by Andy O’Brien
“What was the largest car manufacturer in the United States in 1900?” asked Jeff Thayer, University of Maine Visiting Professor of Energy Policy, Law and Ethics, at a recent program in South Portland hosted by the Environmental and Energy Technology Council of Maine (E2Tech) titled “Electric and Natural Gas Vehicles: Reducing Maine’s Oil Dependence.”
The answer: the Electric Vehicle Company in New York City. At that time 34 percent of the cars in New York, Chicago and Boston were electric. Ironically, Thayer said, for the first half of the 20th century, refrigerators were powered by gas.
“We are in a transitional phase now, and this is not the first one we’ve been through,” said Thayer.
Throughout the 1800s a number of innovative individuals experimented with electric vehicle technology. The Scottish inventor Robert Anderson is widely credited with inventing the first electric carriage in the 1830s, which ran on electrified rails. By the late 19th century, fleets of electric taxis operated in New York City, and manufacturers like Porche, Studebaker and even Thomas Edison built electric vehicles (EVs). Although the land speed record of the time was broken at 65.79 mph by an EV in 1899, most of the commercially available models were fairly slow and had limited range on a charge. However, they were popular due to their relative lack of noise, smell, and vibration and the driver didn’t need to shift gears or crank-start the car. For the elites who could afford them, an EV was the perfect vehicle for a leisurely ride around town. Then, during the 1920s, due to the increased availability of petroleum, technological improvements in the gas-powered automobile, and the desire to drive longer distances, the internal combustion engine replaced the EV. But EV technology was never forgotten, and throughout the 20th century it popped up from time to time. Immediately following World War II, due to oil rationing in Europe and Japan, EVs made a brief appearance. In the 1960s, Boeing and GM collaborated on the design and manufacture of the Apollo Lunar Rover. After an oil crisis in the 1970s, there was a renewed public interest in alternatives to conventional fuels and some began looking back to what could have been.
“Who Killed the Electric Car?”
Then in 1990, due to stifling air pollution, California passed the strict zero-emissions vehicle (ZEV) mandate, requiring the major car companies to produce and sell a zero-emission vehicle in the state. Starting in 1996, GM piloted the highway-ready EV1, offering limited leases of the battery electric vehicle (BEV) to customers in California. However, after major car makers sued the California Air Resources Board (CARB) over the rule, the agency was forced to loosen the regulation, giving wiggle room for companies to design other designated “low-emission vehicles” like hydrogen-fueled, natural-gas powered, and hybrid cars. Although GM produced a little over 1,100 EV1s, which had a loyal customer following, the company declared that the car was not profitable, due to the cost of parts and lack of charging infrastructure. In 2002, the company refused to renew the leases and automakers ended up repossessing the cars and crushed them in spite of heated protests from customers. The 2006 documentary “Who Killed the Electric Car?” documented the controversy over GM’s decision and analyzed the role automobile manufacturers, oil companies, and SUV-loving consumers themselves played in keeping the EV from reaching its full potential. During another spike in oil prices in 2008, a network of EV advocates, still stinging from the EV1 phase, came together to found Plug-in America (http://www.pluginamerica.org), a non-profit advocating for more energy independence through the use of electric cars.
In 2009, they were vindicated when Rick Wagoner, the outgoing CEO of GM, after suffering $85 billion in company losses, told Motor Trend Magazine that the worst decision he ever made was “axing the EV1 electric car program and not putting the right resources into hybrids. It didn’t affect profitability,” he said. “But it did affect image.”
In 2010, the company released the plug-in hybrid Chevy Volt.
The EV Experience
“I’ve driven the car almost 6,000 miles, and I can say with absolute confidence that I will never own a gas-powered car again,” says BEV owner Marc Lausier at his Scarborough home. Dubbed the “season of the electric car,” every major car manufacturer has announced plans to release their own plug-in EVs. 2012 saw the release of several lines of BEVs that run completely on electric power and are capable of highway speeds, and models like the Nissan LEAF and Mitsubishi I-MIEV have become available for the first time in Maine.
Drawn by a love for new technologies and a desire to reduce his carbon footprint, in 2010, Lausier, a retired pharmacist, put down the deposit for a Nissan LEAF, which stands for “Leading Environmenal Affordable Family” car. He was finally able to drive it off the lot in Saco in March of this year. The LEAF is a four-door hatchback and looks like any other car, with a few minor differences. The gas tank has been replaced by a large plug running into an outlet in the front that connects to a 650-lb. lithium ion battery. There isn’t a tailpipe because it doesn’t have emissions, and there are no oil changes because it doesn’t use oil. Unlike a conventional car, the LEAF doesn’t start with a key, so when I press the button to start, I instinctively press it again and again after not hearing the starter or the roar of the engine. Lausier immediately stops me. The car is already on, but it hardly makes a sound. As we drive down the street, the relative silence of the car is actually a little distracting. There is no sound of the car shifting into gear because there is no transmission. There are only about five moving parts in the 80-kilowatt brushless motor, which gives the car instant torque.
“Go ahead,” Lausier says. “Put your foot down.”
Without hesitation, the car bolts down the road. With 107 horsepower, the LEAF can reportedly go from 0 to 60 in 10 seconds. The 288hp Tesla can hit 60 in 3.7 seconds, so power is not a problem for the new electric cars. Lausier said his biggest problem is that he drives too fast because there’s no audio cue from the engine. When I take my foot off the accelerator, the regenerative braking system in the car causes it to slow, providing the simulation of a conventional car. Without it, the LEAF would just coast.
Nissan LEAF â the gas tank has been replaced by a large plug running into an outlet in the front that connects to a 650-lb. lithium ion battery. There isn’t a tailpipe because it doesn’t have emissions, and there are no oil changes because it doesn’t use oil.
* Mileage and range according to US Environmental Protection Agency estimates
The Four Types of Electric Cars â
Hybrid Electric Vehicle (HEV) Provides fuel efficiency with a combination electric battery and internal combustion engine or other propulsion source (Example: Toyota Prius)
Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle (PHEV): Also has a combination electric motor and internal combustion engine or other propulsion source, but the PHEV has a larger battery pack that can be plugged into an electrical outlet to increase the share of electrical power. (Example: Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid, Ford C-Max Energi)
Range Extended Electric Vehicle (REEV): Can run on electric charged batteries, but uses an internal combustion engine to power an electric generator that charges the battery system for long distances. (Example: Chevy Volt)
Battery Electric Vehicle (BEV): Has no internal combustion engine and runs completely on electric power by plugging into the grid. (Example: Nissan LEAF, Tesla Roadster, Mitsubish I-MIEV)