Keeping “Current” with Electric Vehicles

Sep 18th, 2010 | By | Category: Analysis, News and Notes, Environmental Management, Featured Articles, Sustainability

If you’ve read any of the automotive headlines in recent months, you’ve probably seen that battery-operated, all-electric vehicles may soon be on a car lot near you.  The catch phrase of our credit-crazed world – “Charge it” – will soon take on a whole new meaning.  It won’t be about buying tires or wipers at the auto parts store or paying for an oil change at the service department; it will be about fueling your vehicle.

Many readers have probably seen one of these electric vehicles without really giving it much thought:

  • Golf carts
  • Kids’ scooters and miniature toy cars
  • Airport terminal passenger transport vehicles
  • Department store scooters for elderly or disabled shoppers

All of these vehicles are battery operated and are used to transport the driver and passengers from one destination to the next.  These are “old school” electric vehicles; prepare to get “charged up” over the latest development — on-road passenger electric vehicles (EVs)!

What Is an Electric Vehicle?

Before we talk about the current status of EVs, let’s briefly review what an EV is.  (A future article will explore the alphabet soup of hybrid vehicles, i.e., EV, BEV, HEV, PHEV, E-REV, FCV, CAV, and “Zoom-Zoom”Ó.)  An all-electric vehicle typically uses an electric motor (rather than an internal combustion engine) powered by a battery pack.  Similar to the battery-powered electronics that we use, EVs have a limited use (i.e., travel distance) before they must be recharged (refueled).  Travel speed, use of on-board support devices (e.g., heater, air conditioner), and the number of traffic starts and stops between destinations can impact the distance traveled between vehicle refuelings.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Electric Vehicles

The change from gasoline-powered vehicles to EVs has several pros and cons.

Pros

  • No tailpipe emissions
  • No oil changes
  • No exposure to petroleum fumes at the gas pump
  • Powered by the electric company
  • Fewer moving parts
  • Low cost to operate (some estimates are as low as US$ 0.02 per mile)

 Cons

  • Can take hours to “refuel”
  • Limited travel range: approximately 100 miles
  • Too quiet when “running”
  • Limited repair and charging stations at the present time
  • High purchase price (the models highlighted in this article can range from approximately US$ 38,000 to more than US$ 110,000)

The Market for Electric Vehicles

Here is a summary of what some traditional manufacturers, and some new start-ups, are doing with EVs:

Nissan has introduced the 100% electric LEAF, which has a reported range of 100 miles; sales are expected to begin in December 2010 with limited quantities in select market locations.

General Motors is introducing the Chevrolet Volt, with a reported battery-only range of 40 miles. The Volt will be launched as a 2011 model vehicle with sales beginning in November 2010. While this vehicle uses an electric motor drive train, it is also equipped with a gasoline-powered engine for on-board battery charging.

Tesla Motors, a start-up company, began limited production of a sleek and sporty EV known as the Tesla Roadster (275 horsepower, 0 to 60 miles per hour in 3.7 seconds) in December 2009. A sedan model is expected from Tesla in late 2011 or early 2012.

Ford is scheduled to launch an all-electric version of the Ford Focus as a 2012 model vehicle in late 2011; the Focus EV will reportedly have a 100 mile travel range.

BMW Group is working on an EV named the Megacity, which could launch in 2012 or 2013. It will have a projected range of 100 miles. BMW Group has also evaluated a Mini-Cooper-based EV (Mini E) on a limited production and availability basis. This vehicle had a reported cruising range of 100 miles, but there are currently no plans for full production of the Mini E.

Fisker Automotive, another start-up company, has been raising capital to launch production of their Karma sporty EV in late 2010. In stealth mode (electric-only mode), the vehicle has a reported 50 mile range, but this vehicle also has a gasoline-powered engine for overall increased performance.  A sedan model is expected from Fisker in late 2012.

Chrysler Group had been developing an all-electric two-seat EV (Dodge Circuit) under its former owner. However, with Sergio Marchionne (head of Fiat SpA) serving as CEO, EV design at Chrysler is temporarily on hold.

Toyota Motors expects to market the EV RAV4 in 2012. The car will be built by Tesla Motors.

Lexus, which is already known for its hybrid vehicles, is reportedly working on an all-electric supercar (500 horsepower and 0 to 60 miles per hour in approximately 4 seconds). This car is expected to debut in 2015. Vehicle range for the supercar will be managed by the driver’s selecting between comfort, sport, and super sport driving programs.

In addition to these vehicles, several other automotive manufacturers are in various stages of design, concept, evaluation, and production of all-electric vehicles.  Factors such as the global economy, the price of petroleum, government mandates, and local market conditions all play a role in the who-what-when of bringing EVs to consumers.  In addition to passenger cars, some manufacturers, including Honda, are also developing electric motorcycles.

In the opinion of this author, electric vehicle use and production will continue to grow, and EVs will become a routine alternative for consumers buying new cars. 

About the Author

Ronald Vriesman is a partner in the Holland, Michigan, U.S.A. office of Environmental Resources Management (ERM). He has almost thirty years of environmental consulting experience specializing in environmental compliance and auditing, hazardous waste management, wastewater permitting and the design and evaluation of environmental management systems.

Image: V-car by Polina Ivanova, Yaroslavl, Russia.

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