From the monthly archives:

May 2010

A Brief and Colorful History of Electric Cars

by Electric bike guru on May 29, 2010

Leaving the Gas Pump Behind, Part 1:

Many people consider electric bikes and electric cars to represent an advanced technology awaiting us in the future.  But electric bikes are being sold and ridden all around the world right now.  And electric cars have been around for over one hundred years!  In fact, during the decade from 1900 to 1910, when electric cars shared the road with cars powered by gasoline, the electrics actually outsold the gas-powered cars by two to one.  The reason for this was that during the early days of the gasoline engine, automobile carburetors were crude, and required a lot of tinkering to properly mix fuel with air during a car’s start-up, warm-up and cruising modes.  Electric cars did not require gasoline or oil, and soon earned a reputation for being “clean,” and became the overwhelming choice of the smartly-dressed, upwardly mobile, urban American women who, for the first time, were enjoying the freedom to travel independently, and were determined to make the most of it.

1912 Detroit Electric Car Ad

1912 Detroit Electric Car Ad

However, within ten years, things had changed.  Technical advances in gasoline engine technology and carburetor design propelled gas powered cars to the top of the market in terms of sales and popularity.  Meanwhile, the expansion of drilling and refining of petroleum had made ever cheaper and more plentiful gasoline available almost everywhere in the US.  The year 1914 saw the outbreak of World War I in Europe, and metals such as copper and lead, heavily used in electric cars, were in short supply as production of tanks, bullets and artillery shells needed for the war increased rapidly.  As a result of these events, the production of electric cars scaled back dramatically.  After the war, when industry returned to manufacturing civilian automobiles, the electric car had been just about forgotten.

Fast-forward to the 1970’s, when the first Arab oil embargo hit the US.  Overnight, gasoline was in short supply, and prices shot sky high.  Fuel was rationed by many service stations — that is, if they had any fuel to sell.  After the embargo, the memory of the desperation experienced by many drivers during the crisis endured, and people sought a way to diminish American dependence on foreign oil.  Many looked to Japanese imports as a solution.  For several years, Japanese carmakers had been exporting small, fuel-efficient cars to the United States.  Now Americans began buying them in droves, as fast as they could be produced.  Toyota, Nissan, and Mitsubishi auto dealerships sprang up over the country in response to the demand for their product.

In addition, people suddenly began to remember the early electric cars their grandparents had loved so well.  Like the buyers of electric bikes today, they wanted clean vehicles that don’t require expensive imported fuel, but instead rely on rechargeable batteries which can be plugged into the ordinary electric outlets that are in millions of US homes.

Soon, some creative individuals successfully converted their own cars or pickup trucks from gasoline to electricity.  Small companies sprang up, such as Boston-based Solectria, offering for sale limited numbers of conversions for the reviving electric car market.

Solectra electric car engine compartment

Solectira electric car engine compartment

In 1985, General motors promised an electric car by end of the decade. Instead, the long-awaited General Motors EV-1 appeared in showrooms in 1996.  The car was only available as a lease, mainly in Southern California, where the California Air Resources Board had passed the ZEV (Zero Emissions Vehicle) mandate in 1990, requiring that 2 percent of the cars sold in California be ZEV‘s.

The sporty-looking car produced head-snapping acceleration with zero tailpipe emissions.  The range of the first models was limited to 60 – 70 miles, but later models achieved a maximum range of 110 – 160 miles.  The car was an immediate hit, and all available models were quickly leased, many by Hollywood celebrities, who often had to wait months to sign a lease.  Among the celebrities who drove the car were included such names as Mel Gibson, Tom Hanks, Alexandra Paul, and Ed Begley, Jr.

GM EV-1 (1996)

GM EV-1 (1996)

Like owners of ebikes today, EV1 drivers loved their vehicles and raved about the car.  Despite this fact, GM claimed that there was no demand for their product.  After two years, GM halted the program, requiring all leaseholders to turn in their cars.  People protested, but the company held fast.  Those who refused to turn in their cars had them collected by flat bed trucks.  The EV1 was eliminated from the GM line, and all the cars were delivered to a warehouse in California.  A year later, the company destroyed the cars by crushing them.

A film, Who Killed the Electric Car, was produced by Chris Paine in 2006, which explored the history of the GM EV1 program in detail.  The film noted that GM engaged in negative marketing of the EV1, sabotaged their own product program, failed to produce sufficient cars to meet existing demand, and engaged in other unusual business practices with regards to leasing versus sales.

The film explained that electric cars needed fewer expensive repairs, so the car dealers would not make as much money over the long term as with gasoline-powered cars.  It detailed the California Air Resources Board’s reversal of the ZEV mandate after suits from automobile manufacturers, the oil industry, and the George W. Bush administration, and it revealed that Bush’s chief influences, such as Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, and Andrew Card, were all former executives and board members of oil and auto companies.  The suggestion was clear that the big oil companies were fearful of losing business to a competing technology, and acted together to destroy an emerging market for electric cars.  And so, by the end of the 1990’s one hundred years after they were invented, it appeared that electric cars just might be dead forever . . .

part 2: Is There an Electric Car in Your Future?

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The Scandinavian Affair – Velomobiles

by Electric bike guru on May 22, 2010

Original Mochet Velomobile

Original Mochet Velomobile

Imagine your favorite electric bike transformed into an automobile.  How could such a thing happen?  It makes no sense!  Okay, let’s slow down a bit.  Let’s start with a recumbent bike – you know, one of those machines where you sit close to the ground and recline, or lean back, to pedal.  Now, instead of a two-wheeled recumbent bike, let’s picture one with three wheels – like a tricycle.  Now let’s enclose this tricycle in a body, one which looks more like an ultra-light airplane fuselage rather than your typical automobile.  If you have stayed with me through this visualization exercise, what you now have in your mind’s eye is a vehicle called a velomobile.

According to Wikipedia, the origin of the velomobile was a small 4-wheeled pedal car build by Charles Mochet for his son a few years prior to World War I.  Other people starting building these little pedal cars too, and they were popular for a while, but their popularity declined in the 1930’s as people preferred the inexpensive gasoline-powered cars which were becoming more available and affordable.

Leap ahead a few decades to the oil crisis of 1978, which inspired Carl Georg Rasmussen, a Danish engineer and pilot, to design and build the first practical velomobile. It was called Leitra (Leight individual transport in German means Leicht Transport), a “tadpole” recumbent trike with a full fiberglass fairing. It was road-tested in the 1980’s in several rallies such as Trondheim-Oslo and Paris-Brest-Paris.

Leitra Velomobile electric assisted

Leitra Velomobile electric assisted

Leitra is a danish company and also the name of the velomobile it makes.
Ever since then, velomobiles have remained popular in Denmark and other countries throughout Scandinavia.  The shell of the velomobile provides protection from the cold, wet Scandinavian winters, and the streamlined fairing, or shell, reduces wind resistance compared to an unenclosed bike or trike, and allows the velomobile to scoot along smartly over the flat Scandinavian landscape
Now velomobiles are being imported into the US in increasing numbers, largely due to the popularity of the Leitra and other early imports.  The streamlined fairing, or shell, adds weight to the vehicle at the same time that it allows higher speeds.  For that reason, most velomobiles come with hydraulic brakes, either standard or as an option, to handle the additional braking load compared with conventional bikes.
While the enclosed design does effectively counter wind resistance, it does not provide the rider with any advantage while pedaling uphill.  Just the opposite is true, as the rider must carry his weight, the weight of the trike, and the weight of the fairing, all at the same time.  This has inspired some velomobile owners to add an electric drive system,such as the BionX kit, to their machines in order to extend the speed and climbing ability beyond what they can provide with leg power alone.  These electric velomobiles are in effect, small automobiles, self-powered and self-enclosed, and often capable of cruising nearly at expressway speeds.

Go One BionX powered Velomobile

Go One BionX powered Velomobile

The cost of a velomobile is not cheap.  The reason is that the basic platform is a high-quality recumbent tricycle which alone would cost over $2,000.  Add to this the cost of fabricating the fiberglass shell and of the attaching hardware, and the considerable cost of labor, as each machine is basically hand-made, and it is easy to understand that a complete machine will cost you between $6,000 – $8,000, with electrically powered models correspondingly higher.
Right now the market for velomobiles is tiny compared with that for autos or conventional electric bikes.  For now, they are not regulated and owners have the freedom to decide how to equip their velomobiles, and, within the limits of existing local traffic laws, to ride their machines wherever and however  they choose.

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Make Your Own EBike: Electric Conversion Kit

May 17, 2010

Would you like to own an eBike?  Have you got an old bike sitting around that you don’t ride very often?  Are you interested in saving some money?  If you answered “Yes” to these three questions, then you are a good candidate for an ebike conversion kit. You may have seen one of these kits [...]

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Electric Bike tips: Increase your range per charge

May 12, 2010

So you’ve finally made the leap and purchased an electric bike, but instead of seeing the world, you keep seeing the “Empty” indicator on the battery meter.  How come? Well, a number of factors can influence the range and energy consumption of your eBike.  Like any bike, an eBike encounters a frictional force known as [...]

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Electric bike article series by David B.

May 7, 2010

Fitting an Electric Bike into Your Lifestyle by David B. This series is in production at this time, we are adding links as the sections become available. 1 What an Electric Bike is Not 2 The Mustang, the Minivan and the Electric Bike – A History of EV Global 3 Tips for Commuting to Work [...]

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Completing Your E-Bike by Choosing the Perfect Accessories

May 7, 2010

So now you’ve purchased your dream eBike and even had it out for a spin a few times.  That’s great!  What comes next?  Well, there are a wide variety of accessories and optional equipment available which can enhance your cycling experience.  Like what, you ask? One of the most useful pieces of equipment you can [...]

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Which electric bike is right for you?

May 4, 2010

If you walk into a well-stocked bicycle shop which carries electric bikes, you will discover that there are several good-looking, well-performing models from which to choose: In what-an-electric-bike-is-not, we looked at how electric bikes are put together, and noted that there are differences in where the motors are mounted and how they drive the bike, [...]

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