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.