Electric Vehicles in Depth, Part I: The History of EVs

I can't be the only one in America sick of hearing about hybrids. Not that I begrudge anyone opting for a hybrid over a traditional vehicle if it's the best fit. Land of the free, home of the brave and all that. It's just that I'm more enthused about a purer alternative fuel solution. Hybrids, for all their merits, are still dependent upon petroleum fuel.

How about making your juice 100% pure? Electricity, that is. Whatever happened to all the purely electric vehicles we were supposed to be driving in the 21st century? You know the type. Charged at home by night. Gliding noiselessly about town by day. The closest most folks have gotten to an EV is in a (here we go again) hybrid like the Ford Escape or Toyota Prius. Hybrids are sort of EV wannabes - part old-school gas engine, part high-tech electric motor with lots of computer chips in between. Whatever happened to the real EV thing? Pure. Unadulterated. Straight up like a shot of Jack Daniels. No rum and coke or wine spritzer half-measures.

Well friends, straight up EVs are still around. You just have to look a little harder to find them. So I did. And I found several EVs on the market. And there is one in particular that works, is affordable and is actually being sold.

Speaking of half-measures, I didn't want to do a watered down article about electric vehicles. Thus, this article will be delivered over two parts to do the subject justice. Tomorrow, in part two, we'll get into the details of one EV that is capable of freeway speeds, doesn't cost as much as California real estate and is being sold to customers who aren't super-rich celebrities. But first, let's get grounded in some EV fundamentals. I'm positive you'll get a charge out of it.  (OK. I swear. No more electric puns.)
Electric Vehicles 101

Unlike a gasoline-electric hybrid, an EV is driven exclusively by its electric motor. EVs are considered "zero emission" vehicles even though the electricity to charge their batteries, with few exceptions, comes from fossil fuel or (wince) nuclear power plants.

Besides the advantage of reduced emissions, an EV offers multi-fuel flexibility. That is, the "fuel", the electricity to charge the batteries, can be derived not only from power plants driven by the aforementioned fossil fuel and nuclear sources but also by more earth-friendly sources like solar power (PV panels), biomass (methane) or natural gas.

Electric vehicles require fewer components than an internal combustion engine powered vehicle. An EV has an electric motor, a controller (like a huge dimmer switch), and batteries (or a fuel cell, but that's a horsepower of a different color for another article of its own. In short, a fuel cell vehicle is nothing more than an EV using a fuel cell to generate electricity onboard instead of using electricity stored in onboard batteries). No starter motor, no alternator, no radiator or coolant, no water pump, no spark plugs, no fuel injectors, no oil filter or oil. The simpler construction means an EV enjoys less maintenance and fewer repairs.

Electricity is the cheapest transportation fuel on the market. A May 2006 article in Popular Mechanics magazine presented data comparing the amount and cost of 7 different fuels that would be required to drive a small sedan from New York to California. Electricity was the clear winner costing about half the price of compressed natural gas, the runner up. Yeah, I know. They ignored the battery range issue. You'd need a really long extension cord. Big laugh. But consider for a moment how many electrical outlets there are between New York and California compared to the number of gas stations.

Battery powered EVs have gotten a bad rap for their limited range. Typically, an EV averages about 30-120 miles range depending upon vehicle type, battery technology, driving style and driving conditions. Not the kind of buggy you'd take on the cross-country family vacation. But, considering the glass as half-full rather than half-empty, an EV is perfectly suited for short trips. It is exactly these short hops that are not a good fit for standard internal combustion engine vehicles. Let's examine why.

An internal combustion engine gets extremely poor efficiency at low rpms and in the first mile of operation (an estimated 10 percent of its fully warmed up efficiency - think 3 mpg for a 30 mpg capable vehicle!). After 5 miles, the efficiency rises to a measly 60 percent and that's in 70-degree weather. A 2001 U.S. Dept of Transportation study found that fully 60 percent of the trips taken by U.S. drivers were less than 5 miles long.

In contrast, an electric motor operates at its peak efficiency as soon as you turn the key. No "warm-up" is required. Electric motors are more efficient at converting energy than gasoline engines. Gas engines are about 20 percent efficient with 80 percent of the energy in the fuel being wasted as heat and friction. Electric motors are about 40-60 percent efficient. In addition, an electric motor delivers maximum torque at zero rpms. So the low speeds of city driving and trips of short length are a match made in EV heaven. Thus, an EV has it all over gas or diesel for the short trips that comprise the majority of trips driven in the U.S.  As a second vehicle for short trips, the EV choice is the clear winner.

Way Back When

Today, true EVs (remember gas-electric hybrids don't count) are as rare as mint 57 Chevy's. It wasn't always so. Before the advent of the electric starter, patented by Charles Kettering in 1915, electric cars like the Baker Electric and others were familiar sights on American roads. There were even electric delivery trucks. The first electric taxis came to NYC way back in 1897. In 1900, there were 4,192 cars produced in the U.S. of which 28 percent were electric vehicles. EVs were especially favored by women drivers who found the gasoline car's hand crank starting undignified and too physically demanding (no offense to our modern women readers). Charles Kettering turned the tide in favor of the gasoline and diesel vehicles with his electric starter. Easy starting and the longer range of the gas and diesel vehicle finally carried the day and the car buying public has never seriously considered EVs since. Electric cars were relegated to the enterprising hobbyist.

Not So Long Ago

The oil crisis of the '70s renewed interest in non-petroleum fuels, including electricity. Component manufacturers and cottage industry EV builders thrived. As the semiconductor and computer industry progressed, so did EV technology.  Several of these early manufacturers and kit builders have stood the test of time. One such is long-time mechanic and EV builder, Mike Brown's Electro Automotive. His "VoltsRabbit" kit is designed for a VW Rabbit donor car. It turns the Rabbit into the Energizer bunny. I've driven one on several occasions and can attest to its decent (read: not embarrassing) performance and 50-60 mile range in favorable conditions. I have a friend who owns and operates one here in Cleveland, Ohio. But a DIY kit car is a far cry from a professionally engineered, mass produced vehicle. Enter General Motors.

GM to the Rescue

GM's futuristic EV1 two-seat electric sports car was trotted out to great fanfare in 1999. It was a bold move by the normally conservative auto giant. All EV1s were leased, not purchased. Special home charging stations were required to charge the vehicle most efficiently. Owner loyalty and enthusiasm was off the charts. Check out this site. The small sales numbers (remember we're talking GM here) were the announced reason for GM pulling the plug on the EV1 in 2003. Diehard owners (no relation to Sears!) practically threw themselves in front of the tow truck when GM canceled their EV1 leases. The revolutionary electric cars with 75+ mile range and zippy 0-60 times were unceremoniously repossessed and crushed at GM's Desert Proving Grounds in Mesa, Arizona. Kind of the EV version of a "scorched earth" policy.  EV enthusiasts, history buffs and conspiracy theorists should enjoy the upcoming documentary movie "Who Killed the Electric Car?". Sony Pictures Classics has scheduled the general release for late June 2006. Take a break from the lines at the DaVinci Code for a tale of modern day, alternative fuel intrigue.

Electric Vehicle Runners-up

Stay tuned for part two of this two-part article tomorrow. I'll be presenting detailed information about the history and performance of my personal "best EV". Here's a list of the runners-up:

ZEV Feelgoodcars

The Tango is produced by Commuter Cars, LLC. George Clooney is proud owner of Tango number 1 for a cool $108K. It is ultra-narrow, about the width of a Honda Goldwing motorcycle, with impressive performance (0-60 mph in a claimed 5 seconds). The Tango seats two in tandem and handles highway speeds with ease.

The Tzero from AC Propulsion looks like a sports racer. Killer speed with 0-60 times of 4 seconds are yours IF you can buy one. Car is designed by Alan Cocconi who worked on the GM Impact, the prototype that was developed into the GM EV1. Asking price for the Tzero is over $100K and it's not clear if they're really being produced or not.

The ZEV from Feel Good Cars, Inc. - Hey, I didn't pick the name - is limited to a 25 mph maximum speed to fit into NHTSA's "neighborhood vehicle" niche, but it does seat four.

The Gizmo is a single passenger, three-wheeled EV, that will do 45 mph and deliver a 40-mile range. The manufacturer has temporarily suspended production according to their website, but offers to connect interested parties with used models. I owned one of these babies several years ago and found it performed as promised.

The Miracle Battery?

The miracle battery is the key to the EVs wider acceptance. Utracapacitors show promise for bursts of power, but fall short in the storage department. We're still waiting for the 500-mile range battery. Believe it or not, no battery technology has bumped good old lead-acid battery technology out of first place. A perfect battery technology for an EV would have a high energy density (i.e. store lots of power in a lightweight and compact package), charge up quickly, tolerate overcharging, maintain its power even after thousands of charging and discharging cycles, be 100% recyclable and cost very little. That's a tall order. While not outstanding in any one category, lead-acid is the best all-around performer. Nickel-metal hydride, nickel-cadmium, lithium-ion and lithium-ion polymer batteries store more electricity than lead-acid batteries, they stumble in one or more of the other categories. Even the sophisticated EV1 used lead-acid batteries. For a detailed comparison of battery technology, check out this article.

For the foreseeable future, EVs will have to contend with shorter ranges than their petroleum fueled cousins. But, as the old saying goes, "if the shoe fits, wear it". If an EV can deliver the range you need for a goodly portion of the driving your household needs to do, give an electric vehicle serious consideration.

In the next installment, we'll acquaint you with an EV that is available, affordable and capable. Yes, it does exist. And you can read all about it here.

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