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Electric cars will save us all

Written By: - Date published: 10:09 am, June 1st, 2012 - 53 comments
Categories: sustainability, transport - Tags:

You know how, whenever someone points out that spending $12 billion on highways that make no economic sense makes even less sense when you consider that people are driving less because of the price of petrol and will only reduce their driving more in the face of even higher petrol prices, some idiot says ‘we’ll just invent alternatives, drive electric!’. Yeah, it ain’t happening.

Leaving aside the problem that there’s not enough lithium producable for all the batteries we would need, there’s just no way that the take-up of electric cars is going to be sufficiently fast to make a big difference to the oil-intensity of driving in New Zealand.

There are 46 electric cars registered in New Zealand, out of 3.4 million. That’s up from 25 in 2007. At the current (let’s assume exponential) rate of increase, it will reach 350 by 2022.

By that time, petrol prices will be $5 a litre.

Even if every car registered from now on was electric (and that wouldn’t be possible even if New Zealand bought the world’s whole electric car production), over half the fleet in 2022 would be oil-driven because most cars that will be on the road in 2022 are already on the road. The average age of the car fleet is 13.59 years and that’s increased by 1.5 years in the past five years and 2 years in the past ten.

People aren’t responding to high oil prices by buying electric cars: they’re responding by keeping their old cars and driving them less (traffic volumes have been falling for nearly all of the past four years and vehicle kilometres travelled are down about 7% per capita from peak)

MoT projects that 85-90% of vehicles will still be conventional in 2030. Indeed, the likelihood of ongoing weak growth and high fuel prices leaves businesses and families with less capital for investment in new vehicles.

All of which makes the daydreams of people who say ‘yeah, we should spend $12 billion on uneconomic roads, because we’ll all drive on them in electric cars’ even more fanciful.

53 comments on “Electric cars will save us all ”

  1. weka 1

    Nice, succinct explanation that will be really useful to get the message out.
    I think most people don’t even think about the fact that to replace the fleet means building new cars, and that that itself requires cheap oil. To try and do so before the old ones need replacing is crazy economics too.
    My cars have always lasted well beyond 14 years. The car before the one I have now I liked alot so I checked out the cost of getting it reconditioned. The answer was that it wasn’t worth the money, but as far as I could tell this was more about people just not being used to doing this. I think we will have to look at this option into the future. The big concern there is parts availability, and the increasing complexity of modern cars, esp the electrics. A high turnover of the fleet is not to our advantage.
    btw, there was a guy in the ODT yesterday, lives on the outskirts of Dunedin. He had converted his RAV4 to electric. It cost him $20,000. He charged it from a wind turbine at his home that he also used to sell power back to the power company. Interesting project, but also goes to show that we are still at the hobby stage of electric cars.

    • bbfloyd 1.1

      “we are still at the hobby stage of electric cars”… quite correct as it applies to local production of electric/alternative propulsion vehicles……

      I had a conversation in 1990 with a cousin, who had just got back from australia… he had been engaged as a photo-journalist for the annual solar powered car race….

      he informed me that the electric propulsion technology had been developed to the point where car manufacturers were, at that time, able to produce electric cars that were performing at comparable levels to petrol…… in fact , he was quite confidant that these vehicles were soon to be brought out for sale……

      that was two decades ago…… what happened? simple…. the widespread retailing of electricity powered vehicles was suppressed to protect investment in current plant…. once the profit has been fully reaped, then, and only then, will the production of electric cars become the norm….

      that is, assuming we are still in one piece by then….

      • insider 1.1.1

        The idea electric cars were ‘suppressed’ is just superstitious nonsense. They have been around for well over 100 years so its ignorant to suggest this is somehow new and suppressible. The only thing suppressing them is their high comparative cost and perceptions of limited utility.

        • Colonial Viper

          You believe that a major industry with billions invested in combustion engine technology wouldn’t act to protect that investment? Something as simple as shelving all internal ideas for electric cars, for instance. Easy to do and invisible from the outside.

          It doesn’t matter any way, China is going to leap frog the western manufacturers in electric vehicles.

          • mike e

            CV not until they come up with an alternative to lithium.
            The worlds largest reserves are in Afghanistan.
            The worlds reserves of lithium are not very large.

          • insider

            And that last comment is exactly the reason you are wrong. You can’t kill ideas, especially ones over 100 years old. No matter what you do, someone else will invent it and if it is better then it will kill your business, so you may as well embrace it and take advantage of your technical edge. Next you’ll be explaining about the water powered engine suppressed by ‘big oil’

            • Draco T Bastard

              Oh, BS. We don’t actually live in a free-market. We live in a world owned by the capitalists.

              • insider

                It’s nothing to do with capitalism but the inventiveness of people. History is littered with parallel development as most inventions or science insights are evolutionary rather than revolutionary, and the circumstances that lead to invention are often replicated in many laboratories. We just tend to only know about the one who got to the patent office or published in a journal first.

                • Colonial Viper

                  History is littered with parallel development as most inventions or science insights are evolutionary rather than revolutionary

                  This is clearly false

                  • weka

                    Don’t you mean patently false?

                  • insider

                    Calculus, evolution, lightbulbs, the thermometer, the hypodermic needle, vaccinations, Adrenalin, decimal fractions, electric telegraph, photography, logarithms, the typewriter, liquefaction of oxygen, the electrolysis of aluminum, and the stereochemistry of carbon, The steamboat. The phenomenon is neither new nor surprising, well except to you apparently.

                  • Draco T Bastard

                    No, insider is actually right there, parallel development happens all the time. It would happen more if the capitalist system of artificial restrictions wasn’t in place.

                • Draco T Bastard

                  It’s nothing to do with capitalism but the inventiveness of people.

                  The rules put in place by the capitalists prevent that inventiveness in two major ways:
                  1.) It keeps most people in poverty so that they don’t have access to the resources to develop their ideas
                  2.) Patents are used to prevent others from doing the same thing again preventing people from developing their own ideas

                  So, yes, it has a hell of a lot to do with capitalism.

        • bbfloyd

          try as you might innie, you still succeed in nothing more than mindless finger pointing….

          i shared information from a reputable, informed source, and you waste our time with calling it “superstitious nonsense” … what a wally…..

          here’s an example from the non superstitious real world….try to read it with your hands free…

          i had an uncle (recently passed on) who invented a motor mower that was safe to use, and actually cut grass more efficiently than conventional mowers of that time(1970’s)…

          you could stick your foot under it with no danger to yourself…..

          he sold the patent to mason and porter(masport) after negotiating royalties for every unit produced….mason and porters then put the blueprints away in a drawer, and carried on producing the mowers they had already….. no sign whatsoever of any new plant to build the new ones….in fact. the mower, as it was devised has never been produced….

          a version of his design was introduced years later, but failed because they(mason %porters) tried to change the original design enough to avoid paying royalties to his children….and it didn’t work as well consequently….

          the point being that the whole exercise from mason & porters perspective was to protect the investment they had made in existing plant….. this was explained to my uncle by a senior manager from that company….. he was able to be honest only because there were no avenues of redress to my uncle….

          if a relatively small company would do this without a second thought, what’s to stop large multinationals doing it?

          easy answer ….. absolutely nothing!!!

          superstitious nonsense….what i plonker…

          • insider

            First I don’t consider your cousin’s opinions as a credible source, no matter how nice a guy he is. The fact is electric vehicles are not competitive with ICEs, even after 100 years of research and probably billions in investment.

            And your wonder mower story raises a few questions for me. Masport were not the only seller of lawnmowers in nz, even in the 70s. If it was as revolutionary as you say and a threat to sunk investment, wouldn’t it be an even bigger opportunity for an established player and the cost of re tooling be small comapred to the market domination? And imagine the new markets it could open up even just in sales of licences. Plenty of things work as a prototype and get bought with good intentions but then can’t scale for production and are shelved – nice idea but wrong timing and cost. That is not conspiracy.

  2. Georgecom 2

    A few years ago the MED predicted 5% of the light passenger vehicle fleet will be electric by 2020. 95% still carbon powered.

  3. Peter 3

    Spot on analysis. I’m running an old Nissan TD272 diesel engine, which I intend to recondition shortly to make it good for another 300,000 km. It might not be the cleanest thing out there, but on the energy cost savings foregone of building a new one, it comes out well ahead on the ledger.

    The future of motorised transport will owe more to Castro-era Cuban backyard engineering and jimmying than it will to some shining all electric future with lithium batteries. You could evaporate the whole of the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia (a very cool place BTW) and not replace the world’s car fleet, and that of course doesn’t even address the ongoing energy costs associated with charging the things.

    Heavy stuff has to go back onto rail, and we’ve got to get flexible about fuelling. Funnily enough, that means external combustion engines (steam), which can run on wood, coal, biomass, whatever bits of oil we can get a hold of, or a mixture of all of them at once.

    There is still a chance of an electric future for some vehicles in New Zealand, and I’d recommend NiFe cells for that, due to their 50 year plus life-expectancy. That hinges on someone investing in frequent and fast charging stations with an appropriate radius.

    • Kotahi Tane Huna 3.1


      No. There are approx 200 gigatons of carbon in oil and gas form.

      There are 5,000 Gtons of carbon in coal form.

      If we burn the coal we’re completely screwed.

      • Colonial Viper 3.1.1

        When oil becomes impractical, we’re going to coal. Not saying we should, just saying that we will.

      • Peter 3.1.2

        With coal, I’m being reflective of reality here – if it’s there and mineable, someone is going to try and use it, and with an energy-starved population, you will struggle to find political support to not mine it. That is the issue New Zealand faces over the lignite reserves in Southland. There is also a lot less of it in the world than most people think anyway – we may have already passed peak energy from coal (not peak volume) anyway.

        The other critical factor with coal is the direct relationship between oil price and economic mining – as most traditional coal mining is powered by oil in some form or the other, as the price of oil rises, the extractable reserves of coal diminish. Add that to the fact that the easy high energy coal has all but gone, and you’ve got a recipe for a faster energy decline than many suspect.

        Of course, that’s good ecological news for the planet.

        For transport, if oil supplies become constrained, I’d bet the house on us using what we have locally available to maintain some semblance of a nationwide system.

        • Southern Limits

          Spot on. China is already buying coal for over $100 a tonne. How long can they afford to do that for? Their economy is already beginning to slow.

    • weka 3.2

      ” The future of motorised transport will owe more to Castro-era Cuban backyard engineering and jimmying than it will to some shining all electric future with lithium batteries.”
      Peter, what year is your diesel vehicle? How easy/difficult is hacking cars going to be over the next 20 years given the complexity of modern cars? Are they still within the ability of the backyarders?

  4. aerobubble 4

    Every year, or there about, I do my count percentage of cars with a single person. Nothing has changed. People still live too far from shops, schools, work, to actively be able to stop using cars.

  5. tsmithfield 5

    Of course, there are hybrids, which are more plentiful on the road than pure electric cars.

    • vidiot 5.1

      Don’t get in the way of a good story Mr Smithfield by pointing out the obvious.

      The $60K asking price & 160Km range don’t help either.

      And the increasing fleet age, surely doesn’t tie in to the greater safety standards introduced a couple of years back for imports.

    • insider 5.2

      Their take up has been incredibly slow as well. They’ve been in the market for 10 years, but last year the Prius only sold 200 units. The VW Touareg sold more.

    • vidiot 5.3

      Don’t get in the way of a good story Mr Smithfield by pointing out the obvious.

      The $60K asking price & 160Km range don’t help either.

      And the increasing age of the fleet has nothing to do with the increased safety requirements introduced a couple of years back for imports either… or so the writer would have you believe.

    • Fortran 5.4

      With a Prius you are not told of the cost of recycling the batteries every 2-3 years or so.
      About $6,000 including disposal costs.
      All batteries, including rechargeables, run out.

      • mike e 5.4.1

        Footrot the batteries are guaranteed for 8 years and will last as long as 20 years .
        The cost of the batteries is $8,000 not including fitting.

  6. captain hook 6

    feets dont fail me now!

  7. tsmithfield 7

    I trialed a 2008 Honda Civic Hybrid with low ks several months ago. The asking price was 17k. It had a 1300cc petrol motor supported by an electric motor giving it the equivalent power to an 1800 theoretically. The petrol economy was 4 litres per 100k.

    I didn’t really like the ride, so I went for a standard 1800 version (7 litres per 100k). But if the price of petrol was a lot higher, then I would have probably considered the hybrid option a lot more seriously.

    • Draco T Bastard 7.1

      To be honest, I don’t like hybrids as it seems such an inefficient way to go about things. Sure, make an efficient generator that charges a battery but don’t bother with having the engine also being able to drive the wheels.

  8. Bored 8

    Coming back to the point the misallocation of funds on roading represents a stupendously nonsensical bit of politics. We joke about the John Key Memorial Cycleway but from a future viewpoint it actually makes sense to only build fit for light traffic, mainly cycles (and electric variants there of). The money spent on roads would definitely be better spent on rail electrification and a more efficient rebuild of the national grid.

    One of the laughs I get is the number of people who will come up with a techno solution for any oil depletion issues. My own thinking is an amalgam of traditional methods, simplification / decomplexification and applied modern science. I did over the cycle not long ago, and was surprised by the difference a little vegetable oil on the chain made to ease of pedaling. Low tech, renewable.

  9. Dr Terry 9

    The only answer seems to be that we return to peddle-cars.

  10. DH 10

    The other problem with electric cars is we’d need to produce a whole lot more electricity to run them all. I’d be interested in the figures; existing petrol & diesel usage converted to watts.

    I’d like a little runabout electric car but no-one makes one that’s affordable. There’s some golf buggies that are adaptable to road use, have a range of 50-60k and can do up to 70km/hr. Doesn’t sound much but they’d make an excellent shopping basket & good for commuting if the distance isn’t far. Problem is converting them to road-legal costs too much.

  11. DH 11

    Thanks, interesting. His numbers don’t add up for me, do the maths there and it says petrol costs much the same as electricity.

    Check my maths, I can’t see where I get it wrong;

    1 gallon of gas equals 40 miles at 40mpg
    1gallon = 4.4litres @ $2.25 ltr = $9.90

    A car doing 40mpg uses 0.9 Kw/hr of energy per mile, total energy use for 1 gallon 36kw/hr
    1 Kw/hr is a unit of power from the grid
    36 units at 25cents = $9 worth of electricity
    Charging etc would waste 10% taking the $9 up to $9.90

    It can’t be right IMO.

  12. The Chairman 12

    Who Killed The Electric Car?


  13. Afewknowthetruth 13

    Few people seem to realise that for most western nations, including NZ, transport makes up the bulk of energy use, and for individual households that use cars ( more than one in some cases) liquid fuel energy makes up 80 or 90% of energy consumption, especially in the summer.

    When someone comes up with a feasible plan for doubling, tripling or quadrupling NZ’s electricity generating capacity and doubling, tripling or quadrupling the capacity of the grid, electric cars might just be feasible -assuming no other major nations decide to follow the same path.

    In the meantime I’ll keep looking for the lumps on the side of pigs – the ones that indicate they about to sprout wings.

    • Draco T Bastard 13.1

      Yep, the car has become such and everyday item that most people have NFI of its real costs.

  14. I think this is a very important debate, and it is not a completely black and white one.

    Thinking about limits to technology doesn’t mean we reject technology but we do need to hose down the masculine pipe dream that says switching from one energy source to another is a panacea, enabling us to keep on living more or less like we are.

    Here is a link to my thoughts on the same subject: http://peakoiltas.org/2011/09/electric-cars/

    Chris Harries (Tasmania)

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