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Is There an Electric Car in Your Future?

by Electric bike guru on June 8, 2010

EBikes 10:  Leaving the Gas Pump Behind, Part 2:

Ever since the days of John D. Rockefeller’s monolithic Standard Oil Company, the major oil companies have made large profits selling petroleum.  From the start, everyone assumed that petroleum was a limited resource, but the tantalizing question always remained:  just how much petroleum exists beneath the earth?  Standard Oil started out drilling oil in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and by the time those oil fields were exhausted, new, larger fields had been discovered in Texas and Oklahoma.  Even today, nearly 100 years after drilling and refining of petroleum began, experts disagree about how much of this resource exists beneath the ground throughout the world.  Worse still, some people believe that the major oil companies conspire to keep the truth secret, in order to allow them to control prices and maximize profits.

Electric cars have been around for over 100 years (see article, “A Brief and Colorful History of Electric Cars).  They offer the promise of clean transportation with no tailpipe pollution, but require expensive batteries made of scarce and highly toxic elements.  As the demand for electric cars grows, nobody knows the ecological consequences of disposing of millions of tons of electric car batteries once they have reached the end of their useful lives.

One criticism that is frequently leveled against electric cars is that their range is limited, often to 100 miles or less, and that there are presently no facilities which would allow the electric vehicle batteries to be recharged on the road.  The defenders of ev’s answer this criticism by pointing out that 90% of commuters travel less than 35 miles round-trip to work and back, a distance which is easily within the range of the average EV.

In 1998, Toyota introduced their first hybrid car, the Prius.  Hybrids use  gasoline engine coupled with an electric motor and batteries.  In the Prius, at speeds below 30 miles per hour, the electric motor powers the car.  The lack of noise and vibration is almost eerie the first time it Is experienced by the average driver.  At higher speeds, the gasoline engine is engaged to supply additional power.  The gasoline engine also drives a high-output alternator, which provides enough electricity to keep the battery pack charged up.  Hybrids offer the advantage of being able to run on electric motors, which are very efficient.  The disadvantage is that the batteries add considerable weight, over 500 pounds, and the pricey battery pack is likely to need to be replaced at least once during the life of the car.

The Prius offers superior fuel economy, in a versatile, fun-to-drive package.  The fuel economy is approximately 50 mpg on the highway, and higher mileage is possible around town, where the car may be driven on electricity only.  The price tag of the Prius when it was first introduced was about $20,000, less than the cost to produce the car.  In their own words, Toyota was seeking not so much to earn a profit with the early models, as to create a demand for hybrid cars and position themselves securely in the market.

Toyota Prius Hybrid electric car

Toyota Prius Hybrid electric car

The car has been well-received by drivers and electric car enthusiasts, but some felt that the car didn’t go far enough in breaking the hold of “Big Oil,” and they wanted an all-electric Prius model which would eliminate the need for fuel and run only on electricity.  To satisfy the desire for a true EV,  some individuals have converted their Priuses to pure electric vehicles by installing additional batteries and a charger capable of recharging the car from a standard outlet.  Although the converted vehicles perform well, these conversions unfortunately voided the Toyota factory warranty.

Finally, in 2009, Toyota announced plans to introduce an all-electric Prius.  This  car, which will not contain a fuel tank, and will run purely on batteries, is due in dealer showrooms in 2011.

Meanwhile, in 2008, almost twenty years after the demise of the EV1 (see link above for Part 1, “A Brief and Colorful History of the Electric Car”), General Motors announced plans to introduce another electric car in the US.  GM has named the new car the Volt, and announced plans to market the vehicle under the Chevrolet emblem.

Chevy Volt electric car

Chevy Volt electric car

The GM official website contains pictures and general information on the Volt, but little hard information.   The description of the Volt indicates that it is a hybrid, and uses gasoline, like other hybrid cars.   But unlike other hybrids, the Volt’s propulsion system is powered exclusively by electricity.  Starting with a fully charged battery, depending upon the weather and the type of driver, the car can go up to 40 miles on the electricity stored in the battery – totally gas and emissions free.   When the battery runs out of charge, the on-board gasoline-powered, generator (called a “range extender” by GM) automatically kicks in to create more electricity – so the Volt can go for several hundred additional miles, until the driver is able to plug it in and charge it up again. As of the time of this article the Volt was scheduled to appear in showrooms in 2011.  Unlike the Toyota Prius, GM does not have plans for an all-electric version of the Volt at this time.

So, who will decide whether tomorrow’s cars will be gasoline powered, gasoline-powered hybrids, or all-electric vehicles?  For the time being, it looks like the choice will be up to the consumer.  It is the belief of the author that freedom creates prosperity.  And that makes choice a good thing.