On Electric Cars, Enthusiasts, and the War Between Performance and Environmentalism

You’ve obviously figured out by now that I’m an automotive enthusiast. So, I want to do something wierd. I want to talk about electric vehicles. More importantly, I want to talk about car culture, environmentalism, and electric vehicles. Because, much to the surprise of everyone involved, you can’t talk about one without talking about the others.

First, the fallacies.

1] Car guys hate electric cars.
2] Car guys are climate-change denying throwbacks and reprobates.
3] car culture cannot tolerate electric vehicles.
4] Electric vehicles will save the environment.

Those are all FALSE statements. ALL OF THEM.

Despite The Clarkson’s of the world (the dude is entertaining, but I find some of his politics reprehensible), despite the enviromental lobby’s love of electric, and despite the auto-industry’s latching onto hybrid & electric as “the way of the future”, those are all false statements.

Lets get the basics out of the way.

If you want to talk about car culture (and by extension, car guys & girls) then you need to understand something about modern car culture. We love cars. In fact, we actually love all things with wheels. We love digging our hands in and making them ours. Yes, we love going fast in ’em, and we love making them better. This is what has lead to fallacies #1 and #2, and #3.

The problem is, with very few exceptions, no one is making electric cars that are actually fun to drive, or can be made fun to drive. THere are exceptions, I’ll get to them. But for the most part, hybrid’s and electrics are the definition of what an enthusiast hates in a vehicle. They are, in fact, vehicles in name only. What they are is APPLIANCES. They’re a device to get you from A to B, under the pretense of efficience and environmental friendliness.

This is not how to get ‘enthusiasts’ to embrace electrics.

Car culture is, in fact, ready to embrace electric vehicles. Electric has significant performance advantages: the primary of which is 100% torque @ 0rpm. Because of the way electrics can be packaged (ie. small motors at each wheel, with nothing but wires connecting them to the rest of the structure, and batteries that, eventually, can be spread through the body for excellent weight balance and distribution) they’re actually a better option for performance enthusiasts. Rather than a 700lb steel lump sitting over the front wheels, you can have a 35lb lump at each corner, and spread the batteries and charging system to the most efficient locations within the frame and body, achieving that hallowed performance number: the 50/50 weight distribution. You get All-wheel drive. If you want it, the computer can be reprogrammed to give you Rear-wheel-drive in a “sport” mode. “eco” mode could, conceivably, dramatically increase distance for regular driving. Because you don’t have that traditional lump of engine, transmission, and exhaust routing up front, along with a need (especially now) for better and better water cooling, you can start doing really, really interesting things with the shape and design of the vehicle.

No one does any of this yet.

Even Tesla (and, had I a ninety grand to spend, I’d buy a 85kwh Tesla performance model: that’s enough juice to get me to my folks place for the weekend, 300km away). doesn’t actually do “efficiency” well. But they get performance. Boy, do they ever. I saw a Tesla Roadster at autocross a couple years back:

066 - Tesla Roadster #76 - exit the loop

And watching that thing go around a track was brilliant. Disconcerting, because it was SILENT except for the tire squeal (and too much of that, due to the eco-tires). But, a brilliant car.

There’s a couple of good kicks at the can. The Honda CR-Z is kinda cool, and modifies well. Ford is getting it with their hybrid line-up: they drive like CARS, not appliances. GM is getting it with the wickedly cool looking Volt (although consumers aren’t buying into it), and of course, the Tesla‘s, although cost is prohibitive on Tesla’s, which will keep them as niche/status cars for at least a while.

But a lot of things have to happen before enthusiasts are truly willing to embrace electric. And there are envrionmentalist auto enthusiasts: the ideas aren’t mutually exclusive.

Here’s an example.

An enthusiast hears a slight tone change in the exhaust. They wait for the weekend, get under the car, find a hole in the exhaust manifold, buy a header to replace it (because if you’re replacing it, you might as well get more efficiency and power, right?), and go on their merry way. They accomplish a few things here.

1] They continue to establish their DIY, enthusiast cred. THIS IS IMPORTANT!
2] They solve the problem, and ensure the emissions system is working properly, thus reducing emissions from their vehicle
3] They get more power and torque (fun to drive quotient) and likely a better sound (fun to drive quotient) by reducing back pressure, and probably free up some fuel-efficiency, too.

The average non-enthusiast (if they even notice the difference at all), however, in the same situation thinks about what it’s going to cost them, and turns up the stereo: if you can’t hear it, then it’s not a problem until the check engine light comes on thus:

1] Preventing the emissions system (catalytic converter, downstream of the exhaust manifold) from working correctly
2] ensuring a more expensive repair later
3] reducing efficiency
4] potentially creating a lethal situation with carbon monoxide being captured under the vehicle, and entering the passenger compartment
5] waiting for a real problem to stop the vehicle, they then spew bile about how badly made it is, how bad the manufacturer is, and how angry they are about it

Enthusiasts tend to look after their vehicles, to their own detriment (and the consternation of their loved ones, to be sure).

We’re not against all these new technologies: we just need them to be proven as actually worthwhile before we invest in them: we do our RESEARCH, we don’t just believe the advertising. This is what happens when you have not only knowledge of a thing, but also enthusiasm for it.

In otherwords, if you’re a nerd.

I’m a car nerd.

So, beyond the lack-of-enthusiast appeal, what’s the issue with hybrid and electric? I mean, it can’t just be about that, or enthusiasts are actually just dickheads stuck in the past: luddites hanging onto expiring technology, right?

Well, there’s the actual reason that people generally buy an electric or hybrid vehicle (I’ll give you a hint, it’s not because they’re fun to drive). It’s for fuel-economy (fallacy, in fact) and to “save the environment” (may also be a fallacy).

That an electric or hybrid is a fuel saver is… Ok, maybe not a complete fallacy. It depends on a few things though.

First, it depends on the type of driving you’re doing. Keeping a 2500lb-3000lb vehicle going at 100km/h (highway speed) takes a lot of effort. A non-hybrid diesel is actually more efficient over long distance than an electric or gasoline hybrid. Why? Because the electric engine if it’s working at all, is working damn hard, and burning the hell out of it’s battery. A diesel, or even an efficient gas engine, can get down in the 4L-5L/100km range. A hybrid gets… about 4.7L-5.5L/100km on the highway. Go look at the manufacturers and EPA numbers if you don’t believe me. An electric burns it’s power faster at speed. What a hybrid, especially, is good at, is reducing emisssions in stop’n’go traffic. in other words, city commuting. Sitting in traffic in the parking lot highway commute? Hybrid’s excel at this. Because they just… stop. No consumption. electrics too, to be fair. WHere as this is where a gas/diesel engine is at its least efficient: they’re sitting, unloaded, idling. this is bad for fuel economy (effectively 0km per litre at idle) and worse for emissions: you’re burning hydrocarbons just to sit there waiting to go. SO, if you’re a commuter, and don’t take the highway, or take the highway in peak traffic periods? Yeah. A hybrid/electric can make a lot of sense at the pumps. If you do distance, off peak? Stick with gasoline or diesel.

But that’s only half the story, maybe even a third of it.

Because, for hybrid’s especially, HOW you drive is the single biggest vector of the efficiency of a vehicle. If you use the gas pedal (like a multitude of people do) as an on/off switch, and race light to light? Yeah, you can actually get worse fuel economy than a gas-only vehicle: because that tiny little gas engine that helps charge your hybrid, actually does most of the work under heavy load. Ie. WOT (Wide Open Throttle). Driving a hybrid, especially, to achieve fuel-economy and emissions benefits means driving incredibly conservatively. That’s actually not a bad thing, but it is something that most people seem incapable of.

There’s one other factor in the actually driving and ownership of an electric, or hybrid. If you can achieve all the things above, that’s great. But, you’re NOT driving in a microcosm. What I’m saying is, it’s not just you on the road. And if you take twenty seconds to come up to the 50km/h speed limit, while achieving 2L/100km? that’s awesome. But the fifteen gasoline powered cars behind you get stuck at the redlight they would have made it through if you had driven “normally” or “with the flow of traffic” rather than for your individual fuel economy benefit? Yeah, they’re all sitting their idling for another three minutes while that light changes. If all you want is fuel economy for yourself? you win, for sure. If you bought a hybrid or electric for it’s actual purpose (emissions reduction) well, you’re actually making the problem worse.

What I’m saying is that this is not an X or Y sum. There are a ton of factors involved.

Lets take it up a step, shall we?

Those batteries in your effient, economical, environment-saving car? They have to come from somewhere. And, they have to be charged somewhere too.

The article I’m about to link to has a lot of information in it, and is worth a read. But this stood out:

Our central scenario for vehicle manufacturing was 70 g CO2e/km for an electric vehicle and 40 g CO2e/km for a petrol car.

The materials (rare metals, etc) have to be mined. They have to be refined. They have to be assembled first into a battery, and then into a vehicle. Each of these steps involves shipping, which is inevitably ships, trains, and trucks. All huge emissions sources and carbon fuel pigs. And the various steps can be all over the world. The materials may be mined in Africa, made into a battery in Germany, installed in a car in Japan, and sold in America. That’s a LOT of (incredibly inefficient) travel. And, that’s the kind of thing that creates a carbon footprint forty-percent larger than a gasoline vehicle in the manufacturing process.

Finally, as that article (and others) note, where your power comes from makes a huge difference. In other words, are you doing lip-service to environmentalism by driving a hybrid, or electric, or are you actually doing it right?

Now, that’s an awful lot of negative, I know. It’s not all bad though.

If you’re willing to keep, and drive, your car for the long term (something enthusiasts tend to do, btw) you can equalize in a big way. A few years ago, it was estimated that to break-even on cost of ownership (ie. the on-the-wallet benefit) of a hybrid would take approximately 400,000km (250,000 miles) of driving to “break even” in terms of fuel savings vs initial cost difference of the vehicle. But, that’s only part of the equation. OVer that period, the emissions benefits become extremely large, assuming proper driving habits, maintenance, and fuel/power sources.

Keeping a car for a long time isn’t something most people do anymore. They get bored, or the next cool thing they have to have comes along, and the road is, in fact, paved with easy financing. Which means the additional cost, in dollars, and in environmental concerns, doesn’t pay off.

fuel-efficient technology is so expensive that these types of cars take years to pay off at today’s gas prices—and that remains true even if gas were to hit $5 per gallon. In some cases, the average driver would take more than a decade to see savings over comparable conventional vehicles, which is a problem since the average person owns a car just six years. Most fuel-efficient cars will be more expensive to purchase and to drive for five years, at minimum.

If gas cost $5 a gallon, the TrueCar data estimates that the payback period for a hybrid Ford Fusion over the conventional Fusion would be six and a half years, compared with eight and a half years at $4. At $6 a gallon, the hybrid Toyota Camry, Hyundai Sonata and Kia Optima are likely to generate savings within four years.

That sounds pretty bleak, I know. In fact, you’d think I’m making a case against hybrids and electrics. I’m actually not. What I’m suggesting is that people stop and think, rather than jumping on the next “save the world silver bullet”. For the most part (hey, look, I’m getting back to my original point!) enthusiasts are doing this. We’re doing it in a lot of ways, and we’re open to a lot of ideas. In fact, we’re open to more ideas than the general public, I think. Because we take the time to understand the technology, and what works in what circumstance.

Delivery drivers could make hybrids and electrics pay off, ESPECIALLY within city enirons. Taxi’s could, IF the weather cooperates: I don’t mean to extend their driving, but to keep them warm or cool: A cabbie is actually an outdoors worker. there’s a reason you see cabs idling for long periods: keeps the car warm or cool, depending on the season (they need, and the customer demands). Our structure for getting a cab (ie. cab-stands) would have to change though, and I don’t know how likely that is.

This actually DEFINES the problem right now. The only people who would/will buy hybrids and electrics right now? They’re (pardon the phrasing) eco-weinies. There’s a small number of people who actually understand the technology, and make it work properly, and will have it pay off. A large number of hybrid adopters have, unfortunately, just bought the hype (save gas now!) or, worse, want to be able to brag about how they’re doing their part to save the world, when really, they’re not doing anything. Enthusiasts won’t buy hybrids. Why? Because they’re the electric equivalent of a Toyota Corolla: Oh, they’re decent to get around in, sure, but they’re not FUN. You don’t wake up in the morning look out the window at your car and go “DAMN. Look at that. Lets go for a drive.” they’re appliances, that’s it.

What’s stopping enthusiasts from buying into green technologies, is that they’re not something you can get enthusiastic about as a driver. They’re not appealing. Yet. They can be. Like I said, torque is a wonderful thing, and electric does it well.

The BMW i8 has serious potential at an “enthusiast” hybid/electric. But it suffers the same problem that the Fisker Karma does, and that the Tesla cars do: they’re FUCKING EXPENSIVE.

BMW i8

Very few enthusiasts will be able to afford one, never mind it be their only car. We’re back to that constant bugaboo in the industry: range anxiety.

I still love the idea of hydrogen/electric: it gives you the torque, a clean fuel source, zero emissions. It doesn’t deal with the environmental issues surrounding making batteries, but it gets us one step closer, and it gets the average consumer off the grid. Unfortunately, Honda got the closest but even they appear to have abandoned the idea, in favour of now-traditional gasoline/electric hybrids, and plug-in electrics.

In fact, you, and we, can effect positive change. As people adopt electric and hybrid, the process becomes more efficient: efficiency of scale will, I think, become a huge deal. And, honestly, the technology will get better, because that’s what it does. We’re also starting to get smarter about where our ‘grid’ power comes from. The numbers in those articles? They’re thrown out a lot by developing worlds and new markets still using low tech and dirty fuels for powering their grids. Those numbers will get worse before they get better, but developed worlds are improving (despite the coal/oil industries attempts to stagnate development of green technologies). Solar on the household level, geothermal, and wind are going to continue to make the long-term ownership of electric and hybrid vehicles more and more viable, EVEN with the environmental costs associated witht he materials and construction process. Everyone needs to take a page from the enthusiast driver: they need to LEARN TO DRIVE. That’s something you always have to give to an enthusiast (BMW & Audi drivers excepted, those guys are just DICKS): they look at the road, they plan their trips, then work on efficiencies (because, again, efficiency = power and power = fun). Enthusiasts need to save money on gas, so we can go faster, longer. Most enthusiasts are working with traffic, when they’re in it: they understand braking distances, and when it’s worth accelerating, or just pulling along. We understand our vehicles, and we make them run as well as is possible. We DRIVE: we don’t just go point-to-point. Paying attention to traffic, where you want to be, how to get there (before you get there) and simple courtesy? these things all save fuel and time.

Look, true enthusiasts? We like ALL wheeled things. Me, I’m a cyclist, a car lover, a tuner, an muscle car guy, an open-wheel fan: I love a good 4×4, I love rallying, I even like NASCA… no, I can’t say it. I just DON’T GET NASCAR. I like vintage, I like new.

That’s what I hate most about this whole thing with Tesla vs the media. The reality is, Tesla is, in fact, beta-testing. Anyone who’s bought one so far? They’re early-adopters, and they’re part of the test cycle. There are going to be problems. Going ballistic and making yourself look like an asshole isn’t going to help. I think it’s fantastic that the CNN Guys managed a successful run when Broder couldn’t. But even they said there were severe differences in conditions (0-10oF vs 50oF ambient temps make a huge difference on batteries) and that’s out of their control.

I love what Tesla is doing. If I won the lottery, I’d have a Tesla, and be damned with it. But, I’d have a hard time with it being my only car, hundred-grand be damned. That said, if I can afford a Tesla, I can afford something more …

See, I was about to say “reliable”. But that’s the wrong word. The cars are, for the most part, reliable. Especially with the support, and ‘instant update’ from their support divisions.

But the reality is, the tech is in its infancy. It’s pretty simple in the math. If A drive from Washington to Boston takes eight hours in a gas car, assuming normal stops, and it takes thirteen hours, with no problems with the vehicle, in an electric car, with the fastest available charging systems, it’s simply NOT ready for prime-time. It’s a mother of a first step, there’s no doubt about that, but it IS a first step. Stoping for three to five hours to charge (under optimium circumstances) is far too much Sunday drive: there’s no room to enjoy that cars potential, and the range anxiety? It’s still there, even though you have the technical range. The technolgy turns a long but manageable drive into an obnoxious, exhausting drive.

But like I said: enthusiasts. I can’t wait to see where this goes. I’d love to see Telsa get into the Hydrogen/electric business. Most of all, I want to see them drop the defensive “you’re all out to get us” bullshit, and keep making awesome, all-electric alternatives to what we’ve got now. It’s gotta happen, and, for all the issues, these guys are at the head of the pack. Right now, the Tesla, for all the faults it has, is waaaay better at what it does than any other electric (or hybrid) on the market. Bar none.

As an enthusiast, I can’t wait to see where this goes. I just wish I could afford one, and be part of the process.


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