Sunday Observer Online


Sunday, 16 January 2011





Marriage Proposals
Government Gazette

Electric cars - the future is here

Toyota Prius

If you think electric cars are a new phenomenon, think again. They have been with us for more than a century - as early as 1897, electric vehicles found their first commercial application in the US as a fleet of electric New York City taxis. In 1911, the New York Times stated that the electric car has been recognised as “ideal” because it was cleaner, quieter and much more economical than gasoline-powered cars.

But why did they literally disappear from the scene? In short, they could not compete with the gasoline engine. Oil was comparatively cheap, a car could run hundreds of kilometres on a full tank and the infrastructure (filling stations and service stations) was easy to build. The Ford Model T, which heralded the era of mass-produced gasoline-powered cars, sounded the death knell for electric cars.

The advantages quoted by the New York Times could not compensate for one simple flaw: electric car batteries simply did not have the capacity for a long-range commute without a long recharge. And in the early days of electric power, the required recharging infrastructure was a distant dream. No wonder electric cars faded from the scene as petrol and diesel cars took over the world.

But oil, a finite resource, would not remain cheap forever. The world learned this harsh lesson during the oil crisis of the early 1970s and again in the 90s and the early years of the 21st century. Suddenly, that 4.0 litre gasoline engined car did not look all that appealing. Governments and automakers scrambled to find a solution. They increasingly turned to electric cars to stave off the threat of escalating oil prices.

A Nissan Leaf being recharged

But the one problem that plagued early electric cars still hampers the electric car industry today - battery capacity and range. This is why some car makers opted to ditch the battery altogether and couple an electric motor with a standard gasoline engine to make so-called ‘hybrid’ cars.

The best example for a hybrid car is the Toyota Prius, which pioneered the trend towards ‘greener’ cars way back in 1997. Honda followed with hybrid Civic models. The Prius is now in its fourth generation and getting better all the time. Though not particularly beautiful ‘in the metal’ these cars get the job done admirably. The main advantage from a consumer’s point of view is that hybrids cut fuel consumption by a considerable margin, requiring less than four litres of petrol to travel 100 Km. They are also friendly to the environment, having less emissions. The Prius will also come in a ‘plug-in’ hybrid version, which will augment its versatility.

Internal combustion

When a hybrid is turned on with the “start” button, it is ready to drive immediately with the electric motor, before the internal combustion engine is started.

A button labelled “EV” maintains the Electric Vehicle mode after start-up and under most low-load driving conditions. This permits driving with low noise and no fuel consumption, and is advertised as a “quiet” option for short journeys. The car automatically reverts to normal (gasoline) mode if the battery becomes drained completely.

A vehicle management computer does all the work and shows the entire process (called Hybrid Synergy Drive) on-screen, so the driver always knows how the vehicle is being powered. Moreover, the energy used in braking is converted to power again, in a process called ‘regenerative braking’. There’s no need to keep the engine idling at a stop signal, which saves fuel further. Hybrids are here to stay for quite some time, even if all-electric cars and fuel cell cars enter the mainstream.

Chevrolet Volt

Mitsubishi iMiEV

Tesla S

Mini E

However, the race to make the perfect electric car is gathering pace as auto and specialist battery manufacturers strive to make better batteries and motors. Governments are also pitching in with the infrastructure such as recharge points and rebates or concessions for electric car buyers.

In some countries, electric car owners are exempted from paying parking fees. In this regard, Sri Lanka has joined many other countries in granting concessions for purchasing brand new hybrid and electric cars. This was a long overdue, highly commendable decision for a developing country that imports billions of dollars worth of petroleum every year.

If this year’s Detroit Motor Show is any indication, electric cars will be commonplace by around 2020. Nearly all major automakers have presented electric or hybrid solutions that will enter production this year. In fact, the North American Car of the Year 2010 Award has gone to the gasoline-electric Chevrolet Volt, signifying their rising presence on roads worldwide. Technology breakthroughs are being reported almost every day in this exciting field. The European Car of the Year 2010 Nissan Leaf, Tesla Roadster, Mitsubishi iMiEV and the upcoming Ford Focus are brimming with electric car innovations. Hybrid champ Toyota, not to be outdone, plans an all-electric RAV4 by 2012 while GM is touting a plug-in Cadillac SRX as well as a prototype designated EN-V (Electric Networked Vehicle) that can even park itself. Who would not ‘envy’ such a car? Mercedes has an electric SLS AMG in the pipeline for 2013. Even luxury king Rolls Royce is considering building an electric car (I can already hear the purists sigh).

Manufacturing process

Fleet users are the first to try out electric cars as prices of electric cars are still high even after subsidies. This gives manufacturers an opportunity to try out their cars in real world conditions and pass on any lessons to the manufacturing process. The individual consumer will benefit in the end. A recent survey conducted by Opinion Research Corp in the US revealed that the biggest motivators for consumers for switching to an electric vehicle include lower prices, extended range of travel, convenient usage and a charging infrastructure.

Talking of infrastructure, there are signs that Government authorities are literally laying the groundwork for popularising electric cars. An example is the newly commissioned network of 20 recharging points in Oxford, UK, where a fleet of MINI Es is being tested. An electric car battery can now be fully charged in three hours at these 23 Amp points, a far-cry from the 8-10 hours it used to take.

Carmakers are addressing the issue of ‘extended range of travel’. The all-electric Nissan Leaf does a maximum 130 Km on a single charge, but this may not suffice in the absence of a charging infrastructure. The goal is to make the Li-Ion batteries last longer, for longer journeys with the ideal scenario being able to cover around 500 Km, the typical range of a full tank of petrol in a fuel-efficient conventional mid-size engined car, on a single charge.

And manufacturers are getting there. The electric Ford Focus is said to be able to travel 160 Km (the distance from Colombo to Matara) on a single charge, thanks to quick charging and bigger battery. The vehicle will provide drivers with a multitude of ways to check their remaining charge. Its feature provides a dashboard icon showing the battery state of charge, and even works with GPS to determine whether drivers can make it to their remaining destinations.

Battery technology is evolving rapidly. Just last week, media reported that scientists have developed a new type of nanomaterial which could lead to the development of new higher-power electric car batteries. Researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York have produced a new material they call a ‘nanoscoop’ which can withstand extremely high rates of charge and discharge that would cause today’s lithium-ion batteries to rapidly deteriorate and fail.

Licensing agreement

In another development, General Motors Co. and the US Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory have announced that they have reached a worldwide licensing agreement to use Argonne’s patented composite cathode material to make advanced lithium-ion batteries that last longer between charges and can charge at higher voltages.

Meanwhile, Toyota is working on a magnesium-sulphur battery which will be capable of holding twice the energy of lithium-ion cells in use today. However, full commercialisation may take another decade. Some manufacturers have also introduced wireless recharging, though the process rather slow right now, taking around 48 hours to recharge a Tesla from empty. This could yet become an attractive alternative in an all-electric future.

Information display of an electric car

Electric car makers are also using renewable energy sources such as solar power for auxiliary devices in the cars, boosting the green credentials and reducing the drain on the batteries.

Electric cars do have safety issues (apart from crash safety), which manufacturers and Governments are trying to address. US President Barack Obama has signed into law a requirement that hybrids and electric vehicles emit noises the blind and pedestrians can hear to avoid being struck by the vehicles that sometimes run silently. Nissan has outfitted its Leaf electric car to automatically alert pedestrians when the car is operating at low speeds. The Chevrolet Volt has a chirping sound the driver can activate.

There is one other problem that Governments will have to contend with - the usage of household or commercial power for electric cars.

What if 90 percent cars were electric? There would be a huge burden on the electricity grid and additional electricity will have to be generated via coal and other fossil fuels which cause pollution. This will take us back to square one. That is why some would prefer to see more hydrogen fuel cell-powered cars on the roads as an alternative to electrics.

For example, Mercedes’ planned fuel-cell B Class has a range of 320 Km on one tank of fuel, and takes about three minutes to refill if you could find a hydrogen filling station. But then, it is a different story.



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