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Thursday, 10 November 2011

Electric Cars - Concepts, Practicality and Future – Part Two

After setting up historical and technical backgrounds in Part One this return to the subject gives us the opportunity to look at the current developmental status of the various technical solutions, a selection of vehicles and what the future might hold. An in-depth investigation of political support around the world linked with the development of an infrastructure for electric vehicles will follow at a later date.

The Hybrid Car

Of all the different technologies in vehicles that use electricity hybrids are the most widely available today. In America, where owners were used to cheap fuel until fairly recently, frugal use of gasoline (petrol) was lower on the agenda than in Europe but at the end of 2011 around two million hybrid cars are registered.

The snag is, of course, that they need a separate fuel, still mostly based on fossil sources, for the combustion engine that is part of the system. Biofuels, developments in battery technology, making the electric motor the main power source and refining the interaction between the components will steer the hybrid concept further towards a truly clean transport solution. We should never forget that it has contributed significantly to the wider acceptance of alternative propulsion.

Electric car_Girl with drawing of
The next step in development, also favoured by governments, is the plug-in hybrid. Here the batteries can be charged from the electrical grid. The idea is that an increasing proportion of renewable energy as part of a country’s power supply adds to the environmentally friendly credentials of these vehicles.

The Honda Jazz is a good example for a small car in this category

Honda Jazz - Details

In the mid-range you can find models such as the Toyota Prius Plug-In, Vauxhall Ampera – winner of the Which Car? Green Car Awards – , or Honda Insight.

Toyota Prius Plug In - Details

Opel Ampera - Details

Honda Insight - Details

High-End Hybrids

The extent of this section shows how dominant the hybrid technology is at present. I suppose its main advantage is that of being an intermediate stage between the old and the new, where we haven’t abandoned what we are used to but do not have to commit fully yet to something that is still somewhat alien either.

This is supported by the fact that several manufacturers have decided to equip more exclusive models with this technology. In a recent report the German car magazine Auto, Motor und Sport assessed the BMW X6 Active Hybrid, Porsche Panamera S Hybrid, Infiniti M35h and Lexus RX 450h. I want to keep this brief for now. Suffice to say that the Lexus and the Infiniti came out on top, closely followed by the Porsche. Despite (or perhaps because of) the most complex system under the hood among those four cars the BMW was unconvincing in all criteria. Particularly, fuel consumption was disappointing.

The test showed an interesting characteristic of hybrid cars and a clear difference to conventional vehicles. They are more economical in town than on the motorway.

The Battery-Electric Car

Fully electric vehicles (EVs) have no on-board generator but only the energy stored in their batteries. This has put off potential buyers in the past. The short range seemed to make them impractical. What was worse, the system itself contributed to this directly with a limited storage capacity and indirectly by adding weight. These factors have been the cause for serious headaches among people involved in making EVs more attractive to the mainstream.

Therefore, lighter materials and more capable batteries are at the centre of developments in order to extend range and reduce recharging times. A team of scientists has taken that to a new level with a car that is the size of just one molecule. While that might be slightly over the top for everyday purposes, it is NASA’s space technology that has helped to improve lithium-ion batteries, which offer the highest efficiency at present.

All these efforts have not been without results. EVs can now travel 100 miles (160 km) on one charge, are often quite nippy because of the particular properties of electric systems and are cheap to run. The vision that horrified people of being stranded somewhere with no power left was simply incorrect. Studies showed that most driving was over short distances and within the range of EVs. Other worries about too many cars plugged into the grid causing havoc with power supplies are unfounded as well. Calculations have demonstrated, for example, that one million electric cars would use only 0.3% of Germany’s electricity production.

Thorough tests are hard to come by but two examples have yielded interesting outcomes. BMW ran a trial in America in cooperation with the Plug-in Hybrid & Electric Vehicle Research Center at the University of California, Davis during which more than 400 converted Mini Coopers were used under everyday conditions by households in California, New York and New Jersey. The response was overwhelmingly positive. The range turned out to be more than sufficient for the needs of 90% of the drivers and the overall experience was often described as great fun.

Silvretta Hochalpenstrasse_640 x 426
Back in Europe ocean vistas accompanied by The Beach Boys probably weren’t on the minds of 34 drivers when they – or rather their cars – had to master the Silvretta Hochalpenstrasse, an alpine pass road in Austria. Runs of up about 60 miles and having to climb 1000 meters made the Silvretta E-Auto Rally a challenge but none of the teams embarrassed themselves. Among hybrids and at least one fuel cell vehicle the battery-electric cars did well. New entrants like the Mercedes Benz A-Class E-Cell or VW Golf Blue e-Motion were there, together with old hacks such as the Mitsubishi i-MiEV or Tesla Roadster. They had no problems with steep gradients and warm temperatures that kept air condition units busy. Most impressive was the ability to recoup power and recharge the batteries when going downhill. Some models even offered something for more demanding tastes. What about a 1961 Jaguar E-Type with an electric motor or the Peraves E-Tracer with a potential top-speed of 300 km/h (187 mph)?!

Simply put EVs are far more than glorified golf buggies now. They are serious cars with real benefits and performance. While some are still at the advanced testing stage a good choice is available already and many more will come to showrooms over the next few years. Their particular strengths are commuting and city driving, exactly what most of us do most of the time.



EVs - Examples


The Hydrogen Fuel Cell Car

As I explained in Part One, the hydrogen fuel cell could be the cleanest propulsion system of them all. However, today it is still the most experimental.

Nevertheless, major manufacturers are taking it seriously and are involved in research and development. In 2007 Honda even launched the FCX Clarity. However, a reality check paints a starker picture. Although driving along and producing nothing but water is an enticing proposition for anyone not disputing climate change, the other two concepts presented here are far closer to the mainstream than the fuel cell. Don’t get me wrong, it is not dead. I think it is very much alive, not only but also because of major players continuing to pour money into the concept. It just needs more time.

Perhaps increasing acceptance of hybrid systems and EVs will help carry it along. Without doubt there is a good chance that the fuel cell will become the norm. One reason to say that is, governments might become increasingly keen to promote the technology and support an infrastructure with growing environmental awareness among voters. The technology is very advanced, while perception and infrastructure are lagging behind.

You might argue that it shares one hurdle with all the other alternative ways to move us around – the limited opportunity to refill. As a glimmer of hope, I can tell you that over 85 stations exist in America, Daimler is trying to put together a deal with Linde (a manufacturer of industrial gases) and Honda has opened the first hydrogen station in Britain at its Swindon plant. Of course, that is not mind-blowing but it is a start.

Does it make sense?

In an ideal world the answer to this question would be easy. A resounding ‘yes’ would be inevitable if electric cars, no matter with which one of the above systems, were cheap to buy, cheap to run and 100% environmentally friendly.

Energy is used for the manufacturing of even the tiniest component of a vehicle but that wouldn’t need to worry us, as it came from renewable sources. A car plugged in to the grid would sip power contained in wind, water or sunlight. Drivers of hybrids could forget about the combustion engine up front because the fuel burnt would come from sustainable sources such as communal waste or algae. At a filling station they’d stand next to a fuel cell car pumping hydrogen that was made by electrolysis with the help of other kinds of renewable energy.

Admittedly, I promised an answer to the question what the future might hold. While I have no crystal ball I think it is realistic to imagine that we will have all three (perhaps even more) systems existing next to each other. There are filling stations now that offer two types of petrol, two types of Diesel plus natural gas. It is, therefore, not farfetched to have bio fuel and hydrogen in one place, whereas EVs could be recharged at home, at work, at a car park etc..

Having these various solutions is not a curse, it is a blessing. I am not one for applauding human kind but this demonstrates our ingenuity and what it can come up with. Does it all make sense? Of course it does. If we wait for the perfect solution we might as well give up right now. It will never come. However, what we can do is produce a damn good working compromise and versions that suit different applications and/or conditions; those we can live with and that minimise our usually catastrophic impact on this planet. Thanks to a supermarket giant it is an awfully overused phrase but on this occasion ‘every little helps’ sums it up perfectly.


I wish you all good environmental health until next week


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Thank you for this clarification. I explained the fuel cell concept in Part One [http://petermueller.typepad.com/pm-on-renewables/2011/10/electric-cars-concepts-practicality-and-future-part-on.html] but, obviously, left out the important bit about cars with this technology being predominantly hybrids. The text is amended now with a reference to your comment.

However, fuel cells can use fuels other than hydrogen.

The fuel cell hybrid is generally an electric vehicle equipped with a fuel cell. Fuel cells use hydrogen as a fuel and power the electric battery when it is depleted.

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