Bill Nye is getting a lot of press lately by suggesting NASCAR ought to be racing electric cars. I was rather disappointed with the reaction from NASCAR fans, as many dismissed the suggestion offhand, or offered ad hominem attacks on Nye. Firing off Twitter insults only reinforces the stereotype of NASCAR fans as ignorant, anti-technology dinosaurs desperate to save a dying sport. I think Nye’s suggestion deserves more serious, more respectful consideration
The Problem with Science Missionaries
I’m sure Nye’s suggestion is well-intentioned, but it is terribly misguided and ill informed. It seems to be part of a general, very long standing trend of scientists approaching a community they’re not part of so they can proclaim what they’re doing wrong. I’m sure many think they are helping, but the science personalities who greet every new release with a barrage of complaints about how they get the science wrong only reinforce the idea that scientists are arrogant eggheads who think they’re better than everyone else.
There is a scad of research on what makes for effective science communication. While there is disagreement about which methods work best, telling people what they ought to be doing and thinking never appears on the ‘best practices’ list. Contrast the “gotcha” form of science communication (OMG! There are scientific errors in (insert movie)! And I found them! Because Science!) with the work done by someone like Jim Kakalios, who wrote The Physics of Superheroes. Jim is a lifelong comic book fiend. His love of the art form comes through in his writing and speaking. He uses the medium to share his knowledge and love of science with people who share his obsession with this particular world.
If I sound frustrated, it’s because I am. We’ve become a culture where we emphasize the critic over the creator. Instead of respecting the time and energy people put in to giving birth to new ideas, we praise the snarky quip and the acid-tongued take-apart. We prize delivery over content and dismiss complex issues with 140 characters of trying to prove how clever we are.
Assertion: Electric cars would lead to completely stopping burning fossil fuels
With each of these, I’ll show you the quote from Nye’s article and then address the content. His quotes are identified by the blue bars on the left.
To address climate change in the medium and long term, we have to stop, completely stop, burning fossil fuels. The obvious, straightforward, We’re-already-just-about-there answer is to convert our entire ground-transportation fleet – trains, trucks, buses and cars – to electric motors with batteries to store energy the way that gasoline tanks store energy in our fuel-burning vehicles
There’s just an awful lot swept under the rug here. The casual use of “We’re already just about there” is disingenuous. There are some major, major challenges to address before this is even possible.
Let’s start with the energy needed to produce the electricity that charges the batteries. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the 4,092 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity generated in 2014 were generated using the following sources of fuel.
Coal and natural gas – two non-renewable resources – account for two-thirds of all electricity we generated in this country in 2014. So while electric cars may not be belching greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, the power plants that make the electricity the cars need to run still are. Until more of the country’s power comes from clean sources, electric vehicles are still part of the fossil fuel burning, carbon emissions problem.
This is a major problem in how people think about energy. When scientists who study this field look at the cost of a particular fuel, they look at everything. How much energy does it take to produce the fuel? How much energy does it take to transport the fuel? When you consider something like ethanol, you have to take into account that you’re often using vehicles that run on gasoline to farm the corn needed for the ethanol. When we ignore all of these other factors, its easy to fool ourselves into thinking we’re solving a problem when we’re really not making much of an inroad.
Assertion: This could happen in the very near future
We could convert our transportation system to all-electric in less time than it took to go from horse-drawn to horseless carriage, 20 years maybe.
Okay, so later in the piece, he refines “we’re already just about there” to “20 years, maybe”, but offers no support for whether that’s a realistic amount of time of not. There are 253 million cars and trucks on U.S. roads according to a 2014 study by IHS automotive, an auto industry research firm. The average age of vehicles is 11.4 years. Even if everyone made their next vehicle purchase an electric vehicle (which is a pretty big if), it would still be a challenge to turnover every one of the 253 million cars in 20 year.
Vehicle Supply. According to figures from the U.S. Energy Information Association, In 2012 alternative-fuel vehicles (including hybrids, which still use gasoline) accounted for 4.72 million out of a total car stock of 128.66 million. That’s 3.6%. The vast majority of those are ethanol flex-fuel internal combustion engines (2.39 million), followed by non-plugin electric-gasoline hybrids (2.09 million). True electric vehicles come in at about 0.04 million (40,000).
But that’ll change in the future, right? According to EIA’s projections, in 2035, they project that alternative cars will rise from 4.72 million to 18.17 million. We’ve got to replace 253 million cars. Even if something happened that severely changed public demand, the car companies would need the capital to undergo a wholesale transition of their factories from production the cars they make now to producing electric cars. This is an industry that, in the U.S., had to be bailed out not that long ago. The cost of electric vehicles is still prohibitive for many people.
Natural Resources Supply. There are also concerns about the amount of lithium and how quickly we’re using it given everything we use that relies on lithium-ion batteries. The U.S. Geological Society said last year that the world has enough lithium for about 365 years of current global production of 37,000 tons per year. But if electric vehicle production shoots up, lithium consumption shoots up. Lithium prices would increase with demand and electric cars (as well as anything else with a battery) could become more expensive.
Infrastructure to support electric vehicles in another issue. On your drive home or to the grocery store, count how many electric charging stations you see and how many gas stations. The infrastructure for an all-electric-fleet isn’t even close to being there.
Charging an electric car off normal 120V house current takes 11-20 hours. A Level 2 charger works faster (3-8 hours) because it uses 240V (like your washing machine). It can cost anywhere from $800 on up for the charging station, electrical work to install it and permits. Even though many states offer rebates (Maryland lets you earn up to $900 for installing a station), it’s a significant cost for an individual to switch to an all-electric car.
Assertion: It would be easy and quick for NASCAR to switch to electric cars
In the short term, NASCAR could help get us there. We could convert all of our racecars to electricity – right now – and show the public exactly what electrons can do.
Money. We are in an age of disappearing sponsors and rising costs that threaten the very existence of race teams. NASCAR has moved slowly with changes in part because they don’t want to drive the series into the ground. Developing a new (regular) engine is a multi-year process. A conversion to an electric race engine would take significantly longer. Manufacturers are getting much more picky about where they race because it’s a cost-benefit issue to them. Faced with a mandate to develop an electric race car from the ground up, how many manufacturers would just decide to find somewhere else to spend their marketing money.
Safety. Nye doesn’t even consider that there is a huge investment (money and time) that would have to be made in safety research. You’ve seen hoverboard fires on your evening news, right? Multiply that by a hundred or a thousand. It will take lots of research before the brain trust at NASCAR can determine how to safely put a huge pack of lithium-ion batteries in a car that mostly likely will, at some point, run into something while going very fast. You’re not just talking about normal highway use, you’re talking about pushing a vehicle to its limits. You can’t ask someone to get into a car without having done the work to prove it is as safe as you can make it. We have limited experience with electric vehicle fires. Safety personnel would need additional training and protective gear would need to be evaluated.
Assertion: Electric cars can race just as well as gasoline-powered cars
Nye points out that a stock Tesla Model S can accelerate faster than the Aston Martin DB10 James Bond drove in the last movie. (And I’m not clipping the whole paragraph because you really should read the whole article for yourself.) He notes that the Tesla produces 532 hp – but it’s stock and surely tinkering with it could produce something just as good as the current 850hp or so. (He ignores the cost and time to develop such an improved engine.) He argues that the racing could be just as exciting and competitive with electric vehicles as it could with the current models.
It is true that electric cars can go just as fast and accelerate just as quickly as internal combustion engine cars. In fact, electric cars are potentially even better for racing in terms of coming out of the corners because they have a very different torque profile than internal combustion engines.
This is from the Tesla website, but the general principle is the same for electric vs. internal combustion engines. In a traditional internal combustion car, the torque depends on the engine speed. Low speed means low torque. With an electric engine, it’s literally like turning on a switch. You get maximum torque even at the lowest RPM.
I interviewed driver Johnny Mowlem in 2008 (2009?) when he was driving a hybrid electric/internal combustion engine in the old American Le Mans Series. (Apologies. I can’t tell from the helmet if that picture is Mowlem or his co-driver Stefan Johansson.) Mowlem noted that the different torque curve means the driver has to drive very differently. He sounded like he enjoyed the challenge, but I suspect not all NASCAR drivers might not be as enthused.
The Porsche 919 Hybrid, which combines a 500hp gasoline-powered V4 engine with a hybrid electric drive system that gives 250hp. That car even has an extra turbine generator that extracts energy from the exhaust.
And if you want to argue that I’m still talking hybrids and not pure electric vehicles, you can look at the Formula E car. Formula E races all around the world on street circuits, mostly in major cities. Their season starts in four days. Their cars are pretty doggone nice looking, too.
So Nye is right that there is no inherent reason electric cars can’t be just as fast and sexy as gasoline powered cars.
But there’s a difference between having a fast car and having good racing.
Instead of refuelling a gas tank, the electric racecar pit crew would change battery packs. The car would be designed to roll up a ramp. The battery pack would be disconnected and dropped out. Moments later, a fresh battery pack would be lifted into place, and off our electric racer would go with time in the pit comparable to what it takes to refuel and service a conventional gas-powered racecar.
Let’s look at the only electric car racing series that exists right now. Formula E runs 50-minute races. There is one mandatory pit stop, but they don’t re-charge the batteries.
THEY CHANGE CARS.
That’s right. The driver actually gets out of the car he or she started the race in and moves to another, fully-charged car.
They need two cars to run 50 minutes. The pit stop has a minimum time to ensure people don’t cut corners and compromise safety. So there’s really no pit strategy in terms of fuel. The teams aren’t allowed to change tires during the car change, but they can change tires during the green flag runs.
One the positive side, I guess Formula E doesn’t get complaints about fuel-mileage races.
Pit Stops with Batteries. I’m not sure Nye thought though the pit stop he envisions. The weight of the batteries in a Tesla Model S is 1200 lbs. If Nye has a way to change out that heavy a battery pack (and four tires) in thirteen seconds — safely — let’s hear it. You don’t move 1200 lbs in “moments”. I don’t see how such a change is possible without a mechanical hoist system — which would have to designed, tested and made foolproof enough to ensure the pit crew’s safety.
Assertion: Electric racing is quiet — and that’s good
Just think what an electric race would be like. It would be faster, and quiet. You could talk to the person next to you. The drivers could probably hear the roar of the crowd rather than having to imagine it as they do now.
I suspect this is one of the biggest things that stock car racing fans don’t like about the proposals for electric vehicle racing. Personally, I don’t go to races to chat. That’s what tailgating is for. When I go to the race, I am focused on watching it unfold, aided by my scanner, my additional screens and the radio call.
And I love the sound of a NASCAR racecar. There is something totally primal about feeling the sound waves in your bones.
Wanna hear a surprise? Electric cars aren’t necessarily quiet. One of the reasons electric vehicles have gotten more support in Europe is because a lot of racetracks are shutting down because the density of people is so great that there are prohibitive noise ordinances. They don’t have a lot of empty space like we have over here.
People who run racecar series know noise is a big part of racing, so I shouldn’t have been surprised to find that Formula E cars are not quiet. At high speed, the sound produced by one car is about 80 dB.
I’m not in love with the Formula E car sound (it sounds a little like wind noise to me), but it’s far from quiet! I wonder if Mr. Nye’s heard this. A NASCAR racecar can be much louder (I’ve measured 110 dB), but we all wear earplugs to avoid hearing damage anyway, right? I’m willing to go 80 dB without earplugs rather than 110dB with. But I’d still miss the feel of the noise.
Assertion: Public perception is the biggest barrier to switching to electric cars
And most significant from my point of view, everyone in the crowd, every race fan, would want an electric car! The market for electric cars would go crazy.
This is the heart of Nye’s argument: People would want electric cars if NASCAR made them cool. He is right that public perception is one of the largest barriers to almost any new technology. People do not like change. People are afraid their electric car will run out of charge and they won’t be able to find a plug and they’ll be stranded. People think electric cars are stodgy and boring. I mean, who has a mid-life crisis and goes out and buys a Prius, right?
I’ve already noted that the market isn’t prepared to go crazy yet, but I’m afraid this statement just shows that Mr. Nye doesn’t know NASCAR fans very well. Look at the pushback going from a spoiler to a wing got. Look at the people who thought NASCAR went to heck when Toyota jumped on board.
People don’t like change. I know I said that, but it bears repeating. NASCAR struggles with attracting new fans while keeping the older ones. Going to electric vehicles wouldn’t energize the electric vehicle market: It would kill NASCAR. The die-hard fans would drop away in droves and new fans wouldn’t be sufficiently interested to compensate. Someone would realize there’s a market (My bet would be on Tony Stewart) and re-create stock car racing the way it was. NASCAR would be replaced by something else very similar to it.
I’m tellin’ ya, after you drive an electric car, you don’t want to drive anything else. They’re faster, quieter and cheaper to operate.
Some people would agree with this. A lot of people wouldn’t. You can’t extrapolate the reasons why you like a particular car to all people.
Assertion: NASCAR is the right place to introduce electric vehicle racing
I wish NASCAR were more about the future instead of the past. I wish NASCAR set up Grand Challenges to inspire companies and individuals to create novel automotive technologies in the way NASA does to create novel space technologies.
There’s no reason why NASCAR couldn’t be like that: a race with rules designed to reward the coolest, most advanced vehicle technologies.
I hope the development executives at NASCAR have approached Mr. Nye to ask if he’d like to become the title sponsor for such a challenge. The fact is that NASCAR isn’t a research and development racing series. NASCAR is not about the future. I don’t really think it ever has been about the future. NASCAR is a marketing series for manufacturers to showcase cars the manufacturers hope we will buy. Win on Sunday, Sell on Monday, right? It’s a place to make celebrities out of drivers and sometimes crew chiefs.
But you know what? There are racing series that are interested in going this direction. Even in this country. I mentioned Formula E (which is sponsored by FIA, the same people who bring you Formula 1). Yes, F1 racing is far less popular in the United States than NASCAR. So is sportscar racing, but sports cars are a far more promising market if you want to find the people who are likely to buy high performance, really cool electric vehicles.
In 2012, NASCAR’s Rolex Sports Car Series and the American Le Mans Series merged, debuting a new series (now the WeatherTech Sports Car Series) in 2014. Their first event, the Rolex 24 at Daytona, happened last weekend and had one of the best endings I’ve seen in a long time, including two Corvettes nose-to-nose approaching the finish line. This series has domestic and international manufacturers and, while the series has a noticeably different tone, the same rabid racing fans you find at any track. These races have ‘car corrals‘ where a couple hundred Corvettes or Porsches will get together and camp, party and bond with each other.
We are talking pretty high-end cars — the types of cars that cost upward of $50K. Fans who are often less interested in the driver than the marque. These fans are the ones who are most likely to adopt new technologies. These are the people most likely to be able to afford electric cars.
And guess what? They’ve got a Grand Challenge just like Mr. Nye is looking for. It’s an award for the most environmentally clean, fast and efficient GT Le Mans car. You can check out the results for their last race at VIR. They score the cars using a well-to-wheels measure of the petroleum used and the greenhouse gas emissions, how fast the car goes, and how efficiently the car uses the energy. You can read more (and see video) about the idea. That material is from the ALMS series, but it gives you the general idea.
Just the Facts?
No. NASCAR is not the most cutting-edge racing series when it comes to technology. But at least give us credit for what there is!
They use ancient tech: carburetors, valve pushrods and cast-iron engines. But the biggest depressor for me is the fuel consumption. These cars get as little as 80 litres per 100 km, or 3 miles to the gallon (mpg). Sometimes they get away with up to 4.5 mpg. That is, to my way of thinking, astonishingly bad.
Yes, it took till 2012 to switch to fuel injection, but we did. Most of the engine blocks used in NASCAR are made of compacted graphitic iron (CGI), a very strong and lightweight alloy that allows blocks to be lighter. NASCAR was using CGI long before they were being considered for production cars. And any crew chief who regularly gets only 3 mpg would lose his or her job pretty quickly. I already addressed the fact that NASCAR engines are more efficient than production car engines.
A couple people have suggested that electric cars would attract younger people to NASCAR. The type of car doesn’t seem to be the issue. Remember when you waited for your 16th birthday so you could get your drivers’ license? Kids today are waiting longer and longer to get their licenses. I’ve heard this attributed to a lot of reasons – one of the surprising ones to this childless person was that Uber and its like are a great alternative for young people. No costly insurance, no bartering over who gets the car when, and no worrying about kids driving drunk.
It’s misleading to suggest that solving a major environmental problem is as easy as NASCAR moving to electric vehicles. The barriers to that change are significant. It is nowhere neaer “just-around-the-corner”. By neglecting the complex nature of the issue, you implicitly suggest that the only reason we aren’t solving these environment problems is because we don’t want to. It is much, much more complex than that. By all mean, changing people’s attitudes is a first and very critical step, but all an essay like this does is piss off NASCAR fans and lessen their opinion of science and scientists.
I return to my comment at the beginning. It’s much easier to criticize someone else than do something yourself. If My. Nye is really serious about his belief that auto racing could make a major change in how people view electric vehicles, he should approach IMSA (which, remember, is partially owned by NASCAR) and offer to help publicize their efforts in Green Racing. Sports cars struggle for viewers and ratings. Celebrity involvement could provide a huge boost, and I suspect that Mr. Nye’s science-fan audience is much more likely to get into racing via sports cars rather than stock cars. A perfect quid pro quo that might actually start to make a difference in this very important problem.