Electric Avenue

Americans are optimistic by nature, at least until recently when they have become increasingly worried about the direction the country is headed and what that means for our children's future. Nowhere is our national optimism more apparent than in quest for perpetual motion through the electrification of the automobile. Quoting from an article that appeared in the Detroit Free Press: "[C]ompanies are searching for a billion-dollar breakthrough in battery design. General Dynamics is working on a zinc-air cell battery. Ford is actively interested in a sodium-sulfur cell. Gulton Industries and General Motors are tinkering with lithium — nickel and lithium — chlorine. Westinghouse is in the act. The Edison Electric Institute is all charged up. All the activity is bound to pay off probably within the next five years — in the production of an electric car that would meet minimum design requirements."

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Sounds like something pulled right from today's headlines, doesn't it? Actually, the article was written by James Kilpatrick and appeared in the July 24, 1967, edition of the Free Press. Fast forward more than 40 years, and we are still being told the electrification of the automobile is our transportation future.

Don't count out the internal combustion engine. OPEC oil embargos and $4-per-gallon gasoline did not sink it and neither will wishful thinking from environmental groups or political meddling from Congress. While serving as director of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality during the 1990s I remember asking a senior engineer from General Motors about the future of the electric car. His terse reply went something like this, "Not very bright unless we can reinvent the periodic chart. The limitation of batteries has proven to be tough to overcome. Batteries store limited amounts of energy and degrade over time."

The United States, unlike most in Europe, is a big country. It is approximately 220 miles from Paris to London. It's farther than that from Detroit to the Mackinac Bridge. It is worth noting that even with the smaller distances in Europe, clean diesel technology, not electric cars, is the choice of automakers and motorists to achieve greater fuel economy.

The electric car is the fashion statement of this year's Detroit Auto Show. Government officials and automakers (in some cases they are the same) are extolling the virtues of electric vehicles. But they will not determine their success; the consumer will. I am placing my bet on the internal combustion engine.