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Driving Electric

Early electric vehicle technology.

“Electricity is the thing ... no whirring and grinding gears …  no water-circulating system to get out of order — no dangerous and evil-smelling gasoline and no noise.”  That’s what Thomas Edison said about electric cars over a century ago.  University of Dayton professor Bob Brecha and some of his colleagues have been taking this to heart.  Here’s Bob with some thoughts on driving electric.

For generations, cars have been synonymous with internal combustion engines.  We can run them on gasoline, diesel fuel or even ethanol, but the principles are very similar.  I think we’ll be experiencing a dramatic change in transportation in the next few decades - and it’s starting now.    You might not notice the number of electric vehicle charging stations that have been popping up, especially in cities.  On the other hand, if you’re driving an electric vehicle, you’re always on the lookout for the next charging station.

One of the first questions people always ask about my electric car  is, “Why would you pay more for an electric car that doesn’t go as far as a regular car?”  It turns out that the average trip by car in the US  is about 6 miles, and 95% are under 30 miles.  As long as electric cars can deal with that distance, and as long as charging possibilities are available, it’s not a problem.   Charging electric cars is also cheaper than using gas.  You can drive 10-15 miles per dollar of gasoline, but  30-40 miles per dollar of electricity.

Together with the federal tax credit now available for electric cars, you can even  save money over the lifetime of the car. 

There’s no way for me to talk about an electric car without talking about carbon emissions.   Well, here we have to be careful.  It’s true that there are no carbon emissions while driving an electric car.  But the electricity used to charge the car – that’s a different story.  For gasoline engines it’s pretty straightforward – each gallon of gas you burn results in about 19 pounds of carbon dioxide emitted into the air.  For an electric car, I need to know something about what is powering the grid that I’m using to charge the car.   If I use the average Ohio or Dayton area electricity supply, then driving a car with mileage of 35 mpg or better would beat out the electric car. 

An even better step would be to have cars built in facilities that use renewable energy as well, and to finally complete the cycle, auto manufacturers would need to take back the cars at the end of their life and recycle the components.

But, with cleaner the electricity, the electric car is in the lead again. One friend of mine is charging his car using his own solar panels.  An even better step would be to have cars built in facilities that use renewable energy as well, and to finally complete the cycle, auto manufacturers would need to take back the cars at the end of their life and recycle the components.  BMW is already doing much of this.

At the turn of the 20th century, there were equal numbers of steam, electric and gasoline cars on the road in the US.  Even Henry Ford, who famously made gasoline-powered cars affordable for the working class, worked on electric car technology together with Thomas Edison.  But we know that the internal combustion engine won out, in part because of the invention of the electric starter by Daytonian Charles Kettering 

I find it interesting that another modern-day entrepreneur, Elon Musk of Tesla Motors, has been able to almost single-handedly ignite a new electric vehicle boom.  His persistence has scared the big auto manufacturers and now they are all coming out with new models.  At the same time, the installation of charging infrastructure is happening like never before.  It’s hard to make predictions about the future of technology, but with fossil fuels becoming increasingly scarce and electricity becoming more renewable, we might be at the beginning of a major shift in transportation toward a more sustainable system.

In the mean time, I have to get to the university and claim my spot at our charging station.  Suddenly there are seven electric cars on campus, and only two charging spots.  But that will change. 

Bob Brecha is a professor of the renewable and clean energy program at the University of Dayton.

Bob Brecha is a professor of Physics and Renewable and Clean Energy at the University of Dayton, and Research Director at UD's Hanley Sustainability Institute. Follow him on Twitter: @BobBrecha