TECHNOLOGY

On the electric circuit

MARK NICHOLS September 19 1994
TECHNOLOGY

On the electric circuit

MARK NICHOLS September 19 1994

On the electric circuit

TECHNOLOGY

As deputy prime minister in Brian Mulroney’s Conservative government, Erik Nielsen earned the nickname “Velcro lips” for his taciturn style and closemouthed unwillingness to dispense government information. Now comes the new Erik Nielsen, the talkative and very accessible fellow who has been travelling across Canada to spread the gospel about his new passion: electric cars. Demonstrating an electrically powered 1988 Ford Escort, Nielsen has met with federal, provincial and municipal officials, telling anyone who will listen that the time has come to begin the shift from polluting, gasoline-fuelled vehicles to zero-emission electric cars, trucks and buses—in fact, even scooters. Nielsen is not alone in that belief. Starting in 1998, California and perhaps as many as 12 other states will enforce laws that, in effect, require auto manufacturers to begin producing and selling some electrically powered vehicles (EVs). In Canada, at least two provinces are evaluating EVs—and officials in British Columbia say they may decide to follow California’s lead and mandate their use. According to Nielsen, the only reason that North Americans are not already driving electric cars is that “they haven’t seen them or driven them, and they don’t know how good they can be to your pocketbook.”

That is the buzz among electric car enthusiasts, environmentalists and officials in some of the most smog-shrouded parts of the continent. But critics—and many of them sell gasoline or make gas-powered cars—do not feel the tingle. They point out that today’s electric cars perform badly in cold weather, and they argue that in some North American regions switching to electric will simply shift the source of air pollution to coal-burning electrical generating plants. And although the Big Three North American automakers have developed electric vehicles, they insist that it is too soon to begin producing cars and vans that will perform far below the standards of gasoline-powered vehicles and cost much more—Ford’s electric-powered Ecostar van might cost three times as much as a gas-burning counterpart.

According to the automakers, the main difficulty in producing EVs stems from slow progress in the development of better batteries. Unlike advertising’s ubiquitous battery-powered bunny that just keeps going and going, most

The future could be bright for cars and buses powered by batteries

EVs equipped with conventional lead-acid batteries can only be driven for about 100 km before their batteries have to be recharged—a process that can take 10 hours. And they wear out with normal use in about three years. Moreover, the batteries required by an electric vehicle can weigh as much as 1,400 pounds, although everyone agrees that they will ultimately be replaced by a lighter generation with twice the range and a shorter recharge time.

Pressure to produce EVs began mounting on General Motors, Ford and Chrysler in September, 1990, when California—determined to reduce the Los Angeles area’s infamous smog— announced regulations requiring sharply reduced fuel emissions. The new rules will also force automakers to ensure that two per cent of the cars and trucks they sell in 1998 give off zero emissions—a requirement that currently can only be met by EVs. The number of EVs specifically mandated by California will increase to 10 per cent of the total state market—or about 150,000 EVs— by the year 2003. However, the push to electrify has its critics. “We think governments are doing things the wrong way around,” says Chris Banks, corporate programs manager for Ford of Canada in Oakville, Ont., “by forcing production of a car before the demand is there. EVs have a lot of shortcomings.” However, tougher laws may create that demand. Currently, 12 northeastern states and the District of Columbia are dickering with the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Big Three automakers over the possibility of adopting California’s emissions standards—with the decision on EVs being left to each state. Two of the largest states in the region, New York and Massachusetts, have already adopted regulations similar to California’s for EVs starting in 1998.

Canada may not be far behind. With concern growing over smog levels in its lower mainland, British Columbia may also join the move to electric. In May, Premier Mike Harcourt’s NDP government won passage of legislation giving it the power to regulate vehicle and fuel standards. ‘The legislation would allow us to do similar things as California, such as telling auto manufacturers they have to sell a certain number of zero-emission vehicles,” said Bob McDonald, a spokesman for the provincial environment ministry. “And that’s the direction we’re leaning in.” Meanwhile, in Quebec, Premier Daniel Johnson announced last month the appropriation of $100 million for a program to develop an electric car. “Cars propelled by electricity,” said the statement from the premier’s office, “will form the basis of a huge industry within the next five years.”

In his new incarnation as an apostle of battery-powered vehicles, Erik Nielsen is acting as the Canadian representative of U.S. Electricar Inc., an 18-year-old firm based in Santa Rosa, Calif. The company is capable of manufacturing or converting to electric drive several hundred vehicles a month—mainly for fleet use by electrical power utilities and other firms interested in test-driving EVs. Nielsen, 70, who quit politics in 1986, was turned on to EVs when his movie star brother, Leslie, was working on the 1991 film Naked Gun 21k. Leslie, an ardent environmentalist, was charged up about the electrically powered sports car he drove in the movie. Intrigued, Nielsen decided to visit U.S. Electricar’s headquarters and wound up as the firm’s Canadian agent. Nielsen is also a U.S. Electricar representative in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, where he spends the winter.

On the road this summer, Nielsen drove a diesel-powered recreation vehicle and towed his electric Escort on a frailer—“a bit of a contradiction,” he admits. The reason: U.S. Electricar does not yet make a vehicle as big as Nielsen’s RV, which contains living accommodation and office space for his computer, fax machine and other office equipment. Nielsen began his cross-country tour last March to promote EVs at the Globe 94 international environmental technology exposition in Vancouver, then drove to Ottawa where he spent four weeks lobbying federal officials and businessmen—Nielsen hopes that several branches of the federal government may decide to switch to EVs. Later, he headed west again to make his pitch to provincial and municipal officials on the Prairies.

While extolling electric cars for their environmental advantages and low operating costs, Nielsen acknowledges that there are drawbacks, especially in winter. “Cold weather can knock off about 20 per cent of the battery’s power,” he says. “These cars aren’t intended to be the same as a standard automobile.” Like other enthusiasts, Nielsen argues that electric cars are efficient and inexpensive to operate for short trips, making good

second cars in two-car families or serving as delivery and utility vehicles. “The one that I’m driving costs about four cents a mile to operate,” says Nielsen, “as opposed to a gasoline model of the same vehicle at 12 cents a mile.”

The Big Three automakers, who face the prospect of producing thousands of EVs for the 1998 model year, say their EVs are going to be expensive and will likely find little favor with the public. Among the EVs currently being evaluated:

• General Motors Impact. The first of the Big Three to produce an EV, GM unveiled the specially designed two-seater in January, 1990. At the time, company officials said the Impact would go into production by the mid1990s at a retail price of about $34,000. Citing uncertain public acceptance, GM last year postponed plans to begin production.

• Chrysler TE Electric Minivan. Technicians at Chrysler’s Windsor, Ont., minivan plant recently finished converting about 50 Caravan and Voyager vans from gasoline to electric power—at a cost of about $120,000 each. The vans currently are being shipped to power utilities and other firms in the United States.

• Ford Ecostar van. Ford’s current fleet of 34 electrically powered vans, now on lease to 12 U.S. firms, have been troubled by battery problems. Based on a European model of the popular Ford Escort, the Ecostar would be expensive if there were any available yet for the commercial market. One reason: the power plant. Ford uses a gel lead-acid battery supplied by a Mississauga, Ont., firm that costs about $63,000.

Because of the high costs and limited performance, the Big Three insist that the time is not ripe to force EVs on the marketplace. “We’re concerned about governments mandating these electric vehicles until the industry has been able to develop a product that will truly work for the consumer,” says Maureen Kempston Darkes, president of General Motors of Canada Ltd. Despite that, as more corporations and government agencies gain experience with EVs, support for them is growing. Last year, the University of Ottawa’s centre for electrochemical technology, which researches and evaluates battery technology, acquired 20 GM vans that were converted to electric power by a subsidiary of Magna International Inc. of Markham, Ont. The vans currently are leased to North American firms and government agencies, including the City of Ottawa, Canada Post and power utilities in British Columbia and Nova Scotia. The results so far have been encouraging, says the centre’s director, Bill Adams, who argues that electric cars will ultimately win acceptance in North America. “It will be a revolution,” says Adams. “It’s going to happen, because the need for improved energy efficiency and improved air quality demands it.” If Adams is right, more and more North American motorists may find an EV in their future.

MARK NICHOLS