The headline caught my attention like few do: “Oh-so quick and even carbon-free.” The article discussed Tesla Motors’ Roadster®, the $110,000 beauty that uses lithium-ion battery technology—6,831 individual cells, to be exact—to power a 375-VAC induction motor that redlines at 14,000 RPMs and develops 288 peak horsepower. And indeed it is quick. It goes from 0 to 60 in 3.9 seconds. Top speed is 125 MPH. Cool!
The automobile has come quite a long way since the first ones were developed for commercial production around a century ago.
At that time steam, gasoline, and battery were contending for first place. I doubt any production records from that era exist, but if the land speed record is any indication, it didn’t take long for gasoline to crush the others. It sounds quaint now, but the first official land speed record was a whopping 39.24 MPH, which was made in an electric car in 1898. Electrics were used to break that record until 1902, when a steam-powered car took top honors when it clocked 75.06 MPH. The first internal-combustion car broke the land speed record later that year. Electrics were finished, and steam broke the record just once more, in 1906.
Steam wasn’t destined for longevity. The early ones weren’t too easy to operate; in addition to supplying fuel for the boiler and water for the condenser, the driver had to monitor various gauges that read temperature and pressure and make adjustments to keep one running efficiently. One popular quip, which was probably about 50 percent fact and 50 percent a reflection of the times, went something like this: A woman can drive an electric-powered car, a man can drive a gasoline-powered car, but it takes an engineer to drive a steam-powered car.
Gasoline dominated the industry for decades, with diesel running a distant second place. Enter the hybrid vehicle, which uses some conventional fuel (either gasoline or diesel) and electricity. Hybrid owners rely less on petroleum products than do owners of conventional automobiles, and therefore get some protection from petroleum price volatility. It also helps reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil. No sense in sending even more money to Canada and Mexico. That’s right, Canada and Mexico. We all know that finding oil in the Middle East is about as difficult as poking a stick into the ground, but the fact is that the U.S. purchases 2.5 million barrels of crude per day from our neighbor to the north and 1 million per day from our neighbor to the south. If you fear that all of our petrodollars fund dictators and terrorists in the Middle East, it’s not like that. Our top Middle East supplier, Saudi Arabia, is fifth on the list at 848,000 barrels per day.
Back to the cars. Purely electric cars don’t rely on liquid fuels at all. They are formally known as electric vehicles (EVs) or battery electric vehicles (BEVs). These seemed like a great idea decades ago, especially in the aftermath of the oil embargo of 1974, and they have been around for years, but they haven’t caught on in a big way. According to the Energy Information Administration, just 56,000 were in use in the U.S in 2007. By contrast, hybrid car sales in the U.S. hit 293,000 in 2009.
Despite the sluggish rate of acceptance, the big advantage of EVs, of course, is that they represent a carbon-free alternative, according to the aforementioned article headline. Or do they? Hey, electricity has to come from somewhere, and generally this means your local power utility. And here in the U.S., more than 44 percent of our electricity comes from coal, a carbon-based energy source if ever there was one.