For people who grew up in a world where electric vehicles (EVs) existed only in cartoons and science fiction movies, seeing one pull up alongside you at a red light is still an unusual sight. Still, every day there are more and more EVs on the roads, and the infrastructure to support them is growing just as rapidly. But how did it all happen?
Why make the change to electric now?
There are a lot of very good reasons that electric cars are starting to become major contenders among new cars. The reason that these changes are happening so rapidly involves a number of factors, including:
- Awareness of global warming and greenhouse gases
- More people in urban areas, places where EVs are extremely practical
- Better performance from electric motors, allowing manufacturers to fit smaller motors for the same power
- Better capacity in batteries
- Growing infrastructure for charging electric cars
- Hybrids and electric cars becoming trendy
- Pure electric cars have a dramatically simpler drivetrain
- Tax breaks for hybrids and electric cars
The last point is certainly a major one. Many noble pursuits and well-meaning inventions have never even made it to the public because of the costs involved. The almighty dollar has held back the progress of electric cars as well. After the oil shortage in the 1970s, electric cars popped into the mainstream for a moment before being snuffed out by more oil being made available. It is safe to assume that if electric cars had been given a chance and had attracted a large number of consumers, then the technology would be very advanced today.
The cost of creating an electric vehicle industry
The costs of both developing new technologies and making a reliable manufacturing process (automation=consistency) is staggering. Even for a small volume company, the cost of getting an assembly line put together that can put out enough vehicles to make them affordable for normal consumers can reach the billions. This is a big reason that US automakers were bailed out from bankruptcy just before 2010. Losing their infrastructure could have wiped out the US automotive industry for decades.
How electric cars work
Electric cars have a simple way of operating. Electric motors connect directly to the wheels via a short axle in some applications that use smaller motors on each drive wheel. This has fallen out of fashion lately, as it provides heavy handling and puts a lot of weight at the wheels. Most modern electric vehicles, like the Tesla Model S for example, use one motor per drive-axle that feeds into a differential and sends power out to the wheels. A large battery is also placed low down in the vehicle for better handling and weight distribution.
Developing the technology
Of course, with any new technology, mistakes will be made. Brands will all try to roll out the latest and greatest technology without knowing the long-term reliability. Worse yet, really bad solutions to technical problems will almost inevitably reach consumers. This is a part of any major technological progress. This happened with internal-combustion vehicles throughout the first half of the 20th Century with cars getting 2-stroke motors or glowing wheels or a glass dome instead of a roof. There is a good reason why the basic design of the internal-combustion engine has not changed very much in the last few decades.
Challenges facing electric vehicles
Consistency is hard, reliable technology is expensive to develop, and consumers have no interest in paying extra to get the same thing that they could get somewhere else cheaper. Even if everyone in America wanted an electric car today, only a select few would choose one over a gas-powered car. This is why tax breaks and other government incentives to buy hybrids and electric cars are so critical to the development of this new technology.
Especially in the US, the ability to travel long distances is important to consumers. Imagine if someone tried to sell a car that took gasoline in a world where there were no gas stations. That would seem ridiculous. Even if the salesman remarked that gasoline was readily available at many homes and businesses (like electricity), there wouldn’t really be a solution for reimbursing individuals or businesses that supplied it. So the consumer would have to fill their tank up at home and hope they made it back before it ran out. This is the problem that electric car manufacturers are facing with consumers today.
Charging stations are popping up in most urban areas. Unfortunately, charging a car-worth of batteries takes a lot longer than pumping gas into a tank, so these charging stations are not as well-utilized as they could be in most cases. This is just another speed bump for this radical new technology, though. With so much public support, the momentum that electric vehicles have will carry over this and other obstacles.
From point A to point B: growing into electric vehicles
It's great that people want more electric cars on the road and are genuinely interested in buying electric cars. This is a huge step, as getting normal people to invest in new technology is notoriously difficult. But there are a number of important milestones that made this possible.
Hybrid cars gained a lot of popularity in the mid-2000s shortly after they were released to the public. The Toyota Prius was the first trendy hybrid car. After "An Inconvenient Truth" came out, anything "green" would fly off the shelves. Celebrities were bragging about their Priuses and their small carbon footprint rather than their sports car collections or their giant mansions. They still had the mansions and sports cars, but they stopped bragging about them long enough for the public to catch the hybrid bug.
Unlike the Segway scooter and other ambitious attempts at revolutionizing human transportation, hybrid vehicles actively helped convert people to viewing electric as a viable power source for cars. The problem with hybrid family cars like the Prius actually stems from their versatility. They are halfway to the ultimate goal of green fully electric cars and use multiple drivetrains to achieve the same performance as a slow gas-powered compact car.
Now that battery technology has caught up to the power demands of modern electric motors, hybrids have found a new niche to fill. The plug-in hybrid may legitimately be the answer to all of the problems involved with transitioning smoothly to fully electric cars. The addition of larger batteries and the ability to charge the car up before a trip now means that plug-in hybrid owners can use their car as an electric-only car whenever they are making short trips. On long trips, they can get gas from a gas station and still enjoy the improved mileage of a Hybrid. As time goes on, these will probably become more and more popular. As gas stations become less common, more people will transition into fully electric cars.
Electric vehicles currently on the market
There are now a good number of fully electric cars on the market that consumers can just go right out and buy today. Major manufacturers are making lots of small electric cars like the Nissan Leaf or Fiat 500e. These are super practical for city use. Some more daring brands are thinking a bit bigger. Tesla Motors and BMW are now producing large fully electric vehicles. Here is a list of some purely electric vehicles to look out for in the next few years:
Tesla Model S: This car did for fully electric cars what the Prius did for hybrid cars. This car is big, safe, cool, reliable, comfortable, faster than a BMW M5, and polar bear-friendly. Word on the wire is that an AWD version with a setting called “Ludacris Mode” is on the horizon. The flagship EV of this year and probably the next several.
Tesla Model X: A crossover that works on the same principles as the Model S without as large of price tag and with much more ground clearance. Sleek and practical. If you want one you should get on the waiting list now, this car has been hyped up for some time.
Tesla Model 3: A small, compact electric car meant to meet the needs of the budget-minded futurists out there. Still a concept, but now that we know that there is nothing that Tesla won’t attempt it is safe to assume this car will see pavement in the near future. Keep an eye out for this one!
Chevrolet Bolt: This adorable little crossover is gonna hit Chevy dealers in late 2016. Going for less than $40,000 and coming with a standard 200-mile range, this looks like the most value per dollar spent consumers will get in 2016-2017.
Chevrolet Spark EV: This fully electric version of the Chevy Spark is available today and is a practical choice that is very cost-effective. The car can be bought for less than $30,000 and has a range of around 80 miles.
Ford Focus Electric: Another awesome EV from the Americans, this Ford Focus variant provides around 75 miles of range in a very familiar platform. With 143 horsepower, this little hatchback is a really fun way to be eco-friendly.
Volkswagen E-Golf: With a very exciting jump into fully electric vehicles, Volkswagen released the E-Golf for 2015. It is small and has the same attractive styling as the regular golf. This car handles very nimbly and has a respectable range of about 80 miles.
Smart Electric Drive: The fully electric Smart For Two (usually referred to as just the “Smart Car”) has been very popular over the last couple of years for its practicality and insanely low lease price (was $99 a month for a while). This car has a range of about 70 miles and benefits from the fact that the newest one has had several generations of previous vehicles to learn from. Most fully electric vehicles coming out are the first in their line.
Fiat 500e: Any consumer who loves the cute little Fiat 500 will also love the 500e. This electric variant of the stylish subcompact will go 80 miles on a charge. The most eco-elegant car on the market today!
Nissan Leaf: This car has been on a market for a very long time compared to others on this list. That means that Nissan have had years to work out any bugs. With seating for five adults and an 80-mile range, this is a practical and reliable EV for anyone who would get a subcompact EV but needs more space.
Kia Soul EV: The name says it all. This is an EV based on the Kia Soul. This trendy little toaster offers a range of just over 90 miles for a price tag starting under $35,000. A very youth-oriented addition to this year’s EV lineup.
BMW i3: BMW clearly wants to take its own path down the road to fully electric vehicles. With this spacious little crossover, they have avoided the eco-box electric car entirely and made a car that is aimed to be as practical as their gas-powered crossovers. Putting out 170 horsepower and having one of the lightest bodies of any electric car ever made makes this crossover zip around. Range is estimated to be around 80 miles.
Mercedes B-Class Electric Drive: With a standard range of around 85 miles, this family-oriented EV is comfortable and practical for commuting as well as navigating urban terrain. The closest competitor to the i3, this vehicle is a more toned-down vision of the future from Germany. Power comes from Tesla Motors drivetrain.
Where will it go from here?
For a look at the future of electric vehicles, it seems that everyone should just watch what Tesla Motors is rolling out in terms of new technology. Run by Elon Musk, this company started with a simple little electric roadster and now is the hottest brand for electric cars. The Model S has taken the world by storm, seeing huge popularity in North America and Europe. Demand is very high in countries like Norway because of the severely reduced taxes on any vehicles that do not use fossil fuels. The hype-train that Tesla is on is not making any stops in the near future, and after the company made all of their patents related to electric drivetrains open to public use in 2014, the precedent set by their business practices will likely change the way companies of the future operate.
The future is bright for electric vehicles, and with so much of the public on-board, we are certainly going to see some absolutely astonishing advancements in technology in the next decade. Buy a ticket and take the fully-electric ride, folks: EVs are here to stay.
This article originally appeared on YourMechanic.com as Understanding Electric Vehicles and was authored by Ian Swan.