The Housing Chronicles Blog: When the electric car arrives, housing will have to adapt

Sunday, September 13, 2009

When the electric car arrives, housing will have to adapt

After many years of fits and starts, it seems that a robust electric car to effectively compete with the century-old-plus internal combustion engine may be around the corner. When it does -- and loses the bulk required to port around parts specific to gas- and diesel-powered engines -- cars could become smaller and change in appearance. But many will also need to be powered by on-site hook-ups at service stations, business offices, malls and homes, so land use will also have to adapt.

So what could these changes mean for the future? From an article in The Economist:

IN 1995 Joseph Bower and Clayton Christensen, two researchers at the Harvard Business School, invented a new term: “disruptive technology”. This is an innovation that fulfils the requirements of some, but not most, consumers better than the incumbent does. That gives it a toehold, which allows room for improvement and, eventually, dominance. The risk for incumbent firms is that of the proverbial boiling frog. They may not know when to switch from old to new until it is too late...

Internal-combustion engines have dominated mechanised road transport for a century, but the past year or so has seen the arrival of a dribble of vehicles driven by electric motors...these are the products of small, new firms, or of established non-carmaking companies...But next year the big boys, encouraged by legislative pressure to produce low-emission vehicles, will leap out of the boiling water and join in. Their progress towards greenery will be an important theme of the Frankfurt motor show this month.

Bold claims are being made. Carlos Ghosn, who leads the Renault-Nissan alliance, thinks 10% of new cars bought in 2020 will be pure-battery vehicles. A report by IDTechEx, a research consultancy based in Cambridge, England, reckons a third of the cars made in 2025 will be electrically powered in one way or another. If that trend continues, liquid fuels might become as obsolete as photographic film...

Instead of a petrol engine, with its widespread infrastructure of filling stations providing the security blanket, why not build new infrastructure to refuel cars with new, fully charged batteries?

The leading proponent of this idea is Better Place. This firm, which is based in California, has been scouring the world for car markets that are, in its terminology, “islands” and offering to fit them with networks of car-charging and battery-swapping stations that will use robots to exchange exhausted batteries for fully charged ones in seconds.

Better Place defines an island as a place with an edge that motorists rarely cross, and the first to be picked by Shai Agassi, the firm’s founder, was Israel. Though more of the country’s edge is land than sea, few cars leave by either route. Israel is now being fitted out with the Better Place infrastructure. Meanwhile, Nissan is tooling up to start building cars with batteries of the appropriate dimensions, for sale starting next year, and Tesla plans to offer swappable batteries on the Model S.

Other “islands” that Better Place has signed deals with include Denmark, Hawaii and Australia. The firm also has a partnership with Tokyo’s largest taxi operator, Nihon Kotsu, to provide swappable batteries for a new fleet of electric taxis which will take to the streets of the Japanese capital. With some 60,000 taxis in Tokyo, this could turn into a huge market.

Besides providing drivers with secure refuelling, the Better Place approach has a second advantage. Separating ownership of the battery from ownership of the car changes the economics of electric vehicles. If you rent the battery rather than buying it, that becomes a running cost (like petrol) and the sticker price of the car drops accordingly. This might not matter to a sophisticated economist, who would amortise the battery cost over the life of the vehicle. Many people, though, are swayed by the number they write on the cheque that they give to the dealer.

Better Place, indeed, plans to go further. It will charge for its services (battery and electricity) by the kilometre travelled. The cost per kilometre will be lower than for petrol vehicles, and if you sign up for enough kilometres a month, it will throw in the car for nothing...

Owners with garages or driveways can top up at night using the domestic supply. The long recharge time will thus not be an issue, and the electricity will be cheap, off-peak power. Even if more expensive daytime power is needed (some office and supermarket car parks are already being fitted with recharging points, in anticipation of mounting demand), the cost of such juice is still favourable compared with petrol. Only for garageless owners does recharging become complicated. They will need street-based electrical infrastructure, and a lack of this will limit the spread of electric vehicles to start with...

Without the cost and complexity of many of the parts hitherto required to make a car, the shape of the automotive industry could be transformed as much as cars are. As for the oil companies, if the visionaries are correct, they risk finding themselves in the wrong business. Some researchers already have battery materials they reckon could be recharged in the time it takes to freshen up and have a snack at a service station. If they are right, the need for even a range-extender vanishes.

That is still a biggish “if”, of course. The efficiency of internal-combustion engines is improving, too—and as the advert below shows, electric cars have come and gone in the past. But propelling modern transport by means of serial explosions in an array of tin-cans does seem an incredibly primitive way of doing things. The time is ripe for a change.

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