EV Basics III – Why Drive Electric?

Important Acronyms:

BEV: Battery Electric Vehicle – A vehicle powered exclusive from energy stored in its battery pack.

EV: Electric Vehicle – Any vehicle that uses electricity to provide some or all of the power to its wheels.

ICE: Internal Combustion Engine – The smog-belching, globe-warming automobile power plants used in the dark ages of the 20th Century.

kWh: Kilowatt*hour – A unit of energy equal to 1000 watt*hours. A 100 Watt light bulb burning for 10 hours uses 1kWh of energy.

Li-Ion: Lithium-Ion – A battery chemistry which allows EVs to travel much further on a single charge of the battery pack, relative to older battery technologies.

NiMH: Nickel-Metal Hydride – A proven battery technology which has been used in EVs for many years.

PHEV: Plug-In Hybrid Electric Vehicle – A vehicle with an electric motor and a battery pack that can be charged from a home electrical system, but which also has an on-board ICE and fuel tank which can power the car if the battery pack is drained.

What’s the big deal? You’ve read articles about electric vehicles. You’ve seen people carrying signs at demonstrations. You know that a lot of folks out there want the major automakers to start building electric cars for the masses, but you don’t know why. What are the benefits of electric vehicles? Why would someone choose an electric car over a gasoline-powered vehicle?

The two primary reasons to drive an electric vehicle are simple: cost and convenience.

“What’s that?” you might ask, “I thought electric vehicles were all about saving the world!”

And you would be making a good point. Studies have shown that a mass shift from gas-powered cars to EVs would result in lower pollution, including lower emissions of greenhouse gasses even if the utility grid gets 80% of its power from dirty, old-fashioned coal plants. Additionally, eliminating gasoline-powered cars could eliminate our dependence on foreign oil. Getting rid of oil power would improve national and global security. As long as we rely on distant, politically-unstable regions of the world for much of our energy supply, we risk disaster. The world would be a safer place if every region produced its own energy in a sustainable, environmentally-sound manner.

However, the bottom line is that our lives would generally be better if everyone switched from ICE-powered cars to EVs. We would save money, simplify our lives and make our automobiles more convenient to operate.

Imagine your day if you drove an EV. It would take you only a few seconds to unplug your car every morning. Since the car gets its power from a plug in your wall, it would be easy to design a system that lets you tell your car when to turn on the electric heater so that your seats and steering wheel are nice and warm when you climb in. You would never need to wait in line at gas stations. The drive system in an EV is much simpler than the drive system in an ICE-powered car, so your EV would be much more reliable and would require much less maintenance. If you want a car you almost never have to worry about, then an EV is the car for you.

Driving an EV also costs less. For example, let us look at one EV that is currently being manufactured by the California-based company, AC Propulsion. Their eBox uses a first-generation Scion xB platform, with the stock ICE-drivetrain replaced by their electric drive system. A standard 2006 Scion xB had a combined fuel mileage rating of 31 mpg. At gasoline prices of $3/gallon, the xB uses 10 cents worth of gasoline per mile. The eBox can travel 120-150 miles on a single charge of its 35kWh battery pack. If we assume that electricity costs 10 cents per kWh and that the battery pack is fully drained in 120 miles, then we calculate the cost of electricity at 3 cents per mile, a 70% percent cost savings! Even in areas where electricity costs up to 20 cents per kWh, the eBox costs 40% less to power than a standard Scion xB.

Furthermore, an EV never needs an oil change. It never needs new spark plugs. Since it gets most of its stopping power from a regenerative braking system, brake pads and rotors last several times longer than those in an ICE-powered car. Since electric motors have much more torque at lower speeds when compared to ICEs, transmissions in electric vehicles can be drastically simplified. The simplified drivetrain in an EV not only makes it more reliable, it also results in much lower maintenance costs.

The most expensive part of an EV, in terms of maintenance, is likely to be the battery pack. All batteries currently manufactured have a limited lifespan. Unless this changes, every EV will eventually need a new battery pack, which will costs thousands of dollars. However, companies such as A123 and Altairnano are currently developing lithium-based batteries with dramatically longer lifespans than those of current Li-Ion batteries. People are also driving EVs much further than previously expected on a single battery pack. Originally, skeptics predicted that the NiMH batteries in the Toyota RAV4 EV, available in the USA from 1997 through 2003, would need to be replaced during the first 50,000 miles of travel, but the RAV4 EV has surprised the EV community, with several of the original battery packs lasting beyond the 100,000 mile mark.

It is reasonable to expect that replacement battery pack prices could be brought down to $2000 when they are mass-produced for a major auto manufacturer. If the lifespan of these battery packs can be brought up to 150,000 miles through technological development, the cost per mile for battery use would be 1.3 cents. Compare that to the cost of getting an oil change at Jiffy Lube every 3000 miles. Using a “synthetic mix” of engine oil will cost you $49.99 each visit, for a cost per mile of 1.6 cents. Additionally, there is much discussion in the EV community about the possibility of renting or leasing battery packs, which would effectively allow EV owners to spread out the cost of battery replacement over the life of an EV.

Of course, no discussion of EV cost savings would be complete without the mention of the large-scale cost savings associated with the prevention of global warming. If the world moves from ICE-powered vehicles to EVs powered by renewable energy sources, we can still reverse the heating trend which has been documented in recent years. This would not only save the world trillions of dollars; it could save millions of lives as well.

At this point, an astute reader might argue, “Sure, what you say looks good on paper, but what about the real world? From what I’ve seen, EVs are currently more expensive than ICE-powered cars, and their limited range makes them less convenient.”

Clearly, EVs have yet to reach their full potential in terms of cost, convenience and reliability benefits. For instance, an AC Propulsion eBox would cost you roughly $70,000 ($15K for a used Scion xB plus $55K for the conversion) versus roughly $20,000 for a new Scion xB. Why is there such a price difference? Volume! Tom Gage, president of AC Propulsion, predicts that the company could bring the cost down to “a retail price equivalent of $10,000 per drivetrain” if they were manufacturing between 50,000 and 100,000 units per year. If a major auto manufacturer were building millions of the drivetrains each year, costs would fall much further.

Range issues are also being addressed through rapid development of better batteries. The original GM EV1, introduced in 1996 with low-tech lead acid batteries, had a “real world” range of somewhere between 45 and 75 miles, depending on how aggressively the car was driven. When GM introduced the same car with NiMH batteries, the range almost doubled. The Tesla Roadster, scheduled for production release in early 2008, has a published range of 245 miles. Other EVs slated for production, such as the Chevrolet Volt which will be released in or around 2010, will be PHEVs. As such, owners will be able to plug in their Volts and charge the battery packs from an electrical outlet. The car will travel for roughly forty miles on the energy stored in the batteries, but drivers need not worry if they drain the battery pack! The Volt will be equipped with a small generator and a fuel tank. The generator will turn on automatically before the batteries are drained and will provide enough electricity to power the car and recharge the batteries. The Volt will have a total range of 390 miles. If the Manufacturing and Electrical Platform Design fuel tank gets low, just fill up at a local gas station and the car is “good to go” for another long stretch of road. Rumors are circulating that Tesla and Toyota are also developing PHEVs for release in the near-ish future.

Convinced? Ready to make the switch to a convenient, cost-saving EV? If so, you may be wondering how to encourage the auto companies to build and sell EVs as soon as possible. The good news is that you can choose from a few available EVs right now, such as the eBox described above. If $70K is a bit too much money, you can buy one of the many electric bicycles on the market today, starting at less than $1000. If you want a bit more power, enough to travel on a multi-lane highway, you can purchase a Vectrix MaxiScooter, with a top speed of 62 mph and a range upwards of sixty miles.

But most will agree that the golden age of electric vehicles lies in the future. How do we make this golden age happen ASAP? Here are a few ideas:

– Contact the major auto manufacturers and tell them you want to buy an electric vehicle. Let them know that you plan on postponing a new vehicle purchase until you can buy a BEV or a PHEV. The car companies really do respond to customer demands. Think about how quickly their marketing campaigns have gone from extolling the size of their SUVs to bragging about the gas mileage of their compact cars, now that gas prices are spiking. Here is some contact information published by the group Plug-In America:

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