Updates on Alternative Energy Sources, Part 7: Electric Vehicles

Stephen DeAngelis

March 19, 2010

This post is a little different than the previous posts in this series about alternative energy sources. As with all of the other posts, my starting point is an article by Michael Totty [“The Long Road to an Alternative-Energy Future,” Wall Street Journal, 22 February 2010]. Today’s topic — electric vehicles — is obviously not an alternative energy source and I suspect that Totty included it in his article about alternative energy because many people believe that electric vehicles are part of the answer to using fewer fossil fuels [“The Long Road: Electric Vehicles,” Wall Street Journal, 22 February 2010]. Totty writes:

THE TECHNOLOGY: In theory, electric vehicles could replace most gasoline-powered cars and light trucks. They can run entirely on battery power, or in the case of plug-in hybrids, on batteries that can be charged by a separate gasoline engine when needed as a backup.

CURRENT STATUS: About 56,000 electric vehicles are in use, but the numbers are deceiving—most are limited to low-speed driving and have limited range. So far, Tesla Motors Inc.’s Roadster is the only open-road electric vehicle, but a handful of other all-electric cars, including Nissan Motor Co.’s Leaf, are expected to come to market in 2010. The first commercial plug-in hybrids, led by General Motors Co.’s Chevy Volt, also are slated to be available later this year.”

When Totty says there are 56,000 electric vehicles in use, he’s referring to cars that use only electric motors to drive the wheels. Toyota and Honda alone have sold over 2 million hybrid (i.e., gas/electric) vehicles worldwide, with over half of them sold in the U.S. I’m also assuming that Totty isn’t including electric-driven golf carts that many people use to cruise around their golf communities. Totty concludes his article by explaining why he believes that there won’t be a significant number of electric vehicles on U.S. roads for some time. He writes:

WHY IT’S GOING TO TAKE SO LONG: The biggest obstacle is cost. The advanced lithium-ion battery pack that powers the Volt, which can travel 40 miles on a charge, can cost as much as $10,000, though prices are expected to fall as production ramps up. The U.S. Energy Information Administration predicts that in 2030, the added cost of a plug-in hybrid will be higher than fuel savings unless gasoline costs around $6 a gallon. Another challenge is the need for public recharging stations. Though most drivers travel fewer than 40 miles a day, well within the range of first-generation electric vehicles, consumers will balk if they worry about running out of juice. Public charging spots are less important for plug-in hybrids, which are more likely to be recharged at home. Still, owners may need to upgrade their existing outlets to recharge more quickly; a 120-volt outlet will take about four to six hours to charge a plug-in vehicle and about 12 to 24 hours for an all-electric vehicle. A 240-volt outlet, which can charge an electric vehicle in about three to six hours, generally requires adding a circuit to the home’s electric system to handle the additional load.”

I think Totty is spot on. Cost and range are the two things that have and will continue to hold down sales of all-electric vehicles. That hasn’t discouraged a number of companies from working on all electric vehicles. Probably the most famous start-up hoping to make it big in the electrical vehicle market is Tesla Motors. In a post entitled The Future of Electric Cars, I noted that Tesla was about to be joined by a number of other companies. Among the larger car makers are Nissan and its Leaf vehicle (as mentioned by Totty); Mitsubishi and its i-MiEV vehicle; Daimler, who will be partnering with Tesla to market an electric Smart Car; Ford with its all-electric Focus; and Toyota and its FT-EV vehicle. A number of new entrants into the electric car field were introduced at this year’s Geneva International Motor Show. Among them were:

Citroen Survolt — “Citroen says it has completely reinterpreted the idea of a small car by producing the Survolt concept – an electric vehicle that fits the size parameters of a small car but not the two-box look of a hatchback. … The company says its supermini is unconventional, aggressive, exciting and vibrant and is what the small car sector has been looking for. According to Citroen, the Survolt Citroen Super Mini meets the size, environmental and safety requirements of cars in its class but isn’t a boring rehash of existing vehicles. … Survolt is a blend of high-fashion glamor and extravagance with motor-racing punch. Citroen says it has deliberately broken with convention, shaken up the rules and shifted the borders in its continuous and passionate quest to develop innovative objects ahead of their time. Survolt, it says, is one of these. It takes the genetic material of Revolte and adds an extroverted sports dimension to the mix. The compact Survolt – 3.85m long, 1.87m wide and 1.20m high – has a look and personality of its own embedded in this concept. … Survolt’s cockpit was designed to bring the two occupants comfort and refinement, triggering singular pleasure and an outstanding experience. The car’s generous glazed area brings light and a sensation of space, very different to many of today’s sports cars. … Survolt is powered by electricity, thus combining sports performance with environmental respect and sustainable development. Driver comfort is enhanced by the silent electric motor.” [“Citroen reveals its version of the electric supermini – step aside for the Survolt,” by Jeff Salton, Gizmag, 2 March 2010]

Tesla Tag Heuer Roadster — “Tesla Motors has rolled put a one-of-a-kind TAG Heuer Roadster at the Geneva Motor Show. The Roadster’s makeover references the red and green of the TAG logo in its predominately gray exterior and on the inside, the design by Tesla Chief Designer Franz von Holzhausen includes a center console tailored to house a soon to be Tesla Tag Heuer unveiled TAG concept watch. Also on board is a Meridiist mobile phone and a one-fifth second Heuer Limited Edition Stopwatch. Once Geneva winds-up on March 14, the TAG Heuer Tesla Roadster will be driven to Baselworld for the unveiling of TAG Heuer’s new concept watch. [“TAG Heuer Tesla Roadster,” Gizmag, 3 March 2010]

Another electric concept car that has been shown is one that its creators someday hope will drive autonomously around the streets [“ZMP’s RoboCar G to aid in next-gen car research,” by Rick Martin, Gizmag, 2 March 2010]. Martin reports:

“Last year Japanese company ZMP Inc delivered a 1/10 scale robot vehicle, the RoboCar, for use in researching autonomous movement. The car was equipped with features like stereo cameras with image recognition, WiFi communication, and a gyro sensor to name just a few. Now ZMP is stepping it up a notch pushing out the RoboCar G, which unlike its little brother you can actually ride. Developed by researchers at Gunma University, the RoboCar G doesn’t look like much more than a glorified golf cart at first glance. But upon closer inspection this one-seat electric vehicle is like its predecessor packed full of features. Built to order, the RoboCar G can be fitted with a number of options:

  • stereo cameraZMP Robocar G
  • GPS
  • inertial measurement unit
  • laser range finder
  • milliwave radar
  • sonar sensor

The thought of one day having features like this in a vehicle is certainly mouth-watering, and the RoboCar G brings us one step closer to making that a reality. It would be nice to kick your feet up, close your eyes, and let the auto-pilot take over every once in a while. Having said that, let’s hope that the cars of the future include the option of old-fashioned driving for those of us who enjoy it.”

Three- and four-wheel vehicles are not the only ones getting the electric makeover. A company called YikeBike is producing a nifty little electric bike that folds up into a bundle about the size of a folding lawn chair. Visit the site and check out the video. If you want something faster, a company named Zero Motorcycles is ready to sell you an electric motorcycle [“Zero Motorcycles 2010 line-up packs extra punch,” by Darren Quick, Gizmag, 3 March 2010]. Quick reports:

“Zero says its new Z-Force power pack technology features new and more precise monitoring of cells Zero Motorcycle in the Lithium-Ion battery pack resulting in longer power pack life, more power, greater acceleration off the line and superior handling. The 2010 models also see the introduction of a new throttle technology that modulates the increased power to provide riders with exacting control over the acceleration. Although electric motors are extremely efficient they can still get hot, which can affect performance, not to mention the life of the motor. To combat this the S and DS models feature a new Z-Force Air Induction System that keeps the motor cool by increasing the airflow through the heart of the motor thereby allowing more horsepower to be drawn from lighter and more compact motors. Zero has also made some aesthetic changes. The entire product line continues to be built from the ground up using Zero’s signature exposed aircraft alloy frame but consumers can now choose between color packages in addition to Zero’s standard white.”

There is one other vehicle worth mentioning: Ford’s Transit Connect [“Ford rolls out all-electric van,” by Susan Carpenter, Los Angeles Times, 3 March 2010]. Carpenter reports:

“Ford Motor Co.’s first all-electric vehicle made its Los Angeles debut … at the Petersen Automotive Museum, a fitting locale for a manufacturer to take a successful product from its present lineup and push it into the future. The electric version of a light-duty cargo van that has been available globally since 2003 and has sold more than 600,000 units, the Transit Connect Electric is the first of four electrified vehicles the Detroit manufacturer plans to bring to market by 2012.”

If you are really interested in reducing your carbon footprint, you should consider buying the ultimate green machine — a human-powered electric vehicle [“HumanCar aims for a healthy planet with healthy drivers,” by Darren Quick, Gizmag, 1 March 2010]. Quick reports:

“At first glance it might look a bit like an elongated pedal car for kids, but its designers are convinced the HumanCar Imagine PS is a serious player in the search for cleaner, greener ways to get around. The vehicle converts the rowing motion of the driver and any passengers into rotational thrust to charge a battery and power the vehicle in conjunction with an electric motor. So not only is it healthy for the planet – it is healthy for the occupants too. And as an added bonus the vehicle can also be used store energy and act as a backup power generator to provide electricity to the home. The HumanCar is the brainchild of Chief Scientist/Engineer Charles Samuel Greenwood P.E., who first hit upon the idea for a human powered car some 40 years ago. … Searching for a full-body workout Greenwood eschewed a bicycle-type mechanism in favor of the rowing-like mechanism and developed the forerunner to the Impulse PS, the FM-4 (Fully Manual – 4 people). … The innovative vehicle is dubbed an NEV because it falls into the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Neighborhood Electric Vehicle (NEV) classification for low speed vehicles. So although the HumanCar is capable of reaching speeds of around 62 mph (100 km/h) it is limited to 25 mph (around 40 km/h) to comply with the classification. The car includes seating for four, with rowing handlebars for each passenger. It can be powered by one, two, three or four people, the battery-powered electric motor, or any combination of human and electric power. The battery can also be charged via a standard electrical outlet if you feel you’ve had your quota of exercise for the day. To make the most out of the power generated the vehicle also incorporates a regenerative braking system and an advanced power system to enhance overall efficiency. Because steering using the rowing handles would be too difficult to control the vehicle is steered by “Body Steering” (read leaning into turns). According to Chuck Greenwood, HumanCar Inc. CEO and son of Charles Greenwood, this is apparently much more intuitive (not to mention more fun) than using a conventional steering wheel. The vehicle’s custom CPU operates off trigger buttons on the center brake handle to engage functions such as regenerative power, power up and cruise control. Other available features include a human/machine interface (HMI) touch-screen display with GPS and biometric data logging, iPod integrated sound systems, and Bluetooth compatible on-board computing/communications devices. The vehicle is especially suited to generate the power required to operate these devices. An all-weather foldout ragtop roof is also available for commuting in the rain. … The HumanCar isn’t just a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle either. It can also function as an exercise-based human electric power station, or in vehicle-to-grid (V2G) mode to feed electricity back into the grid. A report on CNN showed four people rowing for a couple of minutes generated enough electricity to power a PC for well over an hour. So if you don’t need to go anywhere you can jump in the car for some exercise that will generate electricity for your home or to be fed back into the grid.”

If you want one, expect to spend a lot of money. The current version, called the Imagine, is being produced with a price tag of US$75,000. The company hopes that the next version can be sold for US$15,500. Even then, if you want to go very far, you could face another challenge: “For the moment the HumanCar is limited to non-highway or ‘neighborhood’ roads, but there are higher performance versions under development that are planned for highway travel.” A Hungarian company is also producing a human-powered electric vehicle [“Antro SOLO human-electric-hybrid aims for double the fun,” by Paul Ridden, Gizmag, 7 March 2010]. Ridden reports:

“Antro’s prototype has been built using a light magnesium alloy/carbon fiber frame and body construction and features electric assist for when the occupants tire or the driver is alone. Photovoltaic cells incorporated in the roof provide the power for the electric hub motors at each wheel and although the current model doesn’t have one yet, the designers are aiming to install a fuel engine to give a longer range than the 12 miles or so that the electric motors currently provide. It is intended that the fuel engine will achieve fuel efficiency in the region of 150 miles to the gallon and reach speeds of around 87mph.”

The CEO of Renault and Nissan, Carlos Ghosn, predicts great things for the electric car market in the near-term. He claims that “carmakers will be scrambling to meet demand for electric cars – and the lithium batteries that power them – within the next two years” [“Ghosn predicts scramble for electric car output,” by John Reed and Richard Milne, Financial Times, 4 March 2010]. Reed and Milne note, “Renault’s bullishness contrasts with the scepticism of its competitors, which are forecasting modest sales of electric cars.” I side with the skeptics. Hybrids will continue to sell a lot better than all-electric vehicles for the foreseeable future. Even hybrids, however, will continue to be overshadowed by traditionally-powered vehicles. Nevertheless, if enough hybrid and electric vehicles are sold, they will contribute to reducing the transportation reliance on oil and people will find themselves breathing easier as well.