The Future of Transportation: Electricity or Liquid Fuels?

This is truly the topic of on-going debate. Car manufacturers are continuously making vehicles more efficient and new lineups almost always include options of hybrid, and plug-in electric. With all the options available, consumers still won’t stop talking about something known as “range anxiety”. I’ve heard countless people say “Why would I buy an electric vehicle that will only take me less than 200 miles when I can drive ~500 miles on a single tank of gas without filling up?” Then there’s the criticism of charge time for electric vehicles – 30 minutes at best using a Tesla supercharger versus 5 minutes at the pump.

On the flip side, there are certainly arguments in favor of electric vehicles. With an equivalent fuel efficiency of 89 mpg (combined city/highway driving) for the 2015 Tesla Model S versus approximately 23 mpg for a comparable full gas model sedan (e.g. BMW Series 7), the cost savings in fuel alone is suggested to be in the order of $2000-4000 USD per year. This is not trivial, although this comes at the price of convenience.

Most people blame the problems of electric vehicles on the battery. Indeed, this is the limiting internal device since the energy density of the battery dictates the range of the vehicle and power density dictates how long it takes to be recharged. Researchers around the world have a common goal – to create a new battery with a higher energy density. Currently, Li-ion batteries are the best we have and nothing can beat lithium-based batteries in terms of energy density. The drawback is that they are unsafe. What most people are not discussing, are the alternative methods of making electric vehicles practical, reliable, and safe. If the battery will take decades to improve upon, why not do what we can do today to accelerate the industry? My solution is quite simple: we should be installing electrical outlets at every parking space. Every time you park your vehicle, it can be charging. This is a convenience which we do not even have with gasoline and diesel vehicles. We are always having to stop to get gas! Very rarely do we travel with a full tank of gas without stopping until it runs dry. Until electric vehicles replace all gas-powered models, you can be well assured that there will be plenty of gas vehicles kicking around for you to borrow to make those long journeys. Range is not a valid argument against electric vehicles for everyday use, however, charge time and availability of charging stations are. You won’t catch me buying an electric vehicle until the convenience of charging becomes widespread, but the moment this happens, count me in!

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"The Future of Transportation: Electricity or Liquid Fuels?," Prospective Energy, April 23, 2017.