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Mitsubishi i-MiEV Electric Car Thoughts

18 November 2010 9 Comments

The Mitsubishi i-MiEV is getting a lot of press lately as the first mass-produced all-electric car to go on sale in Australia, so I thought I’d throw my 2c in. It’s an interesting development, and maybe marks the start of electric vehicles becoming a viable option for the mainstream.

Right now it’s certainly not a cheap option, though – the i-MiEV is currently only available as a $1740/month 3-year lease, giving it an effective cost of over $70,000! A conventional petrol car of similar size and standard would be around the $15,000 mark.

My guess is that the price reflects the scarcity of the cars at the moment. There are only 110 being made available in Australia this year, and it sounds like production numbers are limited by the supply of suitable batteries. As manufacturing picks up in the next couple of years, I’m sure we’ll see the price drop dramatically. This is always the way with new technology.

The key stats of the i-MiEV are:

  • 47 kW electric motor
  • 180 Nm of torque
  • 16 kWh / 330 V Lithium Ion battery
  • 140-160 km range
  • 130 km/h top speed (speed limited)
  • 1080 kg weight
  • 15 Amp trickle charge in 7 hrs (standard household outlet)
  • Fast charge to 80% in 30 min (special 3 phase 200 V 50 kW outlet, not yet available)
The obvious first question is, how much would this car cost to run?

Assuming electricity costs around 20c/kWh, you’d be looking at 0.2 x 16 = $3.20 to charge from empty. That would drive you 140-160 km. Another way to look at it is that’s about 11.42 kWh and $2.30 per 100 km (assuming 140 km range). Even a very efficient small car using 5 L of petrol per 100 km is costing about $6 per 100 km, assuming petrol prices of $1.20/L.

The maintenance costs for an electric vehicle will be much lower as well. There are no fuel/oil/air filters to replace, no oil to change, and no spark plugs and cables to replace. The transmission is much simpler, there’s no radiator and cooling system, there are less fan/drive belts, no fuel or oil pumps, and no starter motor or ignition system. In fact electric vehicles may may not be popular with dealers at all, since they’ll no longer be able to make such big profits from the maintenance and servicing side of their business.

OK, so the running costs should be much lower than for a conventional car. But what about the environmental effects? What if people just use coal-fired electricity to recharge their cars?

The worst figures in Australia for CO2 emissions per kWh of electricity generated come from Victoria’s brown coal power stations. These results in emissions of 1.25-1.56 kg CO2/kWh (source). Given the figure of 11.42 kWh/100 km above and assuming the worst brown coal emission figure, that’d be causing emissions of 17.8 kg CO2 per 100 km travelled. Converted to grams per km (the usual units used to measure emissions), we’re looking at 178 g CO2 per km travelled. In 2008, the average emission figures for new light vehicles (i.e. equivalent to the i-MiEV) was 222.4 g CO2 per km (source).

So in the worst case (burning Victorian brown coal electricity), driving the i-MiEV is still 20% cleaner than an equivalent new internal combustion car. That figure actually surprises me – I thought it’d be much worse. Of course, if you charged it with green power those emissions would drop to next to nothing!

All these numbers are impressive, but in economic terms they don’t currently make up for the very high purchase cost of an i-MiEV. Buying an equivalent petrol car for $50,000 less would leave you with a lot of money to buy petrol and carbon credits!

It’ll be interesting to see how the electric vehicle market develops over the next few years. As volumes increase and prices drop they’ll become more economically viable, and we could see a lot more of them on the road. Rising petrol prices would see us reach that point even sooner.

The one big issue that concerns me is how we’re going to generate all the extra electricity these cars will demand if they take off. We’re already pushing the limits on our electricity grid’s ageing infrastructure, and I’d hate to see increased demand result in more coal-fired power stations being built. And let’s not even mention the nuclear option!

What do you think? What’s the future of electric vehicles in Australia?

9 Comments »

  • Danny said:

    Good to see the electric car come to Australia. I think the biggest hurdle for the average consumer will be the cost. Seems like at this price range it would be suited more as a business car than the average household owner. Its exciting to see this car be released though. Still many hurdles to overcome, like the power issue you mentioned. Maybe we should be thinking about over-unity engines 😉 I know, where would the profit be there?!

  • Darren (author) said:

    @Danny: Yeah, the cost I’m sure is a temporary glitch because it’s brand new technology with very limited supply. Stuff like HD TVs, DVD players, BlueRay players, etc always came in at very high initial prices, and then found equilibrium at a much lower cost once the economies of scale kicked in.

    So if cost becomes less of a factor, I think the remaining issue for many will be the limited range. It’s fine for a commuter car, so it’d be OK for two-car households, but a lot of people still need to travel longer distances occasionally so I’m not sure it could serve as the only car for most households. Maybe attitudes will change over time, and we’ll rent a long-range car or travel by train and hire a car at our destination for those occasional needs.

  • Chris said:

    The lease is interesting, it reminds me of the cars GM were making in that ‘Death of the Electric Car’ movie, they were lending the EVs to celebrities like Tom Hanks for promotion. Mitsubishi are probably aiming for the same kind of promotion as that, either getting celebs to have more exclusivity than a Prius or companies wanting to demonstrate a greener image. The torque figures are impressive, similar to a diesel engine, but it shouldn’t run out of gears!

  • Darren (author) said:

    @Chris: Yeah, it reminded me of the GM electric cars too. I suspect that they maybe want to retain ownership in case something goes wrong, or the batteries don’t last very long, or something. If they sell you the car, they have to keep a certain amount of spares for a certain number of years, and offer warranty etc as well. If they just lease it, they have the flexibility to recall them, junk them, terminate leases, etc. It’d be a PR nightmare if they sold you the car and then found it only lasted a couple of years or something. I guess the lease is a way for them to keep a closer eye on the cars, kind of like a public beta test. They might even use it as a way to refurbish and continue leasing the cars for many years to come, which would help their green image.

  • Tim Auld said:

    EVs might be accessible to a small number of rich folks, but I think as a response to resource depletion and even climate change it’s weak.

    There’s more potential in permaculture design incorporating alcohol fuel production. This is a relatively low-tech, carbon fixing, distributed, small-medium scale and clean approach. Internal combustion engines, diesel and petrol, can be run on alcohol blended with a small amount of another liquid (biodiesel and ether respectively). That means you can run powerful engines for long distances, and without buying a new (expensive) vehicle.

    David Blume has been researching and educating about this for a few decades. Check out his web site: http://www.alcoholcanbeagas.com/node/518. He publishes an excellent DVD and thorough book on the subject.

    There are other interesting approaches such as running vehicles on biodigestor methane or compressed air from trompes, but I think alcohol from appropriate crops is the most promising at this stage.

  • Darren (author) said:

    @Tim: I tend to agree with you. I think the first stage we’ll see as oil begins to increase in price is the switching of current engines over to gas (LPG). There’s lots of gas exploration and drilling going on at the moment. I’m not saying it’s a good solution, but I reckon it’ll be the first stage of the response.

    Then stuff like biodiesel and alcohol and methane will begin to rise in popularity.

    Electric motors may still have a part to play, charged by wind, solar, and other renewable sources. I fear, though, that they’ll be charged with coal-fired power that won’t help much.

    I’m also hopeful that with decreasing oil availability (i.e. rising oil prices), we’ll start to rethink how much we actually travel and transport stuff. Relocalising food production and eliminating the daily commute would have a massive impact on the amount of energy we consume (and pollution we cause) with transportation.

  • Tim Auld said:

    Localising food production, efficient travel… of course. I wouldn’t have to drive much if my work was done 🙂 In the meanwhile, we don’t have to settle for what we are offered regarding fuel to get there.

    For the farmer who wants to earn a living – integrated food and alcohol production (or methane) may be suitable. Drivers should also be able to patronise renewable, clean and ethically produced fuels, which in turns strengthens the local economy and food movement (that capital is no longer draining away). There is E85 available in some Australian cities now, made from Sugarcane. Not the cleanest production, but it’s a start. Let’s work out the systems, put our money where our mouth is, and invest in it.

  • Darren (author) said:

    @Tim: I totally agree. According to Wikipedia, 54% of pre-war Germany’s fuel production was derived from non-petroleum sources, much of it alcohol. Apparently this made it hard for the Allies during the war – normally you’d target fuel and resource supplies to limit an enemy’s war efforts, but with alcohol production being so distributed and small-scale it wasn’t easy to take out.

    I think we could learn a lot from studying the pre-war German fuel production model. I think other parts of Europe had similar systems, too.

  • freelancer.com.au said:

    There are other interesting approaches such as running vehicles on biodigestor methane or compressed air from trompes, but I think alcohol from appropriate crops is the most promising at this stage.