Welcome to the exciting world of Electric Vehicles (EVs). EVs have appeared throughout automotive history but have never experienced the wave of attention that they do today. Pollution, higher gas prices, an impending oil shortage, and major technology improvements have caused a flurry of activity to bring this promising technology to market.
What is an EV?Unlike a gasoline car powered by an engine, an EV is powered by an electric motor and batteries stored inside the car. When the batteries need recharging you simply plug the car into a 120 volt or 240 volt outlet from the convenience of your home. Most EV owners charge their cars overnight, others may give their batteries a boost by charging after short trips.
There are approximately 4,000 EVs on the road today in the US. Many of those are conversions made from existing cars such as Geo Metros, Ford Escorts, Volkswagen Rabbits, Hondas and trucks like the Chevy S-10 and Ford Ranger. The others are purpose-built vehicles built in small quantities by several companies throughout the world.
AdvantagesThere are several unique advantages to driving an EV.
No exhaust or emissions test No tune ups No more messy oil and antifreeze changes Totally silent operation Costs 60%-75% less to operate. Puts the fun back into commuting.
RangeDepending on driving habits and terrain, a typical EV averages 40 to 70 miles per charge. Approximately 85% of the cars in the US are driven less then 20 miles a day. Today, the needs of many two car families can be met with one of the cars being an EV.
Range records are being broken every year and many EVs being built are in the 60-125 mile range. Recently a composite bodied Solectria Sunrise went 373 miles on a single charge using nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) batteries. Although these batteries are very expensive they should be competitively priced within the next few years.
PerformanceBecause EVs are so quiet and peppy they are fun to drive. Most EVs today can outperform their gasoline cousins. The GM EV1 will accelerate from 0 to 60 in under nine seconds. A modified version of the GM Impact broke the land-speed record for EVs in 1994 with a top speed of 183.8 mph. Handling characteristics in an EV can be comparable to that of a gas car.
By nature of their design, electric motors are very powerful. Electric motors have instantaneous torque when they are turned on, whereas gasoline engines have to build up power before they reach their peak RPM range. This is why EVs with stick shifts can easily accelerate from second gear. Most heavy vehicles such as subway trains, locomotives, and heavy mining equipment use electric motors because of the tremendous amount of torque they offer.
HistoryEVs appeared shortly after 1830 when Joseph Henry invented the first dc-powered motor. Thomas Davenport is credited with building the first practical EV In 1834. In 1847 Moses Farmer built a two-passenger electric car and in 1851 Charles Page invented a 20-mph electric car.
Gaston Plante paved the way for early electrics when he built a "rechargable" battery in 1859. In 1899 EVs captured world attention when Camille Jenatzy's "Jamais Contente" set the first land speed record of 66 mph in a streamlined vehicle powered by two 12 volt motors. The first distance record was set in 1900 when the BGS Company's electric car was driven 180 miles on a single charge.
By 1912 there were 34,000 electric cars registered in the U.S. and almost 50 companies producing electric vehicles from 1895 to 1920. Popular models of the time were the Baker and Detroit Electric. Women liked the electric cars because they didn't need to be cranked and doctors prefered them for their reliability.
Although the early gasoline-powered cars were noisy and often broke down, their range was better than that of electric cars. The demise of the electric cars came in 1912 when Charles Kettering invented the electric starter. The Model T revolutionized mass production and gasoline was plentiful. The Golden Age of the gasoline-powered car had begun.
The Golden Age lasted for almost 50 years into the 1960s, however it produced a golden haze in the sky which raised concerns about air pollution. GM began work on thier Electrovair, a converted Corvair, and Ford began development of their sodium-sulfur battery. However, the manufacturers couldn't financially justify the costs to push the technology especially when Americans were interested in muscle cars. Visionaries and hobbyists continued where the manufacturers left off and converted their own individual cars. In 1967 the Electric Auto Association was formed.
The oil crisis of the 1970's caused another wave of interest in EVs. Ford continued development of their sodium-sulfur battery and Chrysler teamed with GE to work on the ETV-1 program. GM began work on their Electrovette, based on the Chevette. At the same time many independent EV companies began to appear such as Sebring/Vanguard. This small start-up company produced 2000 CitiCars and was at one time the 5th largest automaker in the U.S. Many CitiCars still exist today.
EV activity slowed phenomenally during the 1980's as oil supplies were plentiful and gas prices remained close to early 1970's levels. Cars were more fuel efficient and equipped with anti-pollution devices. However, EV components continued to improve with the development of solid-state control devices and more advanced motors.
Although cars were equipped with pollution devices, people were driving more, especially in California where the car is considered a necessity. Air quality continued to deteriorate so California introduced legislation that would require 2% of the vehicles sold in that state in 1998 to be 'zero-emission' (only EV technology was close enough in development to qualify). By 2003 10% would be zero-emission. It wasn't a surprise that the mandate met with intense opposition from the automakers and the oil companies, particularly Mobil, who claimed the technology was not ready. After an intensive lobbying effort all but the 2003 mandate was overturned. However, it provided the much needed jolt to finally get EVs to market. In the Fall of 1996, GM started to lease the EV1 to customers from selected Saturn dealerships in California and Arizona.
TodayMost EVs on the road today are conversions built by hobbyists and small companies like Electric Vehicle Systems, Electro Automotive and others. Technology improvements have given the hobbyist a choice of components to build a conversion that is comparable in performance to today's gasoline cars. Larger Companies such as Solectria and AC Propulsion and Wilde Evolutions continue to push the envelope with their record breaking EVs. The Solectria Sunrise recently won the Tour de Sol with a range of 373 miles. The founder of AC Propulsion, who contributed to the development of the GM Impact, drove his AC-powered Honda Civic and hybrid trailer across the U.S. in only 4 days. Roderick of Wilde Evolutions has a Mazda RX-7 EV that beats the Dodge Viper in the quarter mile.
Electric busses are also proving to be a cleaner means of transportation particularly in cities where smog is a constant health hazard. The city of Santa Barbara has one of the largest fleets of electric busses in the U.S. with 14 in service. The busses require minimal maintenance, and most importantly, reduce the amount of particulate matter that enters the atmosphere. Particulate matter is an emission from diesel exhaust that contains carcinogens and can irritate respiratory systems.
Other contributers of air pollution, particularly in the suburbs, are lawnmowers. Although many people consider electric mowers with cords a nuisance there are new cordless mowers available from Black & Decker, Ryobi, and Toro that are more powerful and convenient. Simply plug the mower into a household outlet and it will be fully charged when it's time to mow. No more gas or smelly exhaust to worry about.
Electric assisted bicycles are also becoming popular with commuters and kits are now available from Electric Vehicle Systems.
Of course in an age where EVs silently roam the streets, an infrastructure with convenient charge stations and proper power distribution will need to be developed. This is already happening in California and in Arizona where there are more EVs on the road.
As we enter the next century the EV will become a predominant people mover in our society. The final outcome of this transition towards EVs as a viable means of transportation is an environment that will be healthier for future generations to enjoy.
The age of the EV has finally arrived, again.