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The battery in the Tesla Roadster means the car weighed about 700 pounds more than the gas-powered Lotus Elise it's based on. (Moe Doiron/Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail)
The battery in the Tesla Roadster means the car weighed about 700 pounds more than the gas-powered Lotus Elise it's based on. (Moe Doiron/Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail)

Road Rush

What's still killing the electric car Add to ...

First impressions are lasting impressions. And my first week with an electric car ended with a tow truck ride. The battery was dying, and the charger was faulty – as the power gauge sank toward zero, there was nothing I could do but wait for the end.

As I learned, driving a pure electric car gives new meaning to the term “running on empty.” Every gas station on earth has vanished – you are on your own, travelling through a future that has not yet arrived.

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Like many of you, I’ve watched the documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? And I’ve heard my share of conspiracy theories, most of them starring Dick Cheney and the oil sheiks, with occasional appearances by spark plug and muffler manufacturers who profit from internal combustion.

Electric car discussions often remind me of a late-night philosophy debate in the sophomore dorm: long on abstraction and passion, short on real-world experience. It’s not Dick Cheney and the sheiks that are killing the electric car. What’s killing the electric car is that troublesome thing we call reality.

Until I spent time in an electric car, I never gave the concept of energy density much thought. Then I found myself in a battery-powered Mini E prototype out on the Gardiner Expressway, hoping I’d make it home before I ran out of power that I couldn’t replace. I felt like a fighter pilot coming back from a long mission with fumes in my tank and no airfield in sight.

I realized that I was dealing with a highly limited power paradigm. The Mini’s battery weighed 572 pounds, and took up the entire back seat. But it couldn’t take me nearly as far as the 85 pounds of gasoline that an internal-combustion Mini carries. Driving to Montreal was out of the question. And filling up the battery would take hours, instead of the minutes it takes to transfer gas into a tank.

The problem isn’t confined to the Mini. Batteries just aren’t very good energy carriers. My next electric car test was the ultra-cool Tesla Roadster (Leonardo DiCaprio and David Letterman both own one). The Tesla accelerated like a round leaving the muzzle of an artillery gun. Its engine was smooth and silent. But its battery was a massive, leaden presence that defined the car – the Tesla weighed about 700 pounds more than the gas-powered Lotus Elise it’s based on.

I wanted to take the Tesla up to Blue Mountain to visit a friend and drive the back roads. But I didn’t have enough range. If I wanted to refuel, I’d have find somewhere to plug in and cool my heels for a few hours. Was there a KOA campground nearby? I’d read somewhere that they now cater to EVs, offering drivers a place to stay while their car suckles from high-power outlets originally designed for motorhomes.

My experiences prompted a research mission into the pros and cons of electric power. I talked to engineers, energy gurus and transportation experts. The bottom line: electric motors are amazing – light, efficient and quiet. You can do away with the exhaust system, the spark plugs and the transmission (electric motors are so torquey you don’t need one). Compared to an internal combustion engines, an electric motor is beautifully simple, with a handful of moving parts.

When you get down to it, a gasoline-powered motor is a disaster in the making, filled with parts that spin, jerk and accelerate. It’s an unlikely and violent concatenation with a heart of fire, filled with anger and set in motion by fire. But the electric motor is beautiful, with inherent balance and simple design that creates energy without violence.

Brilliant. But then we come to the battery, and things go downhill. Batteries are heavy. They lose energy in the cold. It takes a long time to pump power into them. Imagine the contest between the battery and the gas tank as a boxing match – the gas tank weighs a tenth as much as the battery, but it punches just as hard, and it has a lot more endurance. Which would you lay odds on?

Ian Clifford, a former neighbour who started an electric car company called Zenn Motors, gave me the lowdown: to make it into the mainstream, the electric car needs a better power source. At the moment, the Holy Grail is the ultra-capacitor, which can pack huge amounts of electrical power into a tiny package, and take a charge many times faster than a battery.

An ultra-capacitor could outdo the gas tank. But it’s not here yet. And so the electric car is defined by its deal-breaker battery. And there, as Shakespeare would say, is the rub.

For the vast majority of drivers, a car must fulfill a variety of missions that range from grocery store hops to summer trips. An electric car can only do some of them. So it’s a second car, or maybe a third. And even then, reality can rear its ugly head.

Last summer, our second car was here at home while my wife and I were in Georgia with the first one. Our son needed that second car to commute up to a friend’s place in Muskoka, then over to Guelph, where he attends university. A gas-powered car could do that. An electric one couldn’t.

I’ve heard a lot of theorists lecturing about electric cars lately. I’ve heard some of them dismiss range anxiety as a canard, arguing that drivers who can’t live with an electric simply can’t manage their automotive affairs well enough. Another rejected hybrids as impure, because they hedge their energy bet (this struck me as automotive Maoism, but everyone’s entitled to their opinion).

I’m a green guy. I ride bicycles. I fly gliders. My wife and I live downtown, walk everywhere we can, and compost religiously (I actually get excited when I plant our spring flowers in dirt made from last year’s vegetable peelings). So I’m ready to love the electric car. But I can’t commit yet.

As a car columnist with a major media company, I’m constantly asked about which cars and technologies I’d buy myself. And for now, I can’t recommend electric, except for a tiny subset of people with profiles that include multiple cars and a garage with a power supply robust enough to feed an electric chair. DiCaprio, Letterman and George Clooney are all perfect candidates (which helps explain why they already have electric vehicles).

Many of the electric vehicles’ most eligible customers are young, green urbanites with short commutes. In theory, the EV would work. Then reality rears its ugly head – a lot of them park their cars on the street, where you can’t plug in. And what if they get invited to a friend’s cottage, or decide to drive down to the Burning Man festival?

The ideologues think we should adapt to the limitations of the electric car. But I think cars have to conform to us, and work, right now, in the world we live in – like the Chevy Volt and the plug-in Prius do.

Both run on pure electric power for short commutes (the Volt will go about 70 kilometres, the Prius 25). But when the battery dies, there’s a gas engine there that can keep you going until you run out of gas stations.

A compromise? Yes. But that’s what the world runs on, at least for now. Reality may bite, but it’s all too real. We’ll talk again when the ultra-capacitor arrives.

For more from Peter Cheney, go to facebook.com/cheneydrive (No login required!)

Twitter: Peter Cheney@cheneydrive

E-mail: pcheney@globeandmail.com

Globe and Mail Road Rush archive: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-drive/car-life/cheney/

Follow on Twitter: @cheneydrive

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