By Yan Wu
Automobile emission is one of the biggest sources of pollution in global metropolitan areas today. Just in New York City, out of the 58.3 million metric tons of annual carbon dioxide pollution, 13.6 million, or 23 percent, will be from automobile engines (Mayor). Breathing the polluted air can reduce oxygen flow in the bloodstream and potentially cause cancer (EPA). This problem is increasingly relevant to the whole world as developing nations such as China and India are putting more and more cars on the road in response to the growing demand for transportation. However, we can not and should not be forced to sacrifice our health for mobility. The solution proposed by automakers is emission-free vehicles that will eventually substitute conventional fuel-dependent vehicles. These zero emission vehicles are electric cars that have been designed without gasoline powered engines. Electricity will replace gasoline and become the new fuel that powers vehicles. Thus, when electric cars dominate the road, the idea of automobile emission will forever become a thing of the past.
When electric vehicles were first introduced, automakers were unable to make them profitable to compete against conventional cars. General Motor’s (G.M.) EV1 was one of the first modern electric vehicles ever produced. In 1996, EV1 was introduced to limited customers under leased-only agreements. Under the lease plan, engineers were able to collect real-world data from customers and improve this newly developed electric technology. However, the cost average of $80,000 per vehicle and the short life span of the expensive battery made automakers hesitant to produce EV1 on a large scale (Paine). Although the company knew that when reaching a certain economies of scale the cost of producing EV1 would drop, G.M. was ultimately reluctant to mass produce the EV1’s in fear of cannibalizing their highly profitable conventional cars.
The gasoline-dependent conventional vehicles have created highly profitable business chains that can be destabilized by the electric vehicles. Automakers will suffer from decrease in conventional car sales, oil companies will face the drop in gasoline demand, and car repair companies will no longer profit from the multibillion car engine repair business (Paine). Subsequently, electric cars and their environmental benefits are less desirable to automakers with oil prices as low as $2 and conventional car sales continuing to boom. However, with the economical downturn and rising oil prices, the situation would look different for automakers and consumers alike.
Oil price could directly influence the demand for alternatives to conventional cars. In 2008, when the oil price reached $4 per gallon, the sales for Toyota’s hybrid vehicle Prius increased so quickly that demand for new Prius outmatched their production. However, when oil price dropped back to $2 per gallon, Prius’s sales also slowed down (Bradsher). Since oil is a nonrenewable energy that is destined to deplete within 100 years under the present consumption rate, automakers must develop alternative models if they wish to achieve sustainable growth. But when is the best time to invest in the new technology? The economy is the key.Electric cars are more attractive to automakers when conventional car sales dropped during the economic recession. On January 2009, G.M.’s sales volume decreased 49% from the previous year (Zong). The economic crisis is forcing automakers like G.M. to seek alternative growth in the electric vehicle market. G.M.’s new electric model, the Chevy Volt, is scheduled to hit the road by November 2010. Ford, experiencing a 40% loss during the same time, is also betting on electric vehicles by investing in Project M, which plans to build an electric power car in six month. The economic crisis has forced automakers to restructure their business and invest in new technology in order to survive in the future.
The construction of electric vehicles is less complex than that of conventional cars, but a major technical problem lies in the “heart” of the electric vehicle—the battery. Almost all of the rechargeable plug-in electric vehicles are powered by lithium-ion batteries. In the case of G.M.’s Chevy Volt, it needs at least 6 hours to be fully recharged and runs up to 40 miles on electricity before gasoline kicks in. This satisfies 75% of the American commuters who drive less than 40 miles to work everyday (Motavalli). However, the battery will not be able to sustain long distance driving, nor can it speed up the recharging process. Scientists are working to find a more powerful battery that will make electric vehicles match the capabilities of conventional vehicles. At MIT, a high power superconductor from carbon nanotubes has been created with the capacity to hold 30 kilowatts per kilogram (kW/kg) when the most advanced present devices can only hold up to 4kW/kg (Bourzac). Our hope is that within 10 to 20 years, the carbon nanotube superconductor will provide electric vehicles with affordable, powerful, and lightweight batteries. In the meantime, electric vehicles cannot yet fully replace conventional vehicles.The government can accelerate the implementation of electric vehicles by subsidizing consumers and building complimentary infrastructures. The U.S. government has issued up to $7,500 tax credits for people who purchase hybrids or plug-in electric vehicles (EnergyStar). Not only can people save money, but they are helping the nation through driving vehicles with multiple positive externalities such as a cleaner environment and fuel independency. The U.S. government is also planning to build infrastructures that will make the nation electric-vehicle-friendly. Two cities, San Francisco and Portland, have taken the initiatives to install government-funded infrastructures such as electric vehicle charging stations and the smart grid (Krarner). Government advocacy will help to attract more attention to the social responsibilities of automakers and individuals, while encouraging the social benefits of electric vehicles.
Under the present economic crisis, the Obama administration is pushing automakers to become more socially responsible through producing environmental friendly vehicles. Amidst the restructuring of G.M., Obama urges the company to produce “small, fuel-efficient, low-carbon-emitting cars” (Sanger). While the government is likely to bring G.M. out of the verge of bankruptcy, the American auto-industry will undergo a large scale product restructuring. Hopefully in the future, a typical American family car will no longer be a SUV, but an electric powered vehicle.
Outside of the U.S., automakers in developing nations like China and India are also seeking for ways to bring electric cars into their markets. The heavily polluted cities such as Beijing wish to reduce emission and become more environmental friendly. These developing economies also have lots of first-time car buyers who are not willing to pay much for gas. BYD, a Chinese company, and Tata Motors, an Indian automaker, are among some of the leading electric car developers in these nations. By utilizing cheap manual labor, low wage engineers, and inexpensive resources, companies in developing nations are able to lower the cost of electric cars to approximately $22,000, which is almost half of the estimated price of G.M.’s Chevy Volt (Shirouzu). If G.M. is able to produce its Chevy Volt not only in America but also in places like China, then the electric vehicle industry will see a faster rise in the global economy.G.M. should introduce its Chevy Volt to China to take advantage of the nation’s cheap resources and lower the cost of electric vehicles. Through its local company at Shanghai, G.M. already has six different brands, including Chevrolet, and more than 40 car models in China. In January 2009, for the first time the total sales of automobile in China have surpassed the total U.S. auto sale. China has also taken steps to subsidize and advocate electric vehicles. If G.M. does not utilize the Chinese market to expand Chevy Volt now, then domestic Chinese companies like BYD might become the dominant electric vehicle producer. BYD’s founder and C.E.O Wang Chuanfu has said in his interview that "It's almost hopeless for a latecomer like us to compete with G.M. and other established auto makers with a century of experience in gasoline engines. With electric vehicles, we're all at the same starting line (Shirouzu)." Mr. Wang’s ambitious statement is partially incorrect in that Chinese consumers will still see G.M. as a more reliable and prestigious company from its century long experience. However, if G.M, does not see the potential of Chevy Volt in the global market, then newcomers will grow into large competitors in the electric vehicle industry in the future.
As we enter the 21st century, environmental issues and an economic downturn have put sustainability on the top of business agendas. There is no better example of this than the auto industry. Automakers have finally responded to the consumers’ call for zero-emission vehicles in hopes for sustainable growth. More importantly, these vehicles will prevent us from the future energy crisis as fossil fuel runs out. Large automakers like G.M. have the capability to accelerate the growth of electric vehicles through investing in different markets worldwide. In the future, G.M. can also adapt its electric technology to successful models of gasoline-dependent cars; changing the “heart” but not the look of conventional cars. When the cheaper and more powerful battery is installed, the electric vehicles will eventually be the same if not more efficient than the conventional vehicles. Electric vehicles promise the world an environmentally sustainable future.