Electric-only cars? Not a chance

Shock and disbelief, not to mention outright derision, greeted General Motors’ recent announcement that the Chevrolet Volt gets 230 miles per gallon in the American urban driving cycle. Such a large number faced much skepticism, the unspoken truth behind much of the incredulity being that had Toyota, and not GM, made the announcement, there would have been a bunch more applause and not nearly so much cynicism.

There is reason to be skeptical beyond the natural tendency to disbelieve any number so massively out of proportion with our current reality. Indeed, as many an indignant autojournalist pointed out, the calculation of the Volt’s fuel economy is hardly the straightforward process of filling the gas tank and seeing how far she goes before running dry. In fact, the Volt’s gas mileage calculation is malleable and subject to wide variations depending on how you work the digits on your calculator, an ambiguity best described by my esteemed colleague at the Toronto Star, Peter Gorrie.

The problem is that the Volt’s fuel economy rating depends on how far you drive it; or, more accurately, how far you drive it in a day. You see, the Volt is essentially an electric car, at least for the first 40 miles, which means that, for the first portion of the drive, it will use absolutely no gasoline. Drive beyond that and it’s estimated the Volt will use dino juice at the rate of 50 mpg (since Transport Canada has not issued any numbers yet, we’ll stick to the archaic American rating).

That means, if my slide rule hasn’t failed me, that, were the Volt to travel 50 miles in a day, it would use 0.2 gallons of gasoline. That works out to 250 miles per gallon. Factor in some equivalency for the eight kilowatt-hours of electricity it used in covering the first 40 and you arrive at that magical 230 figure.

Of course, as the skeptics point out, if you travel further, you’ll have a correspondingly lower overall fuel economy. One hundred miles would take 1.2 gallons, or an 83-mpg average, while 200 miles in a day would burn 3.2 Yankee gallons for an effective fuel economy of 62.5 mpg. Those who actually understood their high school calculus will soon realize that driven a long distance without recharging its batteries, the Volt would eventually average just 50 mpg. Compared with the promise of gasoline-free electric motoring, that seems a little wanting.

Or is it? The one thing missing from the above equation is that the Volt, or any of the plug-in hybrids that will soon hit the market, face no range anxiety. Admittedly, they are, as shown above, at their most efficient when operated on battery power. But when electrons fail them, they can continue on motoring just as the good, old, gas-fuelled car does.

The electric car cannot. No matter how optimistic the claimed range, you’re left with this immutable fact: For most North Americans, an electric car can never be their primary vehicle. Yes, most of us commute less than 40 miles a day, so an electric car would be just dandy for a significant portion of our commute. But what are we to do on those days, even if they occur but once a week, when the 200 miles we have planned is beyond our EV’s range? Why, we’ll need another car and make this one gas-powered, please.

Imagine, then, if in a week, we drive 150 vice-free miles electrically and another 150 burning fossil fuel. If the current car we’re driving gets 25 mpg — a number typical of the average American automobile — then our combined fuel mileage is, wait for it, 50 mpg. To top it all off, we had to buy two cars to achieve the very same fuel economy the Volt gets in its worst-case scenario. That’s prohibitively expensive, not to mention hardly environmentally friendly considering all the energy wasted manufacturing two cars when one might have sufficed.

The challenge for an alternative to fossil-fuelled automobiles remains unchanged despite the current marketing blitz for electric cars. For any alternative technology to provide a meaningful reduction in both fuel consumption and emissions, it must be as a replacement for, and not a supplement to, the family’s current primary vehicle. In this regard, the electric car just doesn’t cut it. Perhaps diesels can, as they have in Europe, make inroads into our market. And, if you want to claim that plug-in hybrids make more sense than range-enhanced electric vehicles such as the Volt, I’ll hear your argument. But the electric vehicle as the primary vehicle for a significant number of North American drivers? No way. No how.

Not a hope.

Photograph by: Thomas Peter