Electric Vehicle Lessons of Success, Failure

Dr. Peter Harrop sees areas of success from forklifts to earthmovers, but considers sales of pure electric cars a 'failure.'

Published: 16-Jan-2013

You do not look at penguins to judge how the world's birds are prospering. You should not look at on-road electric cars to assess how electric vehicles in general are progressing. Both are somewhat special cases. Electric cars are neither small enough to be lower cost than conventional ones nor are they big enough to be bought by governments and companies seeking performance or low cost-over-life before up-front price. They are at a very awkward place in the middle.

If we look at the big picture, the age of the hybrid electric vehicle is sturdily progressing with versions for agriculture, outdoor material handling -from forklifts to earthmoving - and ocean sailing being newly commercialised. They offer many benefits, including performance and cost-over-life and reduced maintenance, down time, noise and pollution. Some are parallel hybrids and, in other cases such as some buses, series hybrids are viable, these progressing to be range extended electric vehicles with range extender varying from a Wankel engine in a hybrid aircraft flown in Germany to fuel cells in buses, forklifts and trucks, usually experimentally, and stripped down piston engines in most commercial hybrids on the open road. Innovation is rapid beyond cars, with the MAN urban buses and trash collecting trucks using supercapacitor banks instead of lithium-ion batteries and sometimes all-electric mode when silence is needed. Off-road, we have seen the Toyota hybrid Formula One racer using supercapacitors in place of lithium-ion batteries.

The big picture with pure electric vehicles now embraces many small commercial aircraft, indoor forklifts, mobility vehicles for the disabled, e-bikes and scooters, surface boats and Autonomous Underwater Vehicles UAVs to name just a few and in most cases there are now lithium-ion batteries fully adopted in place of lead acid batteries or made available as an option. The Guinness Book of Records has two new entries - the recent flight of the world's first pure electric helicopter by a Frenchman and the first pure electric multicopter by a German both scaling up what happened with toys not scaling down what happened in the military - lessons there.

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