Tuesday, October 20, 2009

A New Leaf?

Nissan Corp has introduced, with predictable fanfare, the 2011 Leaf which is an electric only driven vehicle. It's a nice enough looking little package, about the size of a Versa or Honda Fit. Its battery allegedly permits a 100 mile range and can charge back up from near flat in about 8 hours with a heavy duty 230 volt source. The projected price is projected to be, sit down please, a cool 30,000 dollars. And that stiff tariff is after sundry large subsidies from the Feds without which the vehicle might cost from 5-8 grand more. Additionally to add considerable economic insult to injury the car's price does not include the battery! Oh no the lithium battery is so expensive that Nissan has chosen to lease it rather than sell it outright which might well have pushed the price well past 40 grand.

This is far more a marketing move than one that might produce savings since leasing the battery means that that though the initial hit will be lower you'll be paying for the darn thing one way or another. Comparing this with any ICE vehicle is pointless, probably even a Bentley, because the 20K that you'll pay for the Leaf over its similarly sized ICE brethren means that any conceivable "payback" will only kick in at about 200,000 miles--at best.

That 200k miles takes the average person at least 10 years to accumulate, usually longer, so even if you were to keep the thing that long you'll have been paying a battery lease payment the whole time. This would effectively push the payback to infinity.

Electric car boosters are usually at pains to state that such vehicles are not meant to be anything other than commuter mobiles and the hundred mile range would service most commutes successfully. I personally have never known anyone that bought a vehicle, let alone one that cost well over 30K, to do nothing but commute and grocery shop in one's immediate area. Vehicles are bought now, and have been for many decades, as multipurpose devices that can not only get you to work but also to visit aunt Lurline who's a hundred fifty miles down the road in a town with no air or bus service. Virtually everyone has such needs that simply will not be met by vehicles with 100 mile ranges.

It reasonable to expect that batteries will increase in capacity over time and may come down in price although there's not the slightest guarantee on that last point. Clearly electric vehicles are more expensive than conventional ones even without the expense of batteries included.

This should hardly be a surprise. Electric motors, large ones particularly, are not, and never will be, especially cheap devices. The electric motor in your home's central air compressor cost several hundred dollars to replace and it's all of about five horsepower--about one tenth the power needed for a vehicle--and they make millions of the things so most efficiencies of scale have been realized at this point. Add to that fact that electric vehicle motors are in general much higher tech devices that the typical commercial electric motor. Nissan could make a billion of the motors that drive the Leaf and they still could not be sold for a mere few hundred bucks.

Similarly the large lithium based batteries that will power the Leaf and many others may well increase dramatically in capacity but I'm brutally skeptical that they will also at the same time magically cost a lot less to manufacture and sell. Batteries and motors, plus the extremely heavy duty power distribution gear, are large heavy physical systems that simply will not experience the economies of scale that micro electronics do. Not going to happen.

So what we really have here is yet another high priced can of eco-credential polish that will only be purchased by the dedicated greenie, or at least the ones able to afford it. Certainly the bulk of the "working class", that group so allegedly beloved by progressives, will not be suckered into buying pure electric vehicles since they are forced as a group to pay much more attention to a little thing called a "cost/benefit ratio" than their college educated betters apparently do.

A few progressives are fully aware of how overpriced all this new-tech vehicular three-card-monte is. Consequently they are taking the tack that the internal combustion engine, since it always come out the economic winner in comparisons, really needs to be legislated out of existence and which efforts they are pursuing with vigor. That will be the only way that pure electric vehicles make any real dent in our use of hydrocarbon fuels. That this could result in an electoral bloodbath seems not to impinge on the sensorium of the dedicated eco-warrior. The pure electric bag of magic beans will be a tough sell to the penny-pinching blue collar hoi-polloi even if the sundry hysterical predictions of climate change come entirely to pass.


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