Monday, June 30, 2008

The back-forward step

So you've been watching the automotive market and have heard about the acclaimed new type of cars: The Hybrid. It's trumpeted as being a huge step forward, a great money saver, an appeal to your "I want to save earth in a way that won't cost me nothing" side.

Little do most people know, Hybrids are not a step forward in terms of technology - arguably, they are actually a step back as far as Electrics are concerned. Electric vehicles have been around just as long as the gas ones, and they have evolved through time albeit at a slower pace.

But even before we heard about Hybrids, we knew that fully electric vehicles were possible. GM/Saturn created their EV1 model following a new law in California that forced manufacturers to build a certain percentage of alternative fuel vehicles, but after 3 year rent contracts they were promptly taken back from the owners and destroyed - you see, the law had been reverted during that 3 year period.

I won't go into conspiracy theories that are self-evident, but my point is that Electrics can be as powerful and fun to drive as gas-powered cars - minus the pollution, noise and trips to the gas station. Some companies understood this and have created high quality vehicle lines such as the Tesla Roadster and the Fisker Karma, of which we hope the technological improvements will trickle down to the middle-class vehicles.

So with all this, what is preventing people from switching over completely to Electrics? There is of course a certain amount of disinformation caused as much by ignorance than propaganda by petrol lobbyists. They say that electric vehicles are "not as stable", "cost too much" and will leave you "stuck on the side of the road with a dead battery, looking for a power outlet".

It is true that battery vehicles are currently not as convenient as the gas cars in some respects. But let's take as an example a home-made solution. One very interesting young man in Montreal has decided to start his own company, purchasing 2004 Mazda3 cars with high mileage on the engine, and converting them to fully electric cars. Voitures Electriques du Quebec (the newly founded company) does not use high-end lithium batteries, experimental engines or expensive materials - everything he installs in the car is simple, and effective.

At an approximate retail of $25,000 the car is not so expensive in comparison to a gas car, and the savings it will bring quickly offset the costs. The car can easily hold its end cruising down the highway (120kph according to his website, however the owner admits speeds of up to 140kph on highways), and with a 100 kilometers autonomy, it's quite enough for 95% of the population.

Yes, it takes 12 hours to charge, but the simple act of going home and plugging in a car is not so foreign to drivers, at least not here in the cold canadian winters. It's a simple matter of extending the reflex to the summer days. And how much does it cost? About $1.50 to fully charge the batteries.

Quickly, that's about equivalent to purchasing 1L of gas (evidently this is fluctuating), so you can roughly estimate that you will spend about 20% of your current gas budget on this car - and this calculation is based on the most economical cars out there like the Smart and Prius. If you compare to the all-american-favorite the Hummer, you're actually talking 5% of your gas budget for the same mileage! This is excluding car insurance savings (no gas tank = safer = cheaper) as well as maintenance (no oil changes on an electric) and repairs.

Needless to say I am very interested in getting one of those babies for myself (the converted Mazda3, not the hummer!) and it will be my next car purchase. While I am preparing the budget for it, I will be watching VEQ grow and will be watching for results after a winter of use on the car.

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