Idea of Electric Cars Still Merits Attention

By Beheruz N. Sethna

August 16, 2005
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

I sometimes compare public reaction to gasoline prices with public reaction to SAT scores. While experts in both fields worry daily, the public reacts to SAT scores only on the few days each year when results come out. People pay attention to gas supplies and alternative fuels only when prices at the pump soar. We might do better with a consistent, proactive and strategic stance.

Georgia Power Co. is closing its electric transportation program after 13 years. This is unfortunate. Since 1992, the utility company researched and developed electric vehicles and tried to sell the idea of alternative fuel transportation.

Cost to manufacture the vehicles, lack of infrastructure that included recharging stations and limited battery range were issues that helped its demise, said Don Francis, former manager of the electric vehicle infrastructure product.

Facing those issues, most businesses would have done the same. Marketing alternative fuels has always been a problem because of the reactionary nature of our society.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, as an associate professor at Clarkson University in New York, I did research on electric cars with an undergraduate research team and a Department of Energy grant.

Almost every day from November 1981 through March 1982, I drove an electric car to work. Living in upstate New York, my daily route included heavy snowfalls and winter temperatures that reached 40 below zero. The car performed great under such stark conditions and my final report to the Department of Energy stated that it "never failed to start on the first try."

We were able to collect excellent data, which led to design, marketing and tax recommendations. The cost of electricity was computed to be 5 cents a mile over the test period.

The heater inside the car consumed gasoline. I paid a total of $2 for that gas for the entire five-month test period. My report to the Department of Energy included observations on the need for improved public opinion, more research in battery technology and a hybrid technology.

What has changed over the years? Hybrid cars using both gas and electricity are finally available and affordable.

Using old performance data with today's costs of gas and electricity, rough computations show that at today's prices, it probably would still take eight to nine years to have an electric car break even, but those test conditions were very harsh. Even if the break-even point were four to five years today, a person would probably buy an electric or hybrid car mainly out of a sense of responsibility - which is not a bad way to proceed. If gas prices increase further, and the government, realizing the strategic advantage of consuming less gas, sets aside more money for research and tax incentives, that break-even point would decrease significantly.

As the price of gas rises, we see human nature reacting to those prices and thinking of alternative means of transportation. Being proactive and havinga long-term strategy in place would ensure acceptance of alternatives like hybrids and electric cars by the general public.

Research into alternatives and a change in the way we think would be steps in the right strategic direction. The University of West Georgia is nationally recognized for its undergraduate research. As president of UWG, I see opportunities on this campus and others to delve into the necessary research if resources are made available. It's a matter of public and governmental will. The future is truly in our hands.

* In the early 1980s, as an Associate Professor at Clarkson University in New York, I did research on Electric Cars with an undergraduate research team and a Department of Energy grant.  Today, while the industry still has a long way to go, there are more options available to the American public.  Without any implication of endorsement, a couple of sites (neither of which exclusively endorse a particular brand or make of car) which may be useful to the person interested in finding out more on the topic include and