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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Is the Gas-Powered Automobile Obsolete? Consider This...

[Published July 24, 2014, in the Jeffco editions of the Denver Post's YourHub section]

For over 100 years, automobiles have been powered by internal combustion engines (ICE’s), and it has gone pretty well.  Systems have been perfected over the decades to make the ICE function better and better.  First was the clutch with manual transmission, then synchromesh transmissions for easier shifting, then automatic transmissions.  For noise control: mufflers.  For pollution control: PCV’s and catalytic converters. Automatic chokes and carburetors were replaced over time with electronic ignition.  Generators gave way to alternators.  Timing chains gave way in some engines to timing belts.  Original spark plugs have been replaced with platinum spark plugs good for 100,000 miles. 

ICE’s create lots of waste heat, so cooling the engine is important. The dissipation of that heat becomes a problem in stop-and-go traffic or in very hot weather.  (Park that hot ICE in your garage and you have another heat dissipation problem, especially if the garage is insulated.)

All these systems depend on an on-board computer — an expensive component in and of itself.  There are probably additional systems I haven’t mentioned.  After all, I’m a driver, not a mechanic.

What these systems all have in common is that they are designed to make a constantly turning engine work effectively with wheels that have to stop and go at different speeds.  Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy system in its Prius and Lexus hybrids just adds another layer of complication to the operation of the ICE.

If you’ve looked under a new car’s hood lately, you know how complex the support system for ICE’s has become.  These enhancements have been, for the most part, highly successful.  I am impressed at the quiet, smooth performance of my wife’s Lexus with its V-8 engine and 8-speed automatic transmission.

But let’s consider for a moment that the internal combustion engine with transmission is actually obsolete and that continuing to invest in gas-powered propulsion is no longer the way to go.

Once you have driven an electric car for 40,000 miles, as I have, it becomes clear that there is a better system — one that makes all that complexity unnecessary.

Thanks to today’s lithium ion batteries and the amazing torque of electric motors, it is clear to me that this simple combination of battery plus motor can be an effective substitute for the ICE with all its necessary components.

The electric drive train requires no transmission, no exhaust system, no pollution control, no starter, no alternator, no engine cooling, or many other systems.  There is no fan belt to drive the power steering, air conditioning or power brakes, which are powered by electric motors of their own.  With a range of 265 miles on a full charge, there is no need to plug in my Tesla except at home. 

Electric motors are 90% efficient vs. the 25% efficiency of ICE’s. If you pay for electricity — I get it from the sun — your cost is 3 cents/mile vs. 20 cents/mile for gasoline.  [Not included in this calculation are the maintenance costs of the ICE power train, such as oil changes, tune-ups and repairs of everything from fan belt to transmission. I figure those to be 10 or more cents/mile.]

What stands out for those who accept a test drive in a Tesla is its amazing acceleration and handling.  With its low center of gravity, it holds the road exceptionally well.  That low center of gravity is the result of putting the battery underneath the length of the car, taking up no space that you’d use for anything else.  And the motor is located between the rear wheels, where you’d find the differential in a conventional rear-wheel drive car.  The result is that you have a spacious trunk under the front hood as well as a spacious rear compartment.

I’ll be driving my Tesla to New York this fall, charging it for free during meal stops at the Tesla supercharging stations located every 50 miles along the interstates. The only cost for such a trip is the wear on my tires.  [Expect a future blog post about that trip!] 

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