February 12, 2014 – Vol.18 No.48
 

Slow Progress in Mainstream Electric Vehicles.
by Bruce Mulliken, Green Energy News

 

It's been roughly 15 years since the end of production of General Motors EV1, arguably the most advanced all-electric vehicle of its time and still considered a benchmark car. In the decade and a half, how much have mainstream electric vehicles advanced?

Two more doors and a back seat.

Really. That's about it.

(A little caveat here: The Smart ED has its two doors and two seats, but has a really low lease price, and the Tesla Model S is not exactly a mainstream car.)

The EV1 would travel 80-100 miles on its second generation lead acid batteries and as much as 140 on its Ni-MH batteries. (Some say higher than that.) Other than the aforementioned Tesla, everything offered today seems to hover in the 80 mile range (or less) on a good day. No progress in range despite the addition of advanced lithium batteries that are far pricier than the best lead-acid batteries used in the EV1.

On the other major metric - cost per car - little progress here either. The EV1 was leased so it's hard to determine the sticker price (some have said $33,000), but an average list price of the six mainstream electric vehicles currently available in at least some US states is $32,990.*

(* The average comes from a road test by Car and Driver magazine of the Chevy Spark EV, the Fiat 500 EV, Ford Focus Electric, Honda FIT EV, Nissan Leaf (SL version) and the Smart Fortwo ED Cabriolet. The average would drop a little with a lesser model Leaf, and the hardtop version of the Smart ED instead of the ragtop. The average does not include the Federal Tax credit of as much as $7500, or whatever states might offer since government incentives have nothing to do with the true price of the cars. I believe that current Federal credit is actually more generous than offered for the EV1 back in the day.)

So why so little progress?

In a technical sense it boils down to weight, aerodynamics and those lithium-based batteries the automakers seem obsessed by. In a business sense it's because car companies are trying too hard to convert gas cars into electric cars to save money on the production line.

The EV1 was built with a very light weight (aluminum and plastic) body shell with very slick aerodynamics to carry the heavy batteries of the day. Combined, the feather weight shell and the beastly batteries, the car weighed about 3100 pounds packed with lead, almost 200 lbs lighter with the Nickel-Metal Hydride batteries. Either way a lot poundage for a smallish coupe.

Today, trying to control vehicle costs, automakers have stuck with heavy steel for their EV body shells. The six cars, above, weigh an average of, you guessed it, about 3000 lbs. The flyweight is the Smart at a little over a ton. The heavy one is the Ford at over 3600 lbs., more than some small SUVs. So, despite lighter batteries, heavy steel is weighing them down, reducing range.

GM went way out of its way to let the EV1 glide through the wind. Nissan did its best with the LEAF. But the others have only minor tweaks to improve aerodynamics of the conventional cars the EVs are based on. The lack of slipperiness is holding back the current crop of EVs from going farther on a tank of electrons.

High cost of EV's today is mostly a function of expensive batteries. While the EV1 had in the beginning relatively low-cost lead-acid batteries, with the later NiMH batteries being much more expensive, the manufacturers today are stuck with pricey batteries that are way out of proportion with the value of the car. The lithium-based batteries are keeping vehicle costs high. Car manufacturers are hoping for some miracle invention that will sharply reduce the production cost of the batteries. If price dropped dramatically then any car company could stuff more batteries in cars, like Tesla has done, and increase range to the point where more people would buy the cars.

And there's a technical issue with those costly lithium batteries which is rarely discussed. Apparently lithium batteries can't be fully drained without damage. They can't go down to zero. With this in mind manufacturers may be intentionally limiting how far the car can go before the vehicle's battery management system says enough is enough, time to call it quits. What appears to be zero on the miles-to-go, or state-of-charge gauge, might be actually much higher. If this is in fact true, today's EVs have a greater range than the car says it has, but your can't go there without damaging the battery.

Overall, automakers haven't learned from the past. The EV1 was a success story that was regrettably sent to the crusher. Today's automakers should look at and try to replicate it. Keep the body shell light and aerodynamically greasy. (Imagine how far an EV1 would travel on a light lithium battery pack!)

And rethink the need for two doors and the back seat. Together they add weight and complexity. To be honest folks how, other than a place to throw junk, how often do you use your back seat to carry people? Not often. And do a little survey next time you're watching traffic go by. How many cars have just the driver aboard? Most. The driver and a passenger? A few.

 

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