Published March 21, 2019 in Warp & Woof
Drive Better Electrically
EVs, Past, Present, Future
Electricity as a means of propulsion for self-contained road vehicles is as old, or older, than the internal combustion engine (ICE). But EV market share declined to zero for a large chunk of motor vehicle history.
There were a variety of reasons for the demise. They were expensive, while the Model T was bringing motoring to the masses. Battery technology was limited. Baker Electrics and Detroit Electrics, “popular” in the first two decades of the 20th
century featured luxurious closed bodies, but had a range of less than 40 miles, and top speed of less than 20 mph. But when ICE-powered cars needed to be cranked to start, electrics could be started with a button. They were thought to be aimed at urban women, especially. Henry Ford bought a Detroit Electric
for his wife, Clara. And, Baker Electric
manufactured 800 cars in 1906 alone. Peak sales occurred in the second decade of the century. Altogether, by the end of the electric era in the early 1920s, there had been 33,842 electrics registered in the United States.
No other country had as many EVs, although there were manufacturers in Europe, too. The explosion of demand for the Model T, and associated massive improvements in the national road network, tended to leave those early EVs to an affluent urban niche market.
Shortages of gasoline during World War II did cause some renewed interest in electric vehicles in Europe, especially Britain, which invented its famous commercial “milk floats
,” and the Wehrmacht experimented with, but was unable to produce, hybrid electric armored vehicles
, under the direction of Ferdinand Porsche.
Further experiments were carried out around the world during the fuel scarce 1970s and 1980s, but not enough market incentives existed to attempt series production of any electric. By 1997, Toyota took the gamble with its hybrid electric Prius, based on regenerative braking technology, manufacturing it in limited numbers for the domestic Japanese market. Plug-in hybrid design was pioneered In France, where Renault introduced the Elect’Road version of the Kangoo minivan in 2003. It used “blended” technology, where despite an AC charger, the battery electric drive and gasoline engine worked in tandem much of the time – much like the hybrid electric Prius.
In the U.S., General Motors was forced to offer electric driving. It’s novel EV-1 was leased, not sold, in California, in 1999 — an answer to the CARB (California Air Resources Board) mandate for more fuel-efficient vehicles. GM famously de-activated and destroyed all examples except for a few Who Killed the Electric Car
?” offers a better, if more sinister, explanation for GM’s decision.
survivors in museums. The CARB mandate was reversed when that happened, at the end of the non-renewable lease period. GM’s official explanation was that there was insufficient consumer demand for the relatively short-range EV (~80 mi.) – but, by 2011, Nissan began successfully selling its Leaf, with only a 90-mile range. The film, “
Tesla’s emergence in 2008 marked a serious benchmark for EVs worldwide. Tesla’s market-changing invention was the Lithium-ion battery. Storage capacity, thus range, could now be far greater than any previous attempts at electric propulsion. As battery technology continues to improve, the need for hybrid gasoline engines will decrease. An all-electric future may eventually come. But, will it come fast enough? And, what about continued reliance on an electric grid mainly fed by coal and natural gas?
While California leads the nation in the adoption of EVs (and plug-in hybrids), other nations lead the U.S. By the end of 2018, 49% of all cars sold in Norway
were electric. China has marshaled massive state intervention to manufacture EVs
for its growing motoring population, with some projections as high as 46% of the domestic market by 2020. However, thanks mostly to California, the U.S. still has more registered electric and hybrid vehicles than any other country, despite a lowly 1% market share
How do electric vehicles work? There are three different kinds of electric propulsion available in the marketplace today:
1) Battery-electric vehicles (BEV)
like Tesla, Chevrolet Bolt, and Nissan Leaf. These cars have no ICE at all. They rely entirely on their electric motors and battery storage, which can be replenished externally (i.e., “plug-in”) in three modes: 120-volt household circuit, 240-volt “level 2” charger, or 480-volt “level 3” fast DC charging.
For the more range-anxious consumer, there are plug-in hybrids (PHEV)
, which rely on battery storage until it’s depleted
, then seamlessly switch to a “range extending” gasoline engine. All-electric range for PHEVs varies from about 10 miles up to more than
50. Total range depends on the size of the gas tank. My Chevy Volt has a small 9.5-gallon tank which gives it a total range in excess of 200 miles. I’ve filled the tank only about five or six times in the 4 ½ years I’ve owned the car – and, several of those times was because of the automatic “fuel maintenance cycle” that burns old, stale gasoline.
3) Gasoline-electric hybrids (HEV) like the Prius, which continue to be popular, especially in the United States, where gas is relatively cheap and plentiful. Many consumers think the 50-60 mpg that they can get with their Prius is sensational. But it doesn’t compare to 100-120 mpg-e (equivalent) for a PHEV or a Leaf.
Teslas are fast, too! Indeed, one performance characteristic of electric motors is they produce a great deal of torque at lower speeds, hence your 0-60 mph acceleration is likely to be quite good. Currently, there is a preponderance of luxury brands in the list of BEV and PHEV vehicles
available in the U.S. That is mostly attributable to the phenomenal success of Tesla. While concept-to-production cycle times are longer than Tesla’s recent dominance of luxury-segment sales, many of the world’s luxury brands had been working on electric propulsion for some time. Tesla’s success moved competitors into crash programs.
How green are EVs, really?
It is true that the connection to the nationwide electric grid is a limiting factor on how much CO2 and other greenhouse gases (GHG) can be saved with plug-in electric vehicles. However, it has now finally come to pass that everywhere in the United States, the net carbon footprint of driving an electric or hybrid vehicle is positive
. It will be better in places that have higher renewable infrastructure. But nowhere is the impact negative. This has been true only for the last year. All-electric BEVs are best, PHEVs next best, HEVs third.
The only remaining question: will the market move fast enough without massive state intervention
like China’s? Rural areas in the U.S. will, of course, be the last to convert. Electric long-distance trucks are under development. And BEV or PHEV pickups are coming within the next year or so. But It may ultimately depend on political will, on getting behind a Green New Deal
In the 1950s, General Electric and Westinghouse collaborated on a massive media campaign called “Live Better Electrically
” (LBE). It had the support of utilities, the U.S. government, and state and local governments. Its sole purpose was to pump up profits for all the participants, selling appliances as costs of the grid were dropping dramatically.
Now, however, it may be time to think of your grandchildren more than your commuting convenience. Is America up to the challenge?