It’s time to uncouple the electric vehicle’s virtual coal tender

Forget for a moment the freight car full of political baggage attached to the bankruptcy this week of battery maker A123 Systems Inc.

Instead let’s consider the real reason electric vehicles and their miraculous mpgs aren’t swamping the nation’s roadways.

The issue is not how many more miles of range drivers can squeeze out of a battery. The problem is the battery itself.

At its essence, the battery in today’s best plug-in electric vehicle is little more than the modern day equivalent of the tender that trailed behind giant steam engines in the 19th century. When the energy -- coal, wood, electrons -- stored in those vessels ran out, the wheels stopped moving, and the passengers grew very, very irate.

Of course, the same thing happens in cars when the tank runs dry, but decades of building have crafted an infrastructure that makes refueling quick and convenient in most, but not all, locations.

General Motors recognized this issue early on with the Chevy Volt and installed a small internal combustion engine aboard to overcome what it called “range anxiety.”

But while this was a good Band-Aid, it salved the problem instead of solving it. The Volt’s traditional engine must carry the extra weight of the car’s massive battery pack, while under electric power its battery pack must push around its internal combustion engine. Both by definition are less efficient than they could be because of the constant presence of the other.

Our current infrastructure (pun very much intended) dictates that vehicles carry their energy with them at all times, either in the form of flammable fuel or the electrons bought and stored in a heavy battery.

But if vehicles could draw energy as needed, like trolleys do, for example, and pay for that draw on a metered basis, they wouldn’t need giant heavy batteries with a range of hundreds of miles.

At their heart, electric vehicles are fun to drive. They have great torque, little noise and fast acceleration. But they are never going to make sense in many rural or mountainous locations, and simply spending billions chasing marginally better batteries won’t ever address the battery’s inherent flaws.

But if engineers can develop ways to deliver energy efficiently to vehicles on demand instead of trying to store it up onboard and hoping it doesn’t run out, like those 19th-century steam trains did, electric vehicles may yet have a future. c

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