ASH: Resource - Electric Cars

Dave Van Domelen dvandom at
Mon Feb 25 14:52:25 PST 2013

                    Let's Take A Ride In An Electric Car
                     An ASH Universe Information File
                    copyright 2013 by Dave Van Domelen

     "But when [Lightfoot] pulled off his helmet and headset the differences
became much more powerful.  The smell of gasoline fumes was gone from even
the busiest street, replaced by a slight tang of ozone.  Only the occasional
engine chugged along on alcohol, the rest whirred at the edge of hearing on
electrical motors.  And, of course, the music blaring out of the open windows
of the alcohol burners (apparently cheaper than electrics, and thus favored
by "his generation") was not exactly what he was used to hearing."
     - ASH #5, "Past Shock"

     Because most of the characters in ASH stories use exotic modes of
transport, the day to day realities of getting around are rarely addressed
on-screen.  Sure, Road Ragers drive something with an engine that roars, but
that may not be any more common than using a suborbital shell or a zeppelin
made of solid light.  Very early on (1995, real calendar) it was established
that most of the stuff on the road ran on electric power.

     So, how does that work?

     Pure electrics have a number of hurdles that need to be overcome if
they're ever to be the majority of the vehicles on the road.  Some of this
can be handwaved by the assumption of advanced technology (developed by a
careful supergenius, based on Santari samples, or simply the result of
putting resources into a problem that gets fewer resources in the real
world), but unless you want to verge into magene stuff, you run into the
"fill 'er up" problem.

     Simply put, it takes a lot longer to fully charge a battery than to put
the same amount of energy into a gas tank.  If you want a battery that can be
recharged many times, you're looking at a factor of about 100 times longer,
and even handwavy future-normal-tech stuff probably can't bring that down
below about 10 times.  How many people would want to spend even twenty
minutes at a service station filling up their tank every time, compared to
two or three minutes?  Once in a while, if you need to use the restroom or
get snacks, maybe.  But not every single time!

     Plug-in electrics generally work on the principle that you plug it in at
home when it's not in use, and if the range is only 40-60 miles on a charge,
well, most people live within 20 miles of their workplace, right?  But that
assumes you have a way to plug it in.  What about people who live in
apartments?  And how about people who want to drive farther than a single
charge in one trip?  Sure, most people make short trips most of the time, but
when you're buying a car, you want it to do everything you might want to do
during the lifetime of the vehicle, not just most of it.

     The real world solution to that, at least for now, has been the plug-in
hybrid.  If you have a way to recharge at night, you might not need to put
gas in unless you travel more than a single charge's range in one day...but
on those occasions where you need to go farther, you can.  But rather than
retcon how things work in ASH to reflect changes in the real world since
1995, why not just run with it, and detail how an all-electric system might
be made practical?


     During the Second Heroic Age, someone realized that oil refineries would
be almost impossible to defend from a concerted supervillain attack.  This
put added urgency behind the short-term push generated by the various OPEC-
driven crises of the 1970s...while OPEC might see reason and back down from
an embargo, what if another group like the Z-liens decided to cripple the
energy infrastructure as part of their invasion plans?

     The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency launched a program to
improve battery storage and size without depending on rare elements not
available in America.  No sense removing a Middle Eastern bottleneck only to
replace it with a Chinese or Kenyan bottleneck, after all.  The plan was that
emergency response and military vehicles could be powered by batteries that
in turn could be charged by whatever energy sources remained available in a
crisis.  While this had minimal trickle-down in the 20th Century, it laid
important groundwork.

     During the Third Heroic Age, President Quayle realized that his
lightning-fast liberation of Kuwait in Operation Stormfront was going to have
repercussions in the oil-rich Middle East, increasing paranoia about American
interventionism in oil-producing nations.  Additionally, only the heavy use
of Anchors (largely unknown in the 1970s) at oil refineries had protected
them from superhuman terrorism, and refineries in poorer nations had already
been destroyed by such activity.  So Quayle twisted enough arms in Congress
to find the necessary funds to push the old DARPA projects to completion,
using as little supertech as possible.

     By 1996, it was theoretically possible to build an all-electric car that
could travel 300 miles on a single charge with a top speed of 100 miles per
hour, and a cost slightly higher than a comparable gasoline-powered car.
Once you counted in the cost of fuel, one of these hypothetical electrics
would actually be cheaper if you owned it long enough to drive it about
10,000 miles.  However, some of this technology was still considered
classified, and used only to develop military vehicles...many of which found
their way into the hands of both FEMA and the Department of Super-Human
Affairs, both of which were on the front lines of increasing superhuman

     Then, of course, everything fell apart for a while in 1998.  The
infrastructure for producing and distributing gasoline nearly collapsed, but
demand also dropped precipitously, which meant that most of the still-stable
nations could meet most of their gasoline needs with domestic production.  Or
production that became domestic once neighboring countries were gobbled up.
Alcohol conversions and biodiesel were other stopgaps, but both put stress on
a food supply already endangered by some of the chaos of the Godmarket.

     This is where the battery-powered vehicles proved their worth.  Between
the obvious evidence of their utility and FEMA's sweeping emergency powers,
automobile manufacturers quickly began switching to batteries, and by 2010
pure electrics were the most common small vehicles on the road.  By 2015 they
were a solid majority, and by 2020 the power source had become the most
common across all vehicle types (biodiesel held out a lot longer in trucking
and other long-distance driving sectors, and still accounts for a significant
minority even in 2027).

     Obviously, there was a lot of work done on infrastructure to make this
possible.  If you don't have a garage, you need a way to recharge your car
somehow.  This is part of why alcohol-burners are still common among lower
income drivers, because those drivers are also more likely to live in
apartments or rental properties without the robust electrical wiring needed
to support a home charger.

     The Combine made it work by establishing standards for easily
replaceable and rechargeable batteries early, and making manufacturers stick
to them.  The occasional threat of nationalizing industries was a powerful
motivator as well.


     Large rechargeable batteries come in five classes, although most people
only use one or two of them.  By standards, a single battery must be able to
drive a vehicle at reasonable operating speeds for a specified range between
charges.  Vehicles larger than the minimum specs for a class will travel more
slowly and have shorter ranges.  Keep in mind that only the bargain basement
brands will be at these levels, if you're willing to pay more you tend to get
higher speeds and larger ranges out of the same Class of battery.

     All classes of rechargeables can be removed and (if you're strong
enough) carried elsewhere for charging.  This way, if in need a quick
recharge, you can simply swap in a fresh battery.  For more on that, see

     Class 1 - Motorcycle.  A single Class 1 battery should drive a light
motorcycle (equivalent to a 50cc internal combustion motor) at 30 m/s with a
range of 100 km.  Each Class 1 battery is typically about 2kg, although
extended Class 1 batteries exist that combine two or three in a single casing
for a savings in weight where every kilo counts (these are the same size as
the equivalent number of regular Class 1's, but lighter).  Owners typically
remove the battery and take it with them as a security measure, with lockable
battery covers to keep a thief from simply slotting in a new battery and
driving away.  Class 1's are light enough that a long-distance cyclist can
simply toss a few spares in a pannier or a backpack.
     A single Class 1 battery will operate an automobile at vastly reduced
speeds and range.  A lot of cars are designed with a slot for a Class 1
battery as an emergency backup, in the same way that some owners of 20th
Century gasoline burners kept a can of gas in the trunk.

     Class 2 - Automobile.  The smallest subcompact cars can operate at 40
m/s with a range of 500 km on a single Class 2.  Class 2 batteries use
slightly different chemistry than Class 1, and are about 6-7 kg each (the
same job done with Class 1 batteries would weigh significantly more).  The
typical midsized vehicle usually requires three or four Class 2's, and it's
normal for an apartment-dweller to rotate through the cells, bringing only
one inside each night to recharge.
     Class 2 batteries are rather more expensive than Class 1's, which is why
emergency backups are Class 1 even in larger cars.  It's rare for automobile
drivers to bring additional full batteries even on long trips, and cars
designed for endurance often use non-standard power systems, solar panels, or
other means of stretching a charge.  High speed cars hook up additional Class
2's in series.

     Class 3 - Small Truck.  A 10-wheeled delivery truck or a pickup that's
intended to haul trailers will run on a single Class 3 battery, with a top
speed of 40 m/s and a range of 500 km.  Those intended for long hauling will
add a second battery in parallel.  Class 3 batteries are about 50 kg and
require special equipment or an excess of "hold my beer and watch this"
attitude to change.  In-city fleet vehicles only remove their batteries for
inspection and maintenance, as it's easier to just plug them in between runs.
     Most semitractors that have converted to electric use Class 3 batteries,
but need half a dozen or more.  While a Class 4 might be simpler in theory,
it's much easier to find facilities for swapping out Class 3's on the road
than to find somewhere that can handle a Class 4.

     Class 4 - Large Truck.  As noted above, while this class is designed for
large trucks, it's rarely used in that role.  At 300 kg or more apiece, they
are exchangeable in the same way that a 32" tube-style TV is portable.  The
main market for Class 4's is in construction vehicles and military
transports.  The former are rarely called upon to drive anywhere near the
battery's maximum range, and the latter use Class 4's because that's what the
specs say to use for large trucks.
     While there is a fair amount of inertia in the large fleets involved,
municipal buses are slowly transitioning from biodiesel to Class 4
batteries.  Longer haul buses for inter-city travel are more likely to use
banks of Class 3's for the ease of finding replacements on the road.
     Another growing market for Class 4 batteries is in housing, especially
in areas where the electrical system is uncertain (abandoned zones with
stubborn holdouts, areas currently being reclaimed but not yet up to snuff,
etc).  A lower-amperage power supply from solar panels or wind can be fed
into a Class 4, allowing higher-load electricity for short periods of time.

     Class 5 - Locomotive.  There's a BIG jump between Class 4 and Class 5.
A single rechargeable Class 5 can pull a fully loaded train of 100 cars at 30
m/s with a range of 1000 km.  It's essentially a huge battery bank on wheels,
and they're swapped out at a switching yard.  
     They can also be built into a road chassis that resembles a tanker
trailer.  In this role, they're meant to be emergency power supplies in
disaster areas.  Less volatile than most generator fuel supplies, they also
find use in the military for forward bases where they want to minimize the
number of explodable targets.

     Additional batteries arranged in series can move larger vehicles or
operate at higher speed, while arranged in parallel they can extend the
range.  So a particular vehicle might be rated as needing 12 Class 2
batteries in three parallel ranks of four batteries in series.  Why not use
Class 3 or 4?  Well, Class 2 is easier to find in stores.  Such an
arrangement would be common in areas where you might want truck power but not
have easy access to higher Class batteries.  Or you might want to be able to
swap the batteries out without needing heavy equipment.  

     And no, you can't switch between series and parallel by pulling out one
of the batteries and putting it in backwards, like with AA batteries, the
connections are designed to work in only one way.  Some car customizers do
set up circuitry that lets them switch the configuration from the dashboard,
though, the electrical equivalent of hitting the nitrous switch (with
accompanying damage to systems as the price of the speed boost).


     Here's where the battery standardization proves its worth in terms of
infrastructure.  A typical service station (still called "gas stations" in
the same way people still "dial" phone numbers on touchscreen whitecels) will
have an alcohol pump, maybe a biodiesel pump depending on the market, and a
lot of battery charger racks.

     The most common transaction involves trading your battery for a fully
charged one, a service performed by an attendant so that customers don't need
to haul several 7kg chunks around.  Just because most people can change
their own batteries doesn't mean they WANT to, after all.  The cost is a
fixed base service fee plus a rate based on how much charge is left on your
old battery (all classes have indicators built into one end, in addition to
talking to the vehicle's computer about it).  Most stations will offer two or
even three quality levels, from "just meets the specs" to premium batteries
that could exceed the specs by a significant margin.  Stations will also
outright sell charged batteries without taking the old one in exchange, but
the price is usually higher than buying a battery from a dealership.

     In fraud-prone neighborhoods, stations may insist on checking the real
charge themselves before inserting the new battery, or simply have people pay
for the full charge regardless of whether you swap out a flat battery of a
nearly full one.  Such stations rarely carry higher quality batteries,
customers who prefer better stock are advised to pay the premium to keep
their flat batteries for later home recharging.

     Stations in lower traffic areas or on highway rest stops may have a
slower self-service terminal where drivers plug in as if at home and wait.  A
Class 2 battery typically takes about 20 minutes to fully charge, but a
driver who needs to use the restroom or buy something at the convenience
store might find the lower price of self-serve to be worth the wait.

     Some gas stations offer a more personal service, and rent spots on their
chargers to customers who want to supply their own batteries.  A lot of
people who use extended Class 1 batteries take advantage of this service,
since the standard swappables available at stations are heavier and may be
lower performance.  Most people who use "prestige" Class 2 batteries are
wealthy enough to own homes and do their own charging, but there's always a
few high grade Class 2's in the rental chargers.

     Truck stops are usually the only place you're going to find swappable
Class 3's or Class 4's, due to the legal liabilities involved in having the
heavy truck batteries lugged around.  Rental 10-wheeler moving vans often use
banks of Class 2's for this reason.


     Not all electric cars are standardized to the Class 2 batteries.  At the
high end, you have sportscars with high performance batteries molded into
specific shapes to fit into the lines of the car.  They may not even be
removable short of taking apart half the car.  At the low end, home
conversions of old gasoline-burners often use repurposed batteries from other
sources, although these are increasingly rare as the old batteries die the
final death and Class 1's and 2's are bodged into place.

     Also, keep in mind that these are standards for the Combine only.  Just
like Europe and Asia have different electrical sockets, they have different
battery standards.  The global recovery and its accompanying increase in
trade is creating pressure to adopt a common standard for cars, but there's
still the occasional import with non-removable batteries.  Since the Combine
was the first major power to enforce a standard for removable batteries,
though, odds are good that the Eurasian Union and the three Chinese successor
states will adopt the five Classes as well.

     Just about any community large enough to have more than one auto repair
shop will have at least one that can do an aftermarket conversion to either
replace existing batteries with Class 1 and 2 as appropriate, or to add in an
emergency backup Class 1 in cases where a full conversion is either
impractical (not enough room, for instance) or considered too expensive.


     While the restructured electrical smart grid and a more intensive use of
renewable energy sources to support the lessened population of the Combine
have resulted in automobiles having a much smaller environmental impact than
in the 20th Century, it's not all sunshine and flowers.

     The batteries themselves require a number of elements that are hard to
acquire cleanly.  As noted earlier, while priority was placed on designs that
could be made purely with materials available in North America, certain rare
elements just can't be mined without making a mess.  Additionally, with the
world economy knitting back together, old sources of the raw materials in the
shattered portions of the world (such as sub-Saharan Africa) are coming back
into production...often with little environmental oversight.  The mines
around Lake Victoria, for instance, are on the verge of coming back into full
production, something that could trigger new wars in the unstable region as
well as poisoning the lake itself.

     Recycling of old batteries is enforced rigorously in the Combine, and
the residual toxic materials that cannot be recycled via normal technology
are low-mass enough that they can be disposed of economically through
supertech or even alien technology.  There was a looming crisis in the early
2020s as some of these materials sat in stockpiles awaiting a solution, but
once scientifically trained paranormals started graduating college and going
to work on the problem, the disaster was averted.  (To the extent that Khadam
worries about disposing of its waste, it can usually hire a Pranir scow to
dump it into a sun-grazing orbit.  There are rumors that these loads
sometimes include unwilling passengers who have offended the current regime.)

     While there's no risk of explosion in a battery-powered vehicle wreck,
toxic spills can happen.  Most commercially available batteries are armored
to "black box" standards to reduce the chances of this, and users of more
fragile batteries need special licensing and insurance.  All large cities and
most smaller communities have hazmat teams attached to their road emergency
crews for dealing with cracked batteries.

     It's worth noting that Class 1 batteries are less environmentally
hazardous than the larger classes.  The official standards require safer
chemicals for Class 1 batteries because they are much more likely to get
cracked open in an accident.  Since Class 2's and larger are assumed to be
housed in vehicles with more extensive safety measures, they're allowed to
use slightly more toxic but noticeably more efficient chemistry.  This lets
them get a better power-per-kilogram ratio than Class 1 batteries.


     The availability of compact power supplies has removed one of the
barriers to a lot of the kind of unlicensed mechanical tinkering that was
once only the province of paranormals and highly dedicated individuals like
Doctor Developer.  

     A Class 1 battery, especially once stripped of some of the shielding, is
light enough and powerful enough to keep several varieties of aerial drone
aloft for hours at a time.  In fact, they're overpowered for that task,
meaning that your underlying drone tech doesn't need to be particularly well
designed to stay aloft.  Drones are heavily regulated, and private ownership
without permits can result in jail time, but that's hardly going to stop
someone planning to use a drone in the pursuit of larger felonies.

     While the battery standards are designed to make it very hard to rapidly
discharge them, there will always be someone who figures out how to defeat
the latest round of safeties and turn a Class 1 battery into a one-shot taser
of lethal power.  And, of course, when hooked to a sufficiently large
capacitor you don't even need to modify the battery.  Road Ragers have been
known to use taser lances powered by Class 1 batteries to disable opponents'
motorcycles...or the opponents themselves.

     No one has done so yet, but eventually someone is going to figure out
how to hook a Class 4 up to a conventional laser emitter of sufficient size
and create a practical beam weapon emplacement.  A number of unexplained
explosions in Manhattan seem to have been the result of failed attempts at
this, although when things explode in Jolly Molecule territory it's always
hard to say exactly which experiment was responsible. 


     As a coda, it should be pointed out that gasoline isn't completely gone
from the roads of the Combine in 2027.  Absent supertech, it's hard to beat
gasoline for energy density and rapid release of that energy, so it remains
popular among racers.  In the "serious" motorcycling community, in fact,
there's a view that if you're not burning something, you're doing it wrong.
Alcohol may be more readily available, but racing grade alcohol is not...and
if you're going to have to set up a boutique refinery for racing fuel, you
might as well also offer gasoline, and cater to classic car collectors as

     Methods for converting coal into gasoline (or something close enough to
run a gas motor) go back to the first half of the 20th Century, and while
they've never been made economical for large scale use, when you're servicing
a niche market they're good enough.  Just like microbreweries can use
inefficient small-scale processes to make beer profitably, the 2020s have
seen the rise of microrefineries that convert bottled natural gas into
gasoline in the back lot of a service station.  

     A former member of the Jolly Molecules Road Rager gang has become
modestly wealthy in the past few years licensing several inventions that make
this process cheaper and faster...the Molecules may prefer alternative
propulsion sources in their own cycles, but Manhattan is a fairly major
center for gasoline-powered motorcycle use, with numerous aftermarket
conversions from alcohol to gas.  The fact that gasoline explodes more
violently than alcohol is actually seen as an asset of the fuel source among
the more radical road ragers.


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