Electrickery: It isn't working

If there was a way of storing enough electricity to drive a car it would have been discovered by now. In the 200 or so years since Michael Faraday (1791-1867), we have split the atom, been to the moon and back, invented aviation, television, computers and the world wide web. Yet it still needs a 4 ton battery the size of a 550 gallon petrol tank, to provide a family car with 500 miles’ range and 100 mph performance. Electricity is a means of transmitting power, not a source of power, and the electric car has not come far since 1899 when Camille Jenatzy did his 65mph flying kilometre.
He had to charge the batteries before he could do the return kilometre. Last week Auto Express admitted its Nissan Leaf on the RAC Future Car Challenge was charged up overnight at Brighton to ensure it would get back to London. Driver Sam Hardy slipstreamed a lorry for 25 miles and avoided using heater or demister. Some cars were so slow they caused traffic tailbacks.

Even electrophiles on Autocar revealed that UK electric car sales have hardly passed 1,000 and only the Chevrolet Volt (top and bottom) and Vauxhall Ampera, with on-board generators, stand any chance. More Ferraris were sold last year. The Nissan Leaf has not come near its wildly optimistic sales target. Car of the Year 2011 – what a joke; Chevrolet thought it might manage 10,000 Volts but sold 7700.

To appease greenery-yallery foot-in-the-grave lobbyists the government set aside £300million to subsidise electric cars. Yet hardly anybody’s tempted; throwing money at them hasn’t worked. Milk floats, fine – cars, not a chance. It might be all right for hybrids like the Toyota Prius (below). I tested one in 2004 and over 1,300miles it did 45mpg – about what I might have managed with a real car just driving slowly.

In America the National Highway Traffic Safety Adminstration (NHTSA) has been before a Senate sub-committee. Administrator David Strickland was asked why it kept quiet about lithium-ion battery fires following crash tests of the plug-in Volt. The wrecks ignited three weeks after the tests, but the NHTSA waited five months before owning up and only when a news reporter exposed it.

The Islay distillery of Bruichladdich would be fine for a Leaf. You could drive the 30 miles all round the island without running out of juice. Strickland claimed the NHTSA had not worked out why the Volt caught fire, only to be told nobody believed him. He was accused of keeping quiet in view of his taxpayer subsidy and his relationship with General Motors. The implication was that he had become so influenced by lobbying on electric cars he felt obliged to conceal bad news.

Some politicians will do anything ... Strickland was rather like climate change theorists suppressing anything that contradicts their dogma. Inability to distinguish matters of opinion from matters of fact is the last refuge of the dirigist. Everybody thinks they ought to believe electric cars work. It is politically incorrect to say they don’t. Let’s get real.

Sting Ray blow-up

We had no pangs about doing 140 on the M1. I was recalling at Le Mans the other week, with Corvette enthusiast Sean, my experience with what he thought the most desirable model of all, the split back window Sting Ray. We were kind to it in The Motor, remembering that when I was driving it on the M1 not far short of its maximum speed of 146.6mph, the 5.4litre V8 put a rod through the side. Everything locked up and there was lots of smoke and noise. The sudden stoppage rocked the car until we pulled it up on the hard shoulder. I can't say I warmed to the Sting Ray. I had driven a lot of E-types and this was a pale imitation, unrefined and noisy. I didn't much like writing, "It was the equal of any GT car to be found on either side of the Atlantic". Motor road tests were committee affairs and I was new. Still, we thought the fuel consumption "not unreasnable" at 15.8mpg.

Audi and Chevrolet

Electric cars have not moved on a lot since this motoring column in The Sunday Times of 14 January 1990. Hybrids may be a production reality and they are smaller, but not much lighter, than the prototype Audi, which had 181kg (400lb, 3.6cwt) of battery. Pure electric cars are still bedeviled by the difficulties Camille Jenatzy faced in 1899. As I put it 91 years later, electric vehicles can go a long way slowly or a short way quickly, but not both. A hundred and ten years further on there is a lot of talk about municipal charging stations, but California's demand for 1.7million electric cars by the year 2000, and seven out of ten on the Sunshine State roads by now remains unattainable. Government targets...

As in 1990 so also now, GM talks airily about the Chevrolet Volt, a plug-in hybrid, which sounds neither one thing nor the other. CEO Fritz Henderson echoes Roger Smith 20 years ago when he claims the project is, "all-important for us." A spokesman promised the Volt was, "absolutely on target and that will not change. It is as high a priority as we have in this company." Motor industry public relations statements are high in vacuity. Output of pre-production Volts is planned at ten a week, with 80 on the road as press cars and test vehicles. It is a modest aim. One suspects GM's heart is not in it beyond an ambition to appease politicians. The Volt only does 40 miles on one three-hour charge of its lithium-ion batteries, which at 170kg (375lb, 3.34cwt) are not much of an improvement over the 1990 Audi. Volts might only cover 30 miles if there are hills or if you are in a hurry to get to the office. And at an on-the-road price of $40,000 you have to take a low-carbon footproint very seriously.