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Are Electric Cars Ready?

Wed, 07/09/2014 - 2:45pm
Matt Kelland, Engineerjobs.com

Are electric cars ready to replace internal combustion models? Which problems remain to be solved, who’s working on them… and are they hiring?

Longwood, Florida, isn’t the most exciting, upmarket suburb of Orlando. Yet, every day, people drive for miles to visit a tiny showroom on 17/92 and gawk at vehicles which most of us have only ever seen in photographs. They’re not coming to look at classic cars, racing cars, or the cars of celebrities – they’re coming to see, sit in, and drive Tesla’s $70,000 all-electric Model S.

They’re enchanted by its luxurious style, its performance, and its impressive credentials.

They’re not just looking. Customers are buying them in increasing numbers. A year ago, Tesla Model S sales worldwide exceeded sales of comparable cars from Audi, Mercedes and BMW. Nearly 20,000 were sold in the US in 2013, and over 25,000 globally, comfortably beating Tesla’s own expectations.

“We get all types in here,” says the friendly sales guy. “Sure, there are those who look at the Tesla like a Ferrari and just want one as a fun toy. But we get kids out of college, the doctors, the lawyers, we get the guys trading in their BMWs or Lexuses, older people getting one as their retirement car, even businesses leasing them. It’s a luxury car for a lot of different people. It’s not just a niche thing any more.”

Electric Cars are Nothing New

Despite our hundred-year love affair with the internal combustion engine (ICE), electric and hybrid cars have finally become cool. The technology isn’t remotely new. In fact, the hybrid car predates the 1997 Toyota Prius by nearly a century, and the electric car is even older than that.

In 1898, the 18-year old Ferdinand Porsche – yes,that Porsche – found himself in Vienna building cars with coach-builder Jacob Lohner. His first prototype, the System Lohner-Porsche Electric Voiturette, used individual, battery-powered motors to drive each wheel. Each motor delivered around 3bhp and could burst up to 7bhp for short periods, allowing it to achieve speeds of up to 36mph — impressive, for the day. The vehicle weighed nearly 4 tons, half of which was the enormous 44-cell 80-volt lead-acid battery. The electric motors themselves accounted for another 1280 pounds.

Two years later, in 1900, at the suggestion of British coach-builder E.W. Hart, Porsche and Lohner created a hybrid version of the car, the Lohner-Porsche Mixte Hybrid. In 1901, hybrid buses were in use in England, and by 1902, hybrid cars were taking part in automobile races.

And then… Porsche went to Daimler-Benz and worked purely on ICE. The electric car faded into the background for most of the 20th century.

 

As far back as 1966, Congress recommended electric vehicles as a way to combat pollution, but for the most part, they were consigned to powering golf carts and, in the UK, milk delivery vehicles, known colloquially as milk floats. In 1967, the UK Electric Vehicle Association announced that more than half the world’s electric vehicles were to be found on the streets of Britain, and nearly all of those were milk floats manufactured by specialized companies like Morrison Electricar. The slow, ungainly little vehicles were beloved by the post-war Brits, largely because they were noiseless and could make their pre-breakfast deliveries without disturbing the tranquillity of leafy suburbia.

But the last ten years changed all that. The first real commercial hybrid car, the Toyota Prius, launched in Japan in 1997, and then across the US and Europe in 1999 to a somewhat muted reception. There was some interest among a small number of eco-conscious car enthusiasts, but the 45mpg fuel economy wasn’t really enough to persuade many drivers to switch. Honda’s first-generation hybrid, the Insight, delivered a far more impressive 68mpg.  Over the next few years, Audi, Ford, and even Lexus followed suit with hybrids of their own, and today, most manufacturers are selling or developing hybrid or electric cars.

Electric Cars Enter the Mainstream

To date, around 8 million HEVs and 400,000 PHEVs have been sold worldwide, around half of them in the USA. That’s not much compared to the 15 million conventional cars sold in 2013, but the trend is clear. Hybrids and electrics are growing in popularity and they’re here to stay.

That’s not to say that the ICE will be disappearing from our roads any time soon. “This is not a one size fits all situation,” comments Nigel J Francis, Senior Vice President of the Automotive Industry Office, Michigan Economic Development Corporation. “We have studied the global mega trends as pertinent to the global, national and regional automotive industry out to 2040 and we believe that the sustaining solution as regards powertrain will be subtly different in the different global regions. We expect to see a larger and faster deployment of EV’s in Europe and then Asia with a slower deployment of HEV and PHEV in the US and Canada. Meantime we expect to see continued focus on the increased efficiency of both gasoline and diesel fueled vehicles and CNG (compressed natural gas) solutions for class 5/6 and class 7/8 trucks. Of course this is highly dependent on the ready and economical availability of fossil fuels in the US and Canadian markets which we believe will be the case.”

Christian Okonsky, CEO of KLD Energy Technologies in Austin, Texas, concurs. “Five years ago, people didn’t know if EVs would be viable. Now they’re part of the landscape. Over the next five years, customers will be evaluating them, asking if they’re the right choice. And fifteen years from now, EVs will represent 50% of the market.”

“It will take decades to replace the installed base of vehicles,” adds Jean M. Redfield, President and CEO of Michigan non-profit NextEnergy. “But overall, the market for automobiles is changing fundamentally as consumers look to other transportation options, such as car sharing and mass transit. The trend is now moving more toward matching vehicle drive train technologies to individual transportation needs and customer perceived value. For example, CNG for fleets in places where natural gas prices are low and refueling infrastructure is affordable, electric vehicles for individual customers who value low carbon emissions and fleet operators who see value in low electric fuel prices, and hybrid vehicles for those who need or prefer the strengths of both drivetrain approaches.”

Environment, Cost, and Status Drive Adoption

There are three big pressures driving the adoption of EVs. First, there’s the environment. Although there is dispute over exactly how green EVs are when you account for all the pollution involved in their manufacture and in the production of electricity, it’s clear that they’re significantly more eco-friendly than ICE. Increasingly stringent emissions laws and fuel consumption standards are leading manufacturers and consumers to look at vehicles that use less fossil fuels. Most of us, it seems, want to do our bit to help the environment and reduce pollution, but we’re not willing to give up our cars to do it. EVs provide a viable alternative.

The second pressure is cost. The price of gas is becoming a major issue for many people. Ten years ago, the average price of a gallon in the US wasaround $1.80. Now, it’s almost $4. That accounts for a huge chunk of many people’s increasingly tight household expenditure. Running costs for an EV can be less than 2c/mile. That’s roughly the equivalent of 200mpg – about eight times as efficient as ICE.

Software engineer Megan Hunter chose her Chevrolet Volt purely on cost grounds. “By the time you factor in the cost of gas,” she explains, “I realized the Volt would cost me far less per month. The payments are a little higher, but the running costs are almost non-existent. I bought the car in November last year, and didn’t have to buy any gas until February this year, and that was only because I had to make a couple of long trips. That makes a huge difference, when you figure I was spending maybe $200 a month on gas before.” And the saving doesn’t end there. “The $7,500 tax credit was the final decider,” adds Megan. “Basically, it works out to three years completely free transportation.” That’s a deal you can’t argue with.

Our man at Tesla nods. “I’ve had customers tell me that they’ve had their car for two years and it’s cost them literally nothing. No oil changes, no maintenance, no gas, they just get in it and drive, day, after day, after day. They don’t even notice the extra 25 cents a day on their electric bill.” Under ten bucks a month for fuel? That alone makes EV attractive.

Finally, there’s status. EVs have, at last, lost the stigma they once had. “Ten years ago, people used to tell me they weren’t interested in electric cars because they were “real car” guys,” says Darren Hammell, Co-Founder and Chief Strategy Officer of Princeton Power Systems. “I don’t hear that any more.” HEVs are now part of motorsport’s top series, Formula One. Fully electric cars have their own series, Formula E, starting up. You can’t look at those cars and say that EVs aren’t performance cars.

And then there’s that other Tesla. Not the Model S, the Roadster, a high performance vehicle based on a Lotus. “When Elon Musk set out to create a supercar, he didn’t set out to build the world’s fastest electric car,” observes Okonsky. “He set out to build a fast car, and it happened that the best way to do it was to use an electric motor.” That’s when people realized that EVs could be fast and stylish as well as incredibly cheap to run. When the Model S appeared, it brought with it some of the panache of the Roadster, and suddenly EVs weren’t just for eco-warriors. They became the smart choice for people who wanted a car that was different, futuristic, and just a little bit exclusive.

Are Electric Cars Ready to Replace ICE?

EVs aren’t quite there yet. They face three major challenges. The biggest, in the minds of many prospective purchasers, is “range anxiety”. The batteries in many EVs only last for less than 100 miles. If you have a hybrid, that’s not too much of a problem, but if you have a pure electric car, long journeys can be tricky.

This leads us straight to the second problem:  Recharging an EV isn’t like a quick splash and dash in the gas station. It typically takes 20 minutes to reach 80% charge. On a long drive, not many people want to pull over every couple of hours to spend 20 minutes refuelling.

Finally, where do you recharge when you’re on the road? There are a few charging stations in some forward-thinking cities, but there’s nothing like the network of gas stations that’s spread across the world. What do you do if you run out of battery, miles from home? How do you actually get from Phoenix to Philadelphia?

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