Amazing Green Cars at the 2015 Detroit Auto Show

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) —

I caught the Detroit Auto Show on Saturday afternoon. As always, it was great to see the concept cars of the future. But if you know me, you know I was there for news about electric vehicles (EVs) and plug-in hybrids. This is mostly just window shopping — most of the EV concept cars there are beyond a middle class budget. But then window shopping is fun, and there are some models that are becoming affordable.

Electric vehicles are best paired with rooftop solar panels, both for price reasons and to reduce hydrocarbon use (the combination typically pays for itself in 6 years, after which the free fuel is cream). I know everyone can’t afford an EV, though they are coming down fast in price, and nor can everyone put solar panels on their roof — even assuming that they are homeowners. But for those who can, it is really important to make this switch as quickly as possible. And better, it is a quite pleasurable switch that saves a lot of money, in my experience.

This is Chevrolet’s 2016 Volt, which gets 50 miles on an electric charge and has been redesigned very pleasingly. It has the longest range of any plug-in hybrid (it goes to gasoline when the battery runs down). You can now fit 5 in the car, something families with 3 children had been asking for. I have the older model and I think it is a dream car– and much more affordable, with the dealer price drop the Federal tax break, than is commonly believed. I love the way it handles on the road, and the new version is even better.

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And here is Chevrolet’s sporty little electric Bolt concept car, which will go 200 miles on a charge and will cost $30,000 after rebates.

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Ford has a good position as you enter the hall, so this model caught my eye first– the Fusion Energi:

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The innovative thing here is that you can choose among 3 modes in which to drive, including electric-only. This is an in-city commuter car, getting about 19 miles on electricity, after which it runs like an ordinary non-EV gasoline hybrid. It says it gets 88 m/gallon equivalent when operating in the joint EV/ gasoline motor mode.

Ford also displayed a purely electric Focus, which is still only a concept car and apparently won’t be on the road very soon:

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Of course, they had a Tesla S:

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It goes an average 209 miles on a charge but starts at like $80,000. Tesla is putting in free fast-charge stations around the country. Dan Sparks recently wrote about his experiences with this dream car.

They also had the Model S P85D, with its dual motor and 3.2 second acceleration from 0 to 60. This electric automobile can give a sports car a run for its money.

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The Tesla Model 3, scheduled for 2017, will cost $35,000 and that will come down to $27,500 with the Federal tax break. I want one.

Mercedes Benz weighed in with the C350 Plug-in Hybrid

Gizmag explains:

“The C350 Plug-In Hybrid is powered by a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder motor, producing 211 hp (155 kW) and 350 Nm (258 lb.ft) of torque – slightly more than the base C200’s engine produces. Supplementing the petrol engine is an electric motor, which draws its power from a 6.2 kw/h lithium-ion battery mounted under the rear axle. Mercedes says this battery can be charged directly from a wall socket in just under two hours.

When fully charged, the C-Class’ battery pack will allow drivers to travel up to 31 km (19 mi) without help from the petrol engine, perfect for people who commute short distances around the city on a daily basis. As with plenty of other modern hybrids, the electric motor can also provide a handy power boost to the petrol engine when you want to pick up the pace.”

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Here’s a BMW i8 plug-in hybrid with the DeLorean wing doors (not visible in this picture):

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An all-electric Nissan Leaf with a range of around 80 miles, though the next generation will get 200 miles on a full charge so as to compete with the Chevy Bolt (due in 2017):

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And here is a Volkswagon concept car, a mid-size plug-in hybrid SUV, the Cross Coupe, with four wheel drive. It will get 20 miles running just on electricity:

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Personally I doubt very many people will be buying gasoline cars ten years from now. With the fall in prices of EVs and more efficient batteries (something Tesla’s gigafactory will probably accelerate), it will make more sense to go electric. And, as solar and wind energy become dominant, the fuel will be virtually free in EV’s. Why pay for gas?

The US produces 5.5 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide annually. It is causing dangerous global warming. That needs to become zero as soon as humanly possible. Automobiles are one of the major polluters, and a quick move to EVs is essential. People are always alleging to me that it is better to have everyone move downtown in a city and use public transport. This is true, but it isn’t going to happen or at least not quickly. But, the number of EVs on the road can increase exponentially and if they are fueled from renewables, we can cut a billion or two tons of our CO2 production this way. We should.

PS: For the cavilers, here is a piece that has some links showing that, yes, over their lifetime electric cars do have a low carbon footprint. This includes their manufacture and their own on-road performance. The Nissan Leaf has the very lowest carbon footprint at the moment. Estimates of how green a car is by which state it operates in (some states are high-coal at the moment) ignore the ability of the owner and municipalities to put up solar panels and sidestep the coal. Also, new EPA rules are likely to close most coal plants soon. As for the making of the car, note that it will also become less carbon intensive, as factories are driven by solar power, as new materials such as perovskites are deployed. Even steel-making might be made more green soon.

22 Responses

  1. Dear Juan, I appreciate your enthusiasm for these vehicles and the need for a massive reorientation in our transportation infrastructure but my take on depowering is different. The solution for decreasing CO2 and preparing for the decline in oil supplies will be most economically met by simply driving less, fewer new cars, fewer cars per capita (in the US), moving less mass of vehicle and more payload per weight of vehicle.
    So it won’t be replacement of a 3500lb ICE sedan driven 15,000mi/yr by a 3500lb EV driven 15,000mi/yr but the same 3500lb ICE sedan being driven 9,000mi/yr. EVs can have a niche like natural gas vehicles but fuel is not and probably will not be taxed higher to make EV competitive. When oil supplies decline or our ability to afford it declines there won’t be the economic growth to make a large scale replacement of ICE vehicles. The greatest change in resource use is behavior not technical.

    • Driving less is good. But most people in US can’t get to work any other way, so you’re being a little unrealistic. Most of them will buy a car in the next 10 years. Let it be green.

    • The problem with talk like this is that Ted Cruz and his crazies in Congress are claiming that we are being forced to moved to cities and be indoctrinated in socialism under Agenda 2000, which is a UN conspiracy. This crap will be used to convince “real” Americans that their identity as “exceptional” demands clinging to the suburbs no matter how bankrupt they become, just like guns and God. The bad guys have laid out their lies way in advance of anything we can do.

      • Yes, “the bad guys have laid out their thoughts…” Does that mean we should do nothing? If we do nothing, it will guarantee that undesirable policies will be implemented. Unfortunately, sometimes it is necessary to fight back, if you want to have a world worth living in.

    • “but fuel is not and probably will not be taxed higher to make EV competitive”

      Sorry, sir, but we are already taxed to have petrol available. The lead Chevron geologist once told me that up to $2.00 per gallon of petrol represents the subsidy Americans pay via taxes. (He feels we missed the boat during the OPEC contrived shortage during the 1980s.)

      If only we would let it, capitalism would select for alternative energy. Instead we continue to subsidize highly polluting and more and more expensive (without seeing the actual costs) petroleum.

      Bad America to not let capitalism run it’s course.

      • Why would capitalism’s investor class choose to upset a lucrative status quo that was put in place before alternative energy got cheap enough to consider? The investors will hold onto short term profits as long as possible. It’s cheaper to buy politicians in the short run (aided by the Citizens United decision) than to make risky investments in the future; that’s how the capitalists set up the United States in the first place, not the libertarian fantasy land you’re living in. The slaveowners were American’s original capitalists, and they rigged the electoral system to protect themselves, then used that to protect their model with an endless series of legal stopgaps based on sacred “property rights” and “states’ rights”.

        And you know that solar power was developed by government contractors for NASA satellites for years before they made it cheap enough for anyone else to care.

  2. The white Tesla shown is actually a Model X.
    In a few years the model≡ ­­ will be out at Volt like prices and the era of wide spread adoption of EVs will have begun.

  3. One weird design note: front grilles on electric-only vehicles. I don’t get it. They don’t have a radiator. They don’t use air for combustion. What’s with the grill?

    • My guess would be that because the AC condenser needs airflow, putting it behind the grill gets some ‘free’ airflow owing to the movement of the vehicle.

  4. My wife and I each have a LEAF. We have solar panels on our roof in sunny California and the community we live in gets most of its electrical energy from nearby geothermal plants. While it’s true that less carbon would be produced if everyone moved downtown and took public transportation, cars do add to the enjoyment and freedom of life. They became popular for a reason.

  5. The Ford Focus Electric has been available since 2012. You can probably pick one up used for under $20K. They’re great cars, and I will purchase one after my PV system is up.

  6. So let me get this straight: its “not very realistic” to hope for denser cities & better public transport. But your solution, repeated ad nauseum, is that we should all spend tens of thousands of dollars on a Volt and a solar array.
    Can you not understand the financial impossibility of your solution?
    Love you on the middle east. On climate change–youve got work to do.

    • You are already spending thousands of dollars on buying cars, and then paying for gasoline on top of that. And you are paying thousands of dollars for electricity for your home over time. My way lets you save money and reduce carbon and use existing infrastructure. Your way requires Stalin-like mass deportations.

      I appreciate your kind words, but please don’t pigeon-hole me; I know a lot about energy markets and how they change precisely from studying the Middle East for 40 years.

      link to singularityhub.com

  7. Here in San Diego, I see far more people using Car2Go. (www.Car2Go.com). These little electric cars are parked all around the city; all you have to do is hop online, find the nearest little car, drive it to your destination, leave it, and repeat this exercise when it’s time to go back home.

    What will completely change the face of car ownership is when electric cars drive themselves. My prediction is that there will be a vast decrease in car ownership. Why purchase a car that spends about 90% of its time sitting parked somewhere waiting for you? When you need a car, just send out a text and the nearest car will be on its way to pick you up.

    I’m really looking forward to such a future where I can call up the kind of electric car I need (pickup for a camping trip; little car for downtown; larger sedan for road trip) and have it arrive at my doorstep.

    Even better will be when all those many acres of blacktop reserved for parking cars will be converted into parks and gardens!

    • Of course instead of sitting in a parking lot, the empty car will be driving around to pick you up. That will increase miles driven, no? Once you can sit back and relax, why not live 50 miles out of town or let the car drive you to Los Vegas for the weekend? Especially since most of your fuel is coming from your rooftop panel.
      Make something cheaper and more convenient and more is consumed. Electric self driving cars are going to cause massive congestion problems.

      • You raise some good points. What the roads will look like depends on the percentage of people who continue to purchase their own vehicles and on the percentage willing to use shared cars. If individual car ownership drops, there could be a decrease in the total number of vehicles in circulation. But if people who would normally have stayed home or taken mass transit decide to get out more in self-driving cars, then they could bring the total number of vehicles in circulation back up.

        What I picture is a better mix of transportation choices. Buses, trams, subways, etc. would still be the least expensive, followed by self-driving taxis that make multiple stops, followed by self-driving vehicles that go point-to-point. If there are fewer individually-owned cars parked on the streets or in lots, then self-driving cars could take those empty spaces. I think basic driving activity (commuting to work, running errands, etc.) probably wouldn’t change dramatically, but I have no idea what percentage of people would switch from buses, walking, etc. to using a self-driving car if it was available. Within a city, I imagine that a self-driving car would be only a few blocks away, so it shouldn’t add too much extra mileage to any given trip. Just this morning as I left for work, I saw two parked Car2Go vehicles, one on the street a mere three feet from the edge of the driveway into my apartment complex and the other 1 ½ blocks away, so that’s the scenario that I picture for self-driving cars. Human-driven taxis spend a fair amount of time roaming and need to hover around popular areas (airports, downtown districts) to make money; self-driving vehicles would not need to return to the driver’s home or to a taxi lot, so that could provide some reduction in traffic.

        It will be very interesting to see how all of this plays out in the future.

  8. It is reasonable to attain a 90% reduction in automobile energy use, putting aside the question of where that energy comes from. A small car rated at 30 mpg is using about 1000 watt-hours per mile (very rough estimate). A Prius hybrid gets you down to the 300s. The best electric cars you can buy now are in the upper 200s. However, the 1990s GM EV1 was rated at 120 wh/mile at 50 mph despite its primitive technology, and tests indicate this was accurate. I think the breakthrough in affordability comes at under 100 wh/mile at 60 mph, given Tesla’s speculated battery cost of 20-25 cents/wh. Of course electric cars are more efficient at lower speeds and stop/start driving, but people demand the ability to commute on highways if necessary.
    In case you can find the equation for steady-speed energy consumption for cars, the parameters that would make that work would be about 2000 lbs, drag coefficient >.15, frontal area >15 sq ft. Tough, but attainable. Forget about SUVs, though.

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