Battery Powered Cobras?

by Rick Kopec (11/23/08)

....and Shelby Mustangs? Not just yet.

If there was no such thing as the internal combustion engine to power an automobile, can you imagine someone today attempting to convince everyone else that it was a workable concept? He would start by explaining that this engine makes power by taking in a combination of fuel and air in the form of vapor, compressing it and igniting it under pressure. The resulting small explosion pushes the piston to the bottom of its cycle in the cylinder where, connected to a rotating crankshaft, it starts to move up all over again. The faster this happens the more power is made. Multiple cylinders are possible, with reciprocating parts timed to move concurrently.

The fuel is called gasoline. It is refined from fossil fuel already buried deep within the ground. It is highly volatile in vapor form and is also extremely flammable in liquid form. Chemicals added to it make it a carcinogen. Additionally, the result of this burned fuel (called “exhaust”) is expelled into the air as a vapor and is a pollutant.

Each vehicle must carry a supply of this fuel – somewhere between 10 and 30 gallons ­– in a tank mounted on it. Vehicles can travel between 300 and 600 miles on a tank of fuel. When the tank is empty it is refilled through a network of “filling stations” which will be located at various points around cities and towns and on the highways. They will dispense this fuel from 10,000 to 20,000 gallon tanks buried 20 feet in the ground. Drivers of the vehicles will pump the fuel into their vehicles’ fuel tanks whenever they get low. When the filling station’s fuel tanks themselves get low they are resupplied by large tractor-trailers carrying about 9,000 gallons of fuel per load.

While this flammable fuel has the potential to explode and can become an accelerant to whatever it touches once it is ignited by a spark or an open flame, it is not likely that it will cause more than the occasional death or injury despite the fact that millions of vehicles will carry it in their tanks, thousands of fueling stations will be dispensing it on their premises and hundreds of tractor trailers will be transporting it from refineries to the retail outlets. You can picture this individual trying to explain all this to a full Senate subcommittee.

In the past 100 years all of the obstacles to this concept of personal transportation have been overcome. Every town and city in this country are joined by an extensive network of roads and highways, making it possible for anyone with a motor vehicle to go anywhere within the country, any time they want. Having invented one wheel, is it necessary to replace it with another?

Picture the same individual outlining to that same Senate subcommittee the need for electric cars which will make the present day automobile obsolete. They will be powered by small motors, one at each wheel, which will be driven by electricity temporarily stored in batteries which are carried in the vehicle. It’s not a new idea: at the end of the 1890s electrically powered vehicles appeared to be the wave of the future… until the gasoline engine was perfected. By the time Henry Ford’s Model T was unveiled, the internal combustion engine became dominant, replacing the horse as well as the electric and steam powered vehicles.

Prior to the 1990s, electric vehicles were mostly limited to fork lifts, industrial vehicles and golf carts. Increased concern of pollution caused by the automobile, fears (possibly founded, possibly unfounded) about the future supply of fossil fuels and the geopolitical ramifications, as well as concerns (again, possibly founded, possibly unfounded) about global climate change have all combined to convince a number of people that it is time for the electric vehicle to replace the gasoline powered vehicle.

Some of these people, of course, stand to make a great deal of money if this replacement of technology actually takes place. No surprise there. However, it’s not a slam-dunk yet, because there are a lot of obstacles that remain to be overcome. The primary one is the storage batteries. They have to be carried on the vehicle, and present storage batteries are heavy (making the vehicle heavier and requiring the electric motors to be larger). Currently, they can only carry enough electricity to allow a small vehicle to operate for about 60 miles (or less). And recharging can take from 3 ½ to 6 hours. Top speed is only 25-30 mph. So there is still a long way to go before electric vehicles are a viable alternative.

Replacing one technology — which effects virtually every phase of our lives — with another is both wide ranging as well as tremendously expensive. Even if electric vehicles were virtually equal to gasoline powered ones — batteries were lightweight and could propel cars 500 miles between charges, which could be completed in minutes, the changeover between the two could not happen overnight.

Throw into the equation that reasons like man-made global warming and the potential for running out of fossil fuels are still unproven — and likely will remain so unless there is some sort of an epiphany — means we will not have to worry about Cobras and Shelbys being legislated off of the road any time soon. Nor will we have to worry about not being able to buy gasoline (although the cost could go up and down like a pogo stick). Suffice it to say that no one should be contemplating having their Cobra or Shelby Mustang converted to electric power any time soon. But should that become necessary, a good business to get into might be to come up with a computer driven program which would play high performance engine sounds through external speakers and would be synchronized with vehicle speed so the silent electric cars would, at least, sound like the cars we drive right now.

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