June 5, 2009

Why don't we see EV's, especially in Europe?

Sometime people ask: if plug-in's and EV's are such a good idea, and if they're competitive at, say $3 gasoline prices, then why aren't they used more in Europe, where gas prices are higher?

There are a number of factors:

1) A different capital cost to operating cost picture.

EVs and PHEVs trade a higher purchase price for lower fuel consumption.

In Europe, fuel prices are 2-3 times as high as in the US, but due to historical factors (shorter distances, higher fuel taxes due to the high % of imports), average car in Europe uses about 1/3 as much fuel as one in the US. Further, European taxes on new cars are generally much higher in the US.

Thus, the economic case for EVs and PHEVs is actually worse in Europe, and the lack of EVs and PHEVs in Europe really doesn't add any useful information to the question of how competitive electric powertrains really are with oil in the US.

2) Pure EV's still can't compete on convenience with ICE vehicles. Even in Europe, fuel costs are only a part of driving costs, and the lower cost of an EV hasn't been quite worth the inconvenience. The logical transition from an ICE to an EV is the PHEV, which for some reason wasn't explored seriously until very recently when GM took that path. Now that GM is pursuing PHEV extremely seriously, they're planning an Opel version for Europe.

3) Europeans have fewer garages, as their housing is much older.

4) Tax preferenced diesel occupies the high-MPG niche.

and perhaps most importantly,

5) there were large barriers to entry (billions in R&D and retooling, as well as resistance from ICE oriented manufacturers) for PHEV's, and there wasn't an obvious need for them. There was resistance from people in the industry who's careers would be hurt. This ranges from assembly line workers and roughnecks to automotive and chemical engineers. And, you've got to give them respect and compassion: they're people, and deserve to be helped as much as possible during a necessary transition away from oil.

Until we find a way to help these people, they're going to desperately fight any proposals to transition away from their industries, by honest attacks or dishonest: whatever works. You can't really blame them: they're just trying to protect their lives and families.

Biofuels, fuel cells, nuclear power, carbon sequestration all involve more chemical/process engineering R&D, and building of plants and retirement of old technologies. Isn't reduction of greenhouse gases is gonna be a golden age for the Chemical Engineering?

I suspect that this kind of thing is much more attractive to students and professors than it is to engineeers with 10-20 years of experience, who've attained high salaries in large companies due to their narrow expertise in a particular area, in that company. For them, I suspect any change which threatens their company threatens them personally.

On the other hand, the momentum has now shifted: most of those R&D $ have now been spent; the technology is better tested; the cost comparisons have shifted; and there's enormous pressure for PHEV's from regulators.