Will technology leapfrog depletion and save drivers from the cost of triple-digit oil? Every auto producer in the world has an electric car in the works; General Motors, of course, will start producing its Volt later this year. But in actuality, the car of the future is really a throwback to the past.

In 1899, an electric car was clocked going over 60 miles an hour. And a little over a decade later, a Detroit Electric managed to travel 211 miles on a single charge. (By comparison, the Volt will go just 40 miles on a single charge before its back-up gasoline engine kicks in.)

In an ironic twist of fate, it was the invention of the electric starter that all but killed the electric car, since you no longer needed the physique of a weightlifter to crank-start your internal combustion engine.

Back then, of course, you didn’t have today’s lithium-ion battery technology. But like most other oil-saving technologies, this one ain’t cheap. The lithium-ion car battery costs about $7,500, and even a sub-compact like the Volt is going to set you back $40,000.

Sure, the cost of operating one of these cars will be cheaper than running the gas-powered one you’re replacing, but will the lithium-ion battery stand up to years of driving?

The one in my laptop couldn’t even handle my daily email before frying my hard drive.

Whether car batteries prove to be an economically viable way of storing energy remains to be seen (gasoline carries about 20 times more energy per pound) but storing power and generating it are two very different things. Batteries, lithium-ion or otherwise, need to be charged by an external power source.

And just where is the energy charging all those batteries going to come from?

The American vehicle fleet—some 250 million cars—burns 13 million barrels of oil per day on the road. That’s what it takes to power two million American homes for an entire year. (I discuss this in depth in chapter four of my book, Why Your World Is About To Get A Whole Lot Smaller.)

Just which part of the continent’s power grid has that type of spare capacity?

Certainly not the part where I live. Only a few summers ago, one too many air conditioners running during a summer heat wave sent me walking down the eighteen flights of stairs in my former office building, as the grid collapsed between Ohio, upstate New York and Ontario.

Try charging 250 million lithium-ion car batteries and see what happens.

Of course, we could always try to meet that energy challenge by emulating our climate-change partners, China and India, and build hundreds of new coal-fired generating plants.

I wonder why no one proposed that at the recent Copenhagen global environmental summit.

So by all means, leapfrog the constraints of our rapidly depleting world oil supply, and trade your gas-guzzler in for an electric model. Just remember to turn out the lights.

  • aplcomp

    Why not Zinc-air batteries for elelctric cars:
    Unut price 30-50% that of lithium-ion
    Energy density: 200% that of Li-ion kWh/kg
    Recharging: as fast as gar, by swapping deleted ZnO cassettes with new Zn ones
    Energy generation: distributed, carbotherimically from carcoal, combustible waste, solar
    Dependence: none, zinc is 4:th most abundat metal in earth crust

  • ericnleclair

    Jeff – you have to consider that most of the charging would occur at night when grid capacity is very good. The grid is built like our roads: to handle capacity at peak demand (or try to!). At night, the price of electricity bottoms out hence the idea behind the smart meters (like we see in Ontario). Electric cars could become part of the 'smart grid' end actually become an integral part of grid decentralization.

    Electric cars are the way of the future …. but I agree, it will be several years if not decades before they become a key player. What we need to do today is plan for that eventuality.


  • cagreen

    It seems that Europe is opting for small high efficiency diesel vehicles instead of hybrids as we are in North America. Given that there is room for technological development for biofuels to augment or replace diesel, is this not a viable option? It gives room for both development and localization. Perhaps you have addressed this in your book, I will be reading it to look for information about this and other aspects of your view.

  • ericnleclair

    Biofuels are not the answer. The required volume to displace gasoline and/or diesel would require that we give up food agriculture and use our arable land for ethanol production. Furthermore, ethanol production from corn and sugar cane requires oil in the form of fertilizer, machinery operation, and transportation; a zero sum solution.

    Other sources of biofuels such as used vegetable oils and the like cannot supply large volumes. It is and will remain a niche source.

    Cellulosis ethanol (derived from agri waste) could potentially be a larger source when compared to other niche sources but even it will not displace significant quantities of gas/diesel. Furthermore, the technology is yet to be proven on a large scale.


  • http://www.blindriverloghouse.blogspot.com/ cagreen

    I was thinking in a broader context and so perhaps have not used the correct terminology. I am a retired chemist and so see infinite possibilities to develop diesel fuel alternatives using more renewable resources. Take for instance the work reported in November 2009 being done by Volvo in Sweden, a climate similar to mine in Canada where I am involved with growing and harvesting poplar and pine on my own property (so I feel some “locality”). The Swedes and Danes are working on a product called Dimethyl ether (DME) which is a gas that is transformed into a liquid under low pressure to make it straightforward to handle. When used as a fuel in a diesel engine, DME is apparently efficient, produces less particulate emissions and is quieter. Interestingly, with this fuel the engine is supposed to produce a higher starting higher torque. In other words this may prove to not only be a replacement but also an improvement over existing diesel. Bio-DME is a byproduct of natural gas and more recently from other biomass sources, one being the so called “black liquor” from the forestry industry. The EU is looking at replacing about half of heavy diesel used for heavy truck transport with Bio-DME by 2030. Naturally the economics of any biomass source must be considered, but food production biomass is not the only one. I was speaking of leading technologies for biomass which consider availability, technical aspects and economics – not existing technologies that we can just turn on now.

  • TFitz

    Mr. Rubin –

    You are correct about the grid capacity if you make all the wrong moves in changing transportation from oil and the internal combustion engine into electrical powered.

    How wrong would we have to be using your logic:

    All 250 million cars being battery powered? At any optimistic rate that would take about 80 years given the global supply of Neodymium would limit production of the magnets needed for electric cars to about 3.5 million units per year. Let's not worry about that one for awhile.

    Grid collapse in the Northeastern United States? I was in the middle of that one myself. I think you answered the question for me. This problem is far less a generating capacity problem than it is an outdated electrical grid problem.

    Electric car range decline? Yes, that would be a problem if the Volt was designed as an electric car. Check with GM and they will tell you it's an 'extended range electric' car so it was never designed for long electric range. A better comparison would be the Telsa with a range of 313 miles — and it looks so sexy.

    Should I continue? Your thinking has no depth and shows little understanding of the real facts. The bottom line is I will keep by CFL and LED lights burning. When the plug-in Prius comes out my current Prius will get traded in for the new one. If I don't plug it in during peak power consumption times the grid won't even notice. And I don't think a single light will blink or brown out.

  • Zeke

    I agree with your article. The issue I see over and over is quick fix alternatives based on the tiny world the person lives in. It took me about five minutes with a hand held calculator to see corn based ethenol was a dead end but billions were invested. That goes for the rest of the “alternatives” solutions as well. I know, very well, that alternatives will work, they just won't allow the scope of activity we now have which means massive changes in lifestyle. There won't be any jumping in the car and driving from Minneapolis to northern Minnesota for a weekend of boating which means tourism in northern Minnesota is a dead end.

    People say “do this” or “do that” based on OPINIONS not on hard facts. We're at the stage of wishful thinking which is always an early stage of adjusting to rapid change. For example, we'll just drive electric cars that we charge at night. Sounds great except how long does it take to replace a fleet of 300 million cars? 15 to 20 years. What happens to the massive economic losses when the car you are trading in is worth half what you thought. Or did you factor in the numbers of people who work at night so would have to plug in during the day? Did you actually calculate the numbers of cars, the kilowatt hours needed and are they actually available even at night? Will the existing power infrastructure handle the increased loads? What about the extra maintenance needed to maintain the constantly used infrastructure? What I'm getting at is all of the alternatives involve extremely complex issues that aren't solved on a piece of scratch paper and the issues are far, far beyond my simplistic questions.

    In fact, I listened to your talk of which part was all the jobs that would come back. My thoughts “oh sure”. We don't have the factories, the work force, other infrastructure, etc, etc.
    Sounds great and, right now, we're at the stage where anything said has to have a “positive” twist as the public can't handle anything else. We're in one helluva corner and time is running extremely short. Like we might be too late already.

  • marcovth

    It seems, probably within a year, China might crash, and that will put a couple of million cars in the parking lot.


  • http://www.tnns.org/energy Walt

    Zinc – great idea – do you know anyone doing / preparing to use this method?

    I do, and they have the means for the (quick) recharging for powering cars, AND homes, and at lower cost than now for both. Right now they are offering a program using & saving 100% of your Federal income taxes – acquiring equity in their solar power plant at NO COST – no out of pocket expense. They will be able to power our cars and homes with clean solar energy and for less than current costs. Installations are being built now. More Info here: http://www.tnns.org/energy

  • lanel

    Are there 250M cars or does that include trucks/Suv's/RV's, etc. and the commercial trucking fleet? The bigger question is what does the average mpg number increase to when we incorporate hybrids(sounds like these electric cars are really hybrids) into the equation. What percentage of hybrids averaging 50 mpg do we need to have on the road to start making some dramatic gains in average mpg? Can't we reduce our oil imports substantially when the average mpg gets to 30 or more? What does that do to OPEC and the price of a barrell of oil? Does it even matter when Asia has millions more drivers driving up petro consumption?

  • Al Crawford

    I would like to complement you on a first rate book. It is truly excellent.

    I am a little surprised that neither you nor anyone I have read has considered a supeconducting electric network. While it would have a high initial cost and significant maintenance energy, it would allow continent-wide electricity transfer = equalization of cloud, wind, and peak time effects which hamper green energy.

  • http://www.h2carblog.com/ Greg Blencoe


    I just watched a YouTube video of your talk last September at the Business of Climate Change conference. I really enjoyed it.

    I agree that any alternative to oil will require a significant infrastructure investment.

    But hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are the real solution to the oil crisis. They are far superior to battery-only cars when it comes to driving range, fueling time, cold weather performance (an issue in Canada!), and trunk/passenger space.

    I highly recommend checking out the following article. Please note that Toyota plans on bringing “affordable” hydrogen fuel cell vehicles to market in 2015.

    “7 reasons to love Toyota hydrogen fuel cell vehicles”

    Here are 7 reasons to love Toyota hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (which the company started developing in-house back in 1992 when I was a senior in high school):

    1. 431-mile real-world driving range with Toyota FCHV-adv (mid-size SUV) hydrogen fuel cell vehicle (See the following YouTube video)

    2. 68.3 real-world miles per kilogram fuel economy with Toyota FCHV-adv (See the following YouTube video)

    3. Ability to operate in temperatures as low as minus 35 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 37 degrees Celsius)

    4. Irv Miller, TMS group vice president, environmental and public affairs, made the following comment on August 6th:

    “In 2015, our plan is to bring to market a reliable and durable fuel cell vehicle with exceptional fuel economy and zero emissions, at an affordable price.”

    5. Masatami Takimoto, a Toyota executive vice president and board member, made the following comment about hydrogen fuel cell vehicles in January 2009 at the North American International Auto Show:

    “By 2015, we will have a full-fledged commercialization effort.”

    6. The Toyota FCHV-adv (Highlander) hydrogen fuel cell vehicle has the same trunk and passenger space as the gasoline-powered version.

    Click on the following link to see a picture of the trunk in the Toyota FCHV-adv hydrogen fuel cell vehicle.

    7. Here is a comment made by Justin Ward, advanced powertrain program manager-Toyota Technical Center, in a Ward’s Automotive article (subscription required) that was published on July 16th:

    “We have some confidence the vehicle released around 2015 is going to have costs that are going to be shocking for most of the people in the industry. They are going to be very surprised we were able to achieve such an impressive cost reduction.”


    Greg Blencoe
    Chief Executive Officer
    Hydrogen Discoveries, Inc.
    “Hydrogen Car Revolution” blog

  • JC

    …not to mention the fact that lithium itself is in limited supply in the world. I've been involved with the electric bike movement for years. When it comes to electric vehicles of any kind in North America, the biggest hurdle is culture. It's gotta work EXACTLY like a combustion engine or people will reject it outright. That means no compromise on convenience, distance or price.

  • cameronross

    I would like to contact Jeff Rubin by e-mail I am at cmross@shaw.ca I would like to share an idea with him. Thanks.

  • http://www.jrconsumer.com/ Travel Trailers

    what is call about electric cars for me? is that they dont sound at all…

  • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rZjOkzpwOKI Canvas Stretching Machine

    hmmm electric cars is somewhat convenient…

  • Thor

    An even bigger problem I would imagine would be to see where the electricety is coming from. Today and on average in the world dirty coal is used to generate some 50% off all elecricity. In france they have nuclear capacity and thus most of theior elecricety comes from that source. In the scandinavian countries the are fortunate as a large part of all the elecricity comes from renuabele water power. China however get more than 70% of all its elecricity from coal.

    As we're now facing not only peak oil, but in fact also peak coal

    As well as possibly also Peak Uranium,A report published by MIT suggests the world faces a uranium shortage from 2013

    Given such an environment how could then transforming all fossil based transportation in to electrical bases viechels even be considered as a possible solution at all?

  • mike

    It would seem to me that considering the average commute is less than 30 miles a day the concept of the electric car needs to be looked at from a different angle, downsized to what amounts to a cyclecar al la “Morgan”
    electric powered with a small fuel powered generator onboard for charging/ running when the charge is low.

  • http://portablegeneratorsforsale.net/ Portable Generators

    Electric powered cars are not only convenient. It is also good for our environment because it emits no harmful gas emissions that only contribute to climate change.

  • http://portablegeneratorsforsale.net/ Portable Generators

    Electric powered cars are not only convenient. It is also good for our environment because it emits no harmful gas emissions that only contribute to climate change.

  • http://www.nicecargames.com Car Games

    Many people forget electric cars of today waste a lot of batteries…toxic batteries that we need to throw out more often than gas cars so it's not that enviromental.

  • US

    I cant vouch for the power supply situation in the US, but here in Ontario we presently have a major oversupply of power. Baseload generation capacity (nuclear and hydro) alone accounts for about 14,000 MW. Peak in power is at about 17000-19000MW whereas installed capacity is easily over 27,000 MW.
    Also, the author is very wrong about the cause of 2003 blackout. The blackout in 2003 did not occur due to over demand situation, but because of line failures (short circuit) in Ohio which caused a cascading effect all across the interconnected north eastern US & Ontario grid.

  • WhoKnows3000

    The idea that we’re going to somehow replace 300 million gas vehicles in US alone is outright insane. Supply-side lithium/ zinc and power generation is going to see immense strain, and none of these processes are entirely green.

    Truth is, our cities are going to have to become far more compact whether we like it or not. While it is true that affluent people throughout the first world are living far closer to work, far poorer ( often welfare dependent) working class citizens living in the suburbs are not going to be driving a “green” suburbia revolution.