Electric Vehicles (EVs) are vehicles that are propelled by one or more electric motors. Internal combustion engines propel conventional cars – these were made popular by Henry Ford’s mass production of the Model T Ford and his assembly line factories. EVs are silent, clean and efficient. Rotary motors drive the wheels of EVs. These motors can be powered by a number of sources including batteries, rechargeable fuel cells as found in hybrid vehicles and solar cells. Direct-connection EVs include electric trains, trams and trolleys.
Electric train and tram systems became popular in the mid 1800s and by the 20th century were used to transport industrial goods and passengers instead of coal trains. Electric cars became commonplace during this time, powered by Nickel-Iron batteries.
A number of electric companies in the US sold these first electric cars, some of which were amazingly fast and could travel considerable distances. Internal combustion engines were bulky, noisy and unpopular during this time. Ford’s Model-T changed all that.
General Motors and oil-companies became immensely powerful and bought out many electric tram companies across the US to dismantle them and replace them with buses. GM also crushed the electric car – the last General Motors EV1s were shredded in 2003.
EVs have thrilling advantages over internal-combustion driven vehicles:
– Electric motors can provide high torque from start and do not need gears to match power curves. This removes the need for costly gearboxes and torque converters
– Electric motors can convert kinetic energy back into electricity through regenerative braking systems, thus reducing wear and tear and energy requirements
– Electric motors are incredibly quiet and have no exhaust, unlike noisy and polluting internal combustion engines
– Electric cars are cheaper to run and the lack of intricate mechanical systems means they are cheap and easy to maintain
The disadvantages cited by car manufacturers for discontinuing electric car production include:
– Batteries are expensive, bulky and need to be frequently recharged
– Recharging takes up to 12 hours
– It is difficult to find a recharging station
Now, decades after the first electric cars rose and then dwindled away, car manufacturers like General Motors, Honda and Toyota are looking to create new types of electric cars, such as the hybrid vehicle that uses gasoline and electricity. The latest technology in the area of electric cars is the use of fuel cells, which are not heavy like regular batteries and are cheap. New technology is seeing the revival of the dream of the electric car.
A rising tide
On 27 February 2007 WNBC.com ran a surprisingly frank report that highlighted the US’s current renewed interest in alternative fuels to power cars. Reporter Chuck Scarborough highlighted the increasing interest, from both sides of the political divide, in the electric car. For environmentalists the case for the electric car is due to increasing fears surrounding oil-powered cars contributing to global warming. On the other side, conservatives fear that by using oil-based products, such as gasoline driven cars, Americans are funding “hostile regimes that fund our enemies and terrorism, directly or indirectly”. Ironically, Americans are spending billions in tax dollars to get their hands on oil through military might, and also paying billions of dollars to run gas-guzzling vehicles like General Motor’s Hummer. It seems that Americans, who contribute to 80% of the Earth’s global warming effects, are coming to realize that for too long corporations and politicians have been fooling them.
The report highlighted an interesting fact – General Motor’s seems to be undergoing a turnaround in its view that the electric car just wouldn’t sell. The Sony Pictures Classics 2006 film Who Killed The Electric Car? strongly condemned General Motors and oil-loving politicians for bringing about the demise of the first production electric cars, such as the General Motors EV1, and for using the excuse that there was no demand for these cars. Car manufacturers create demand through billions of dollars spent annually on advertising. Whether the blame for GMs initial resistance to support electric vehicles can be laid at the door of the oil-lobbyists or greedy politicians is up for debate. Notwithstanding, GM is now actively promoting the Chevy Volt. Their homepage lists “exciting new models” including the Volt:
“The Volt concept is a battery-powered electric vehicle that uses a large battery and a small, 1L turbo gasoline engine to produce enough electricity to go up to 640 miles and provide triple digit fuel economy.”
Not 100% electric, but certainly a change in strategy at GM is evident.
Was this change due to a rising tide of consumerism? Are changes being implemented by gut-greedy corporations to satisfy the savvier consumer? The film Supersize Me documented a man’s diet of MacDonald’s-only for a month and the consequent ill effects he suffered. In response to the public outcry against disease-causing foods, MacDonald’s has changed its image to promote a range of salads and “healthier” foods. Most MacDonald’s store interiors now sport colourful posters promoting the daily eating of fruit and vegetables (although this is reminiscent of telemarketer diet-packs that are only effective when combined with “an exercise program and a kilo joule-restricted diet”).
Did General Motors and other major car manufacturers finally come to terms with the fact that people are tired of a fatal addiction to oil and its tragic environmental and geo-political impact?
A new breed
Consumer electronics like cell-phones has seen the development of longer lasting, more efficient lithium batteries. Lithium-ion technology now allows full-sized vehicles to travel the same distance as their fuel-driven counterparts. Lithium batteries can be recharged in a matter of minutes instead of hours.
New advances in power management have also made electric cars more efficient. Energy is better stored, and kinetic energy is recycled into electric energy, resulting in less overall energy usage. Better fuel cell technology has seen the development of hybrid (electric and fuel driven) engines.
Manufacturers like Toyota and Honda noticed consumer trends earlier than their US counterparts and have produced hybrid vehicles such as the Toyota Prius, RAV4 EV and the Honda EV+.
Replacing exhaust pipes with smoke stacks?
Although EVs don’t produce harmful exhaust emissions, the electrical energy they require must be generated somehow. Traditionally this electricity has come from smoke-producing electrical power plants.
As a global movement towards environmental awareness reaches lawmakers and political decision makers, new, cleaner means of producing electricity will be encouraged. Solar, wind and nuclear power is already leading the way. Hybrid cars seem to be a comfortable compromise at present, since hybrid vehicles do not require the use of recharging stations and can cut emissions significantly.
The future of the electric car
Electric Vehicle drivers love their cars. They’re a smooth, graceful and quiet ride. EV drivers can smugly pull up next to smoke-emitting cars content in the knowledge that they can match the other drivers for speed, range and economy, and that they aren’t actively contributing to global warming. The demand for EVs exists – what remains to be seen is whether the political will of those in power with vested interests in the current oil and motor industry can be changed in time before the electric car is killed again.