electric cars

Llewellyn King: The electric-car revolution is just getting going

The days of the internal combustion engine are numbered. The electric car is about to do to the traditional gasoline and diesel car engine what the cell phone is doing to the copper-wire, landline telephone: shoulder it out of the way.

Andrew Paterson, a principal with the Verdigris Capital Group, told a conference in Washington on June 7, electric car sales will at least quadruple in the coming decade and then really begin to accelerate. This, he said, was part of a larger electric boom that would see the doubling of world electric demand, mostly in Asia, by the middle of the century.

Electric utilities in the United States stand to benefit from the switch from gasoline and diesel to electricity largely because they will be able to meet the new demand without adding new generation, according to the Electric Power Research Institute, based in Palo Alto, Calif. It believes most of the charging of electric vehicles will take place off-peak, at night and when there is less demand. At worst the new load will fall partly during the day, when there is a surplus of solar power.

Analysts say much depends on whether commercial and company parking facilities can be turned into charging stations as well. Maybe when the boom really picks up, even parking meters will become charging stations.

The change in transportation will have huge effects beyond the car infrastructure. Gradually, gas stations will become obsolete. Technicians who service cars with oil changes and tuning will be out of work.

Electric cars are fundamentally simpler than today’s vehicles — they will run for tens of thousands of miles without maintenance, and that will be confined to things like tires, brakes and lights. Cities will get cleaner and quieter.

Once upon a time, it was just environmentalists who loved electric cars. Now consumers are gooey over them. The proud owner of a Tesla Model S told me this week that he would never buy a conventional car again. He said that his Tesla has it all — quiet, undreamed of acceleration and great luxury. And he has what it takes to go electric easily: a suburban home with a carport and a charging station in his office building in Washington.

Apartment dwellers and those without driveways or garages in townhouses will have to wait for technology to fix their charging needs. Manufacturers are striving for easier charging and longer-endurance batteries.

There are, by my count, less than a dozen dedicated charging companies that have sought to commercialize charging by wiring commercial garages and other places where cars sit. None has been very successful to date and there have been bankruptcies.

As always with new ways of doing things, there is hesitance and a hope that someone else will lead the way. I believe that the moment entrepreneurs find a way of making money from cars in commercial parking lots and other away-from-home sites, there will be a boom in offering charging and the switch to electric will be accelerated. Charging will become big business.

But questions do abound for long-distance driving. Soon 300 miles will be the electric vehicle standard, but it will not get you from Chicago to Los Angeles, or even Washington to Boston.

The speed of technological evolution is the unknown, but it will control the accelerator in the race to electricity. Better batteries, faster charging and more public confidence in the duration of each charge will all control the rate of change.

When it comes to heavy vehicles that travel great distances, like intercity buses and trucks, the conversion to electricity, though yearned for, may be a lot slower. Until smart highways offer charging through induction, using electromagnetic fields, diesel will still rule.

The earliest cars were electric and were thought then to be the future — clean and quiet. But lead-acid batteries could not hack it. Stubbornly Harrods, the famous department store, used electric delivery vehicles around London until the 1960s; maybe because these sedate, quiet, liveried road queens exuded classiness.

Like all revolutions, there will be winners: those who find out how to make money out of battery charging and those who make electricity. And losers: oil companies, gas stations, service departments of dealerships and the long-dreamed-of hydrogen car.

Incontrovertibly, the air in cities will be a winner — a big, big winner.

Llewellyn King (llewellynking1@gmail.com), a frequent contributor to New England Diary, is  executive producer and host of White House Chronicle, on PBS, and a veteran publisher, editor, columnist and international business consultant. This piece first ran in InsideSources.

 

 

Llewellyn King: And now, electric planes

The Solar Impulse 2 is an electric-powered plane using solar energy to generate the electricity.

The Solar Impulse 2 is an electric-powered plane using solar energy to generate the electricity.

Electricity, the world’s silent workhorse for a century, is about to conquer new worlds.

While electric cars are coming on fast, their acceptance will speed up geometrically in the next decade, according to an extraordinary new study by RethinkX, a San Francisco-based research group and think tank. Indeed, the group is predicting a true revolution in electrified transportation.

In this revolution, futuristic companies with a lot of talent and a lot of money — like Uber, Google and Amazon — will be seminal players. Old-line car companies and the oil companies will have to deal with a new order in which their roles could be dramatically diminished.

The big winner in this transportation future is electricity. Even the electric airplane — an idea about as old as aviation — is surging forward.

While RethinkX raised the curtain on the future of ground transportation in its new study, Uber raised the curtain on the future of the electric airplane this month at its Elevate conference in Dallas. More than 500 aviation enthusiasts attended the conference: dreamers, designers, builders — and even venture-capital investors, who have already signed their checks. Dozens of designs for small electric airplanes, using multiple rotors and batteries, were on display. Enthusiasm was incandescent.

This July, small, electric pilotless aircraft — crosses between drones and helicopters — are scheduled to go into service in Dubai. They are supposed to ferry single passengers from their hotels and other gathering points to airports and recreation centers in the largest and most populous city in the United Arab Emirates.

These small aircraft, with electric motors and batteries, have an endurance time of about 30 minutes. EHang, a Chinese company, developed them.

If Uber, and more than a dozen other U.S. companies have their way, similar aircraft will one day take their place in the skies of America and other advanced nations. Uber hopes to test-fly an electric airplane in 2020.

According to RethinkX, the private car is about to disappear, or to be rapidly reduced in importance. The report — which might boost the stock of futuristic companies and electric utilities, and depress the stock of oil companies and old-line car makers and oil companies — is making waves in the far reaches of corporate thinking.

Tony Seba, co-founder of RethinkX and co-author of the report, told me that mainstream analysts are not yet on board with the changes, which will rock the automobile, oil and electric industries. They have not understood the impact of technological convergence, he said.

He sees a future, about to happen, in which driverless electric cars, owned not by individuals, but rather by transportation companies like Uber, flood the streets, to be summoned by phone and directed by voice: “Take me out to the ballgame.”

Seba, an MIT-trained engineer and student of what he calls “disruption,” told me he expects a convergence between electric vehicles, automated driving and ride-sharing will come soon, reducing the number of vehicles on U.S. roads from 247 million in 2020 to 44 million in 2030.

“The average family will save $5,600 in transportation costs,” Seba says.

Apart from the transport companies, the big winner will be the utilities that will see a demand growth of 18 percent, Seba predicts. He believes present infrastructure can accommodate this growth surge because demand will be mostly off-peak.

There are similar expectations of a golden future for small, electric, vertical takeoff airplanes, incorporating drone and other technologies. The limit for the aircraft, which use lithium batteries, is the batteries. But the enthusiasts gathered at Uber’s conference say flight is possible now with present-day batteries and these will only get better.

Richard Whittle, a leading aviation journalist and author who chaired an Elevate session, told me, “It was a pretty impressive event.”

While the arguments by Seba and his co-author James Arbib, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and philanthropist, point to an electrified transportation future, I have one question: Will people give up the personal, primal pleasure of owning a car?

Seba and Arbib think so, pointing out that people used to take pride in their LP and CD collections, but now they access their music electronically.

The future is pulling up on a highway near you; it may also be flying overhead.

Llewellyn King (llwellynking1@gmail.com), a frequent contributor to New England Diary, is host and executive producer of White House Chronicle, on PBS, and a veteran publisher, columnist and international business executive. This piece first ran in Inside Sources.