Will electric vehicles make it to rural Nebraska?

By

November 30th, 2012

Lincoln, NE – The focus on the electric vehicle market has been in urban areas, leaving potential customers in rural areas wondering if the development of new cars and trucks is leaving them behind.

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Once upon a time there was an electric pickup truck.

In 1998 the Ford Motor Company fitted its popular Ranger truck body with 39 eight-volt lead-acid batteries. In its sales literature the company claimed it was “quiet, responsive and ‘Ford Tough.’” Rather than make claims about saving the environment, or even money, Ford pitched the Ranger EV as “a very practical truck.”

Don Cox finishes a drive in his Tesla Roadster (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)

The target customers were businesses making fleet purchases. There were problems with the batteries and the truck didn’t catch on. After only four years Ford recalled most of them.
Recently the electric vehicle (EV) hype focused on stylish sports cars and cute little commuter-friendly vehicles designed for big city drivers. However, an American auto company took its first major plunge into the EV marketplace 15 years ago with something as utilitarian as a truck.
With increasing excitement over a new generation of electric cars, there is not much discussion of electric vehicles that would be useful for rural customers.

A Tesla at a charging station. (Photo courtesy Tesla)

At the prestigious Los Angeles Car Show opening this week there are a dozen new electric car models being unveiled with a lot of hype and excitement. They are all minis or sports cars.

Electric cars make up 3% of total car sales in 2012, There’s hope among some advocates of the technology in Nebraska that the discussion will begin and auto makers will consider customers outside major metropolitan areas.

It’s possible a new generation electric truck could hit the market in as little as five years, according to Don Cox, an electrical engineering professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He quickly adds his estimate could be optimistic.

Interior of the Tesla Roadster. (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)

“It will depend on how rapidly the automobile industry wakes up and decides this is something they need to do,” Cox said. “It always takes a new technology awhile to get started.”

Cox talked about the development of a rural market for electric cars while taking a short drive inhis electric car. The one he owns is the exact opposite of the type of workhorse utility vehicle that will have mass appeal in farm country.

Cox owns a $100,000 Tesla Roadster. Built in 2008, it was only the sixtieth car off the infant car company’s assembly line in California. For Cox it is an opportunity to promote the potential of electric vehicles. Aside from the attention-getting body design, the sports car earned praise from automobile experts for showcasing the engineering that made a high-speed car possible. The most prestigious award in the industry, the Motor Trend Car of the Year, was awarded this year to the Tesla sedan.“It will do zero to sixty in about 4 seconds,” Cox said as the car silently idled. “Top speed is 125 miles an hour, limited by a computer. I’ve never had it that fast.”

Even Cox refers to his Tesla as “marginally practical.” There’s no room for cargo. Its range is limited, making long distance travel a challenge. “At 65 miles an hour, you can drive about 200 miles,” Cox said. “You drive it faster, you won’t get so far.”

Nonetheless, supporters of the long-term development of electric cars believe what can be learned from an expensive sports car popular in Hollywood can someday benefit the rancher in the Sand Hills interested in an electric pick up.

A Ford Ranger EV still in operation. (Photo courtesy FordRangerEV.com)

Since long haul driving is a real issue for people in rural areas, the hope is to develop an affordable battery that powers the car or truck farther.

The original intent of Tesla and its co-founder Martin Eberhard was to first make a speedy and attention-getting car. Practical considerations came later. During a visit to UNL’s College of Engineering in November he claimed “it’s easy to imagine an electric vehicle with a five or six hundred mile range and you can even imagine it being affordable five or ten years from now.
“With a 500 mile range, that’s more than most of us would drive even in rural parts of the country, right?” Eberhard asked rhetorically.

Eberhard left Tesla and is now working with other companies on electric car technology. The engineering students who came to hear him talk treated him like a rock star. The lecture hall was standing room only.

A Tesla charging station in rural Wisconsin. (Photo courtesy Tesla)

Lit by the glow of screens filed with charts illustrating the life-span of batteries and charging cycles, Eberhard answered a flurry of questions that all orbited around one premise: can the Tesla, for all its celebrity appeal and buzz, boost an industry that fascinates the next generation of electrical engineers?

He told the group he and his partners wanted to build an electric car far different from what had been unsuccessfully marketed. He called those boxy, uncomfortable and unsuccessful attempts, “punishment cars.”

The Lead-Acid battery used to power the Ford Ranger EV (Photo courtesy FordRangerEV.com)

“I wanted to make a car that absolutely contradicted everyone’s expectations of an electric car,” he told the students. “It wasn’t ugly. It wasn’t slow. It wasn’t short range.”

The race for a better battery goes on while entrepreneurs talk of creating readily available charging stations in both remote areas and in urban neighborhoods. These would be the places where drivers could plug in their cars for quick charges when away from home.

States along the west coast are considering creating an ‘electric corridor’ of charging stations along major highways. Tesla released plans, including a proposed location map. The map prepared by the company indicates Tesla has plans for at least four charging stations along I-80 in Nebraska.
When I spoke with Eberhard after his speech he didn’t take issue with his former employer’s vision, but he argued the idea of replacing gas stations with plug-in locations is the wrong model.

“I think in the short term we’ll have some quick charging stations and charge the cars up as you go along,” Eberhard said. “But I think the right model is having enough energy stored up on the car that you can drive all day and that way your electric corridor becomes hotels where you would sleep anyway having infrastructure where you can charge overnight.”

Alan Dostel, director of research projects at the Nebraska Public Power District, calls the future of electric cars in rural areas “potentially transformational.”

NPPD already has one electric car. The district’s Chevy Volt is part of a nationwide federal government study of the vehicles capabilities and drawbacks. The Omaha Public Power District is also participating.

Tesla’s proposed network of “Superchargers” designed for electric vehicles. (Image courtesy Tesla)

Even with fewer than 100 electric vehicles registered in Nebraska, the two largest power providers in the state are supporting development of an electric car market. Dostel points out estimates of the cost of “fueling” an electric car on an equivalent basis would be about 75 cents a gallon.

“When you think about electricity, which is our product here, as a transportation fuel, it has the potential to provide real value to our customers,” Dostel said.

Even with enthusiastic support of the concept, NPPD is proceeding slowly on developing infrastructure related to electric vehicles.

“We always want to be somewhat ahead of it,” Dostel said, “but not so far ahead that we would deploy equipment that wouldn’t be used for some period of time.”

He added NPPD doesn’t see “a great deal of value of electrifying a corridor” of charging stations along the Interstate until the there is “the magic mix of number of vehicles that also have very large batteries.”

This fall a dozen Nebraska towns made a commitment to supply charging stations in anticipation of electric cars.

While driving his Tesla, Don Cox mentioned he grew up in the Nebraska Sandhills and would love to see a practical electric pick up for sale but he suspects it would be difficult to get ranchers in his home town to even try an electric pickup truck right now. He said it’s not the engineering as much as the uncertainty.

“You never had an electric to try out. You’ve never gone up over the hills in an electric pick up,” Cox said.

He compares the science and the market for electric vehicles with the development of the cell phone industry. That was also an advancement that started in urban areas and was slow to arrive in rural America.

The idea of cell phones had plenty of doubters; the equipment was expensive and few cell phone towers made service unreliable. Improved research combined with larger sales made the devices cheap, reliable and a part of everyday life. Even in rural Nebraska.

One Response

  1. Bob Wallace says:

    I don’t think Eberhard has it figured out correctly. We don’t need 500 mile range, we need enough range to let us drive far enough that stopping doesn’t seem like an imposition. I’d guess that to be about 200 miles.

    If you could drive a solid three hours, stop for a 20 minute recharge, and then drive another three hours I think that would be fine with most people. Especially when it would cost so little per mile to drive compared to $4/gallon gasoline.

    Most of us don’t drive far all that often. Even folks in the country. A round trip for me is 120 miles and I live fairly remotely. A 200 mile range and a place to charge along the way would take me to the ‘big city’, which I consider an all day drive.

    Smaller battery packs (200 vs. 500 miles) means a lighter weight car so more miles per kWh. And it means a lower purchase price. If you seldom drive over 200 miles it makes little sense to purchase and haul around and extra 300 miles of range. Just stop, grab a bite to eat, stretch your legs, check your email while you charge up your batteries.

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