Will plug-in automobiles be a success?

Will plug-in cars be a success?

If by success, we mean “sell lots of vehicles” the answer is probably “no” unless the price comes down a lot–say 50% from today’s prices, so that price is in line with what common people can afford. People don’t pay more for a car than the loan officer will approve for a loan, plus their available down payment. Today’s high price puts plug-ins out of the price range for most people unless there are huge government subsidies–subsidies that governments cannot afford. The cars have other drawbacks–like limited range and the possible need for expensive battery replacement long after the warranty has expired–further cutting back on the marketability of the cars.

The high cost of plug in vehicles is not just the batteries–it is the cost of the cars themselves. Unless these costs can be brought down, the use of batteries with lower capacity to recapture braking energy and to provide an acceleration boost, similar to the way today’s Prius does today, may be a better choice, and is likely to produce a car which is salable to a wider range of potential buyers.

Even with their drawbacks, I expect plug-in cars will find at least a small market, for a number of reasons that I will explain in this post. One of these reasons is that many people believe that plug-in automobiles will reduce CO2 emissions. In my view, this belief is false–but this belief, as well as a number of other hopes and fears, are likely to lead a steady interest in plug-in automobiles by those wealthy enough to afford them, as well as support by politicians who want to appear to be doing something useful.

The Cost Problem with Plug-In Electric Automobiles

A major issue is the high front-end cost of plug-in electric autos. The government cannot possibility afford to pay subsidies to a large number of auto owners, and auto companies cannot expect to offer cut-rate deals, once they are selling very many of the vehicles. The current Nissan Leaf’s base list price (before subsidies) is $35,200, which includes the cost of a 24 kWh battery estimated to cost $15,600 (or $650 per kWh). The Chevy Volt has a base price of $40,280, which includes a 16 kWh battery estimated to cost $10,000 (or $625 per kWh).

Figure 1. Breakdown of Nissan Leaf Battery Costs according to Wall Street Journal

According to the WSJ article High Battery Cost Curbs Electric Cars

. . . researchers such as Mr. Whitacre, the National Academies of Science and even some car makers aren’t convinced [the high cost of batteries will come down], mainly because more than 30% of the cost of the batteries comes from metals such as nickel, manganese and cobalt. (Lithium makes up only a small portion of the metals in the batteries.)

Prices for these metals, which are set on commodities markets, aren’t expected to fall with increasing battery production—and may even rise as demand grows, according to a study by the Academies of Science released earlier this year and engineers familiar with battery production.

We know that metals costs are closely related to oil costs, because oil is used in their extraction. So reducing battery costs may be a challenge. And it is not just battery costs that are high–it is the rest of the car cost that is high-priced as well, especially for the Volt, which runs on either gasoline or electricity (but only for 35 miles on electricity). Furthermore, at current pricing, it is doubtful that auto manufacturers are making money on the cars. They likely will need cost decreases, just to be able to keep sales prices at their current levels, if they are to earn a reasonable profit.

If sales prices remain at their current levels, and the government is not able to keep up subsidies, monthly payments to buy the cars will put the cars out of reach for many buyers. For example, if a person starts with a $35,000 car and a $5,000 down payment (or a $40,000 car and a $10,000 down payment), the amount to be financed will be $30,000. The monthly payment will be $753.87 (assuming 6% sales tax on $35,000; 6% interest on loan, and 4 year term). How many buyers can afford this high a monthly payment?

The second problem comes on resale of the vehicle. According to the calculator I used, the market value of the (originally $35,000 car) after 4 years will be $19,600. But how many people will want to buy a four-year old car for $19,600, knowing that they may have to buy a new battery for the car for $10,000 or $15,600 (or a refurbished one, for a little less)? Prius has had very good “lasting power” with its NiMH battery, with batteries said to last up to 180,000 miles, but it is not as clear that lithium-ion batteries will last that long, according to this article.

There are other problems from the point of used car buyers. Many potential used car buyers don’t have garages for their cars, making charging more difficult if there is not a commercial charging location near-by. Apartment building owners could theoretically add charging capability, and put in the capability to bill the costs back to the appropriate owner, but unless there are a lot of potential plug-in buyers looking for this service, it is difficult to see this happen.

Loan terms for a used cars are shorter than for new cars (often 36 months), putting the financing of expensive used cars out of the range of less well-off buyers, as well. Interest rates may also be higher.

Both Nissan and Chevy have put together better than market leasing arrangements for their new Leaf and Volt, in which they apply the full $7,000 rebate to the three-year lease term, and assume generous residual values. But even at these prices, the cost of the lease plus the electricity for the Nissan Leaf is more than the cost of a Nissan Versa (the corresponding non-plug in electric car) plus the cost of gasoline, unless gasoline costs average higher than $5.07 per gallon over the three-year period (or $5.97 per gallon, if the Leaf owner has to pay the cost of road repairs, in addition to electricity).

Lease comparison calculations–for those interested:

A Nissan Leaf leases for $349 month, after taking full credit for the $7,500 rebate and a $1999 initial payment. A Nissan Versa would lease for $200 month, with a $1999 initial payment. The monthly gasoline cost of the Nissan Versa (assuming 1,000 miles of travel, a fuel cost of $3.63 gallon, and 30 miles per gallon for the Nissan Versa) would be $121, and the lease cost plus fuel cost would be $321. The Nissan Leaf would use electricity estimated at 2 cents a mile, or $20, so the cost of the Nissan Leaf lease, plus its fuel costs would be $369 month. Thus, the monthly cost would be $48 higher with a Nissan Leaf compared to a Versa at a fuel cost of $3.63 month.

Road maintenance and repairs average about 3 cents a mile or $30 month for 1,000 miles of travel, based on a comparison of Highway and Public Street construction costs to vehicle miles traveled. These are to some extent covered by gasoline costs, but are not included in the electric pricing. If the Leaf owner had to pay for road maintenance costs in addition, the total cost of the Leaf would be $78 higher. To bring the Versa cost up to the cost of the Leaf, a person would need a price of an average gasoline price of $5.07 during the three-year period, not including road maintenance costs, or $5.97 including road maintenance costs.

If Saving Gasoline is a Goal

Non plug-in hybrids, such as today’s non-plug in Toyota Prius, require much less batter capacity than plug-ins–about 1.5 kWh compared to 16 kWh for the Chevy Volt, and 24 kWh for the Nissan Leaf. This lower battery requirement keeps the cost of the vehicle lower, and keeps the replacement cost of the battery lower. If the real issue is saving gasoline, it may be that use of cars such as today’s Prius provide more “bang for the buck,” and are also be more salable to second-hand vehicle buyers. According to John Peterson, there are five generic vehicle configurations, each with a typical fuel savings:

Figure 2. John Petersen's list of vehicle configurations and fuel savings.

Peterson makes the following comparison. If a car is driven 12,000 miles a year and gets 30 miles to a gallon, it will use 400 gallons of fuel a year. If there are 96 kWh of batteries available to reduce fuel consumption (the amounts are scalable):

  • 96 kWh of batteries would be enough for a fleet of 64 Prius-class hybrids that will each save 160 gallons of fuel per year and generate a societal fuel savings of 10,240 gallons per year;
  • 96 kWh of batteries would be enough for a fleet of six Volt-class plug-in hybrids that will each save 300 gallons of fuel per year and generate a societal fuel savings of 1,800 gallons per year; and
  • 96 kWh of batteries would be enough for a fleet of four Leaf class electric vehicles that will each save 400 gallons of fuel per year and generate a societal fuel savings of 1,600 gallons per year.

Thus, if high battery costs present a problem from the point of view of automobile salability, or if battery supply is constrained, it would seem to make more sense to use batteries in Prius-style hybrids, rather than in plug-in vehicles.

Can We Expect Plug In Automobiles to Reduce CO2Emissions?

Many people believe that plug-in automobiles will reduce CO2 emissions, and will buy the cars, with this belief. I disagree with the assessment, however. I expect that using plug-in cars will raise CO2 emissions. My argument is as follows:

World oil production is basically maxed out. The world will extract as much oil from the ground as it is able. If you or I don’t use a model with a gasoline engine, and instead buy a plug-in model, admittedly there will be a reduction in the gasoline that you or I would use. But we live in a world market for oil. If we don’t buy the oil, the oil will not be left in the ground. Instead, the price of oil may drop by a tiny bit, and the oil will be bought by someone else. In fact, if we save money by buying electricity instead of oil, we may ourselves use the leftover money to buy something else that uses oil.  Because world oil production is now virtually flat (inelastic), regardless of oil price, the fact that we save oil doesn’t really make any difference in the whole scheme of things. Unless there is a fairly large drop in price, there will be no drop in world oil production and consumption.

I would argue that what electric cars do is allow us to raise our demand for other sources of energy (mostly coal and natural gas–sources of supply which are more elastic), so that we end up burning those sources faster, in an attempt to allow more people to have cars, without exhausting our liquid fuel supply, or to allow people who have cars to drive them further.

Of course, if we simply compare the emissions of plug-in cars to emissions of cars with internal combustion engines (ICE), there will be appear to be appear to be a CO2 emission savings per car, with the amount depending on what fuel is used for electricity (coal, natural gas, nuclear, wind, etc.). We don’t have the choice of using more ICEs though–our other choice is to “do without.” And furthermore, the oil we would have used stays in the world supply, to be used elsewhere.

But many people do not make the comparison I make, and will want to purchase plug-in vehicles, on the assumption that because of the efficiency of electric engines, there is at least a small savings in CO2, relative to ICEs, even with coal as a source of electricity.

Other Reasons for Wanting Plug-In Vehicles

Apart from these issues, it seems like there are several other reasons why some people will choose to buy plug-in vehicles or will argue that subsidies should be used, to encourage greater use by many drivers. These reasons include the following:

Save money on fuel. Is the purpose of plug-in vehicles to give the small number of people who are rich enough to purchase them the chance to save money on fuel, if they keep their cars long enough? Some people believe that oil prices will rise to $20 a gallon (and the economy won’t collapse at the same time). If this is their concern, and they can afford the high cost of a plug-in vehicle, they may choose a plug-in auto, even if the price is high relative to other cars.

Allow individual drivers to drive longer. Is the purpose of plug-in electric vehicles to provide those who have enough foresight to buy the plug-in electric vehicles a chance to motor around, when others are unable to, because gasoline is unavailable? People may buy them with this view, but I would argue that there is no point in subsidizing costs if this is the purpose–owners will get their reward, if there is a reward of this sort.

Reduce oil imports. Natural gas and coal used to run power plants are mostly fuels from US sources. Wind and solar PV are mostly one-time investments, that don’t require much ongoing fuel supply (except for maintenance). If we can use these instead of imported oil to power vehicles, the argument goes, it will reduce our dependence on imported oil.

Figure 3. US imports of petroleum products, based on EIA data. 2011 data is for the partial year.

I would argue that oil imports will decline, regardless of what we do. The issue is really one of making whatever we do have go farther (which is next on my list of reasons).

Allow more people to drive vehicles, and drive them further. Anything that allows what liquid fuel supply we have to go farther, such as supplementing oil powered cars with cars powered by electricity, allows more people to drive cars, and to drive them further. I would argue that this is a primary reason for both plug-in autos and for higher mileage standards for cars in general. If we are entering into a period of fuel shortages, this might be a major reason for electric vehicles, if the price of electric vehicles can be brought down low enough. The efficiency arguments given earlier would suggest that non-plug-ins should be given preference, but if batteries can be made cheaply and total vehicle costs can be brought down, this difference may not be an issue.

Show Off. I would argue that for some people, a major motivation for buying a plug-in vehicle today is to be first in the neighborhood with such a car. A related purpose might be “to have the latest electronic toy.” Providing subsidies (based on taxes of people less well off than the drivers of these vehicles) would seem silly if this is the main purpose for at least some of the cars.

Allow business as usual (BAU) to continue longer. It seems to me that this may be what is in the back of some people’s minds. If we don’t have enough fuel for gasoline vehicles, perhaps electric vehicles will solve our problems, and we can continue to motor along for the next 50 or 100 years.

I don’t think this is a reasonable expectation. BAU will stop for whatever reason it stops–perhaps financial reasons. It will stop, whether we have used our electric vehicles for their full lifetimes or not. Not everyone will see things this way, however, and the people who believe differently will want to purchase what they think will help for the long term.

Allow politicians to look like they are doing something. I think this is a big part of the push for plug-in automobiles. Whether or not the vehicles are really scalable, will save CO2, or will help Detroit automakers, I think this is a major reason for plug-in electric vehicles.

Concluding Thoughts

There is a common belief that if there are two options, Option A and Option B, buyers will choose Option A if the cost of Option A is less than that of Option B. This is true up to a point. People won’t buy either Option A or Option B, if neither is affordable, or if the option won’t fit with their current lifestyle.

The cost of a Nissan Leaf over a lifetime of 20 years (200,000 miles) is the cost of the vehicle, plus the cost of a second battery, for a total cost of $50,800, or a cost of 25.4 cents per mile. The lifetime cost of a Chevy Volt is similar, if we include the cost of an extra battery. The total cost is $50,280, or 25.1 cents per mile.

In addition, the Nissan Leaf will need to buy electricity over the life of the car, currently estimated to cost 2 cents per mile–probably more than this in the future, if electricity prices rise, in response to higher fossil fuel prices. If plug-in vehicles get to be any reasonable share of the total vehicles, governments will need to find a way to tax the owners to collect fees for road construction and maintenance. These costs, according to my calculations, amount to about 3 cents a mile. So total costs (ignoring maintenance and other costs) are about 30 cents a mile, plus interest payments on debt. These costs will be shared very unequally among owners, with the early owners paying a disproportionate share of the costs.

If a vehicle owner buys a 30 mile a gallon car for $15,000, and it also lasts for 200,000 miles, the cost of vehicle ownership will be 7.5 cents per mile. The cost of fuel will be 12.1 cents per mile, at today’s price of $3.63 gallon, making the total cost (excluding interest on loans and vehicle maintenance) 19.6 cents per mile.

If debt were completely interest free, and buyers valued a dollar today the same as a dollar 20 years from now, theoretically an average fuel cost of $6.75 over the life of the vehicle would balance costs out (since this would imply a gasoline cost of 22.5 cents per mile). But in the real world, this is not the case. If one needs to account for interest issues, the average cost per gallon would need to be much higher than $6.75–perhaps be double this amount, depending on the interest rate.

There are huge additional questions:

1. Will there really be enough electricity for plug-in vehicles, 10 or 20 years from now? Japan and German are taking nuclear off line now. Coal transport depends on oil. It may be that electricity supplies are as constrained as oil supplies.

2. How will financing of the high cost vehicles be achieved, and at what interest rates? There are limits as to what governments can do.

3. Will resale markets of plug-in vehicles work out as planned?

At this point, I personally would not make a push for plug-in vehicles, but I can understand why some people might want to do so, especially if they are of the belief that costs can come down substantially in the future.

About Gail Tverberg

My name is Gail Tverberg. I am an actuary interested in finite world issues - oil depletion, natural gas depletion, water shortages, and climate change. Oil limits look very different from what most expect, with high prices leading to recession, and low prices leading to financial problems for oil producers and for oil exporting countries. We are really dealing with a physics problem that affects many parts of the economy at once, including wages and the financial system. I try to look at the overall problem.
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75 Responses to Will plug-in automobiles be a success?

  1. Les D. says:


    One point you haven’t touched on is how poor electric vehicles are at carrying loads. The Chevy Volt, for example, has a load capacity of a little over 700 pounds. That’s not enough to carry four average American males (who weight 195 pounds unclothed) even with an empty fuel tank. Even the Prius can carry over 800 pounds (though it is sold as a five-seater).

    The alternative fuel-saving option is an efficient internal combustion engine. Even if we restrict it to currently available (in the U.S.) vehicles you have the VW Jetta TDI which uses a bit more fuel than the Volt but carries about 50% more weight (and can tow a 1000 pound trailer) while costing slightly over 50% as much (base price about $22,500).

    Even GM can see the logic of this approach: the turbodiesel Chevrolet Cruze is expected in 2013 and will probably be even cheaper than the the VW. While the Cruze is smaller than the VW Jetta, it is still larger (inside) than the Volt, and carries a larger load.

    • Good point! People will be willing to pay for the value they get, and the small load capacity reduces the value of the vehicles. Furthermore, many people will eliminate them completely, because they don’t meet their family’s transportation needs.

  2. Andrew in the Bay Area says:

    I considered buying a hybrid or electric vehicle a few years ago when looking at buying a car. I did the math and they were prohibitively expensive and it just did not make sense. I think you also have a problem with these cars now that they have an image problem. They are tied to one political ideological group and more specifically one class within that political ideological group (upper middle class and wealthy liberals…generally far left liberals which come across as smug to everyone else…South Park did an excellent critique on this) and it turns off everyone else who isn’t in their camp, pretty hard core. Minorities I know in the Bay can’t stand Prius drivers either. I can tell you that everyone who is not in the far far leftist club in the Bay Area jokes about all the Prius drivers and other hybrid and electric car drivers being smug, self absorbed types who are rude drivers. These types of things definitely deter people like me and more moderates and conservatives from every joining the Prius or other Hybrid club. No matter how much they insult us for not getting in line and wasting our money on an image.

    • marianne says:

      Why be smug at smugness? Some people drive large cars. Some people walk. Some people take the local bus. But being smug about people being smug will not solve the transportation problem. These energy and transportation problems are not easy ones and each person the does something to aid this frail system is likely benefitting others in their community.

  3. St. Roy says:

    Hi Gail:

    Excellent POST. To those of us that follow the peak oil literature, it is well-understood that electric or hybrid cars neither help the oil depletion nor the atmospheric CO2 problem and probably make them worse. However, they do contribute green feel goodness and less guilt in a civilization where the misery index in rapidly escalating, so maybe that is worth something. One thing you missed in your POST is the cost of maintaing roads. This is soon going to become a bottleneck and maybe a show stopper for vehicle sales other than old trucks. As JK might say, efforts to maintain “happy motoring” are just incredulous!

    • Yes, I probably should have written about green feel-goodness too, but that would have offended some.

      I mentioned the cost of maintaining roads, but didn’t say much about it because the post was getting long as it was. The cost is definitely rising. The long-term trend is probably up, because of high oil costs and lower number of private passenger autos relative to trucks, as the economy goes down hill. In the North, where freezing and thawing is an issue, the roads will need to be repaired, regardless of how little traffic they have. Repairs will also need to follow major storms, with or without much traffic on the roads.

  4. Ed Pell says:

    I enjoyed your post. You make an important point using natural gas to make electric to drive cars allows us to deplete both oil and natural gas by driving. I also appreciate the use of numbers (facts and figures) so much of the energy debate is assertions with no information content. Keep up the good work. 🙂

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  7. Bicycle Dave says:

    Hi Gail,

    Given your research and analysis skills I’ve no doubt about what you have presented in this post. However, I’d like to suggest a different approach to the subject: what is the likely continuance (say for the next 20 years) of private vehicle ownership that even remotely supports the current car culture?

    The analysis of mpg, cost of ownership, affordability, status symbols, etc strikes me as a bit odd for a blog called “Our Finite World” – more like a Consumer’s Report analysis. Much of our discussion here focuses on the notion that depleting oil supplies (along with many other resource/environmental issues) will lead to a collapse of BAU unless drastic changes are implemented. Many people who comment here have expressed the idea that we have already missed the opportunity to avoid some manner of collapse in the next few decades or so. Personally, I like to think that there are still some opportunities to mitigate the worst consequences of peak everything. Aside from that tiny bit of optimism, I’m trying to understand what scenarios are possible/probable in the next few decades. The one scenario I don’t find likely is one in which we worry about buying family vehicles that provide for 200,000 miles of motoring about in any manner that resembles today’s paradigm.

    I find it strange that we have comments here that view this issue through the prism of political ideology or elitism. I suggest that we try to analyze the most likely way that humans will move about the face of the earth in 20 or 30 years. And, how we might actually transition to more sustainable modes of transportation. Although I agree that small amounts of fuel saved by individual actions are pretty futile, it seems to me that dramatic/extensive changes in public policy could make a real difference.

    And what might these changes look like? I’m sure most will find my suggestions to be totally crazy unless you buy into the basic thesis of Peak Everything. For example (US centric): national max speed 35 mph with mandatory governors, elimination of half the public roadways, no new parking facilities, significant tax increases for private vehicle weight, etc. The general idea being to totally eliminate the current private automobile paradigm over the next 20 years or so. To greatly encourage and provide safety for Neighborhood Electric Vehicles (NEV) which are basically weatherized golf carts and Human Powered Vehicles (HPV) such as velo-mobiles, bikes and trikes. To convert the transportation portion of our economy to one driven by slower and lower cost public transportation (forget high speed trains). NEV-HPV for local travel combined with public transportation for the rest. The book “Plan C” goes into a lot more detail on this subject.

    For those who find these suggestions unpalatable for economic reasons, personal reasons or what-have-you – then it would seem to be your responsibility to suggest how the laws of physics can be dealt with as oil depletes, the planet warms, the oceans acidity, deserts spread, aquifers deplete, species extinction rates increase, millions of humans starve in Africa, human population grows, etc. Even if I’m wrong about the time frame (say 100 years instead of 20), what kind of morality supports the idea that today’s generation of humans has the right to degrade the biosphere of our planet and deprive many future generations of a livable planet.

    • David F Collins says:

      Dave: I cannot avoid agreeing with your vision, as implied in your 4th (penultimate) paragraph, although I might see a different approach. And more than just transportation is involved, but the same vision still applies.

      Slightly off topic: I see high-speed trains as an expensive distraction. What we need are trains that work as well as they did pre-WW2. A few years ago we of the Chicago branch of my wife’s extended family traveled to and from Philadelphia, for a major family event, via Amtrak. Slow travel; our passenger train was repeatedly shunted onto a siding so the lordly freight trains could take priority. (Getting past the south end of Lake Michigan was like a Kafka novel illustrated by Hieronymus Bosch.) The rails were in miserable shape. A grandniece was badly burned by leaning against a wall by her seat; the heating system had gone postal. We have a saying about walk before we run; regarding trains, we should try skootch before we crawl.

      But for really dystopian railroad transportation (freight or passenger), there is Mexico. Interestingly, back in the 1930’s and 1940’s, Mexican railroads worked well; back in the bad old days of the Porfirio Díaz dictatorship, Mexican railroads were world class.

      Cheap fuel is nonrenewable and in increasingly short supply. Human bungling, cupidity and incompetence, whether governmental or private enterprise, is infinitely renewable and inexhaustible.

      • Bicycle Dave says:

        Hi David,

        Back in the good old days (maybe bad) when we jumped on a plane in blissful ignorance to go cycling in Europe, we used trains in Ireland and France. In Ireland – slow and funky. In France – very fast and modern. From a cyclist perspective, I loved the trains in Ireland – just roll your bike on the train with no extra preparation and no rush. I truly love France, but trying to manage a bike on a high speed train is not much fun.

        I see no compelling reason for high speed trains. If you buy into the idea of trains being compatible with bikes, there are more important considerations than 150 mph.

    • You make some good points.

      I probably wouldn’t have written the post, except that some of The Oil Drum staff members had been discussing some related material behind the scenes, so I tried to work through the details, trying to figure out what the issues really were (rather than focusing on, say, whether better batteries could fix some perceived problem). But you are right–it is hard to get very excited about something that is supposed to last of 200,000 miles, when we are hitting limits right now. The chances of the whole thing working seem pretty remote.

      I am afraid that the scenario we will be hitting is that we will lose most imported goods, and this could cause things to screech to a halt very quickly. It is hard to even imagine what we would do in such a situation–hopefully, things would hold together for a while, but there are so many connected pieces. Food transport would be a major concern.

      What we really need is things that will last a long, long time. If we use bicycles, we need ones that won’t need new tires, or some other important part, that you and your neighbors can’t put together quickly with local materials. We really do need 200,000 mile vehicles, if we expect to have vehicles.

      I am not sure that we can expect to have vehicles, for precisely this reason. We may have to go back to what people did before–ride animals, or have animals pull carts. But it is hard to write a post, unless I have something more favorable to offer than this.

      • Bicycle Dave says:

        Hi Gail,

        Although the use of bicycles on the Ho Chi Minh trail has been somewhat romanticized and exaggerated, never-the-less, bikes moved a lot of material under very adverse conditions. Perhaps we can learn from this experience about what is most important for a utilitarian bike.

        I’ve often been fascinated about the subject of a “sustainable bike”. The frame is really not an issue as bamboo is quite adequate (probably other woods also). A spoked wheel also does not seem to be a huge challenge – although I wonder what kind of simple technology might be used to create a basic rubber tire (or something functionally equivalent). The real power and glory of a bike comes from chains and gears (please – no rants from unicyclists). I suspect that chains and gears can be salvaged from millions of unused bikes for the next 50 years or so. After that, it remains to be seen if these two items can be locally produced at reasonable cost with low-tech methods – I tend to think this is quite possible. Other bike parts like brakes and cables seem to be less of a challenge in a low tech world.

        We should have college level competition to produce a low tech bike – maybe this is already being done?

        • I agree. Figuring out a low-tech bicycle should be a high priority.

          There may be other low tech approaches that would work as well, more barges, and upgrades to these. Where we have railroad tracks, there may be simpler systems that could be used on the rail tracks, as long as these can be maintained.

          I think all of the emphasis on high tech (use more coal and natural gas) solutions has kept people from thinking about solutions at a human scale level, that can really be maintained for the long term.

        • schoff says:

          There are a couple of groups that are focused on 3rd world bikes that don’t break. I’ve looked at them from time to time for Africa. But I didn’t consider the local manufacture of chains. Honestly in the flat parts of Africa i’ve been in, who needs gears. I think of the American bikes of the 30’s and 40’s and the modest means of the family’s that owned them, they didn’t have gears.

          • I grew up using bikes without gears. I think I was an adult, living on my own, before I had a bike without gears.

            I even used them where it was hilly. They worked well enough.

    • DownToTheLastCookie says:

      Hi Dave,

      In our Finite World of Oil, your “national max speed of 35 mph with mandatory governors” done worldwide could kick the shortage problem down the road a good hundred years. Or better yet, no fossil fuel use for passenger vehicle transportation.

      Now your talking wet pants

    • schoff says:

      Dave, I agree the happy motoring model seems to be scheduled for some reduction in the near term, and a lot of reduction in the medium term. I see it here in Pennsylvania with the disappearance of Suburbans, Big Trucks, Expeditions, etc as everyday vehicles. If I understand the data correctly 12millionish (wsj) light vehicles is a rather dramatic decrease in the 21st century. I don’t see us going back to 17.

      I own a LEV (from Polaris), it used lead batteries, and gets me where I need to go in rural
      PA, and could do the same in suburban (minus the law). but is a 2 seater, appropriate for hauling groceries, materials, and going to doctor’s appointments, no AC, no heat. For $10,999, $2700 more than the gas version, it seems a reasonable premium for something that draws 1kw when charging, an easy load on my solar panels. I think LEV’s and NEV’s offer an opportunity to get out of the Detroit mentality that everything that you drive must be like an ICE vehicle.

      As with everything in this descent (or step function down for a true doomer), working towards “local” XYZ, community sufficiency, and very reduced expectations on comfort (I wear a real coat, gloves and a hat driving it in the winter), is what we should be doing now for ourselves and to help other people make that transition.

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  9. Owen says:


    Toyota Camry is 170 horsepower in the base model. Upscale 250 Hp.

    1 horsepower is 745 watts. To have a 200 Hp Camry equivalent electric car requires 150,000 watts.

    If you want to run the car using 3/4 its power (150 Hp) for 1 hour, that’s 150 X 745 = 112,000 watt hours. If you get 100% efficiency in the battery in and out, that’s the target number for a Camry equivalent vehicle running 1 hour.

    A watt is 1 volt X 1 ampere. If your house is uses 240 Volts to charge that’s 112,000 watt-hours / 240 Volts = 466 ampere hours. Since your house circuit breakers won’t endure 466 amperes, you have to throttle down the amperes and take longer than 1 hour. 20 amp breakers are typical for residences, but rewiring the house might double that. So using 40 amps, you can put 1 hour of Camry driving into a battery over a period of 466 / 40 = over 10 hours.

    1 lousy hour in a Camry massed car takes 10 hrs to charge up, if you rewire your house, and if you have a non existent 100% efficient in/out battery. Want lower mass? That means “want a death trap?”. Want 2 hours travel, charge it up over 24 hrs.

    It’s all silly and is going to kill people in car wrecks even before it kills people wasting energy on a non viable solution.

    • DownToTheLastCookie says:

      Hi Owen,

      Maybe everything you state above is true, if one drives there 200 Hp Camry Full throttle 100% of the time. But of course no one does.

      Just saying

      • Owen says:

        You missed my reducing the horsepower to 3/4 maximum for typical driving.

        Massless cars are deathtraps in an crash. You incur that risk for the joyous privilege of charging up a battery 10+ hrs to get 1 hour of use at a price 25% higher than a conventional vehicle, to extend oil supply a few days.

        It’s silly. Optimal strategy is to suppress competing consumption militarily. Everything else makes the problem worse.

        • Perhaps it extends oil supply a few days. More likely, it just lets someone else use the oil, that would be pumped regardless of whether it was you or someone else using it.

          • Owen says:

            I am going to back off a bit from the massless deathtrap thing, but only a bit.

            The Leaf is of comparable weight to a base model and stripped down Camry. That’s the little169 Hp engine. A more average engine (operative word average) at 200 Hp will add, as will the typical automatic transmission, so the “typical” Camry will weigh more (and carry more, so “curb weight” is probably the wrong comparison) than a Leaf, but not a ton, as it were, more. There is also most certainly the issue of uniform distribution of mass. A Camry engine is going to take the impact for you because it’s in front of you. The Leaf battery is under your seat.

            The point would be $$$ to rewire your house for 240 V (or higher) and 40 amp wires (you can’t just pound amperage through thin wires; they melt) as well as breakers, all so you can wait 10+ hours to have enough get up and go for 1 lousy Camry equivalent hour. And you get to pay 25% more for the opportunity to endure all that.

            No sale.

          • Stravinsky7 says:

            Oh, Gail. The inevitability of your conclusion there is relentless. It’s like the law of supply and demand. It trumps everything else. However, if as a society, you have sunk everything into long lasting, low energy consumption goods, your decline will be that much less painful as the rest of the world realigns with a resource constrained future.

            Is there a name for someone else swooping in to consume the resource that someone else saved?

            • When I think of long lasting, low energy consumption goods, I think of things like wheel barrows, and pots and pans, and looms for cloth that can be operated without electricity.

              A lot of people seem to think of electric cars, wind turbines, and Energy Star refrigerators that can be operated with a little less electricity than last year’s model. The issue is that none of these things will last longer than the electric grid, and that may not be all that long. So we need to be planning farther ahead, if we want to be prepared.

              I don’t know if there is a name for someone else swooping in to consume the resource that someone else saved. The idea has clearly been around since Bible times. Wars were fought, and treasure carried back. There were thieves back then, as there are now. There are more sophisticated ways of doing this too–tax structure, for example, can take from one group, to give to another.

            • schoff says:

              This actually a response to Gail and “low energy”. Perhaps we can differentiate between home energy and commercial energy. Throughout the northeast there were plenty of manufacturers using water power to run machines in the 19th century, all of those sites
              still exist, I don’t even remember much of the tooling being steel, most seemed made of iron, but I could be wrong. If you want electricity for those sites as well, I think the ability to make a generator out of millions of spare alternators should be pretty simple.

              For the home, you are going to have lots of small legacy solar, like d.lights and sunwize systems for a little bit of lighting, and then some standalone PV homes that will have electricity for decades during the day, but not at night (unless you can manufacture sulfuric acide and refurb batteries).

              I see water being the real issue, and something you might want to consider by muncipality. For instance NYC is essentially gravity fed, as is Harrisburg’s. Philadelphia is not, lose the grid for an extensive period and it is over (note this is not about treating the water, this is about pumping it into the city itself). It would make an interesting table, taking the top 50 municipalities in this context and then their setting. For instance no water for Philly in a place which has water is different than no water for LA in a place that is a desert.

            • I am guessing what we should be using most of the solar panels for is pumping water for the cities that don’t have gravity fed sources. If they can only run a few hours at a time, that is better than nothing. That would be a much better use for the panels than running someone’s dishwasher or clothes washer (neither of which would do much without water).

            • schoff says:

              I agree Gail. And now you have really uncovered an interesting possibility. Most water treatment systems have storage at various stages, including the final product stage (various municipalities around Pennsylvania seem to have a couple of days worth of treated water). There might be a nice integration there to deal with peak solar power during the day. I also wonder how much difference there is between winter and summer use of water for various municipalities.

  10. Jeff Berner says:

    Appreciate the thought on the subject. Two things to consider though. First, you need to take into account that this is a multi-variable problem. I agree that it is not likely that battery powered vehicles will create any significant in-roads if one assumes that the mass of current vehicles remains the same. With a typical 3000-lb vehicle, the weight and cost of the battery is significant because you need a big expensive battery to haul around a lot of mass that really doesn’t add to the utility of the vehicle. With expensive batteries, it just means a return to smaller and lighter cars which in the end will provide the same utility as current large vehicles. Second, there is technology advancement in battery technology that will provide 400 mile range probably sooner rather than later. We had a talk here in Seattle by MIT Professor Donald Sadoway on emerging battery technology last year. He is of the opinion that there is potential to increase the energy density by a factor of three in the immediate future, ~10 years. Sadoway also doesn’t foresee there to be an issue with regards to power generation. He states that electric vehicles will use the same amount of energy per household as our refrigerators. So don’t expect advancements either in using car batteries and smart grid to even out utility loads. The power use just isn’t large enough to make a difference.

    I’m also of the opinion that companies like GM are subject to the Innovator’s Dilemma. Harvard business professor Clayton Christensen has written about how dominant companies can be displaced by disruptive technology because they are incapable of developing and nurturing less capable technology that competes with their current products. The Chevy Volt will likely prove to fall into this situation. GM needs to develop products that have the same cost structure and profit margins as their current vehicles and so they develop an expensive gas/plug-in electric hybrid vehicle which can maintain their profit margins and corporate structure. The problem here it that the technology is likely not easily downward scalable. Consequently it is probably more likely that a company like Tata or a golf cart manufacturer with lower overhead costs will be the successful electric car manufacturer.

    I think we all know of your thoughts on continued economic growth and the debt based economy. Certainly we aren’t going to see the two to three cars per household that we’ve seen in the past because we all just aren’t going to have the same degree of material wealth. But it might be reasonable for there to be neighborhood vehicles or only one vehicle per household.

    • My complaints are really with the idea that we can keep BAU going with electric cars. The Leaf and Volt are heavy cars, with the big batteries.

      I could see glorified golf carts a lot more easily. The cost would be reasonable. Of course, one might ask whether bicycles might not work just as well, for the short distances under discussion.

      • Bicycle Dave says:

        Hi Gail,

        As much as I love bikes, I think we need the glorified golf carts (NEV) for a variety of reasons: weather, disability, old age, babies and infants, etc. There are a whole class of people and many situations where a NEV makes good sense. But neither bikes or NEVs will ever be put into widespread use until they are safe to use for nearly all purposes. It is never going to work if we have to share the road with 70 mph, 3,000 lb steel boxes operated by people who may or may not be competent and not distracted.

        The real question is whether or not we start soon enough to create new transportation models to serve our basic needs in a power-down future.

        • schoff says:

          Agreed. I want to take my 75 year old mother to her doctor’s appointment in the NEV. I need to trailer 1000 lbs of feed from time to time. I also don’t like to goto church sweaty.

        • I think a big part of our problem is that we can’t get any kind of agreement as to how we need to change. A lot of folks have their heads in the clouds, thinking we can all drive electric plug in vehicles, with 300 mile ranges, and buy them for $15,000 a piece. Others think that maybe glorified golf cars would be the way to go, but how to clear the roads for them. A third view is that we need to plan on riding horses, or horse driven carts, but where would we raise all of the horses, and what would we feed them.

          I am afraid we need to wait until everything falls apart, and then we use whatever is available, which may not be much at all.

          • Bicycle Dave says:

            Hi Gail,

            In a perfect scenario (most doubtful) we would conserve high energy sources (liquid fuel or big batteries) just for those activities that really need them. Clearing roads (snow or whatever) and plowing fields being prime candidates. I think roads will last much longer and need less maintenance (except from vegetation) if we only use them for NEVs and HPVs.

            As you say: “we can’t get any kind of agreement as to how we need to change”. This is the real problem and it stems from the fact that we can’t agree upon the nature of the “problem” itself. “Change” is in the realm of “solutions”. As I’ve said before, it is very hard to have effective solutions when the problem itself is not understood. I will refrain from flogging my theory about why we are unable to understand the problem.

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