back to article The Electric Car Conspiracy ... that never was

It's almost two years since the debut of Chris Paine's documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? The movie has been a success in US theatres and often comprises one half of a double bill with Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth. But what the success of the movie tells us is more alarming than any conspiracy it purports to unveil: a …


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  1. Anonymous Coward
    IT Angle

    Engine efficiency

    "And however one's sensibilities might be offended by the Hummer, the fact is that the engine inside it will be way more efficient than an electric vehicle for a lot of years to come."

    You wouldn't care to elaborate on this statement, would you?

    Also, if for some reason the EV1 would have been suitable for Europe despite not being right for USA, please explain why it wasn't marketed in Europe?

    While the energy density of fossil fuels is undoubtedly a major advantage, the percentage of people that regularly need to drive more than say 100 miles without stopping must be very low. In 2-car families this would make an ideal 'shopping trolley'.

    While the film may have had an element of hyperbole, to suggest that the car was pulled b/c it was unsuited to the American market simply doesn't stand up to scrutiny. No single car is suited to 'the American market' b/c there _is_ no single American market.

    But it could easily have found a niche, like every other model.

    PS Reference to Europe is the Paris angle.

  2. JimC Silver badge


    Its "drive more than say 100 miles without stopping" and leaving the vehicle unused for another xx hours.

    In spite of the damn catalytic converters (which give major problems for high effiency engines) the fuel efficiency of motor cars has increased by about 30% over the 25 years (judging by what I drive), but as said its largely masked by larger vehicles, increasing weight etc, all of which are things that militate against electric cars. Safety regs don't help too...

    I rather suspect the niche for electric cars is about 20 electric milk floats a year...

  3. Neil Robertson

    Efficiency again

    I don't know a great deal about the engine in the Hummer, but I do know that the EV1 made far better use of its Kilojoules than the Hummer ever could, because the electric motor wastes so few of them - if the EV1 can manage 100 miles on the little energy it did store then imagine the future!

    Even my 7 seater Volvo can turn in 50 MPG consistently, but of course that wouldn't suit the American mass market either according the the Oil companies - and the few "electric" vehicles we do see in Europe are either complete crap or tied to using a petrol engine to produce their electricity - and a pretty poor one at that.

    Why can't I buy a car for my wife which will cover the 20 or so miles she drives in a day by being plugged in to the mains for a couple of hours? In fact, why can't I buy an EV1 to get me to work 65 miles away - a journey I always travel alone and with minimal luggage?

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Not the best movie but makes a point

    Why own an EV1, with its limited range (prompting "range anxiety"), limited space for passengers and luggage, and near-inability to function in cold weather, when you could instead have a gas car with none of these limitations for less money? You'd really have to be a green freak to choose the former, and that's what the movie doesn't address.

    But the electric car is being revived, by GM. The Chevy Volt will go on sale in 2010 for under $30,000. It will go 40 miles on a full charge, and it has a small 1L gas generator to recharge its batteries as necessary. It's also a 4 seater and its new A123 lithium-ion batteries reportedly are extremely safe, function well in the cold, and will last the life of the car. So in literally a couple years we will be able to drive electric cars with none of the EV1's limitations.

    (BTW, what measure of efficiency are you using when you say the Hummer is more efficient? A gas car engine is about 20-30% efficient whereas an electric motor is close to 90% efficient. And yes, gas is a great way to store large amounts of energy, but it can't exactly be recharged. Also, you question the "speed" of the EV1. Well, a slightly modified EV1 set a top speed record at over 180 MPH. I wonder how fast your gas car goes...?)

  5. Peter Johnston

    It's all about TCO

    Amid all the talk of emissions an inconvenient truth is forgotten - that 80% of the energy a car uses in its life is used in making it. When this is taken into account the Hummer is greener than the Prius. Prius batteries are guaranteed for 10 years and cost upwards of £3k - way in excess of the average value of a ten year old car. Thus when Prius batteries die the car will be thrown away - well before the average UK car life of 16 years.

    Electricity and hydrogen are not power sources - both are made from fossil fuels in power stations or generating plants. Conversion is around 25% efficient so 4 times more fossil fuel must be burnt for an electric or hydrogen car than a petrol one. Batteries use rare elements and heavy metals which are environmentally expensive and damaging to extract and cause a disposal/recycling problem. Their weight makes a vehicle less dynamically efficient further compounding the problem.

    The result: electricity and hydrogen stand up as a way of moving pollution out of cities like Los Angeles but not as a way of saving the planet.

  6. Carl

    @Neil Robertson

    For many years, Peugeot sold an electric 106 which did exactly what you require. However, I don't believe they ever marketed it in the UK although it was reasonably popular in mainland Europe.

  7. Anonymous Coward

    Happy new year

    Plenty of other people have already noted the high tosh-factor in the statement re engine efficiency of a Hummer, so I will just say "thank you" to them.

    Anyway, let's accept that a few times a year the typical big American household may need something a bit larger than a "compact" (!) car. The article makes me wonder if America's famous hire car companies (for the holidays) and the taxi companies (for the shorter journeys) have died out since last time I was there, or whether there is perhaps some other reason the majoirity of the US insists on using inappropriately large and inefficient vehicles for the vast majority of all journeys, journey-miles, and passenger-miles.

    Using resources appropriately rather than excessively. What a concept, shame it'll never catch on in the US as we currently know and love it.

  8. Timbo

    @ Neil Robertson

    "Even my 7 seater Volvo can turn in 50 MPG consistently, but of course that wouldn't suit the American mass market either according the the Oil companies.......... In fact, why can't I buy an EV1 to get me to work 65 miles away - a journey I always travel alone and with minimal luggage?"

    Why have you got such a huge car, when you don't travel too far and travel alone....???, what have I missed here?

    I'm guessing that, like most other consumers, personal choice for "features, safety, comfort" takes precedence over "saving the planet".....

  9. Matware
    Black Helicopters

    WTF 80% of the energy goes into making the car... my ass..

    Ok on the Hummer vs Prius debate search for

    "Prius Versus Hummer: A Nickel for Your Thoughts". It's a lie that's up there with the unleaded fuel is giving you cancer crud that was peddled in the 80s.

    Nobody should contend the fact that petrol is a denser source of energy than any battery you could name, but following logic that denser is better we could use hydrazine to power cars, or go the whole hog and use plutonium.

    And on the increasing fuel efficiency of cars, every major technical improvement for increasing car fuel efficiency that that has been released into the general car market is at least 40 years old. The technologies have recently helped improve efficiency, like turbos, fuel injection (mechanical), variable valve timing have been around for more than 70 years. The only reason that those gains have been realised is that the car makers have set them selves very low bar to hurdle, by building the cheapest engines they could while oil has been cheap.

    On top of all of that, if an improvement is patented, the care companies won't use it, full stop. I know that GM engineering in Detroit keep a library of patents filed by expiry date, when they expire, they may make it into a new vehicle. The car companies actively stifle innovation.

    I think the film, although biased did a pretty good job of documenting what a big company does when it realises it's about to change the status-quo, and it treated one of it's own divisions as it would have treated a competitor, and snuffed it out to keep the game rolling. It will be interesting to see how the next crop of electric vehicles fair, and what sort of reception they get from the motor industry cartel and their paid law makers.

    Oh, and on a final note, the Prius is a work of business genius. It's a more complex, harder to maintain car, just the sort of thing that car companies love with that long maintenance tail and gave Toyota the biggest green wash.

  10. Sean Aaron

    America's car lifestyle is a problem....

    The notion that consumers somehow dictate what is offered is ludicrous. Consumers choose _amongst_ what is offered. No one was _demanding_ hummers, GM _chose_ to sell them despite the ludicrous nature of the vehicle's size and lack of fuel economy.

    Go the suburban US and you'll see a large part of their obesity problems: people don't walk anywhere -- any journey more than a block is going to be inside of a car. My in-laws live in a Chicago ex-urb called Naperville. I could walk to the retail park every day for weeks and never encounter another soul farther than their front garden outside of the very odd jogging nut.

    This and the propensity of a minority of Americans to take long-distance driving holidays doesn't explain the absence of the electric car. The argument of capitalism as some kind of perfect 19th century notion of Darwinism at work has always been flawed. Sometimes you have to put a gun to the heads of corporate executives _and_ consumers to get them to make the correct choice. Now if only some politicians had the balls to actually take a stand on an issue, we might see alternatives to hybrids and the fantasy of hydrogen replacing petrol.

    Still the same problems folks, but we're limiting our solutions to none, apparently to satisfy the greed of a few. Looking forward to when the oil runs out, personally.

  11. peter wegrzyn

    You can buy several differant electric cars today

    And many more in the future

    The G-Wiz for instance is estimated that the (soon to be available) Li-ion batteries will give a range of 70miles. The advantages of free parking, no congestion charge, no road tax, very cheap insurance and 60 free power points in central London make it a pretty attract city car. There are 800 in use in London.

  12. Matt Bryant Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    RE: Not the best movie but makes a point

    Of course a Hummer can be "recharged" - and this is another winning point for the internal combustion engine - you just fill the tank with petrol. And your "recharge" takes about five minutes at many very convenient points around the country (the petrol/diesel infrastructure is already there, charging stations are not), unlike the EV where you need to find a power point and then wait a few hours.

    Consumers buy on ease-of-use and value for money, they will shift to EVs when they are a better consumer proposition. Being green is very secondary to saving dough. And car companies in the US have to like the economics of a car, they have also bought back and shredded petrol models to avoid having to provide servicing and parts for uncompetitive vehicles. It's not like here in the UK where car makers just dump a model and let the user worry about spares.

    Don't get me wrong, I'm actually all for EVs, and if the EV1 had been sold or leased in the UK I would have seriously have looked at one as a second car. But here in the UK, unlike the US, the game has been slanted more towards the EVs - the price of petrol is ridiculous and there are green tax breaks. In the US at the time, I saw petrol prices in Maryland of around 48c per gallon! At the time I had rented a Ford Taurus, but after a day I went back and changed it for a 4.6 litre V8 Mustang convertible, and was happy paying peanuts to fill up the tank almost daily just so I could cruise round with that fun burble coming from the exhaust! Now that the US has started to push the price of petrol up, SUVs are starting to lose their appeal, and this will make EVs gradually more competitive.

    It is amusing that the US film industry had cottoned on to a new way to make money - instead of just making fairytales and having to come up with original stories, they just let politicians make eco fairytales and pocket the cash! Do they care whether the content is factual or not? Probably not, just as long as you don't make a home backup copy on DVD-R.....

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Black Helicopters

    missing the point

    While both movies appeal to the conspiracy theorist within me, I think that we are all missing the point. Regardless of what we do – we need to keep mobile and be efficient with whatever fuels we use.

    I personally think that the internal combustion engine is our best bet (the petrolhead within me)…..we have increased the MPG by over 30% in the last decades. Common rail diesel engines have been a real breakthrough and while we continue on this path, we need to take a look at what engineers & designers like Gordon Murray (McLaren F1 road car) are working on to reduce weight.

    A simple example is the Mazda 323 – from 800kg in its humble beginnings in 1960s to a porky 1200kg zoom zoom equivalent today. Can we not find a way to reduce the weight and complexity without compromising climate control, electric heated seats, electrically folding mirrors, cup holders, double glazing (merc S Class), DVD players and other vital aids in our modern driving experience?

  14. p3ngwin


    @ timbo:


    cars used to be smaller, more practical and served their purpose for TRAVELING.

    now people have a lifestyle that requires them to "travel" as much as many hours EACH DAy, so much so that the car needs to be more comfortable to compensate for the stupid life decisions the people make.

    people can't drive responsibly at safe speeds and the states are too stupid and spineless to enforce already existing speeding laws, so the cars have to compensate AGAIN by having ridiculous security and safety features.

    all this means the car from 20 years ago that did nearly 60 MPG:

    now cars can only struggle to do half that.

    all because of pandering to the short term needs of the stupid people that forget that the car wasn't initially designed to be a 2nd traveling home, it was designed to get you from one place to another a short time away. not drive for weeks on end holidaying, or commuting everyday for 3 hours.

    convenience costs too much.

  15. Dave Bell

    So why can't US Car Companie compete?

    It's apparent that various Japanese and European car manufacturers can sell their in-American products in the USA, sometimes importing and sometimes building factories in the USA.

    And the American companies, such as Ford and GM, struggle. They can't, it seems, build efficient cars.

    Ford and GM own factories in Europe, and design and sell successfuk, efficient, cars in Europe.

    So what is wrong? Marketing? A lack of executive balls? If BMW and Mercedes can build drive-all-day cars for Europe, and sell them in the USA, why can't Ford or GM.

    And if they can build small cars which compete with with Japanese and European designs in Europe, why can't they sell them in the USA, with the marketing advantage of being American?

    If anything, electric cars are a red herring, but it does point at something broken in the US auto industry.

  16. system

    Range etc

    So, the range of an electric car is a problem and hummers are just great?

    The new stanford battery has 10X more capacity then a regular lithium ion, which would give the ev1 something like a 700-800 mile range. The hummer H2 has a 32 gallon tank, with average city driving at 10mpg. The hummer then has a maximum range of 320 miles on a single "charge".

    Even taking in the smaller size of the U.S gallon, that 320 miles is going to cost you about £120 in petrol. The NiMH battery for the EV1 held something like 26kWh, which at around 12p/kWh would cost £3.12 ignoring enefficiency of charging. Multiply by 10 for the stanford battery and you're still looking at only £31.20 to get twice as far.

    At that rate, we could easily add a massive margin for ineffeciency, drop in 2 extra seats and a large boot area and still kick the hummer all over the place on range and price/mile.

    Throw in the dwindling reserves of oil, the increase in renewable electricity generation and the fact that you could actually fit an EV1 on the average british road, I think we have a winner and it's not the hummer.

  17. Steve Todd

    Its not just about the weight of the "fuel"

    It's about the weight and efficiency of the motors that convert this into motion as well. Electric motors are more efficient at doing this, smaller and lighter. You can mount the motors directly within wheel hubs and do away with prop shafts.

    If Tesla can build a car with a 200 mile range with current Lithium cells then using the Stanford research you should be able to build a car with 1/4 of the batteries and a 500 mile range. Who wants to drive more than 500 miles in a day?

  18. Mage Silver badge

    Electric Cars only hide the pollution

    Until a substantial proportion of electricity comes from Wave/Wind/Solar & Fusion, then the Electric car produces more pollution and is more expensive apart from the "tme to charge" issue. Unless you have a secured driveway or carriage, charging is a problem too.

    Electric and Hydrogen cars are both impractical apart from the increased pollution. The main areas of pollution increase are the % losses in the electricity network and battery pack on electric cars.

    Lighter Diesels is what we need.

  19. Wade Burchette

    The electric car is not American

    In America, there is one adage: bigger = better. Americans want bigger homes (a fact that has gotten many into trouble and has sent the economy into a recession), they want bigger cars, they want bigger drinks and fries at McDonald's, and so on. The electric car isn't American because it is small.

    I see it all the time. Though I rarely drive during the morning commutes, when I do I see lots of big SUV's that hold 7 but only have 1 person in it. The people complain about gas prices, but they rather pay more at the pump that give up the big vehicle. So they just complain, but do nothing about the problem.

    And lets not forget American's power obsession. Vehicles with tiny engines are so 1970's. Americans love cars that are loud or have a lot of kick to them. So of the cars that do sell, most have lots of horsepower. That extra power doesn't come free, even though engines are more efficient today.

    If GM made an all-electric SUV, it would sell well in some places. Be that as it may, Americans love oil. And making a documentary about your conspiracy theory isn't going to change American's habits.

  20. Neil Robertson


    I have a 7 seater Volvo because I have 4 children and a wife to cart around - this stays at home with my wife while I drive a 55mpg Skoda to work (mainly bought because it was cheap and comfortable). I'd dearly love to work nearer home but I took the job because it has the best long term prospects.

    You're right - I did choose both cars for features, safety and comfort - and economy was way up there on the features list.

  21. Peter Hughes

    nobody killed the damn things

    They're just not cost efficient. At the moment. A battery pack to give you the range and performance people expect or even be prepared to accept from a car is a 10k proposition. At least. And it's really only good for 5 years or so.

  22. Don Mitchell

    Conservation of Energy

    Why do people think an electric car would be more energy efficient? You can burn the fuel directly in your car's engine....or you can burn it in a power plant hundreds of miles away, transmit it over power lines, throught transformers, turn it into chemical energy in batteries, then turn it back into electricity and feed electric motors. Every time you transmit electricity, or convert energy from one from to another, you lose some of it. So the efficiency of the electric car can be questioned from first principles of physics.

    If you really cared about efficiency, you would focus on turning fuel into mechanical energy directly and more efficiently. For example, the use of a turbine engine instead of a piston engine.

  23. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    How many of you watch the Wizard of Oz?

    This entire argument isn't about GM or environuts -- it is about the American Consumer. Consumerism is the failure of our society here. You nutters over there had how many hundreds of wars over religion, land, resources and petty greivances. We watched from a distance -- had to do a little growing up of our own in the 1860s (and 1960s). Your failures have always been intolerance of each other. Ours will be indifference and self-absorption. We like being fat and lazy. We like whatever is shiny-flashy for the moment. We've never, ever had to plan for the future save for a few years in the 1930s and 1940s.

    And most important: our 'economic miracle' is spending now rather than saving for the future. 60 years of 'suburbanization' is the only thing that lead us to our current stature. When the pigeons come home to roost on our rusting Hummers and energy-less rotting McMansions 20 miles from any work or food, we'll figure it out. Until then, let us live in our never-never land for the remaining couple of decades we don't have to think about our children's welfare. Besides, by then, we'll be eating the kids.

  24. Anonymous Coward
    Dead Vulture

    Why u.s car companies cant compete

    Uhhh Gm cant make cars profitable because they are a health care and pensions firm that also happen to make cars. It has been said that £500 of the price of every gm car is the result of the healthcare burden from employees long since retired.

    Too right about the civic - originaly known as the clean vehicle concept (CVC) it was designed as a response to the new efficiency targets brought about during the '70s oil crisis. It was THE ONLY car which was able to meet the targets without a catlytic converter. Unfortunately detroit iron couldn't match this feat which led to the championing of the cat, which made certain people who owned the resources required to make the cats (platinum etc) very rich.

  25. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I for one

    would be happy to drive an electric car on my 21 km daily commute. Unfortunately, by the time I could get through the 40 to 50 minutes of traffic at below freezing or oppressively hot temperatures, the poor thing would have used all its energy store just to keep the cabin livable. But it would be fine for the other four months when the weather keeps me off my bike. That said, I guess that I'll stick with my regular car until they install gas fired heaters and chillers in those 'lectric jobs.

    "Sometimes you have to put a gun to the heads of corporate executives _and_ consumers to get them to make the correct choice."

    Well said, they are far too risk averse. How is it that mp3 players and adapters are only recent additions to cars? Why did my 2000 car come with a cassette, not CD, player from the factory? WTF is with the 'cigarette lighter' style 'power outlet'? It isn't just the drive train that needs a full lower g.i. cleansing. So, is that quote from Pol Pot or Stalin? Tell me, whose eggs do you use to make your omelets?

  26. Roland

    Volvo doing 50mpg?

    Yeah right... Maybe in taking a trip you drove for 50 miles, and you used a couple of gallons of fuel, but a Volvo doing 50mpg? Check the calculations please.

    Last time I checked, a volvo XC90 or equivalent does about 21 mpg on the highway...

    You know what's scary? We own a '05 Dodge Grand Caravan, which can do up to 25mpg on road trips. I haven't found any other car that gives me the same or better mileage while being able to drive 5 people + some luggage around.

    I live in Illinois, and with the winter weather and all it's simply not an option to drive around in a small car all the time. Ground clearance, greater distances between point A and B compared to Europe. Please do not try to compare the driving situation of the Netherlands or England (or anywhere in Europe) to driving in the US. Please take a look at a map, and see what the difference in scale is between these countries.

    also think about the state of the roads themselves. Around here it's pothole heaven. A friend of ours drives a nice sporty European car, using these low profile tires... and therefore is on his third set of tires this year because of flat tires.

    So the cars built in the US are probably meant for a slightly different market and usage profile. Potholes == car built for comfort, squishy suspension. Car will be heavier and bigger. Car is therefore not so suitable for European markets, where everything is built so close together, any car larger than a compact will look out of place.

    we're (my family) trying to be green, but it's difficult in a land this big, with all these county, state and federal laws... You know what? It's almost like getting laws approved for the European Union... There's still a lot of 'my country first' thinking around there. Only here in the US it will be 'my state first'... Until that has been fixed, I think we're stuck with gas guzzlers, and will be tinkering with electric cars.

  27. Glenn Gilbert

    Hydrogen's the future

    Turn the world's deserts into a giant solar panel and export the electricity to the coast where the sea can be turned into hydrogen to be exported to the rest of the world.

    Job done.

  28. Tom Kerrigan


    Maybe the bit I wrote about the Volt in my last post went unnoticed.

    Chevy is releasing an electric car, called the Volt, in 2010. It will solve all of the issues and complaints raised here. You can go to the site for details.

    * It is being built on the next-gen Cobalt platform, meaning it's the size of a regular "compact" American sedan (midsize to Europeans)

    * Its 0-60 time will be around ~8 seconds and it will have a top sustained speed of 100 MPH

    * It will have an electric range of 40 miles but can also run on gas because it has a small, built-in gas generator. (When running on gas, it gets 50 MPG.)

    * Its battery will not be excessively heavy or expensive because it is relatively small--only meant to cover the typical 40 mile use case

    * The battery has a novel chemistry, available TODAY from A123 (not some Stanford research project), which is safer, longer-lasting, and more tolerant of low temperatures than typical lithium-ion batteries

    In short, the whole electric car debate has more or less been resolved and in 2 years there will be very little reason NOT to buy an electric car.

  29. Chris Hipp

    The world needs comprehensive solutions:


  30. Jim


    "It's a lie that's up there with the unleaded fuel is giving you cancer crud that was peddled in the 80s".

    This is a lie?

    Seems that the EPA documented that gasoline contains numerous known and probable carcinogens in 1995 ( and that these carcinogens can easily enter the air either through evaporation or combustion products in engine exhausts gases.

    Simple research demonstrates that the removal of lead from fuel led to an increase in the aromatic and olefin content of fuel. These groups of chemicals contain (or produce through combustion or incomplete combustion) the carcinogens noted by the EPA.

    Is it really that much of a stretch to put this information together to realise that using unleaded fuel increases the amount of carcinogens pump/evaporated into the air we breath and, intuitively, more exposure = more risk of cancer.

  31. AdrianC

    @"System"/Range etc

    You're forgetting one small detail.

    Take one internal combustion powered and one electric powered vehicle, run both across their full range, until both are empty. Yes, you may get a similar distance.

    Now comes the crunch. Recharge time.

    At the same time you plug the electric car in, start to fill the internal combustion vehicle with fuel.

    Five-ten minutes later, when the internal combustion vehicle's full of juice, unplug the electric car.

    Let's go...

    Mind if I take the internal combustion vehicle for this second round?

    I doubt you'll get off the bottom of the motorway sliproad - whilst I'll be ready for another full range.

  32. Matt

    @ Roland

    @ Roland:

    "Check the calculations please" - May I politely suggest you do so too? Neil Robertson was talking about UK Gallons, which are larger than US Gallons (4.54L vs 3.78L), giving far higher MPG figures. It's an elementary mistake that even respectable motoring journals make (In the UK, the BBC's "Top Gear"* committed a US/UK Gallon howler a few weeks ago).

    E.g. the said 25 MPG for your car would equate to 30.0 MPG in the UK.

    His 50 MPG Volvo would return 41.6 MPG were he to fill up in the US.

    (I suspect Neil has a diesel Volvo, which gives a better MPG than a similar-sized petrol engine).

    As for different driving conditions in the US: An old girlfriend's parents lived in the middle of rural Wales. Pothole heaven, very rarely was the road gritted and a 40 Mile round-trip to the store was not uncommon. In order to get to work, her dad needed a something with a powerful engine, and lots of lovely ground clearance. Wales may fit several times over in one county in the US, but the driving conditions in the more rural parts of the UK aren't that dissimilar.

    One thing that does contribute to the fuel economy of 'European' cars, however, is what you guys in the US call 'stick shift'. Before you all flame me, yes, theoretically automatic transmission should be easier on the fuel consumption. But it isn't because it encourages late braking and harsh acceleration/deceleration, and of course you are permanently using the engine to brake (Engine braking is a useful technique, as practised by Police response drivers, but boy does hit the fuel bill hard). Whenever I visit the US, I notice how late drivers tend to leave slowing down, e.g. before a stop/traffic light, compared with the way European drivers have to move down through the gears and gently bring themselves to a stop.

    Also, as mentioned, in Europe we drive Diesels a lot, which are generally more efficient (converting fuel stored in tank to useful output at the crank) than their petrol brethren, despite the increased weight. Another reason for this is the fact that diesel fuel is cheaper than petrol (Except in the UK, due to lack of refinery capacity. Bastards!).

    @Don Mitchell

    "If you really cared about efficiency, you would focus on turning fuel into mechanical energy directly and more efficiently. For example, the use of a turbine engine instead of a piston engine." They tried this. Unfortunately, turbine engines have a power/rev curve that make them totally unsuitable for use in a car. They like high revs and don't like heavy, moving off from the lights pulling a trailer, kind of loads. Don't get me wrong, a turbine-powered car nearly won Le Mans in 1965, but their power curve keeps them more suited to helicopters rather than cars. Now a hybrid powered by a turbine, that's a different proposition...

    Right, geek-out over. That coat with the mittens on a bit of string's mine...

    *Cue flame war on whether Clarkson, Hammond et al constitute a 'respectable motoring journal'.

  33. system


    "Maybe the bit I wrote about the Volt in my last post went unnoticed."

    Maybe it's just not that impressive. The EV1 was limited to 80mph, did 55-75 miles in the 1st generation, 0-60 in 8 seconds etc. Apart from possibly being better in cold weather, the volt hasn't made any major improvements on what was available 10 years ago. Besides, chevy is a GM company, what's to stop them killing the volt off as well?

  34. Alistair Silver badge

    efficiencies are relative

    Oil burning cars need a ***heck*** of a lot more crap installed in them to run. Electric cars typically DONT require the same supporting hardware -- i.e. transmissions, cooling systems, oil recycling systems, brake management systems etc...

    Hummer efficient?? ever?? not bloody likely. The number of additional systems added to the baseline concept of box on 4 wheels, with motor to turn wheels is conceptually horrendous. It is these additional systems ***and the energy required to create them and run them*** that makes the Hummer an ecological disaster.

    Certainly producing the electricty to charge your electric vehicle is a point - lets get back to sanity, damn few electricity producing organizations use oil as a source, coal perhaps, natural gas perhaps, hydro and nuclear certainly. More electricty producers are looking at alternatives, (Holland and the south end of britan) while these are some time from coming online, these are coming. There are tidal research pools in several countries. California too has quite a number of alternative electrical sources, some in use and worthwhile, some slightly off the wall.

    It is not likely that in the near future anyone in northamerica (I'm canadian and can include canadians in this brush) will be willing to buy a vehicle with a charge range of 75Km. My personal commute to my workplace is 160K roundtrip -- but I'm a crazy bugger. Further the concept of 'electric car' translates in marketese as ' piece of crap' over here...

    What is needed? -- somewhat more research on batteries and charge/discharge cycles and overall discharge capabilities, and better marketing. Certainly the 'hybrids' that are being marketed over here are quite clearly being driven to market *not* because they are the better choice, but rather because they continue to use hydrocarbon based fuels.

  35. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    "Saving the Planet", My Arse

    People really should stop going on about 'saving the planet'. Earth was doing pretty damn well for it'self for a few billion years before humans came about, and it will continue to thrive well after we're gone.

    What people really mean is 'Saving the Human Race', they just don't want to appear too self-centred.

    Get over yourselves, admit you're little more than a temporary cold to the likes of Earth, and stop giving the Government excuses to make my cigs and petrol more expensive!

  36. Don Casey

    Where is all that electricity going to come from?

    I don't know about the rest of you, but I live in California (which is fairly green. for the US), and I remember the electicity blackouts and brownouts of a few years ago. And I watch every summer the ISO website showing how close we come to hitting capacity.

    If you take a large percentage of internal-combustion vehicles off the road in this state, and replace them with electrics, exactly where is that electricity going to come from?

    Also, I wonder about all the economic analysis based on electric charges of a few pennies; my marginal kWh rate is over $0.35!

  37. Nexox Enigma

    I'll keep using gas for now, thanks

    @Don Mitchell:

    Actually jet turbines use a thermal cycle that is thermodynamically limited to a lower efficiency than the Otto or Diesel cycles that piston-type engines use. Currently they do run just about the same though, and the turbine has some issues that would make it hard to use in a car (like 60% of the max torque available at idle, slow rpm increases, potential for launching high speed bits of metal everywhere if something breaks or gets off balance, plus loads of gyroscope effect)

    @Glenn Gilbert:

    The massive desert solar panel thing is a neat idea. One of my friends calculated that you need something like 0.6% of the state of Nevada to power the entire US. And I'd bet that there aren't a lot of people that would miss 10%, or possibly even 50% of Nevada, since it is just desert. The problem is that this would cost trillions of dollars, and nobody is in any sort of position to even start this sort of investment yet. It turns out that people don't like paying a lot for electricity, so ~30 cents (US) per KWh from the solar Nevada idea is a little bit less agreeable than ~4 cents from coal and nuclear. Not that many people care enough about the environment to take a 10 fold hit in their electric bill. Plus there would have to be some truly epic energy storage systems for that whole night time thing.

    On Electric Car Efficiency:

    People have mentioned it before, but I happen to have some decent numbers for this stuff. A reasonable gasoline engine today can be expected to get a little above 30% efficiency these days. They generally spend 1/3 of the gas energy driving the wheels, 1/3 heating the radiator(s) and 1/3 on hot gas out the tailpipe. Diesels get more like 40%, and with ultra low sulfur fuels that the US finally got, combined with some neat new engine technology, they run very clean.

    An electric car gets it's energy from the grid. In the US that mostly means coal, and natural gas, with coal dominating the market. Coal is a pretty dirty fuel, and released about 2x the carbon per KJ than natural gas or oil, plus not even all of the coal plants in the US have sulfur scrubbers installed yet.

    Regular steam-cycle plants, like most coal, oil, and natural gas are thermodynamically limited to about 40% efficiency, and that is just for the new ones. Most of the power stations in the country are over 20 years old now, and can be expected to get about 30% efficiency. Then you've got 3-5% losses in transmission lines, 20-30% losses in charging batteries (for very good batteries), and 10% loss for driving motors at their peak efficiency rpm. Add that all up and straight physics will guarantee that your electric car gets lower efficiency than a plain oil fueled one, plus it will probably end up releasing around twice as much carbon into the air, depending on exactly what percentage of the energy comes from coal.

    Electric vehicles are just a bad idea. The best foreseeable replacement for gas cars would be a fuel cell, since those can theoretically be pushed to nearly 100% efficient. For now the hydrogen has to come from electricity, but that is a highly efficient process, so if people can figure out how to store and ship hydrogen while pushing fuel efficiency, we could see a 1:1 competition with petrol efficiency, and potentially reasonably similar range, depending on how the storage comes along.

  38. Chris



    Back in the days when job security meant something more than "you'll still have this job by the end of next week, probably...", it wasn't such a big deal to lay down your family roots in a home near to where you worked. These days, with a more fluid job market which can and does force people to change working locations on a regular basis, expecting people to then relocate their homes every few years just to keep the daily commute down to a few miles is crazy. That assumes, of course, that everyone in the household works in the same area and relocating the home wouldn't then force someone else to start commuting long distances instead...

    Sure, *some* people make a conscious decision to live long distances from where they work, but many people would gladly live closer to where they work if the houses in that area were affordable or the area wasn't a total dive - very few people actually like spending hours stuck in heavy traffic, or wedged into a packed commuter train/bus, but it's a less disagreeable alternative to driving yourself into debt trying to keep up the rent/mortgage repayments, or wondering how many of your windows will have been broken/doors kicked in/walls daubed with grafitti by the time you get home from work that day.


    Perhaps in the US the only 7-seaters Volvo offer are the likes of the XC90, but over on this side of the pond (where our Volvo driver appears to reside) you can get a V70 estate with two extra seats in the back, making it a genuine 7-seater. If you then throw in a diesel engine, 50mpg becomes quite achievable...

  39. Steve Todd

    @Glenn Gilbert - NO Hydrogen isn't the future

    Firstly where do you get your hydrogen from? You crack water with electricity, so it's just another way of storing electric power.

    Second it leaks. Hydrogen molecules are so small that nothing can keep them all in. Put a hydrogen car in a sealed garage and you'll end up with an explosive hydrogen/air mix. In a week or two of standing still your full car becomes empty, without getting any useful work out of it.

    Thirdly it gets absorbed by metals in which it is in contact. This makes even an empty tank dangerous. Unless you de-gas the metal then you can get fires and explosions if you try to work on them.

    Oh, and for those idiots who say "electric power only moves the source of pollution", your car manages to convert only about 12-15% of the energy in petrol into movement. Even allowing for losses in transmission and charging, fossil fuel power stations are significantly more efficient than that. Throw nuclear and renewable power into the equation and things improve even more.

  40. Stephen Ware
    Thumb Down

    Re Conservation of Energy

    'Why do people think an electric car would be more energy efficient? You can burn the fuel directly in your car's engine....or you can burn it in a power plant hundreds of miles away, transmit it over power lines, throught transformers, turn it into chemical energy in batteries, then turn it back into electricity and feed electric motors.'

    For two reasons. We are not just talking about efficiency. If electric cars took off large scale in inner cities then reduction in air pollution would be enourmous and easly offset some so called loss of efficiencies you are quoting. Secondly its easier to clean up a dozen or so power stations (By legislation or otherwise) than millions of cars spread across dozens of manafacturers with a vested interest in keeping the status quo

  41. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Electric Cars Green?

    Anyone who buys that crock is mentally retarded hippy.

    Where does electricity come from? The Power Grid. Every time power is converted it is lessened.

    BATTERIES - One of the most environmentally unfriendly things in the world, and you want a huge one in every car. Genius freaks - go get your sandals!

    Vehicle Life - As said cars in the UK just keep on going and going and going. Electric cars are a crock of crap, battery dies, dump it. Seen as a car loses about 25% of its value just buy driving the thing out of the forecourt.

    BTW WTF is a gallon? Is it some kind of wooden boat?

    And who is this GM? Is the car market now an RPG?

    How about someone makes a real _public_ transport network and STFU about cars.


  42. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Physics, @Glenn

    First: Turning all the world's deserts into solar panels. WTF? The energy burden of manufacturing and installing them would be so massive that one would need likely more than a century to make the project pay for itself. Also, what about the people, animals, and other ecosystems that already live in these places?

    Next: Kudos to the fellow who brought up the law of conservation of matter and energy. It's astounding how many people in this thread apparently flunked high school physics. There ain't no such thing as a free lunch.

    Last: Yes, it's really to bash Americans. We're warlike, wasteful, ignorant and fat. My deepest apologies to the rest of the world-- I can really tell you've been wanting to hear that. ;-)

    Just a point to clarify, however: One could fit the green and pleasant land of Britain into my home state about three times, and maybe more if you got into fractional portions of Britain. My own job often requires days in excess of three hundred miles worth of driving, while carrying heavy tools and equipment. I'm not ashamed to admit that I can only afford one car; does it make me a reprehensible person that I purchased one that serves my needs of both range and capacity?

  43. Lennart Sorensen

    We already have better choices.

    So far the GM Volt sounds unimpressive. My current car (a 2002 Jetta TDI) already gets between 50 and 60 MPG, has a range of about 600 miles (1000km is not difficult on 55L), takes maybe 11s to get to 60 (or 100km/h) although newer models with more power do it better. This is not even using current technology for diesels but rather 15 to 20 year old stuff.

    As for the idea a dodge caravan is an efficient choice, try a dodge sprinter instead. I am sure it gets much better mileage and can seat more than 7 if desired, with better handling and comfort and much higher reliability. Looks a lot better too.

  44. Richard Kilpatrick
    Thumb Up


    A well-written article, I thought. However, my take on it is simple:

    In 2003, I owned alongside a couple of others, a 1990 Golf GTi 8v 5 door. A practical, compact, reasonably quick car with no catalytic convertor, no airbags (but still considered a safe car by 1984 standards, when it was released). It returned a consistent 44mpg, returning 52mpg on one 20 mile run where I drove to get the best returns. I ran it on Shell Optimax, since the knock-sensor equipped GTi was designed in an era of choice between leaded and unleaded and would happily use the higher octane fuel.

    In 2004, I got a VW Beetle Cabriolet. A 1.6i model, it did 30mpg. I considered this dreadful for the size of car.

    However, look at the new car costs as well as weight. The 1990 Golf GTi Cabriolet, a 1.8, fuel injected compact convertible cost £13,995. The 2004 Beetle equivalent cost £15,495, despite inflation, increases in earnings, housing costs, the supposed "environmental concerns" of car ownership, and much, much more material used and equipment provided.

    How can the car manufacturers possibly hope to innovate? They are charging a relative pittance for their products. The 1990s saw a mini-Malaise era for Europe, with astoundingly directionless designs (the original Renault Laguna, the 1988 Passat, Saab's 900/9-3) and some truly awful cars. Cars like the Honda Jazz and Mercedes A-Class, offering real innovation in the marketplace, are naturally quite expensive.

    However, for 2003 driving conditions, my little Golf was perfect. The reasons to not keep on driving it were largely based around it being a 14 year old CAR, not a 19 year old DESIGN. If I could have bought a brand new one, I would have done (not counting the CIti Golf).

    To save the planet from car users, we need to:

    Make new cars considerably more expensive, either via taxation or natural market forces (pay the workers what they need, accept that shipping cars for a US market from a US marque from Korea should not be required when that US marque is laying off workers in US plants - the same theory as "food movement" applies; environmentally it is better to make products for local consumption locally and cut out that stage of travel and energy consumption).

    Change working habits. Work from home or provide smaller, local offices.

    Provide viable alternatives. I know the US is even worse than the UK for public transport; Europe and Eastern Europe often show genuinely workable alternatives.

    And finally:

    Accept that cars are dangerous. Stop making the body in white twice as heavy to try and save the occupants if they screw up. Train drivers correctly, accept that sometimes car driving will cause death, and make the cars smaller, more efficient and space-efficient.

    These aren't magical fixes, but I think that making new cars more expensive would have a knock-on effect of increasing used-car values, and making maintaining used cars viable. For many US/Canadian readers, for whom the social norm would be to find cars up to 7 years old utterly respectable, and in the latter case may indeed have financed their new car over that period, the attitude of British car owners would probably be horrifying.

    Oh, and if you can, drive a Japanese import. IMO, the decision to drive a perfectly good (often far, far better than a UK example of the same sort of car at the same age) car which is deemed almost worthless in Japan is very environmentally friendly, despite the shipping to the UK. It means that the car will almost certainly last another 5-10 years if correctly maintained, rather than perhaps being scrapped in a year or two in Japan.

  45. Jim Black


    The situation driving in Europe cannot be realistically compared to driving in the greater United States. The conditions are generally significantly different.

    The UK at 241,530 sq Km land area is slightly smaller than the state of Oregon. The UK population (estimated) is 60,776,238 for a population density of ~251.6 persons per sq Km. The US lower 48 (excludes Alaska, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico) is about 7,663,941 sq Km land area. Lower 48 population is about 299,204,396 for a population density of ~39 people per sq Km. Yes there are large variations in some areas including sections of some states that have less than one person per sq Km.

    Our largest cities (New York, Chicago, etc.) have public transportation in taxis, buses, etc., and the use of individual automobiles is reduced although not non-existent. When you get to the smaller cities and towns, public transportation is rare to completely missing. Distances are not short and commute times by bicycle would take too much time. Plus, the ubiquitous pickup truck is sometimes the only family transportation that the family can afford.

    Although much is made of the style and features of new vehicles, for the vast majority of people the choice has to be made of "how much can I get for the amount I can afford to spend". Another equation is safety - in a collision, the smaller car almost always loses. Hummer's are nice vehicles but not that many people can afford them. Not many people people in the UK drive a Rolls.

    Will electric vehicles ever take off here in the US? I believe so, when the durability of the batteries, the charge time of said batteries (includes hybrids) and when the general resistance to buying something new and untested by length of service starts fading. If the price of fuel begins to approach the prices now existing in Europe, then the size of internal combustion driven autos will come down and the electrics will begin to sell. But mandating anything by law or by pressure always brings out a resistance in independent people. There is also the factor that anything that irritates the environmental wackos delights the common people of the US.

  46. Neil Robertson

    50mpg Volvo - no joke

    V70 D5 2.4 Turbo Diesel - 163 BHP so it moves all right too. I've driven 90000 miles in the thing so it's not a one-off either, but with a gentle right foot and smooth driving at about 70MPH I get a steady 50mpg. I've ogled the XC90's in the showroom then looked up the performance & economy figures in disbelief and stuck with what I've got.

    I seem to remember Americans have smaller gallons than the British, which would skew the figures somewhat - we have 4.55 litres in a gallon.

  47. Ade

    here's an idea....

    Sorry peeps... thinking.... why not have an electric car with a removable pack that you buy with a ... say £50 deposit... and when your range is running low you pop to a fuel station (petrol/lpg/elec) and swap your depleted pack with a fresh charged one for a nominal fee and then you have no... 'hours to recharge...' problem...and you have your 5 min fuel station visit., thus extending your range to complete your journey.... if you knew you were going on a journey that there would be no stations available, you would buy another pack.. with £50 deposit.... to have in the car to assist on your way.... then going back to your day to day commute, you would return the extra pack and receive your deposite back.....

    see any holes in that??

  48. J

    Driving habits

    Yep, that is the problem, mostly. As someone said above, how many times there are huge SUVs with one or two people inside? Do people really need that to go to Food Lion? (store here that only sells... guess it?) Got your first baby? People start bugging you to get a minivan, seriously! It happens with a Brazilian friend of mine here, married to an American guy -- his family keeps asking if they're not gonna get a minivan. She tells him that if he buys one, he can stuff it... Hell, I grew up with two other kids and a Grandma traveling in the back seat of VW cars like Passat and its corresponding station wagon (when we got a bit bigger), and it wasn't any disaster... OK, we Brazilians are not as fat, but nonetheless...

    What about people going to the movies in Hummer H2s or those humongous pickup trucks? More than once I've seen one or two Hummers, invariably taking a bit more than one parking spot, at the movie theater's parking lot. In at least one of the cases I saw only two people coming out of one of them. WTF? And then people complain about the price of gas, which is about $2,85 here now.

    I'm all for having the vehicle that suits your REAL needs (and not just to compensate for the size of your, er, self-esteem), which is quite different from this ridiculous culture of have-to-have-bigger.

  49. Geoff Edwards

    electric car vs petroil

    Not viable, expensive? Some sort of electric tricycle could be built. There is a diesel motorbike that can do 1,000 km on a tankful. We could possibly use little electric cars for local use. But in the UK, why should consumers opt for buying more than one vehicle when they will have to pay double road tax and their second vehicle will be subject to insurance with ( I may be wrong) initially no entitlement to a no claims bonus. No conspiracy, just no proper incentive for folks to buy two vehicles. And we do (most of us) require a vehicle that can take us and our family on holiday etc.

  50. Bas Scheffers

    Most families have two cars

    Most families have two cars.

    You can have one EV for the daily commute for one person, shopping, etc. and the other petrol vehicle that normally gets limited similar use, but is there if you do need to take the entire family out, go somewhere far or need to haul something big.

    It would work very well for me and that is what I plan to do once the bloody things are available.


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