Electric dreams

 

GREEN MOTORING:To judge by media reports, you'd be forgiven for thinking the age of the combustion engine was over and a period of electric car enlightenment was upon us. Thanks for the memories Gottlieb and Karl, but we're moving on: for this is the age of the electric car, writes PADDY COMYN

Hold on a minute: have we not heard all this before? Almost out of nowhere we are talking about electric cars like they are the glaringly obvious answer to questions we have asked for over a century. But it isn't really that simple. While electricity transformed the way we illuminated our homes and powered our workplaces, it never quite caught on as a power source for transport.

We can trace the birth of the electric car to the late 1830s, when Scotsman Robert Anderson invented a crude electric carriage, but by 1900 there were some 8,000 cars on America's dusty roads. It was anyone's guess as to whether future cars would operate on steam, electricity or gasoline. Each type of power had its advantages and disadvantages and all had staunch supporters.

Early electric cars were quiet and easy to operate but extremely heavy, could only go so far and took a long time to recharge. Steam-driven cars accelerated smoothly, but took time to build up power and had difficulty storing enough fuel for a long trip. There was also the unfortunate possibility of randomly exploding. Petrol-powered cars were quick starting and could run a relatively long time before needing to refuel. On the downside, they were noisy, complicated to operate and often broke down.

One of the major factors that led to the dominance of the internal combustion engine was the discovery in 1901 of vast oil fields near Beaumont, Texas. These rich deposits made gasoline readily available, and many countries soon had an abundant supply. By the late 1920s, America had a better road system - longer-range vehicles were needed. Once mass production of internal combustion engines began, their costs were dramatically less than electric cars - so the electric car was practically killed at birth. By 1935, electric vehicles had all but disappeared.

While there have been half-hearted attempts at personal electric transport since then, it wasn't until the 1990s when California passed its Zero-Emission Vehicle Mandate, which required 2 per cent of the state's vehicles to have no emissions by 1998 and 10 per cent by 2003, that car-makers turned once more to electric vehicles.

General Motors responded with the EV1, a two-passenger electric vehicle. It was introduced in 1996 to California and Arizona on a limited three-year lease agreement, and, while the first generation used lead acid batteries, a version with nickel metal hydride batteries released in 1999 performed much better. GM axed the programme in 2003, claiming it could not make the car profitable and, despite huge lobbying from those renting the EV1s, the cars were taken back and later crushed. This prompted the 2006 documentary, Who Killed the Electric Car?, directed by Chris Paine, which explores theories as to why this and other electric vehicle programmes were so promptly removed. It points the finger at car-makers, oil companies, the Bush administration and the California Air Resources Board, which backed down on its mandate.

"We cast blame around a lot of different culprits and we did a pretty good job doing that - if anything I would have added a couple more," Paine told The Irish Times. "These would include the American attorneys who advised the car companies to destroy their cars. . . The other thing that was a factor in this was the low price of oil when these cars came out. Whether it be that oil prices are manipulated or that they are completely a product of the market, I don't think that the oil companies dropped the price of oil to kill electric cars, but it's true to say when there is a lower price on oil there is less demand for alternatives."

Paine is working on a new film, Revenge of the Electric Car. What does he believe is the reason behind the sudden change of heart from auto-makers and consumers? "Number one, people understand that oil is not forever and everyone really felt it when oil prices jumped last summer - people suddenly said 'wow, this peak oil thing is for real'. The second factor is global warming. . . The environmental movement in the US is back on the front page and there is another factor - people want freedom from the Middle East." Paine believes there is a greater appetite for electric vehicles from the US public, too.

Revenge of the Electric Car is being filmed right now. What can we expect? "The main topics are the story of General Motors and its attempt to bring back the electric car. The next story is the Tesla story - we will follow that. We can't have the film come out until we have seen a revenge, so it should be 2011. We have seen the damage done by car companies avoiding this technology, so we want to see the cars readily available to consumers in numbers before we release the film," says Paine.

GM responded to the documentary by saying that despite having spent more than $1 billion (€750 million) developing the EV1, only 800 vehicles were leased during a four-year period, a waiting list of 5,000 only generated 50 people willing to follow through to a lease and that, because of the low demand for the EV1, parts suppliers ceased making replacement parts.

GM R&D (research and development) chief Larry Burns, speaking in Newsweek in 2007, admitted to regrets about the EV1. Burns now wishes GM hadn't killed the plug-in hybrid EV1 prototype a decade ago: "If we could turn back the hands of time," said Burns, "we could have had the Chevy Volt 10 years earlier."

With Toyota bringing an at least partially electric car to the mass market, quickly followed by Honda, the consumer has got used to the idea of batteries under the bonnet playing some role, but the plug-in hybrid will take this one step further. Next year sees the arrival of the Chevrolet Volt onto the US market - coming to Europe in 2011 as the Opel Ampera, should Opel remain in GM's hands. This takes the hybrid model a step further in that the car is powered by an electric battery, charged by plugging into the mains but also by using a small petrol engine - the purpose of which is to recharge the battery.

The real hope lies with fully electric-powered vehicles. Using just batteries, they offer the greatest immediate possibility of emission-free transportation.

So how do they work? It's pretty simple. You plug the car into a domestic socket or charger; this charges the battery, which powers the wheels. It is a case of the less weight the better when using electric power, which is why electric cars have so far been small and light but we are starting to see more orthodox cars working the same way.

The main differences between regular and electric cars are that the petrol or diesel combustion engine is replaced by an electric motor. The main drawbacks are to do with the batteries. Typically, batteries have been lead-acid types - heavy, bulky, have limited capacity, are slow to charge, have a short lifespan and are expensive.

So, much rests on the potential success of lithium-ion batteries - those found in laptops, PDAs, mobile phones and iPods. They are the most energetic batteries for their size and weight, but have been controversial because they have been known, albeit rarely, to overheat and risk burning out, with potentially dire consequences. Chevrolet's Volt has previewed the use of lithium-ion batteries as at least a partial power source. Cars such as Toyota's Prius use nickel-metal-hydride batteries in tandem with petrol engines. These are heavy with limited range, while lithium-ion batteries pack more power and are smaller.

The all-electric Tesla Roadster packs 6,831 lithium-ion batteries and uses a cooling system to ensure they don't overheat. The main issue is making them cheaper and longer lasting. The race is on to create cheaper, more efficient lithium-ion batteries.

In this regard, the US is way behind Asia. Last year Panasonic bought Sanyo, the world's leading lithium-ion battery manufacturer, for $9 billion, in order to supply batteries to Toyota. Nissan and NEC have also announced a $1 billion joint investment in battery development. It is becoming clear that companies that control the battery industry may end up controlling the car industry.
These batteries have to withstand a lot of abuse - extremes of heat, the rigours of potholes and manufacturer testing. They have to be able to give consistent range, and last. With batteries likely to become one of the most expensive parts of an electric car, there will naturally be drawbacks to the consumer if these need to be replaced.

One way around this will be to lease the battery separately. One start-up, Better Place, hopes to do just that. Founded by former SAP executive, Shai Agassi, its model is that it makes little sense for customers of electric cars to buy the battery; instead there will be subscription plans. Users could buy kilometres and either recharge at a charging spots or at a "swapping station".

However, this model is already drawing critics. Henrik Fisker, founder of Fisker Automotive, has said that not all manufacturers would want to have their battery underneath, while Toyota USA's Bill Reinert, speaking at a Fortune Brainstorm recently, said that car batteries mix extremely poorly with bad weather.

Another issue drawing criticism is that electricity isn't always clean. The benefits of running a car that runs on electricity can be negated by using electricity made from burning coal. David MacKay, professor in the Department of Physics at the University of Cambridge, points out that the average family car uses 80kWh per day, but that electric cars use far less. The Reva electric car uses 21kWh over an average of 19 charges and, even if the electricity used to charge the car comes from fossil fuels, the result is equivalent to 105g/km CO2, less than most cars.

Tesla's Roadster fares even better. It actually uses less energy (15kWh per 100km), thanks to lithium-ion batteries that store 53kWh and have a range of 354km. "Electric vehicles can deliver transport at roughly 15kWh per 100km - five times better than our baseline fossil-car, and significantly better than any hybrid cars," says MacKay. He also estimates that there is enough lithium in reserve to make 1.6 billion vehicle batteries, more than the number of vehicles in the world today.

But can we provide the infrastructure to power electric vehicles? Padraig McManus, ESB chief executive, thinks so. "The advantage is that we're small. So if the range of vehicles is small, it has advantages. It's currently about 160km - if you got that up to 250km, you could travel virtually anywhere in Ireland."

How does McManus see the infrastructure working? "What we're going to do is roll out the infrastructure to match the number of vehicles. We're going to roll it out in cities, then have intermediate points between typical journeys. . . We're going to try to match car sales with the infrastructure, but initially we'll have to get a certain amount of it out so it's viable."

There is another issue of how the national grid would cope. "If people come home from work and all plug in their cars while demand is at peak, it will cause considerable disturbance. What will be working ahead of the electrical vehicle issue is the introduction of smart meters - "time of day" tariffs. . . [ for example] the cheapest time to charge your car is after midnight. If you charge it before then you will pay a much higher tariff for it."

And what about Ireland's target of 10 per cent of all vehicles running on electricity by 2020? "I'm not really into targets. . . I think the real challenge for us is, let's look at the number of electric vehicles that we could possibly get next year, and after that and let's make sure we have enough infrastructure built to make that happen."

David O'Reilly, chief executive and chairman of Chevron-Texaco, has poured scorn on this target. He told The Irish Times: "It's a stretch. . . You'd almost have to have viable electric vehicles and infrastructure in the next couple of years; that's not yet been demonstrated anywhere."

There has been a lot of what marketeers love to call "blue-sky thinking". The reality should become clear soon as electric vehicles begin to appear. Will we see the start of an electric revolution? For those trying to make it happen, Thomas Edison's words seem suitable. "I have not failed. I've found 10,000 ways that don't work."