At Witz' End - Electric vehicles: past, present and future

Six months after the NAIAS (Detroit Auto Show), I finally found my notes from some very interesting sessions there. Okay, I didn't just find them. I just now found time to review them. It's been a busy year.
The good news is that looking at the notes a half-year after the fact gives us a chance to put them into context a little. Here we go.

The first event of note was a panel discussion, pro and con, on global warming provocatively called "Climategate." The second was a panel discussion on "EVs: Past, Present and Future." Third was a Center for Automotive Research session on "Vehicle Electrification." All were lightly attended, so I doubt whether AutoblogGreen readers have heard or read much about them. Let's look at the second one first, and we do so after the jump.

The panel members were Bob Casey, curator of Transportation at the Henry Ford Museum; University of Michigan engineering professor Anne Marie Sastry (a widely known battery expert and founder/CEO of start-up battery company Sakti3); and Sherif Marakby, Ford's Global Hybrid chief engineer.

Casey offered a short history of the electric vehicle (EV), which, he said, has been "the car of the future for 110 years." In the very early days of the fledgling auto industry, when the market was roughly equally divided among electrics, internal combustion and steam-powered vehicles, the EV's target buyers were upscale urban women because they were expensive and could run only short distances at low speeds but were clean, quiet and required no cranking or shifting.

By contrast, gas-engine cars were noisy, complex, relatively powerful and relatively high-speed. At a time when private cars were not needed to get around the city, they could transport their owners out of town into the countryside. Range was not an issue since gasoline, even then, was widely available at country stores. Not so with EVs.

As we know, the invention of the electric starter and other improvements to IC-engine cars killed EVs, and the first serious volume-production EV effort since then was GM's 1990s program that led to the EV1. "If the EV ever will become the 'car of the future,'" Casey concluded, "it will be because buyers put other priorities ahead of unlimited mobility."

Sastry contended that EVs "stand a very good chance of meeting the needs of emerging economies. But it's only a 'magic bullet' if it reaches profitability." And virtually all major automakers are working hard to make that happen.

As we also know, battery technology has progressed from lead-acid (PbA) to nickel metal hydride (NiMH) to lithium ion, the latter with nearly four times the energy density of PbA, but at much higher cost. And lithium batteries until now have seen volume usage only in small sizes in consumer electronics (laptops, cell phones, etc.). "The lithium batteries being developed by many companies, including mine, will see many new technologies in coming years," Sastry said, "so R&D efforts can focus on electric drivetrains with IC engines relegated to charging duty."

Marakby reminded us of early Ford EV efforts, including the 1992-93 Ecostar EV and the 1998-00 Ranger EV, and that his company today sells some 50,000 hybrids a year. "To make electric vehicles viable," he said, "we must make them affordable, as well as practical and flexible." In hybrids, he added, that means multiple powertrain capabilities in the same vehicle.

Ford Focus BEV- Click above for high-res image gallery

Ford is developing a Focus BEV for 2011 with a promised range of "up to" (EV ranges are always "up to") 100 miles. "We don't know the long-term winner among BEVs, PHEVs and HEVs," he said, "but costs have come down. Battery technology, of course, is the key enabler."

There were a few good questions from the sparse but fairly knowledgeable audience. One asked, "Why lithium?"

"We need the lightest materials," Sastry said, "and lithium is the lightest metal. But it must be entrained with other materials to optimize safety and energy density. There are a lot of things you can use in the cathode, the other part of the battery, that determine its properties."

Another asked how automakers determine the optimum balance of battery size (for range), cost and weight for a given EV?
"There's not enough space in a car for a 300-mile-range battery," Marakby said. "One hundred miles (about 25 kWh) is challenging." Sastry opined that "fast-charging technologies may eventually enable EVs to be recharged as quickly as ICE fuel tanks are refilled."

But fast-charging requires very expensive chargers and enormous power, and it can damage batteries, another audience member challenged.

"The charging infrastructure will develop to enable high power," Sastry replied. "Battery-life issues are being worked on. Batteries are a very complex optimization challenge...improve one aspect and you may deteriorate others. Is it feasible? Yes."

Besides the major offerings – the Chevrolet Volt, Nissan Leaf, Honda CR-Z, et al, and a phalanx of mostly tiny, impractical and unappealing (to me) start-up and prototype EVs in an area called "Electric Avenue" – a lot of new and interesting production-intent EV and hybrid concepts were on display at Detroit. Most of them you know about, some maybe not.

Perhaps the star of the show was Audi's e-tron, a shapely two-seat EV sports car smaller and prettier than Audi's earlier R8-based effort. Another was the (believe-it-when-you-see-it-in-production) Tesla Model S 7-passenger sedan, which promises sub-six-second 0-60 sprints and, with its largest (and most expensive) optional battery, "up to" 300 miles of range.

Toyota showed its plug-in Prius and a compact hybrid FT-CH, while Lexus had its own compact hybrid LF-CH. Volkswagen's all-new 2011 Jetta teaser (labeled NCC for "New Concept Coupe") was there in hybrid form. Subaru showed off a (Toyota Synergy-Drive-based) Hybrid Tourer concept. BMW showcased its 2011 demo-program EV, the 1 Series-based Concept ActiveE, boasting 170 volt-powered horses and 8.5-secone 0-60 performance but no range spec. Korea's Hyundai showed a range-extender concept with 40 miles of EV-only range from the same "lithium-polymer" batteries that will power its '11 production Sonata Hybrid (which I drove on a recent trip to Korea, and learned that Hyundai's "lithium polymer" is really lithium-ion in more package-friendly polymer cases that they say is safer than metal.) Finally, Chinese battery maker/automaker BYD showed conventional-looking 5-door hatchback and wagon BEV cars, both weighing 5,000-plus lb. BYD says their 75-hp motors can pull them from zero to 60 miles per hour in less than 14 seconds and their range is "up to" 205 miles. Believe that when you see it, too.

And so the hard work and stimulating discussions continue on the road toward (at least partially) electrifying America's transportation system. More next time.

Award-winning automotive writer Gary Witzenburg has been writing about automobiles, auto people and the auto industry for 21 years. A former auto engineer, race driver and advanced technology vehicle development manager, his work has appeared in a wide variety of national magazines including The Robb Report, Playboy, Popular Mechanics, Car and Driver, Road & Track, Motor Trend, Autoweek and Automobile Quarterly and has authored eight automotive books. He is currently contributing regularly to Kelley Blue Book (,, Ward's Auto World and Motor Trend's Truck Trend and is a North American Car and Truck of the Year juror.

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