Since they first appeared in 1888, vehicles powered by electricity have risen and fallen in public popularity. But many experts now say that electric cars will make a comeback over the next decade as North Americans and Europeans become increasingly concerned about air quality and other environmental issues, as well as rising oil prices. Earlier this year, Detroitbased General Motors Corp.
(GM) unveiled a prototype of a sleek-looking electric car called the Impact. Last month, the city of Los Angeles, along with a private utility, agreed to invest $8 million in the development of electric vehicles. Their goal is to put 1,000 electric cars on Los Angeles roads by 1992, with another 9,000 by 1995. And last week, in a joint venture with GM, Newmarket, Ont.based VEHMA International, a division of auto-parts maker Magna International, began assembling 60 electric vans.
Two major Canadian electrical utilities and more than 20 U.S. utilities have agreed to purchase the vehicles in order to test their capabilities.
Said Jack Kerr, president of the Electric Vehicle Association of Canada in Mississauga, Ont.: “It’s sort of the hush before the storm.”
Proponents say that, for the first time in decades, a combination of political, economic and environmental forces have made electric vehicles an attractive alternative to gasoline-powered automobiles. For one thing, Iraq’s Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait has pushed up gas prices in Canada between two and five cents a litre. U.S. prices have jumped by six to eight cents a litre, and international prices from 10 to 12 cents a litre. And increased concern about air pollution has led to strict clean-air legislation, especially in such huge urban centres as Los Angeles, and a search for automobiles that do not produce harmful emissions. Still, some experts maintain that consumers will be reluctant to switch to electric cars until researchers develop a battery capable of powering a vehicle beyond the current limit of about 160 km before a recharge is necessary. Declared Mark Nantais, executive director of the Toronto-based Motor
Vehicle Manufacturers Association: “I don’t see gas going by the wayside for a long time yet because it’s a very good fuel and the current technology is based on gasoline.”
But it has not always been that way. At the turn of the century, 38 per cent of the automobiles in the United States were powered by electricity, 22 per cent used gasoline, and the rest were steam driven. Then, as now, electric
cars were almost silent and required little maintenance. By 1912, there were nearly 34,000 electric vehicles in use in the United States alone, compared with about 20,000 automobiles powered by internal-combustion engines. But by the end of the Second World War, electric vehicles had almost completely disappeared from North American roads. Motorists had given up on the vehicles because they could only be driven a maximum of about 65 km before a recharge. As well, they could reach a top speed of only 32 km/h, while gaspowered vehicles could easily attain speeds of 140 km/h.
Many of the problems associated with electric vehicles during the first half of the century still have not been entirely resolved. Although more powerful batteries are now available, even the best electric vehicles remain limited, and it takes an average of six hours to fully
recharge the batteries. As a result, most automotive experts argue that electric cars would be useful solely in urban areas. Even then, motorists would require a network of service centres where the vehicles could be conveniently recharged. Prolonged testing of electric vehicles has also shown that the batteries must be replaced at about 80,000 km, or once every four to five years, which could cost $1,500 for a car and up to $7,000 for a van. However, scientists in Europe and North America are looking for alternatives to the current lead-acid batteries in order to increase the range and versatility of electric vehicles.
In the past decade, growing public concern over air pollution, much of it caused by internalcombustion engines, has led to renewed interest in electric cars. According to the Washington-based Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), many U.S. cities regularly exceed the federal clean air standard of 0.12 parts per million of ground-level ozone, a gas contained
in automobile exhausts and the principal component of smog. In Los Angeles and the adjoining communities of San Bernardino, Orange County and Riverside County, where there are eight million registered automobiles, ozone levels exceeded the EPA guidelines on 127 days last year. EPA monitoring frequently revealed ozone levels at triple the guidelines.
With its severe air-quality problems, Los Angeles has become one of the first major urban areas in North America to promote the development and use of electric cars. Last year, the South Coast Air Quality Management Board, a California regional agency that establishes air-quality standards for much of southern California, ordered that average daily ozone levels in the Los Angeles basin must meet the EPA standards by the year 2010. To address the problem, the Los Angeles department of water and power and Southern Califor-
nia Edison, a private utility that supplies electricity to the basin, agreed to spend $8 million over a period of five years to finance the design and development of an electric car.
After reviewing proposals from 19 companies, the City of Los Angeles and Southern California Edison on Sept. 6 signed an agreement with Swedish-based Clean Air Transport, which has developed a vehicle called the LA 301. Clean Air was founded in 1988 and is
backed by British, American and Swedish investors. Its four-passenger electric car is designed to travel at top speeds of 115 km/h for distances of between 100 km and 115 km before requiring a recharge. Jerry Enzenauer, who is managing the program on behalf of Los Angeles, said that the car would likely sell for about $29,000 initially, but that the price would come down as more cars are produced. Prototypes for the vehicles are currently in production at Clean Air’s plant in Sweden. Enzenauer said that both the city and Southern California Edison plan to add about 30 of the vehicles to their fleets.
Meanwhile, the Big Three automakers, General Motors, Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Corp., devote what analysts regard as a minor portion of their annual development budgets to electric vehicles. GM’s Impact is based on the engineering and design of its solar car, the Sunraycer. With a range of about 190 km, the 2,200-lb. car can maintain an average speed of 90 km/h on a highway, it can accelerate from zero to 100 km/h in eight seconds and it can reach a top
speed of 120 km/h. The car includes a built-in recharging system, and the 870-lb. battery pack, which houses 32 lead-acid batteries, can be almost completely recharged in two hours. But GM officials refused to comment about the company’s production plans or the projected cost of the Impact.
At the same time, the company is also working with VEHMA and has developed the electric G-Van, 60 of which will be produced in
Newmarket, 25 km north of Toronto, before the end of this year. GM has supplied the frames for the vans, while VEHMA is assembling the vehicles. The vans have already been sold primarily to utilities in the United States and Canada, including three to Hydro Quebec and five to Calgary-based TransAlta Utilities Corp. The utilities will use the vans primarily for demonstration purposes. “The initial buyers are really benevolent customers,” explained David Sedgwick, the general manager of Powerplex, VEHMA’s research and development arm. “They understand the cost of the vehicles isn’t really competitive with internal-combustion vehicles but they want to get involved.” The vans, which will initially cost $57,500, have a range of about 95 km, with a top speed of 90 km/h, and their lead-acid batteries require about eight hours for a complete recharge.
Ford, too, has been working on electric vehicles during the past eight years and the company currently has 10 vehicles out in test fleets in the Washington area. Ford developed its EV program with Fairfield, Conn.-based
General Electric Co. and several major battery manufacturers. Since 1982, the company has spent about $23 million on the project. John Jelinek, product information manager at Ford Motor Co. of Canada in Oakville, Ont., says that there is a good chance the electric vehicles will be widely available to consumers early in the next century in metropolitan areas. Ford’s demonstrator electric vehicles, five vans and five cars, can travel about 160 km without a recharge to the battery. “That’s great if you’re in Metro Toronto,” says Jelinek. “So we see it as being an answer in urban areas.” He predicted that electric-powered vehicles will not be significantly more expensive than gas-powered cars.
Chrysler appears to be making a smaller commitment to electric vehicle research than either Ford or GM, and officials with the company express less optimism about the technology than their counterparts at the other two companies. Chrysler is participating in a joint venture with the Electrical Power Research Institute in Palo Alto, Calif., to develop and test five electric-powered vans. “We’re not convinced that there's a market out there,” said Chrysler media relations officer Anthony Cervone. “Is there a supplier base out there for batteries? Is there one for electric power? Electric vehicles seem like the end-all from an emissions standpoint, but electric companies will have to work around the clock.”
But several Canadian, European and American companies are working to develop solutions to the roadblocks facing the vehicles. Ford, Powerplex and the West German electrical engineering company Asea Brown Boveri are all testing sodium-sulphur batteries. According to Sedgwick, there are 30 vehicles in Europe and Canada using the batteries, and their performance has been encouraging. Sodium-sulphur can store three to four times the energy of lead-acid, which means that a car powered by sodium-sulphur batteries could travel about 385 km without a recharge. But Sedgwick added that one of the problems with the batteries, which are still in the prototype stage, is that they last only a year or two.
Despite the growing evidence that internalcombustion engines are contributing significantly to air pollution in urban areas, most experts agree that electric-powered vehicles do not represent a quick and simple solution yet. The range of the cars is too limited, the battery replacement costs too high, and the cars themselves are expensive. But most advocates of electric cars argue that if the vehicles were mass-produced, they would be cost-competitive with conventional vehicles. “We’re moving in the direction of electric vehicles,” said Nantais. “But it all rests on whether the public creates that demand.” Until the auto industry produces an electric vehicle that runs as efficiently—and as inexpensively—as gaspowered automobiles, it will take some time to convince consumers that what was popular in the early 20th century is also the wave of the future.
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