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Get Real Juiced

Well, I know one thing, and that is, this being America, any time some weirdo dares suggest that just maybe perhaps we ought to try and think of some way of fueling our transportation vehicles with something other than petroleum, some peckerwood’s gonna crawl out from under his rock and call that dreaming crackpot a pinko or a hippie or a loser or a fag, or most likely some combination of all four of the above. Yet, soldier on we must.

I got to thinking about electric cars and their potential uses a couple of years ago when I talked to AC Propulsion’s Alan Cocconi. AC Propulsion conceives, builds and supplies electric and hybrid technologies to companies including Volkswagen and recently for the retrofitting of L.A.’s downtown Metro buses. Cocconi and I had been test-driving his prototype tzero all-electric car, which is not just some pokey little golf-cart thing, but a 200-hp, full-on race car with a low-slung, aerodynamically designed body that can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in 4.07 seconds and can go for 100 miles at 60 mph.

It was exciting to ponder the possibilities of all-electric cars, going by the glamorous evidence of something like the tzero. Clean energy . . . loads of power . . . zero emissions. You know, much of the talk about hybrid vehicles assumes that we’re going to have an endless supply of petroleum with which to enhance electric drive systems (though it’s true that a hydrogen-based power supply is potentially limitless). But the Toyota Prius or Honda Insight hybrid models, for example, still do depend on petroleum, and their emissions are low but are still emissions.

Anyway, Cocconi mentioned a few things almost in passing that really fired my imagination. Sure, he said, we’ve proved that the electric car can be engineered to outperform even the most massively equipped internal-combustion-engine vehicles; sure, we’ve got ample evidence that it is possible to build high-capacity, high-voltage batteries that don’t fill the entire cargo area of these electric vehicles; and we have solid proof that it’d be entirely feasible to charge these electric vehicles at convenient locations in numerous locales across the city, state and nation, without requiring enormous expenditure to convert the infrastructure.

Cocconi told me about the tzero’s reductive charging system, which can plug in to any grounded 120- to 240-volt socket (such as the ones you find at RV rest stops) and recharge in about an hour. Fine, but hold on a sec: An electric car’s reductive electrical system would soak up a lot of juice during its one-hour charging time. And most likely the owner’s typical driving day would entail the trip to and from the office a few miles away, maybe to the local convenience market, etc.; on weekends, perhaps a short spin to the beach and back, whatever. Mostly, though, the car is parked at home full of e-juice, and it’s going to waste.

Maybe it doesn’t have to. As you’re standing there admiring your sleek new all-electric racing vehicle, or li’l golf-cart buggie thingie, you see that power pole nearby, and then you gaze slowly back toward your house or apartment or thatched-roof hut . . . and a 20-watt bulb appears above your head . . .

You know all about the electric power brownouts and outages that’ve wreaked havoc in recent years, and you’re well aware that utility rates are only going to rise even higher this summer as hot weather, deregulation and growth in demand further strain the capacity of the electric power grid.

The electric car of the near future could be a mobile, self-contained and reliable source of energy for your home, for your city, for the state. Electric-drive vehicles hold power electronics that generate clean, 60-hertz AC power. If such vehicle power could be fed into the electric grid, we could vastly reduce our dependency on expensive and often unreliable utility systems. Imagine paying less in public utility fees. During power shortages, an electric-car owner might even sell his electricity to whoever might need it. Some observers have suggested that electric vehicles would only further tax the power grid, but since most electric vehicles would charge during off-peak periods, they’d actually improve infrastructure utilization.

The U.S. hasn’t yet converted to all-electric vehicles on a mass scale for reasons that are obvious, and all too typical: Major automakers profit reliably from giving people what people think they like, and can’t muster adequate brains to budget correctly for the short-term lowering of profits during the period required to convert their manufacturing apparatus while cutting their ties to the oil industry; and, of course, currently the oil industry is in essence the federal government. But with this distinctively American shortsightedness, the auto industry and our government are only hurting themselves — and you. How’s that? Well, because the Japanese are fast-track developing electric-vehicle technology even as we speak, with an eye toward sales in China and India, whose several billion people need electrical power and cars.


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