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Wednesday, 20 June 2007 00:00

Electric vehicles

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Most people tend to think of electric (EVs) and hybrid (HEVs) vehicles in the same sphere, but the two are quite different with their own sets of pros and cons. Electric cars are powered solely by batteries that must be charged from an outside power source whereas hybrids run on a combination of battery power and internal combustion.

Electric cars can be up to 99 percent less polluting than conventional vehicles. There are no tailpipe emissions from these cars, and the only carbon dioxide emissions are the ones from the power plant where the electricity was generated. Electric cars are also quiet. There is no need for oil changes, and because there are fewer moving parts than in internal combustion engines, maintenance should be cheaper.

Electric cars were once the rage in America. At the turn of the 20th century they outsold all other types of vehicles. They were quieter and did not have the smell of gasoline engines. They did not require gear-shifting or manual cranking, both of which could be a challenge in the gasoline cars of that time. And since most of the drivable roads were in town, commutes were short – well within the range of the electric batteries.

But things changed. By the early 20th century, America had started on its infrastructure of roads connecting cities across the country and bringing about a need for vehicles with greater and greater range. Texas crude was flooding the market creating cheap gasoline. The electric starter had done away with the hand crank, and internal combustion engines and transmissions had been greatly improved. Mass production sealed the deal. In 1912 an electric vehicle sold for around $1,750 while a gasoline auto went for $650.

And that price gap remains one of the biggest disadvantages for electric cars today. In California, where incentives and mandates for zero emission vehicles have entrepreneurs scrambling, Phoenix Motorcars appears poised to bring a four-door, sport-utility truck to market at a cost of $45,000. Performance-wise, this truck would be comparable to many four-cylinder internal combustion vehicles with a top end of about 94 miles per hour and 0 to 60 miles per hour acceleration of around 10 seconds.

But once again there’s a range issue. This same truck is expected to make about 135 miles between fuel stops. Sixty to 100 miles seems to be the average range of most of today’s electric cars. And for those in warmer climes, using your air conditioner can reduce your range by 20 percent.

Battery-life is another issue with electric cars. Estimates for the best battery-life in today’s electric cars is around 100,000 miles. Then the battery must be replaced or a new car must be purchased. And what about all those batteries? Nickel batteries have some value as recycled materials. Lithium ion doesn’t at this point, but both batteries may have another life before recycling or the trash heap. While they would no longer have the power to run a vehicle, they could provide homes and/or businesses with backup power and/or “peak shaving” services.

The electric car seems to be in limbo with the major auto manufacturers. None are being mass produced, and the ones produced in the late ‘90s like Honda’s EV Plus, Chevy’s S-10, Toyota’s RAV4 and others were all discontinued.

It appears research (read the incentives) has shifted to hybrids and vehicles driven by fuel cell technology. Electric cars are once again left in the exhaust.

Next week, we’ll learn about hybrid vehicles.

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