Published on October 21st, 2007 | by Stephanie Evans1
Combating Climate Change and Pollution with Electric Cars
To some, the electric car is destined to go the way of the hovercar—forever set in a future far beyond realization. To others, it hearkens a new era of clean and efficient personal transport.
Recent developments in electric car technologies and new products coming to market from numerous manufacturers make the case that electric cars are here to stay as a long-term player in the world of alternative fuel vehicles.
Matters of Fact
Electric cars produce no emissions at point of use, so they don’t contribute to air pollution on the streets. They have fewer moving parts, making them more reliable and lower maintenance. They’re silent, so noise pollution isn’t a factor either. They’re much more efficient than internal combustion cars, so they use much less energy. And they’re energy-flexible, since the source of electricity that powers them can come from anything—you can choose a renewable source, a cheap source, a domestic source, anything you want—and you can change your mind whenever you want.
If you charge from the grid, the centralized power production for the grid means the realization of economies of scale in addition to rigorously controlled emissions. An added benefit is that you can charge up during the night, when electricity is cheaper, and sell excess power back to the grid during the day, when electricity is more expensive. Vehicle-to-grid, or V2G, not only takes a load off during peak demand times, it also contributes to the supply during those times as well, helping to prevent brownouts and blackouts.
Despite the futuristic feel of electric cars, they’ve been around longer than gasoline-powered automobiles. In between steam and gasoline, electric power was briefly the rage at the turn of the century. Silence, a smooth ride, easy operation and maintenance, and widespread availability of electricity by 1912, all contributed to the electric car’s competitive edge.
For decades, the electric car has slumbered beneath the dominance of the internal combustion engine. But just as heroes of old are called after their deaths at times of great need, the oil crisis of the ‘70s wakened interest in the electric car once again.
Not even a decade later however, technological and business innovations created competition that the electric car couldn’t match. The electric starter eliminated the need to start gasoline-powered autos with the hand crank, rendering the vehicles safer, more pleasant, and suitable for ladies to use. Ford’s Model T was cheap enough to make the automobile both useful and necessary to the masses. With these improvements, the battery-powered electric car paled in comparison to internal combustion autos, as limited range and far higher prices spelled its demise.
For decades, the electric car has slumbered beneath the dominance of the internal combustion engine. But just as heroes of old are called after their deaths at times of great need, the oil crisis of the ‘70s wakened interest in the electric car once again. The most successful of the electric cars developed during this time was the CitiCar, built by American company Sebring Vanguard. Unfortunately, as soon as oil prices dropped, the frenzy of research and entrepreneurship subsided into a low murmur. That murmur is now growing in volume as environmental concerns vilify internal combustion vehicles and the world looks to alternatives for hope against air pollution and global warming. Engineers, businessmen, regulators, and concerned consumers are all hard at work readying the electric car for battle against its old opponent.
It Doesn’t Keep Going and Going.…
Internal combustion engines may have outperformed electric motors one-half century ago, but things have changed. Advances in electronics and the favourable torque curve of electric motors mean powerful acceleration, and in drag races, converted electric vehicles have left supercars in the dust. A new generation of high performance electric sports coupes are coming to sex up the market, with France’s Venturi Fétish, the U.S.’s Tesla Roadster, and the U.K.’s Lightning Car. These exotics sacrifice nothing—not performance, not safety, not luxury.
Well, almost nothing. The disadvantages that condemned electric cars to a long sleep in the first place are still present in today’s modern electric vehicles. Limited range and lengthy recharging are major drawbacks that don’t afflict internal combustion cars. Consider that:
- Production electric cars can barely top 60 miles, and even the electric supercars going into production don’t claim more than 200 miles. Compare that to a conventional supercar that can probably run 300 miles, or a conventional sedan that can easily reach 400 miles or more.
- Recharging generally takes several hours, in contrast to refilling at the gas pump, which only takes a few minutes. This trait makes electric vehicles unsuitable for road trips and unattractive to people who have a habit of filling up on their way to meet important clients.
- High power and energy densities extend the range of the electric vehicle.
- Fast-charge innovations reduce recharging times so that they’re on the order of minutes rather than hours.
- Longer lifespan batteries lessen the frequency of expensive replacements (and potentially hazardous disposal). In fact, much of the price premium on an electric vehicle is related to the battery, because cars demand from it an expensive combination of capacity, performance and weight.
The key to overcoming these difficulties is battery technology. In fact, most of the unfavorable comparisons between electric cars and internal combustion cars have something to do with the batteries.
In order to become competitive with conventional cars, we need to develop cheap batteries with high power-to-weight ratios and long lifespans. For example, lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries, ubiquitous in consumer electronics such as cell phones and laptops, have great power-to-weight ratios and are relatively inexpensive. But Li-ions suffer from a touchy lifespan that can drop dramatically with high temperatures or deep discharges. On the other hand, nickel metal hydride (NiMH) batteries have lower energy densities and are slightly more expensive, but last much longer (Toyota proudly boasts that no NiMH battery-packing Prius has needed a replacement yet). There are many other battery technologies in the works, such as Li-ion batteries that utilize nanotechnology for extraordinarily short recharging times and zinc-bromine flow batteries that are refilled (like your gas tank!) rather than recharged.
The truth is, battery technology and production are not yet mature enough for electric cars to become the automobile standard. Does that mean we’re just going to have to wait around for batteries to "grow up?" The answer’s no, unless you’re the reactive type. There are definitely things you can do right now.
A New World
One is to accept the limited range and the long recharging times. Consider your commute—your workplace is probably well within range of an ordinary electric vehicle (i.e., not high performance). If you can find an outdoor outlet around the corporate parking lot, you can double that range. If not, then you can charge at home, overnight. The only person who’s going to want to use the car at that hour is your rebellious teenager, sneaking off to a late-night party (and you don’t really want that anyway!). The rest of the week, you’re probably not going much further than the local shopping centre, and you’ll have ample time to recharge. For emergency uses, you could hop onto public transportation, use a car-sharing service or buy a hybrid.
That’s another thing you can do for the electric car industry: buy a hybrid. Hybrids use batteries too, but they’re not quite as demanding. When you buy a hybrid, you support companies and engineers on the battery learning curve, helping them to edge one step closer to the ideal battery for electric vehicles.
Besides, do we really want electric vehicles to become our conventional method of transport? Do electric cars solve the problems of (or even contribute to the solutions of) traffic congestion, land development, or highway safety? When you think about it, you’ll realize that the internal combustion engine is only part of the problem. Another important part is the car itself, electric or gas. The more often we walk, bike, or take public transportation, the less often we need to take out the car, period. Of course it would be great if, when we did take out the car, it was a silent, efficient, clean thing of beauty. But for now, maybe we could just drive less.