Electric Cars: The Immediate Years Ahead
By Bill Moore
It took a war, a movie and $100 a barrel oil to bring back the electric car.
Not that you can walk down to your local car dealership and buy one, much less kick its tire, but that day may not be far off.
Once a competitive option a century ago, electric vehicles or EVs, found themselves eclipsed by models powered by gasoline that offered greater driving range. Awash in cheap Texas crude, Americans gradually found themselves pulled ever-deeper into their 100-year-long relationship with the motorcar and the freedom it promised.
But that was half-a-century and thousands of brimming oil fields ago.
Now concerns over national security, climate change and global resource competition are spurring a revival of interest in cars that run on electricity instead of petroleum. While the number of energy sources that can power an internal combustion engine are limited, essentially, to petroleum and biofuels, an electric car can be charged from myriad sources -- both centralized and decentralized -- including fossil fuels, nuclear power and renewables: themselves spanning the gamut from hydropower to geothermal to wind and solar.
General Motors CEO and President Rick Wagoner has begun, of late, to extol the virtues of the electric car as a way to remove the automobile from the "environmental equation." The company that "killed the electric car" -- as charged in the successful Chris Paine documentary -- has done a 180 degree turn and launched its biggest gamble; the development of an extended range electric car called the Volt, due out sometime in the 2010 time frame.
And GM is not alone. Virtually all of the major and mid-tier carmakers have electric car programs in development, with most slated to begin appearing in showrooms in the next several years. But here is what you can expect to find in the next year or two.
While GM burns the midnight oil preparing the Volt to meet a self-imposed 2010 launch date, there are a handful of production electric cars available -- for order, not necessarily delivery -- today if you have the financial wherewithal.
Tesla Roadster: $92,000 two seat sports car based on a re-engineered Lotus Elise. More than 500 have been pre-ordered and deliveries have begun. Acceleration is invigorating and the top speed beyond the legal limit. Range is a satisfying 220 miles.
CommuterCars Tango: $110,00+ (depending on battery choice) two-seater configured in a tandem arrangement that is narrower than a Honda Goldwing motorcycle. This vehicle will perform comparable to the Tesla Roadster but is designed as a commuter that lets drivers legally maneuver between lanes of traffic in states like California, thus avoiding traffic jams. The first customer was actor-producer George Clooney. Essentially a father-son operation, the Spokane-based company has ten vehicles currently under construction.
Think city: No US pricing announced but should be less than the price of a Prius. This two-seater was re-engineered at a cost of an estimated $150 million by Ford before it sold the company in 2003. Now back in Norwegian hands and with a fresh round of funding from GE and others, the company has resumed manufacturing and sales in Norway -- where hundreds are in daily operation. It plans US sales in 2009.
Phoenix SUT: $45,000 four-door pickup that is essentially a conversion of a Korean product. Acceptable acceleration and legal top speed. Range estimated at 130 miles per charge and batteries can be quick-charged in minutes. Initial sales to be in California only. Some 500 have been ordered. Deliveries have yet to begin.
Another conversion that offers surprising performance is the AC Propulsion e-Box, which is based on the Toyota Scion Xb and runs around $70,000. AC Propulsion is largely responsible for the resurgence of interest in electric cars and descendants of the engineering found the e-Box can also be found in the $400,000+ Venturi Fetish from tiny Monaco and the high-drama Tesla Roadster.
The luxury prices of these vehicles reflect the current fact-of-life about any electric car: their batteries are expensive, especially the lithium kind. It is estimated that one-third the price of the Tesla Roadster is its 6,831 lithium ion batteries, assembled into a single pack the company has warranted for five years.
A hundred years ago, electric cars were popular with wealthy socialites and physicians because they were quiet, clean and easy to operate. Their limited range didn't pose a problem since they were used almost exclusively within urban areas for visits to the theater or to make house calls. A top speed of 20-25 miles an hour was more than adequate on streets they still shared with horse-drawn beer wagons and trolley cars.
Like the Detroit, Milburn and Baker electric cars of a century ago, a new generation of neighborhood runabouts are providing a similar function in urban driving settings. These "low-speed" electric vehicles fit within a special Department of Transportation category called FMVSS 500 that requires certain minimum safety equipment and limits them to a top speed of 25 mph. Some 40-plus states now allow these EVs to operate on public streets where the speed limit is 35 mph or less, much as their predecessors did a century earlier. Electric vehicles available in this class include the following:
GEM-series of two, four and six-passenger EVs built in Fargo, North Dakota. Resembling golf cars on steroids, these are the most popular and widely sold NEV (neighborhood electric vehicle) in the world, thanks in part to it being a division of Chrysler. Prices start around $7000.
ZENN two-passenger vehicle based on the French-built Microcar, it offers more car-like looks and amenities. Prices start around $12,000.
Miles Electric Vehicles offers a Chinese-built four-passenger electric vehicle that, like the ZENN, is more car-like. Its price is around $15,000.
ZAP, a California-based EV marketer, has introduced a sub-$10,000 electric vehicle called the Xebra (pronounced 'zebra'). Built in China, its three-wheel configuration allows it to be classified as a motorcycle in many states, thus circumventing the limitations of FMVSS 500. Available in both a four-passenger sedan and two-passenger work truck, it has a top speed of over 30 mph.
All of these vehicles can be purchased today through selected dealerships around the country.
Just Over the Horizon
The above listed vehicles aren't the only electric cars available, typically from the manufacturer directly or through speciality dealers. There are a small number of firms that will convert virtually any vehicle to electric drive, but these are usually based on older DC-motor and lead acid battery technology and have ranges of 40-50 miles per charge and limited battery life.
The selection of more consumer-affordable electric cars begins to look more promising starting from around 2009 onward. Mitsubishi and Subaru are beginning limited tests of their respective electric cars in the US starting this year. Nissan announced it will offer a new all-electric car starting in 2012. None, however, have announced pricing. The exception is Miles Electric Vehicles that plans to introduce as early as this year its XS 500 sedan, a highway-capable, five-passenger battery car with a projected range of 120+ miles and a top speed in excess of 80 mph. The price for the Chinese-built import is expected to be under $30,000.
A new class of vehicles in development are plug-in hybrid-electric cars that use an engine-generator to extend the driving range of the vehicle beyond it normal limits of its battery pack. General Motor's Volt is being developed around the concept. Expect to see other manufacturers offer similar types of vehicles starting with Toyota who has announced it will roll-out its own version of a plug-in hybrid Prius around the time of the Volt launch.
Clearly the trend is towards the 'de-carbonization' of the automobile, but obstacles still remain; the most daunting being the affordable mass manufacture of significant numbers of powerful, safe lithium ion batteries. General motors has contracted with several battery companies in its quest to come up with the right battery for its Volt program. Toyota, the world leader in conventional hybrid technology, has adopted a more cautious approach to its own battery program.
The only major manufacturer to eschew both plug-in and battery cars is Honda, who has placed its faith in its hydrogen fuel cell technology in the form of its FCX Clarity, a stunning five passenger sedan that comes very close to offering all the performance of a conventional gasoline engine vehicle, including driving range close to 300 miles and the ability to start in sub-zero weather, itself significant advance for the technology. Honda plans to lease an unspecified number of Clarity's in southern California this year where public hydrogen refueling stations are available. Essentially an electric car with a "refuelable battery", the Clarity represents the promise of the next generation beyond both hybrids and battery-only cars, though non-trivial challenges remain to be resolved, including a shocking sticker price that makes the Tesla look like a Kia in comparison.
Changing Expectations and Driving Dynamics
For all the uncertainties surrounding the transition beyond petroleum, one thing seems apparent: just as the gasoline automobile helped reshape society in the 20th Century, the electric car, in its various manifestations, will help alter life in the 21st. The very characteristics of electric cars, from their range to the sources of energy they use to their potential to become a part of the grid to their cost, all promise to alter our perception of what an automobile is. We may find initiatives like Project Better Place and Paris' proposed electric car-share program will evolve our perception of the value or need for car ownership.
The very fact that electric cars don't use gasoline will require governments to adopt new methods of tax collection for highway improvements. Utilities will have to adapt to both the new loads electric cars will pose and the opportunities they will present to improve the quality and reliability of the grid.
And many owners may find the allure of producing their own 'electric fuel' from solar panels on their homes, a justifiable reason for investing in both EV and PV (photovoltaic). As about a quarter of the electric car owners in California have already discovered it makes more sense economically to use solar energy -- even at its current cost of 25 cents per kilowatt hour -- to replace the $3-4 a gallon gasoline they would have had to buy for their normal car than offsetting just the price of local electric power alone. Taken together, the payback on solar accelerates significantly.
From how we finance the electric cars of the future -- you buy the car and lease the battery -- to how the government collects its taxes -- based on when and where you drive -- to what your relationship is with your local utility company -- they pay you for you to let them use the batteries in your car when its parked at work -- EVs will have a profound impact on what and how we drive in the future.
We may even find that in order to alert pedestrians to the presence of a quiet electric car, a whole new 'ring tone' industry springing up that lets you customize the sound your EV produces, including, as one designer in Japan announced, the 'clip clop' sound of a horse.
Talk about coming full circle.
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