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.
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.”
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.
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.
“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 in his 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.
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.
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.”
“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.
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.