Thanks to mis-steps on the part of Henrik Fisker, Elon Musk’s Tesla was the first major modern electric-car maker — but were they the most important? It seems unlikely.
Fisker was close to making electric cars before Tesla, but ran out of cash; Tesla has yet to turn an annual profit but has strong credit lines.
We already knew that electric vehicles were practical for non-commuter-car purposes; the English only gave up their electric delivery vans due to rail cargo packaging changes, and Vancouver, even now, relies on an electric bus system.
The real change comes not so much with passenger cars, but with city buses, mail/cargo trucks, and Class 8 tractor-trailers. Those big rigs you see on the highway or city street every day, delivering fresh groceries or stale radios, get single-digit fuel economy, after all. They are used for longer periods than typical passenger cars, with far greater fuel use.
Let’s look at buses. A typical bus can use 30 times more fuel than a typical car; since they normally carry more than 30 people, that’s an overall savings, but what if you could replace those with electrics? (In places other than Vancouver, whose buses run on overhead wires for most of their routes, and on flywheels elsewhere.)
China, the world’s most egregious polluter, recently stopped building coal plants, and is sinking billions into renewable energy instead; the country is also home of the most successful electric bus maker, BYD. Nearly every electric bus in the world is in China, which ended 2017 with 385,000 in operation and nearly 2,000 more going into service each week.
The bus, like the delivery van, is ideal for electrification; you can recapture energy made during all those stops, idle times use almost no power, and you get instant-on acceleration, (as Vancouver residents know, that can be considerable).
BYD makes a range of electric buses from 15 to 55 seats; charging is eased with “charging poles,” to avoid having to plug in, and to let buses charge at stops they would normally use anyway. Their 55-passenger pure-electric bus uses flywheel storage and iron-phosphate batteries.
Tesla, meanwhile, made a whole 20,440 of their “mass production” model 3 through April 2018. So far, overall, Tesla has made roughly 320,000 electric cars. To reach the impact BYD has had, Tesla would have had to have made 65,000 more cars… except that each BYD bus takes out around 30 cars’ worth of fuel use… per hour of driving. Buses tend to stay in use for longer periods than cars.
Street cleaners move slowly, stop often, and get terrible economy. Thus — hybridization.
Bloomberg News, the source of the BYD numbers, reported that electric buses may save about the same amount of oil that the entire nation of Greece uses each year. BYD itself claims that its buses have saved 1.8 billion gallons of fuel — avoiding the production of around 18 million tons of carbon dioxide, assuming they ran on renewable power. Even without renewable power, the buses would save power overall; the savings of regenerative brakes and not idling at stops would account for a large savings.
The taxi angle is also covered. Taxis run 24/7, making frequent stops and starts, going through city centers. BYD has an electric SUV-based taxi, which is running in competition with, among others, Chinese automaker Geely’s electric London Taxi Company.
As for tractors, Cummins was the first to show a pure-electric powertrain, ready for use by companies such as Peterbilt; Tesla was next to show a diesel truck, albeit one that our trucker sources say is probably impractical (which isn’t stopping numerous companies from buying small test fleets). Short-haul trucking is likely to go electric in the near future. That, along with buses and possibly the odd UPS van, will have a far larger impact than Tesla ever could — even if they could meet their production goals.
One can argue that Tesla paved the way for other electric cars, but a quick look at global speed records will show that electrics were going to make it no matter what. GM was working on the Volt, regardless; and in the supercar realm, electrics are starting to dominate. Even before Tesla, engineers at Chrysler were trying to show that F1 racing would be better in a flywheel-storage electric car — a lesson the F1 people, at least, took to heart. Elon Musk may be a great showman, but history would have proceeded onwards with or without him.
The author of Dodge Viper, Jeep’s Go-Anywhere Vehicles, and The Rise and Reinvention of Chrysler Minivans, David Zatz has been writing about cars and trucks since the early 1990s; he also writes on organizational development and business at toolpack.info and covers Mac statistics software at macstats.org. His latest book, for kids, is Meet the Jeep.
David has been quoted by the New York Times, the Daily Telegraph, the Detroit News, and USA Today. You can reach him by using our contact form (preferred) or by calling (313) 766-2304.