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Cross-country Driving, Battery Style

The conventional wisdom on the electric cars that will soon hit the market is that they'll only make sense for people who don’t plan on driving very far. After all, most early electric models will have limited ranges–a few hundred miles at best–and, once the batteries are depleted, they take a long time to recharge. Even Better Place, the company that’s trying to make electricity competitive with gasoline by establishing networks of battery-swapping stations, plans to start by establishing an electric-car infrastructure in Israel, a country where it’s impossible to drive particularly far.

But focusing on the range of electric vehicles obscures the one number that’s arguably even more important: per-mile energy costs. Electric motors are much more efficient than gasoline motors, which means that the electricity required to drive an electric car one mile costs significantly less than the gasoline required to drive a regular car the same distance. As Better Place’s Evan Thornely points out in a recent interview, this explains why his company has decided to expand to Australia, a wide-open country that seems like an odd fit at first glance. But, as it turns out, once you establish a network of battery-swapping stations, it’s actually the high-mileage drivers in spread-out countries like Australia or the United States who benefit most from switching to electric vehicles.

Of course, it’s entirely possible that the energy-cost advantage of running on electricity rather than gasoline could get eaten up by the cost of the batteries themselves–the batteries, after all, are expensive, have to be stored in large numbers at swap stations, and are good for only a limited number of charge cycles. But assuming that electric vehicles do end up having a per-mile cost advantage, the main question facing anyone trying to convert a country like Australia to the electric car is whether it would be prohibitively expensive to establish such a far-flung network of battery-swap stations.

Thornley argues that it won’t be, saying that it will cost just $6.4 million to establish a series of charging stations between Sydney and Melbourne, two cities about as far apart as San Diego and San Francisco. All told, Better Place’s entire electric-car infrastructure for eastern Australia, he says, will cost around $805 million. That’s not cheap, but compared with other large-scale transportation projects–say, the $40 billion that it’s going to cost to build a high-speed rail system in California–it’s not all that expensive, either. And compared to the potentially astronomical costs of establishing a hydrogen-distribution infrastructure for fuel-cell cars, it’s downright thrifty.

--Rob Inglis