Electric Revolution A review of High Voltage: The Fast Track to Plug In the Auto Industry by Jim Motavalli
Jim Motavalli (the former editor of E), gets inside the green car revolution in his latest book High Voltage: The Fast Track to Plug In the Auto Industry (Rodale). Even if you aren’t a car enthusiast, his enthusiasm for the recent surge in electric and plug-in hybrid options on showroom floors, mixed with auto history, first-hand driving experiences and interviews with the industry’s key players, makes for an entertaining read. He leads with a breakdown of the different electric models: battery electric (cars that offer no gas backup like the Nissan Leaf and Ford Focus); plug-in hybrids (cars like the Chevy Volt, that do have a backup gas-powered engine); hybrids (like the Toyota Prius, which mixes gas and electric drivetrains); and fuel-cell cars (electrics in which fuel cells replace battery packs). These electric cars represent a major breakthrough for the planet, finally pointing the industry in an oil-free direction. But speed, Motavalli is quick to acknowledge, is key. The Tesla Roadster—and subsequent Tesla models—he credits with providing a rocket ship-like takeoff. It’s a car made for acceleration—which makes it as fun to drive as it is responsible to own.
The success of electric and hybrid cars largely depends on the success of their batteries. In fact, Motavalli writes, “battery companies have become the rock stars of the EV business.” Not only are consumers paying more for electric cars thanks to the batteries, but carmakers are in many cases losing money. While battery technology is moving forward, no one will provide a firm estimate of when costs will come down, and the dominant model—the lithium-ion—is likely to remain dominant for the next decade. Other challenges include the lack of charging stations to support widespread electric vehicles, or as Motavalli notes, the more innovative battery swapping sites. He writes: “Suppose you could just drive into something resembling a gas station without attendants and have robots switch your battery pack for a fresh, charged one in just minutes?” The technology already exists, and he’s seen it in action. Motavalli’s behind-the-scenes perspective gives readers real insight into the possibilities offered by electric cars which clearly will no longer be relegated to a niche market.