Electric Vehicles: Past, Present and Future

Many people seem to be under the impression that Electric Vehicles are new.  Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, at the turn of the last century, electric vehicles outnumbered gasoline powered vehicles by a wide margin.  The following is a quote from the New York Sun, 1898:

“At that busy corner, Grand Street and the Bowery, there may be seen cars propelled by five different methods of propulsion- by Steam, by cable, by underground trolley, by storage battery and by horses.”

By 1902, George Fischer was building “hybrid” electric vehicles, and they were operated successfully as electric busses in London and as delivery vehicles by Macy’s in New York. His vehicles had an electric drive train for reliability and ease of control (no transmission required) and a gasoline fueled generator operating at its “sweet spot” to recharge the batteries while driving.

Although privately owned vehicles we popular early on due to their reliability, fleet use continued to be popular until the early 1920’s. The reason for their popularity was that they had limited fixed routes which had been previously powered by horses, and gasoline powered vehicles were still less reliable than electrics.

Historians generally conclude that Charles Kettering sealed the fate of electric vehicles of the era with the invention of the electric starter, which was introduced on the 1912 Cadillac. This made the gasoline engine so much more practical and convenient. Of course, it also created what we now consider the “normal” automotive electrical system. It was also another form of hybrid vehicle. Would you be more inclined to buy a Nissan Leaf if your gasoline-powered Toyota Camry required you to hand crank it to start the engine?

For the next 50 years, there was little interest or activity with electric vehicles. Interest in gasoline powered vehicles increased tremendously. Many historians would contend that the gasoline powered motor vehicle became a major defining factor of our society. Passenger cars went from an unusual luxury to a common necessity. Automobile manufacturing became a major force in the world’s economy, as did oil. By the 1960’s, air quality was becoming a serious issue. Los Angeles became famous for its smog.

The government began considering controls to reduce air pollution. We began to consider ways to reduce pollution. The epitome of this concern was the “Great Electric Car Race” of 1968. This was a competition between Caltech and MIT. Each school built an electric vehicle, and each team left their campus and headed for the other campus. Charging stations were set up every 60 miles. Caltech used Lead Acid batteries, while MIT used lighter NiCad batteries. After penalties were figured in, Caltech won by 30 minutes.

This was followed in 1970 by the Intercollegiate Clean Air Car Race from MIT to Caltech. There were 50 entries fielded by 40 schools. The categories were electric, steam, propane and turbine. There were 16 pure-electric entries.

As if to emphasize the dangers of depending on foreign oil, the 1970’s saw an interruption of oil supplies from the Middle East, and Americans had to deal with gasoline rationing for the first time since WWII. We could only “gas up” on odd or even days, based on whether your license plate was odd or even.

Drive systems went from series DC motors and SCR choppers to FET choppers and separately excited DC motors. Regenerative braking became possible. However, battery technology was not up to the task. The classic “golf cart” battery saw perhaps a 10% improvement in capacity, so vehicles needed to be “battery trays on wheels”. Consequently, vehicle range was generally 40-60 miles (perhaps half that in cold climates) and performance was limited.

This was followed in the 1990’s by the California Air Resources Board (CARB). CARB tried to encourage the production of Clean Electric Vehicles. The General Motors EV-1 was conceived to fill that role. This vehicle was groundbreaking in several respects. First, it was a ground-up electric vehicle design. Second, it used an AC motor controller driving a 3 phase AC motor for its drive system. This not only provided regenerative braking, but it allowed a brushless motor to be used. This meant the motor could run at a higher RPM, thus reducing size and weight. It was also designed for next-generation batteries. Between 1996 and 1999 GM produced 660 cars as Gen I with lead acid batteries, and another 457 Gen II vehicles were produced with the new Nickel Metal Hydride batteries. CARB eventually backed away from the requirements, and at lease end, the cars were destroyed.

Which pretty much brings us up to today. Gasoline prices were at historic lows (inflation adjusted) by 1999. Years of work by the automakers had resulted in tailpipe emissions being a fraction of what they had been in the 1960’s. But then fuel prices began ratcheting up. A popular concept was “peak oil” which predicted a decline in world oil production while demand continued to increase due to China and other developing nations coming on line as major consumers.

Just when many thought that gasoline prices would skyrocket (around 2008), fracking was refined to the point where world oil reserves were redefined. Gas and oil deposits that were previously impossible to reach could now be tapped at a reasonable cost. Although oil prices continue to increase, the rate is moderate enough that electric vehicles are struggling to hit sales figures that “move the needle” of global car sales.

Of course, even a niche market in the automotive industry tends to be very large. As gasoline prices increase, there is a need for ever increasing gas mileage. Various hybrid strategies are being sold as a hedge against future gasoline price increases. Most do not offer a payback in less than three years at current fuel prices. The Toyota Prius was groundbreaking in that it was affordable and could deliver 50MPG. Critics would say a well-designed diesel delivers the same mileage at a much lower cost. However, the Prius proved that there IS a market for new technology that provides significantly better fuel economy. The Prius uses a small nickel metal hydride battery, an AC drive system and a clever transmission coupled with a small 4 cylinder engine. They have only recently switched to Lithium Ion batteries.

GM followed with the Volt, capable of all-electric operation as well as blended gasoline/electric operation. The Volt uses a moderate-sized lithium ion battery to allow 40 miles or so of all-electric range, beyond which a gasoline engine kicks in to provide a conventional gasoline-powered driving mode. Although sales were initially slow, they are increasing.

Silicon Valley startup Tesla Motors decided to produce a ground-up electric vehicle. Theirs was a no-compromise all electric vehicle. It had acceleration to rival the best sports cars, and a 200+ mile range to satisfy all but the most extreme daily drivers. They created their own lithium ion battery pack from the tiny 18 x 65 mm lithium ion cells found in the common laptop computer. A 3 phase AC drive system was geared to the drive wheels via a single-speed transmission. At $109,000, it was not cheap, but it was a unique and impressive vehicle. Tesla sold over 1200 of them, and avoided any major mistakes in doing it. The major automobile manufacturers have taken notice, and most of them are now offering some sort of small electric vehicle, suitable for running errands or your daily commute to work.

And this year, the latest Tesla offering, the Model S, was chosen as Motor Trend Car of the year. This was probably the most radical departure from automotive technology to ever be honored with the title. The Model S is a true ground-up design. This luxury sedan has acceleration better than most, optional battery packs that give it 300+ mile range, and class leading features and execution. It has earned a 5 star crash rating proving that electric vehicles can be the safest on the road.

It has surprised many with its brisk sales. Tesla has an SUV version in the works, the Model X which promises to apply state-of-the-art EV technology to this important vehicle sector. With thousands of Model S’s on the road throughout the US, there has been only a single incident involving a battery fire, and the facts seem to point to a very unique situation as being responsible. One would expect no less from a gasoline powered vehicle.

So, has the electric vehicle made a comeback after 100 years? Will it soon replace the gasoline powered vehicle in showrooms across the world?

The unavoidable answer, coming from a self-confessed EV fanatic, is a firm “NO”.

Tesla showed the world what a determined application of technology could do for electric vehicles. The Prius and the Volt showed that Hybrid vehicles might bridge the gap. But the actual market forces have yet to play out.

The issue with electric vehicles today is that the battery still limits range, and although we are on the edge of making it a non-issue as range exceeds 300 miles, that range comes at a high price (a very large battery). Moreover, after 100 years of being able to “gas it up and go”, consumers still wrestle with the idea that there is ANY limit on range. We haven’t had to deal with it since transportation was horse-based.

So what does the future hold for electric vehicles? What is the advantage of an electric vehicle? There are two main advantages of an electric vehicle. The first is that its source of energy is not limited to fossil fuels. While it is true that much of our electrical power is generated by fossil fuels today, a large portion of it is generated by coal, which modern plants can burn cleanly and efficiently. We can also use natural gas, hydropower , nuclear, solar and wind power.

Fracking (hydraulic fracturing of the underground rock structure) has redefined world oil and gas reserves. There is much debate over how much time this important technology will buy us. The bottom line, though, is that Electricity is the common medium to enable many different energy sources to do useful work.

We also have the infrastructure to distribute electrical power. That infrastructure is significantly underutilized after business hours. The marginal cost for generating electrical power at night could make the equivalent energy cost for electric vehicles even more competitive. And while it is true that an “overnight” transition to electric vehicles would overtax the present electrical grid, the likely rate of the transition should allow an orderly response from the utility sector. It is not a burden, its new business.

Of course, the second advantage that electric vehicles have is that they are much more efficient in using the available energy. For a typical small passenger car that averages 35mpg overall (assuming an average gasoline cost of $3.85/gallon) which equates to a cost of $.1093 per mile, or $10,930 to drive 100,000 miles. That same size electric vehicle uses approximately 250 watt-hours per mile. At the national average of $.1152 per KWH, that equates to a cost of $.0282 per mile. So the cost is only $2820 to travel the same 100,000 miles.

So the electric vehicle’s fuel cost is nearly 4 times lower than gasoline, without figuring in electric rate discounts for off-peak charging. Maintenance is also expected to be lower, since brakes will last 3-4 times longer due to regenerative braking. Routine oil changes are no longer needed. The fact that routine trips for service would no longer be needed will likely become a significant selling point. With oil changes and brake jobs off the table, routine service intervals of 50K miles or more would be possible. Tires become the only routine service item.

There are many applications today which make sense for electric vehicles. The passenger car is actually the most difficult application, mainly due to range limitation and cost constraints. If there was an established battery charging infrastructure, both cost and range limitations would be less of an issue. Charging stations at most destinations would mean that while you’re shopping or eating lunch, your car could be charging. There would be less worry about running out of “juice”, and a smaller battery would suffice. That smaller battery is cheaper, physically smaller and lighter, which helps make the EV a better economic proposition. Battery swapping was tried 100 years ago, and is still problematic. Only in special purpose applications (like the commuter car) is the private passenger EV a viable solution today.

However, there are many commercial applications today for which electric vehicles are ideal. Perhaps the best application is the US Postal Service. In this application, each vehicle goes door to door every day. Speeds are low. The normal start-stop routine requires high maintenance on the brakes as well as the transmission. And conventional vehicles get poor gas mileage and cannot recapture braking energy while stopping. A vehicle with a 40 mile range is ideal for this application. It takes the same route every day, and returns to the same point at the end of every day where it has all night to recharge. The USPS is unique in that it literally touches every address every day. The same logic holds true for UPS and FEDEX. Those routes are usually longer, but easily within the capability of modern lithium ion battery technology.

Of course, the same is true for virtually all the commercial delivery vans built every year. The majority of all delivery vans service a limited daily route and return to their base at the end of the day. Busses are another possibility, although they tend to be driven all day and into the night, rolling up relatively high mileage every day. Their fixed route makes overhead wires a feasible method to charge during the day, so the battery can be used mainly for off-route convenience. Of course, in-road inductive pickups are a possibility, and the technology has been studied for decades.

Internationally, there is an even stronger case for electric vehicles. While there is roughly a 4:1 advantage in the cost per mile in the United States, it is over 7:1 in Europe. Reva has been manufacturing small, low cost Electric Vehicles in India for over a decade. As fuel prices rise, the popularity of EV’s will certainly rise. Many companies, including FEDEX and UPS, are currently evaluating EV’s.

Another way to eventually make EV’s more acceptable to consumers is by establishing public charging stations. Presently, there is a lot of activity in this area, with over a dozen companies manufacturing EV charging stations. However, the actual number of EV charging stations is still relatively small. One of the reasons is logistics. Installing a charging station is relatively expensive. There has been talk of trying to establish places such as Starbucks and McDonalds as places where charging stations could be established. The idea would be that you could make a short stop, get coffee or a quick meal, and be on your way with a “topped off” electric vehicle.

There is a standard system which includes provisions for vehicle-to-source communications, which enables an on-board charger to draw only the available amount of power, without tripping the source circuit breaker. This standard, (J1772) requires a significant amount of hardware, and adds to the cost of a charging station installation. The original J1772 specification included level 1 and level 2 charging. Level 1 charging provides up to 16amps at 120VAC, while level 2 provides up to 80 amps at 240VAC.

A new version of this, the “Combo” standard, includes level 3, which is a high current DC option. Other standards include the CHAdeMO standard. This standard is very popular in Japan where there are over 1500 public charging stations installed. CHAdeMO allows direct DC charging of the battery, up to 62.5kW, or approximately 125 amps. CHAdeMO stations are even more complex than the J1772 level 1 and level2 charging stations, because they include AC to DC power supplies with the necessary controls to charge the battery at a high rate.

Every day there is news of a new Electric vehicle being introduced, or a new battery, or a new technology in a related area. Fossil Fuels are limited, and at some point they will become too valuable to be burned in vehicles. There can be no question that the popularity of electric vehicles will grow, it’s just a matter of how fast.


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