Saturday, May 16, 2009

Ecomotion Movin' On...

I regret to inform you of the passing of a uniquely Portland business with a uniquely Portland flavor. No, it isn't one of our unique locally-owned bookstores, nor is it one of our unique bicycle shops, shops that are light-years ahead of the rest of the nation when it comes to really “getting” the concept of the bike as basic transportation. Rather, it's Ecomotion, a seller of electric vehicles that is now going out of business.

I used to pass Ecomotion's showroom many times on the way to work as I rode my bike down Sandy Boulevard in the early morning en route to the bus stop on the other side of the river. The sight of the place provoked much curiosity and many questions in my mind, the chief of which was, “Who's buying these things, anyway?” My curiosity was again aroused when I saw the “GOING OUT OF BUSINESS” signs on the windows a couple of months ago. These signs appeared at a time during which many observers were noticing the links between the collapse of the economy and the drying up of investment in “green” technologies. This was also less than six months after gasoline and oil prices fell to levels not seen in over four years.

I try to never pass up a good story. I also wondered whether economic collapse and the collapse of oil prices had anything to do with Ecomotion's demise, and I decided to find out. It took several tries, but I was at last able to secure time for a short, rapid-fire interview with the manager one Friday afternoon a few weeks ago. The interview took place as the employees were liquidating the furniture and fixtures. Below are my questions (in bold type), and his answers.

Why did Ecomotion fail? Ecomotion is an authorized dealer for ZAP Electric Vehicles. Gas prices were over $4 a gallon during much of last year. This drove demand for alternatives such as electric cars to such an extent that Ecomotion sold out all its inventory in June. They therefore ordered many new vehicles, but ZAP's manufacturing base was in China. Unfortunately, their China supply line was slow to deliver, so their new vehicles didn't arrive until October 2008. By then gas prices were under $2 a gallon, causing electric vehicle sales to drop off a cliff. In the early months of 2009, the owner of Ecomotion decided to call it quits. The ZAP vehicles are not suitable for highway speeds – not quite right yet – nor do they possess a range of at least 100 miles, which many consider the minimum range for an electric car to act as a practical alternative to cars driven by internal combustion.

There are other, smaller ZAP dealers that are a bit more successful, due to their ability to cheaply modify the vehicles for increased range and speed. Ecomotion did not have the staff for these modifications. Also, they had leased a large building with the goal of becoming the largest electric vehicle (EV) emporium in the United States. But the large building made for high overhead costs.

Regarding our present economic and energy challenges, what advice do you have for our nation? If we're seriously going to invest in alternatives to gasoline-powered cars, let's do it right. So much of what we try in the name of “alternatives” seems deliberately wrong and designed to fail. A case in point: A couple of Pacific Northwest utilities have begun installing charging stations for EV's in the Portland metro area. But the chargers are supplied at 110 volts and require 8 hours to deliver a full recharge. A Chinese company named BYD is supposedly developing a “dual mode” car that will go 100 miles before recharge, as well as a charging station that can accept three levels of input voltage, and can charge a car in 15 minutes. The local utilities don't seem interested in looking into such chargers.

How do you feel about your experience with trying to sell electric cars? Is there a bit of frustration at how it all turned out? There's definitely frustration, but also a sense of accomplishment at having played a role in trying to make the world a better place. The frustration is the main thing. Why the frustration? Ecomotion was promised many things by ZAP, things that didn't happen, such as an electric SUV with a 300-mile range. The staff at Ecomotion feel a bit like they've been hung out to dry.

What will the American energy and transportation scene look like in the next 18 months? Not much will change. We'll still be relying primarily on gas-powered cars. If we want to see a real change, what's needed is a change in how we drive as well as dedicated EV car lanes, due to the limits on speed and power of EV's.

Do Americans need to change what they want? Should we learn to want less? No. The problem does not lie in what we want. Most Americans would be happy with a mid sized sedan that was electric, so we wouldn't have to send our kids to fight for oil.

* * *

With that last question, the interview was over. As I did further research on Ecomotion and on ZAP cars, I found a few troubling trends that seemed typical of some players in the EV industry. First, Ecomotion is hardly the first ZAP car dealer to go out of business (or get “ZAPPED”). The failure of ZAP dealers is actually rather common, and has a lot less to do with our broader economic troubles than with the way the company is run. A recent article in Wired Magazine described how the company attracts potential investors with promises of “cutting-edge” new electric vehicles that are so good that they will practically sell themselves. The problem is that these vehicles are always “just around the corner” – they never actually show up. The ZAP vehicles that actually make it to dealer showrooms are clunky, poorly made and extremely limited in power and range (think 17 to 20 miles on a charge). There is also the shady nature of the agreements dealers are required to sign in order to sell ZAP cars. (If one reads the Wired magazine account, one gets the impression that the chief executives of ZAP are sociopaths.)

There seems to be a trend among some in the EV industry of promising unbelievable cars with performance too good to be true, and coming to your doorstep one day very soon. In addition to ZAP, BYD, the Chinese company mentioned earlier, has also been promising “environmentally-friendly” cars with all the power and luxury of gasoline-powered cars. Yet their promised vehicles don't always arrive as promised. One model that actually exists, the FD3M, is touted as having an all-electric range of 60 miles and a top speed of 93 miles per hour. But at least one source states that the 60-mile all-electric range only holds true if the car is driven at less than 30 miles an hour. BYD (short for Build Your Dreams) claims to have sold several dozen of these cars, yet the car itself won't be mass-produced until 2010.

The biggest problem with the EV industry extends beyond the industry to our society in general. EV's are slower and more limited in performance than gasoline-powered cars. This is a fact of life that's not likely to change anytime soon, and we must face this fact. If you're going to rely on an EV as primary transportation, you'll have to change your lifestyle. Period. Even if this situation changes, EV's are not the environmental panacea that their promoters claim. They still require fossil fuels to run, because our electricity is generated by plants that run on fossil fuels. Steam turboalternators of the kind found in a coal or natural gas-fired generating plant produce electricity at a final efficiency very similar to the efficiency of any other heat engine – including gasoline and diesel engines. Then there are the transmission losses arising from sending the electricity from its source to its point of use. In this regard, EV's don't really solve anything. If we try to run EV's entirely on renewable and sustainable sources of energy, we will have to settle for a lot less than what we've been used to with gasoline and diesel engines.

This – learning to settle for less – is actually the key to successful adaptation to the times now upon us. Yet this is something that our society fights tooth and nail. So we wish and long for some techno-breakthrough that will allow us to live guilt-free in the luxury and ease to which we have become accustomed. One of my acquaintances always talks about how in driving his Prius, he's doing his part to save the planet and adapt to scarcity. The very way he pronounces the word is almost reverential – “driving a Prius.” He thoroughly rejects the notion that he might have to radically downsize his life very soon. He is typical of Americans who say, “I am getting fat because I eat ten pounds of French fries every day. But I have a solution: scientifically engineered low-fat French fries!”

Our unwillingness to consider living on less, and our longing for technological solutions to scarcity issues makes many of us suckers for hyped supercars and other things that will allow us to “save the earth” while maintaining our extravagant lifestyles. But reining in our lifestyles is the best thing we can do right now – we don't have to “send our kids off to fight for oil,” nor do we need some cutting-edge electric car breakthrough.

For Further Reading:


Anonymous said...

We have been depending of fossil fuel for far too long. It is time for a change. Can't wait to see all the pure electric cars on the road.

Thanks for the post.


TH in SoC said...

Will, thanks for your readership. I just have a couple of questions. What energy sources are now used to generate electricity? And how much petroleum is used in the manufacture of one car, regardless of whether the car runs on petroleum or electricity?