Electric cars, flogging a long dead horse?


What most people don’t know about electric vehicles (EV) is that they existed years before the gasoline-powered car came along. The first of these EV’s appeared in the mid 1830’s. In the years 1899 and 1900 the EV outsold all other types of cars (steam, gasoline) in the USA, and by the early 1900′s the Electric Vehicle Company in New York City was running up to 1000 electric taxicabs.

EV production peaked in 1912 with some of the EV’s of that era capable of a 160 km range, and with the technology available to fast-charge and swap batteries. Because of the availability of cheap and well distributed gasoline, a rapidly extended public road system and vehicular improvements, gasoline-powered cars soon became the most popular and practical type of vehicle. The improved technology and infrastructure contributed to opening up the rural areas outside cities, leaving the EV, which was predominantly used in metropolitan areas due to its limitations, to wither and eventually disappear in the 1920’s.

And Now…

A century later the Nissan Leaf has been named car of the year. According to the US Nissan website, it has an average range of 160 km/charge. This figure is based upon the US EPA LA4 City cycle test, which is conducted in a controlled laboratory environment. Electric cars are most energy efficient during city driving, mainly because of the low average speed, hence the claimed 160 km average. On the highway, with the use of air-conditioning, heating or lights, things look quite a bit bleaker. In fact, this car and its current peers, despite all the technological advances in battery technology, have no better range than some of the EV’s of the early 20th century!

The Leaf comes with an onboard 3.3kw charger, compatible with domestic AC power outlets. To put things into perspective, 3.3kw equals the power consumed by thirteen 60 inch plasma TV’s (LG 60PK550). One problematic issue is that when this 3300 Watt charger is put to use (for about 8 hours when the battery is empty), the current draw is so substantial that any additional equipment feeding off the same circuit could potentially trip the breaker. Alternatively, Nissan offers a home charging dock which must be bought separately and installed into the home’s electrical system by a qualified electrician, potentially running up more costs.

Practically Speaking

The feasibility and practicality of this vehicle concept as is, remains questionable. We all know, here in Amsterdam for example, the chance of being able to park in front of one’s residence is similar to trying to find a ganja-free coffee shop. Living on the 3rd floor at the back of the building (not uncommon here) complicates things a little further with regard to reeling out the old extension cord. This means that many proud EV owners have to rely on charging facilities provided by the municipality. How is that going to work when the EV population starts outgrowing charging stations? Think about it, you come home from a hard day’s work and you can’t find a charger (grumble). So you park anywhere you can. Then after some time you have to go out again to try and find a charging station (grumble #2). You finally get it hooked up, and then hours later you need to move the car and try to find a parking place again (yikes!).

In Summary

It would appear that the issues that caused the original EV’s to disappear in the 1900’s have been forgotten. However, I do believe there is a niche for EV’s if they’re used where they’re most efficient, i.e. urban areas. Businesses and municipalities who cover limited distances and have premises to charge the vehicles overnight can benefit from the relatively cheaper running costs. Amsterdam is eager to establish itself as a global capital for electric cars and has introduced numerous incentives to help stimulate demand for EVs. At the beginning of last year they introduced a grant scheme to help convince local businesses and residents to switch to electric. Something that, given the nature of mass transit in the region, is not likely to be practical for a great number of commuting residents. Remember, EV’s worked for a short period in time mostly because travel was limited to urban areas and speeds were low; the average vehicle now covers a far larger distance at greater speeds. So far all the extra power from improved battery technology has gone into compensating for increased vehicle weight, speed and modern conveniences, leaving their range as limited as ever. To date new electric vehicles still just don’t have the charge to go all the way.

Eric de Jong