boston to New York at normal highway speed, using only 85% of the power in a battery containing energy equivalent to less than a gallon of gas (PDF). Solectria claimed at the time it could profitably retail the car for as little as $20,000. So why did it never come to market?

The problem with a mass market car is you have to make in mass quantities. Generally, if you cannot use the full capacity of a major factory by selling at least 40,000+ units per year, a car is considered a niche product. Below that, you cannot get the full economies of automobile mass production.

Unfortunately, 1997-98 was around the time when the auto industry was going out of its way to make the case that the electric market was somewhere between insufficient and non-existent. While I think Who Killed the Electric Car? asserts more than it can prove, it makes the case beyond a reasonable doubt that the auto industry worked to destroy rather than build the electric car market. Its only escape from California’s new clean-car mandates was lack of market. Solectria was a small company in any case. It probably could not have raised the capital for a factory capable of producing 40,000 cars per year. If it believed what the big players were saying (that there was no market), it had no reason to even try.

Could a car in that price range with that level of performance have sold 40,000 units a year? You are kidding, right? The Sunrise even had batteries that could have lasted around 100,000 miles, though by the end of that time their range would have been more like 125 miles. (The Ovonics NiMH batteries would have lost about half their capacity after 500 cycles — which in a car with a 200+ mile range would have been around 100,000 miles.) At 100,000 miles a car is generally considered a beater anyway; a 125-mile range is not bad for a beater car.

An important point to understand is that it did not get this range just from the use of electricity. It also used a composite carbon-fiber/fiberglass lightweight body, shaped aerodynamically to give it low wind resistance. (Although I can’t find documentation, it seems likely that it also used tires with low rolling resistance — making it a true Hypercar, just one that ran on batteries rather than a hybrid.)

Electric cars use about 1/10 the moving parts conventional automobiles do. You don’t need engines, gas tanks, or transmissions (just change the amount of electric power you feed the motor). A great many designs are out there — some already prototypes, some easy to prototype. If the government decided to set up a public works program to design an electric AmeriCar, a tested prototype meeting all regulatory requirements is possible within a few years. (Remember, the designs are already out there. You are not starting from scratch.) Because electric cars are simpler to build than conventional ones, a factory should be able to be put in place fairly quickly. In short, we could probably be turning out mass market electric cars within five years, if we had the will.

LiOn batteries are still a bit pricey for mass market cars. (I’ve heard the Tesla battery pack costs around $35,000.) But modern NiMH would batteries cost about $9,000, which with a decent built-in battery management system should last 100,000 miles. Given that carbon fiber bodies these days are less expensive than steel ones, that means they really could be retailed in the $20,000-to-$30,000 price range, without subsidy.

But you wouldn’t want to leave their adoption to the market. Once they were available for sale, you could subsidize ultra-efficient new cars, generating the subsidies by charging fees on less efficient new cars. Leaving aside those for whom a 200-mile range is inadequate, you could probably convert a 13th of the IC and diesel passenger fleet into pure electric cars each year. (Not to mention that LiOn and other batteries much more advanced than NiMH are likely to mature soon.)

At the same time, you would want to begin decarbonizing the grid. The simplest way at this point would be to massively increase installation of wind — up to the ~20% it could easily support, ideally replacing most coal. You could also replace most single-cycle gas turbines with combined-cycle turbines. There are electricity conservation measures (which I’ll get into in a future post) that could ensure U.S. electricity consumption would be lower, even with electricity powering transportation, than at present.

What about people for whom the 200-mile range wouldn’t work — people who drive long distances either for a living or for fun? Well, as Amory Lovins has been pointing out for decades, using a gasoline engine to drive an electric motor, putting it in an ultra-light aerodynamic body, on tires with low rolling resistance, should give you gas mileage within the 75-90 MPG range. The addition of the gasoline engine and tank reduces thermodynamic efficiency compared to an all electric HyperCar, but it is still better than a conventional one.

Is there anything we could do before true electric cars come along? There is. Hybrid cars are growing in sales, and already run off batteries to some extent. Increase that battery capacity, and add a plug so that you can charge them from the grid; upgrade the software to account for these changes. The result is PHEV (Plugin Hybrid Electric Vehicle).

You can get much of the thermodynamic efficiency improvement you could get with a 100% electric car, and still have the range of a gasoline engine. You don’t have the improvement you would get with a true Hypercar or electric car — you don’t have the ultra-light weight or other improvements like good aerodynamics and low rolling resistance, and you have the mass and complexity of both a larger battery and a fuel tank. But carbon (and other) emissions are half of those generated by a conventional car, and they are a minor modification of automobiles on the market now. We could build them now in our current factories. In fact, conventional hybrids have been customized into PHEVs. Obviously, gasoline powered Hypercars could also have a plug and incorporate software to let them be PHEVs as well.