Honda versus Toyota; fuel cells versus electrical cars

While in bastion of capitalism, the US, speculators are blamed even in Congress for the high gasoline prices, the rest of the world is actually taking steps to remedy the situation.

Paul Krugman argued in the NYT that the paradox of even the Republicans blaming speculators for high fuel prices came down to avoiding any harsh measures in the energy markets. If speculators can be reigned in, gasoline prices will soon drop and everything will be back to business as usual.

Apart from the fact that they’re not. Even if we discard the opportunistic suspension of capitalist principles which reigning in speculation would entail, speculators are at best responsible for a tiny fraction of the energy run-up.

It would be much better to prepare for a world of expensive energy. Thomas Friedman had a stinging column about US energy policy, they cannot even agree on extending the incentives for renewable energy like solar and wind.

The world could adapt to higher energy prices with a combination of smart public regulation and providing incentives for the private sector not only to come up with technical solutions but also financial incentives for the public to adopt these. One only has to look at countries like Germany, where solar energy is booming because of foresighted Government regulation.

Now, since Japan has taken over from the US as a center for car manufacturing, what is happening there? Four approaches:

  • Hybrid cars like the Toyota Prius
  • Plug in hybrids
  • Full electrical cars
  • Fuel cell cars.

The first already exist, and although the environment impact is somewhat limited, it has done wonders for fuel efficiency. The next steps involve plug in hybrids and full electrical cars.

The first are similar to present hybrids, but the charging will not be done with braking energy and through the gasoline motors, but plugging the car into the electrical grid.

Full electrical plug-in cars dispense with the gasoline motor altogether. The problem with these is that battery technology is not yet ready, hence Toyota’s original solution, the hybrid. Although far from being subjected to any Moore like law, battery technology is getting better though.

A jump in the technology will be the shift from the nickel-cadmium technology which is still used in the Toyota Prius to the more energy dense lithium-ion batteries that are already the mainstay of portable electronics.

Luckily, even without supportive energy policies, there is still quite a bit innovation that matters in the US. The Tesla Roadster, a fancy all-electric sports car is already ready to roll. It uses lithium-ion batteries from A123 Technologies. It’s certainly no performance slouch:

With a 0 to 60 mph acceleration of 3.9 seconds, a 13,000 rpm redline, and the fastest top gear acceleration of any production car tested by Car & Driver magazine in 2007, combined with an EPA rating of 135 MPG equivalent, the Tesla Roadster is unique in providing super car performance at twice the energy efficiency of the best hybrids.

Impressive stuff. Lithium-ion batteries are heavy and expensive though, limiting the power they can store economically in a car. The metric here is energy density. But there is a potential trade-off. The more energy dense batteries become, they could also become more explosive.

And as a series of exploding laptop batteries testify, they’re not without risks. You wouldn’t want that sort of thing happening to your car, especially not with your family in it.

Both problems seem to have been attacked head on. A single charge can take the care 200+ miles, which cannot yet compete with a full gasoline tank, but it’s a huge improvement.

Some other noteworthy facts:

  • The electrical motor weighs just 115 pounds, yet has a 85-95% efficiency
  • At it’s peak, the motor produces 200kW of power, enough to power 2000 light bulbs (of a rather generous 100W). Compare that to the current Prius, which has about 1.3 kWh of batteries
  • The Tesla Roadster has only two forward gears, allowing you to fine-tune your driving experience (but either gear will work for most driving scenarios). Unlike a manual transmission, the car will not stall if you have it in the wrong gear
  • They have obtained all the required regulatory approvals and the first production units have already been delivered.

Nissan, though, is going the other way, focusing almost exclusively on fuel cell driven cars. One of the main reasons, according to Honda president Takeo Fukui is the insufficient cruising distance of electrical vehicles. If Tesla sets the new norm, we’re not so sure he’s right. And fuel cells have their own problems, which will be the subject of another post.