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More Electric Power

Posted by | December 27, 2011

Live long enough, you see everything.

Such were my thoughts as I studied the news reports that GM plans to build an electric Cadillac patterned on the same twist of hybrid technology used in the Chevy Volt.

The Chevy Volt went on sale last December, and it’s poised to be available in increasing numbers soon. It’s an interesting blend of an electric car and a gasoline one. You plug in the Volt to charge its battery, and at first the car then runs as a purely electric vehicle. You can get through a lot of your daily driving entirely on that electric charge – from 25 to 50 miles – based on the lithium-ion battery.

Running a car on an electrical charge is an economical way to enjoy the open road because kilowatt-hours cost only a fraction of the energy-equivalent of gasoline. We pay a lot for our petroleum products: gasoline, diesel and jet fuel (aka kerosene). Subbing electrical current for petroleum makes economic sense when we can do it.

Only if you drive beyond the purely electric range of the Volt vehicle does a gas engine kick in. The gas motor doesn’t power the wheels, it’s simply a generator that charges the battery so you can drive across the state, filling up as you go as per usual in a regular car. In a lot of respects, this is a winning combo of features; the Volt is the most fuel-efficient compact car currently on the market as measured by EPA figures.

GM is now doubling its bet with this sort of hybrid technology by planning a Cadillac coupe that will have the same technology as the Volt. Rumors are the Cadillac ELR will be available starting with the 2014 model year. GM also may be headed to building a fully electric subcompact car, one that will never use gasoline. That car would be in the same niche as the Nissan Leaf, introduced to the market recently.

Although the thought of a hybrid Cadillac does make me feel my age a bit, it really isn’t as odd as it sounds. There are already hybrid SUVs and a few hybrid pickups lumbering down our streets. And in an interesting business development, Ford and Toyota just announced their plans to jointly develop a hybrid motor for larger vehicles. Hybrid pickups are going to become common, indeed, projected by some analysts to get 30-40 mpg by 2020.

There’s an important difference between first generation hybrids that run on gasoline power and the newer Volt-type vehicles that can run mostly on electricity for their basic fuel. It’s this newer design that will decrease our national consumption of petroleum and substitute electricity made largely by burning coal or natural gas and running nuclear reactors or hydroelectric dams. From where I sit, that’s likely a good diversification of energy for the transportation sector.

I’m often amazed, almost awed, by the complexity of the machines that take us from Point A to Point B on a daily basis, usually running smoothly and delivering us safely to where we want to go. If you have anything like my peculiar interest in motors – those miraculous devices that convert heat to work or electrical current to movement down a road – the continuing story of the American fleet of vehicles is only getting more and more interesting.

All of which reminds me that technology is an unfolding narrative of forward movement. I’m not saying technology is always a good thing in itself – naturally it matters how we use the technical progress offered up by engineers and scientists. But technology reads like a story, with each chapter more interesting than the last.

In contrast, our ability to govern ourselves effectively and fairly doesn’t always reek of progress, or the odds that we treat the unfortunate among us more humanely just don’t seem to get better and better each year.

Thank goodness for engineers and their work. They give us all something positive to focus on when the news is just a tad dark and depressing.