Monday, August 18, 2008

Electrification of transportation

I've been meaning for a while to write a post describing my belief that the long-term replacement for gasoline/diesel in transportation (particularly automobiles) can ultimately only be electricity. (Trains, of course, are already largely electric.) The core of my argument is not environmental or efficiency or cost, but rather fungibility. Specifically: electricity can be made from a wide variety of sources, and that mix can shift fluidly without any retrofit required. You don't need to do anything to your television when your electric utility adds wind power, or fires up a coal-based power plant when there isn't enough water behind the dam. Your TV just knows that it's getting juice and is indifferent to how it is produced.

Andy Grove (former CEO of Intel) has just written an excellent article making this very point in great detail. He's approaching it from a policy point of view and figuring out how to make it happen, whereas I'm simply making a long-term prediction about where I believe the technology will go, but we're both coming at it from essentially the same observation that the fungibility is key. I encourage you to click the link and read it.

I'll also add that electric engines have several advantages over internal combustion engines (ICE). They can offer greater torque (great for acceleration - this is why the fine folks at Tesla Motors realized that an all-electric car makes a very nice sports car) over a wide range of RPMs. They are more efficient - often well north of 50%, whereas a very efficient ICE is doing well if it's getting above 20%. And they are generally quite reliable, having relatively few parts compared to an ICE. These advantages, however, have historically been insufficient to overcome electric engines Achiles heel: carrying enough electrical energy to go long distances, and quick recharge times. But with the progress currently being made in battery technology and ultracapacitors, I believe that this hurdle will eventually be crossed.

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