On Electric Cars

Last week, for the third time in less than two months, an exemplar of the Model S from electric carmaker Tesla Motors caught fire after being involved in an accident. Shares of the company fell at least 7% for two consecutive days. The business run by celebrity CEO Elon Musk had already reported a net loss of $38m for the trimester ending in September.

The fires on Model S vehicles originated in their lithium-ion batteries, which are of the same kind whose problems caused the grounding of the entire fleet of Boeing Dreamliners in January. Battery fires are not, however, the main issue Tesla has to deal with in order build a good image and compete with other car manufacturers. The real issues are cost and infrastructure.

In a talk at NYU’s Courant Institute last Friday, Carnegie Mellon professor Manuela Veloso argued that it is not fair to ask complete autonomy from robots while an entire structure is built to help humans. She mentioned in particular the case of roads: instead of making cars that can approach every terrain, a gigantic net of smooth roads, with signs and other amenities, has been adopted.

But while many carmakers already have models of hybrid to all-electric vehicles in the market, amenities specific for electricity-powered cars are practically non-existent. Consider their range of operation, for instance. Despite the fact that an average urban driver needs a car with fuel autonomy of about 20 miles per day, most people buy cars also for vacations and other long-range trips. However, just to mention the U.S., conveniences such as battery-swap stations for Tesla owners are planed in the near future only for corridors connecting Los Angeles to San Francisco and D.C. to Boston.

Regarding financial costs, a report by the Harvard Kennedy School found that at 2010 purchase and operating costs, savings on gasoline over the lifetime of an electric car would not offset the higher cost of purchase. The same report predicted a change in this picture assuming that in the following 10 to 20 years gasoline prices would increase and battery costs decrease. Still, the estimated proportion of electric cars in operation by 2020 is very small, according to another report, by J.D. Power and Associates: just 7.3 percent of them should be hybrid or all-electric.

The 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimated that 13% of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2004 were from energy used in transportation, and that 95% of that energy came from petroleum-based fuels. Electric cars can play a central role in reducing transportation-related emissions. But that will only be achieved with public and private investments that allow them to be more than a luxury to be shown off around one’s neighborhood.

(A version of this article appeared in Washington Square News.)

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