EDITORIAL/OPINION
PHOTO CAPTION: Fed Allison on experimental Ford Motor Co. electric vehicle in 1913

Electric Cars: Learning from the Past

Bill Ford, Jr, grandson of the founder of Ford Motor Co. sees electric cars as the game-changer for his industry.

Published: 04-Jun-2010

In 1880, they said that the future of the car was electric. In April 2010, Bill Ford of Ford Motor Company said "It appears that the biggest game-changer will be electric vehicles."

Ford said the automotive industry must introduce more fuel-efficient vehicles in order to meet the challenges of diminishing oil reserves, global warming and a desire by customers to spend less money on gasoline. He could have added that local pollution has also become a major issue. Cynics will say that there is something of a groundhog day in all this - a malign repetition of historic failure - but the true situation is more positive.

Resonances with the past

There are certainly resonances with the past. The pure electric car was invented by Thomas Davenport in England in 1834 and a usable one was first made by G Trouvé in France in 1881. They were very popular until about 1910 when the gasoline car won because longer range and faster refuelling. Fast forward to today and batteries and motors are now so much better that electric cars have even appeared as designer sports vehicles that accelerate faster than existing luxury designer brands, potentially threatening their aura (read premium pricing). The Frazer Nash UK sports car brand of the 1920s, has returned in the form of an electric sports car capable of 150 mph. Then there are the voluptuous Tesla and Fisker electric cars in the USA as well as the Lightning in the UK. They all accelerate to 60 mph in only a few seconds, for those that care about such things.

Detroit Electric, a US car brand from nearly 100 years ago, has also returned with electric cars. The traditional luxury sports car brands such as Ferrari and Lamborghini are paying attention to the new electric car models with their superlative acceleration and order books and are considering electric models of their own. Indeed, Porsche heavily advertised a hybrid concept car in 2010 and Ferrari announced an experimental hybrid car. Porsche racing to catch up is ironic because the first hybrid electric car was created in 1888 by - Ferdinand Porsche.

Other options do not look good

Cleaner vehicles can involve biofuels, but this is highly contentious when it involves burning food or destroying rain forest. Natural gas is cleaner than gasoline but not clean. The fuel cell was invented by Sir William Grove in England in 1839. This elegant concept of turning hydrogen into water, thus generating electricity, seems always to remain ten years away in terms of mass adoption in cars. No one will pay for a network of fuelling stations to supply such troublesome fuel and the technical and cost problems of fuel cells are persistent. One scientist, who has recently left fuel cell research to develop electric vehicle batteries, says, "I think of fuel cells rather in the way I think of my last wife."

Electric car options

Electric cars can be pure electric with just a battery and one electric motor or four (one in each wheel). Alternatively, they can be hybrid, meaning with both a conventional engine and a battery-driven electric motor. There are two types of hybrid - one where the conventional motor simply charges the battery - a series hybrid - and one where the conventional motor can directly drive the wheels when needed - a parallel hybrid. The end game may be a series hybrid with no conventional motor - just a tiny turbine as a "range extender" to ease "range anxiety". Any hybrid can be designed as plug-in, meaning you can run it all electric if you wish, saving a lot of money because electricity is not taxed heavily unlike gasoline. However, many of today's plug-in hybrids only manage 15 miles or so in all-electric mode, so we have to wait a while for that to be a more serious proposition.

Pure electric

Meanwhile, you buy an all-electric car if you do not drive far because they typically have ranges of only 50 miles or so and only a few of them have fast charging capability to get you rapidly on your way. However, some new all-electric cars manage up to 250 miles so watch this space. Pure electric cars are silent to the point of being dangerous to pedestrians so, like electronic slots that simulate the noise of the spinning reels and the cash crashing down, most manufacturers of electronic cars are introducing an agreeable electronic noise to alert pedestrians. One manufacturer has modelled his on a spaceship in a movie and some give the purchaser a choice - ring tones all over again.

An all-electric car costs up to 100% more than its conventional equivalent but that price difference will tumble down within a few years. It creates no pollution at point of use. There is no clear leader in pure electric cars but the pure electric sports car start up Tesla in the USA reached profitability in double quick time just as General Motors entered Chapter 11. There is something emotive for the historians there.

Hybrid

A hybrid car costs at least 20% more than a conventional equivalent but you just get in and drive it without worrying about fuelling infrastructure. Typically hybrids create 10% of the pollution and have miles per gallon equal to or better than the conventional equivalent. The clear leader in hybrid cars is Toyota, which sells far more hybrids than its nearest competitor. Indeed it has great depth of experience in electric vehicles because it also makes electric forklifts, electric buses and many other versions. Analysts IDTechEx believe that the most ambitious car manufacturers will make all their hybrids plug in without price penalty before the end of the decade. This will only repeat the smart move of the Japanese twenty years ago when they made most options standard on conventional cars. Follow that logic through and we see someone marketing the hybrid option at the same price of the conventional model by the end of the decade - thus gaining huge market share.

Counter arguments

"Oh yes" declare the nay sayers, "but more load on the electricity supply means much more pollution from burning oil, gas and coal in power stations which very inefficiently produce electricity, much of which is then wasted in grid distribution to where the car is charged." The answer is that the electric vehicle is but a first step as we try to copy New Zealand in having almost 100% renewable energy creating grid power. Most governments are now embarked on this journey and yes, we should have listened to Edison when, in 1880, he said "Electricity should be produced where it will be used. " A reflection of that is Massachusetts Institute of Technology demonstrating shock absorbers that generate electricity. Then there is BMW planning Automotive Thermoelectric Generators ATEGs that, with no moving parts, produce electricity from engine and exhaust heat and the increasing use of solar cells on both electric cars and their recharging stations. Electricity produced where it is needed. Thank you Edison: we should have listened the first time.

Work to be done

Of course there is work to be done. In 2009, the world's governments and mega companies committed an eye watering $60 billion to develop better electric cars and their components. We do not like the Chinese owning 95% of the rare metal neodymium used in most electric motors so we shall have to do a work round. Traction batteries for electric vehicles need to become much cheaper, smaller, safer and lighter in weight and some will need to hold much more electricity. Fortunately progress is now rapid. For example most of the latest electric cars fit second generation batteries that are inherently chemically safe against runaway heating. The Chinese are dilatory about installing charging infrastructure for electric cars. An electric bicycle can be carried up to your apartment to be charged: an electric car cannot. So there is unfinished business. Indeed, why is the sticking accelerator problem still with us after 130 years?

Full circle

When the gasoline engined car crushed the electric car nearly 100 years ago it did retain a little electric motor as starter. As we go full circle and the majority of gasoline cars are replaced with electric ones (give it 15 years), whimsically, the electric car will retain something from the gasoline car - the battery. History goes in circles, it seems.

Future of Electric Vehicles

Analysts IDTechEx will host the Future of Electric Vehicles conference and exhibition this December in San Jose, CA. This event will look at the global picture of the whole EV market. From cars, buses, two wheelers, industrial, commercial, mobility for disabled, to military, marine and other types of EVs. The conference will also focus on the associated infrastructure, components and technologies, including batteries, energy harvesting, energy storage and much more. For full details on the event, visit www.IDTechEx.com/evUSA . And to keep up to date on this topic, visit the daily news portal www.ElectricVehicleResearch.com .

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