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Makes sense to plug in

I recently completed my first test drive in an all-electric vehicle.

I recently completed my first test drive in an all-electric vehicle.

I have no idea how many kilometres were possible with a full charge, because half way through my test the salesman took the keys away. He also said if I ever came back to Toys “R” Us, and got on that pink Barbie Escalade again, he would call security.

I wish this guy had spoken with Larry Murphy, as I had. Then he might have better understood my desire to experience the electrical movement. Murphy is best described as GM’s future strategist. His job is to predict what personal transportation will look like in the future and how GM might position itself in that future. (I know, I know, GM and the future aren’t entirely a done deal, but that’s a business story, this is more of a technical one.)

He noted that the DNA of the automobile hasn’t changed much in 100 years. Internal combustion engine. Fuelled by some kind of petroleum product. Lots of on-board mechanical and hydraulic systems. This type of vehicle also operates independently of other vehicles — you have to pay attention to the car and to the traffic.

“A relatively dumb machine,” says Murphy.

He believes that the automotive DNA is about to change, to one based around electrical drivetrains, and to one also based on the notion that vehicles will be connected to each other on a grid. (Murphy considers fuel-cell technology a branch of electrical; fuel cells convert hydrogen to water and electricity.)

Not everyone agrees with Murphy, but the arguments for shaping cars around this model are compelling, even if you go beyond the obvious one of sustainable and clean energy consumption.

• Electric motors are small and do not need transmissions. This reduces weight and complexity. This also means less maintenance, not more.

• Electric cars have less inherent design constraints. Designers will be free to re-think what vehicle shapes are possible, and where to put people and their cargo.

• Electric cars can go really fast.

• Once connected to a grid so that congestion is relieved and cars don’t crash into each other any more, then you can take even more mass out of the car — because you won’t need all the on-board safety systems we need today.

• If all the above works as advertised, and safety and environment issues are under control, then the “automakers” will be able to concentrate more on the fun side of personal transportation. He figures they could eventually operate more like the fashion industry, and bring out fashionable exteriors and interiors almost on a seasonable basis.

Before we get there, there are a few technology bits to work out. Battery technology, for example, is acting like that four-year-old kid that refuses to keep up with the group. But he’ll come along, surely. And when he does, I’m sure we’ll all be singing our happy little electric song.

– Michael Goetz has been writing about cars and editing automotive publications for more than 20 years. He lives in Toronto with his family and a neglected 1967 Jaguar E-type.

 
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