Jim Motavalli | Rodale Books, 272 pp., $24.99
When the Toyota Prius debuted in the United States a decade ago, reactions were polarized. Fans loved its tantalizing mileage; skeptics scoffed at its relatively high cost and smug eco-imaging. Today, with more than two million sold, the groundbreaking gas-electric hybrid is as uncontroversial as it is unsexy, its success a profitable reward for an early, risky bet on green technology.
In High Voltage, the longtime automotive journalist Jim Motavalli argues that we’re at the start of a similar arc with electric vehicles, or EVs. As these finally hit the streets, we’re still early in the fascination-versus-skepticism phase. Pundits fret over “range anxiety” — how far an EV can go on a charge — while consumers are drawn to the remarkable mileage, the equivalent of as much as 100 miles per gallon of gasoline.
Riding shotgun with Motavalli, readers get a sense of how this technology may not only electrify most new cars (either partially or completely) but also remake the auto industry, rewire our electrical grid, and redefine how and where we refuel — all while lowering oil consumption and cutting greenhouse gas emissions.
For the lay reader, Motavalli breaks down the basics of the technology, untangling the often confusing taxonomy of subspecies. There are the now-familiar gas-electric hybrids, such as the Prius, which are never plugged in. There are plug-in hybrids, such as the Volt, which recharge from an outlet but also have a gas engine for extended range. And there are the truest EVs, such as Nissan’s Leaf, which use no gasoline, drawing all their energy from a supersize battery pack.
If you think the $40,000-plus Volt is too costly, Motavalli writes, blame the battery. Higher-capacity batteries may spell the difference between success and failure, which explains, he says, why “battery companies have become the rock stars of the EV business.”
How and where EVs recharge is shaping up to be a monumental technology shift in its own right. From developing a safe, standard design for EV plugs to transforming the grid to handle the EV era, the effort has pulled in some big newcomers to the auto biz. There’s Southern California Edison, which is working out the kinks to install at-home and public charging points. Then there’s GE, which is fortifying the grid for EVs and rolling out “smart grid” technologies, including curbside gizmos that will allow even garageless city dwellers to recharge.
China, already the world’s largest auto market, looms as the EV industry’s game changer. China’s top battery maker, BYD (which is one-tenth owned by Warren Buffett), is targeting the U.S. market with both battery and plug-in hybrid models, the latter priced just south of $30,000, about $10,000 less than the Volt. They’re still crude, and safety is a question, Motavalli reports, but the same was said of the first Japanese imports in the 1960s, and those turned out to be harbingers of a sea change in design and efficiency.
Motavalli concedes that “because of high cost, range issues, relatively low fuel prices, and a scarcity of federal incentives,” EVs may yet hit one of the potholes that has crashed past runs. The odds are with them, though. High long-term oil prices are driving the shift, as are moves toward higher fuel-efficiency standards. Without some measure of electrification, Motavalli contends, few manufacturers will be able to sell in tomorrow’s car markets.
A decade from now, EVs may be just one more kind of vehicle stuck in traffic. That would be exactly the sort of humdrum success EV players hope for. And it would be great for the environment, too.
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