Sunday, March 6, 2011

The status quo of electric cars: better batteries, same range

From Low Tech Magazine:

6a00e0099229e8883301348051634b970c-500wi Electric motors and batteries have improved substantially over the past one hundred years, but today's much hyped electric cars have a range that is - at best - comparable to that of their predecessors at the beginning of the 20th century. Weight, comfort, speed and performance have eaten up any real progress. We don't need better batteries, we need better cars.

From about 1895 to the mid-1920s, and following the bicycle craze of the 1890s, electric cars shared the road with petrol and steam powered cars. EV's were comparatively slow, heavy, and had a smaller range than their alternatives. During the very early years, however, electric automobiles were the most popular option for a short time, mainly because of two reasons.

HerculesFirstly, they were easy to start, while a gasoline car had to be cranked up and a steam powered car required a long firing-up time (not unlike a wood gas car). Secondly, there were few paved roads outside the city at the turn of the 20th century, which made the limited range of EV's not that problematic. The production of electric vehicles peaked in 1912: during that time there were 30,000 EV's on the road in the United States, two-thirds of these were used as private passenger cars. Europe had around 4,000 electric vehicles.

By 1912, the gasoline car had already taken over the largest share of the automobile sales (more than 90 percent). They were faster and could drive longer distances - not only because of their better range but also because of a more elaborate refuelling infrastructure. The rapidly expanding paved road network worked in their favour, too.

Internal combustion engines became much cheaper than electrics. In 1908, Ford introduced its mass-produced (and gasoline powered) Model-T, which initially sold for 850 dollars - two to three times less than the price of a similar electric vehicle. In 1912, the price of the Model-T came down to 650 dollars. That same year, the electrical starter for gasoline vehicles appeared, and took away one of the last selling points of EV's. Last but not least, gasoline had become much cheaper than it had been at the end of the 19th century.
R & L extension front coupe 75 miles rangeThe only advantage left was the (potential) cleanliness and noiselessness of electric vehicles, the reason we want them back today. In 1914, Henry Ford announced the marketing of a cheap mass-produced electric vehicle, but this automobile was never produced. In Europe, electric passenger cars were gone in 1920, in the US they survived for a decade longer. Electric trucks, outside the scope of this article, remained successful for a longer period.

The manufacturers of early electric cars made several strategic mistakes. For instance, it took them until 1910 to develop a standard for the charging of the batteries. But, at the heart of the failure of the early electric car lay the limited capacity of the storage battery.

Then and now: 100 miles
If today's supporters of EV's would dig into the specifications and the sales brochures of early 20th century electric "horseless carriages", their enthusiasm would quickly disappear. Fast-charged batteries (to 80% capacity in 10 minutes), automated battery swapping stations, public charging poles, load balancing, the entire business plan of Better Place, in-wheel motors, regenerative braking: it was all there in the late 1800s or the early 1900s. It did not help. Most surprisingly, however, is the seemingly non-existent progress of battery technology.

The 100  mile fritchl electric poster The Nissan Leaf and the Mitsubishi i-MiEV, two electric cars to be introduced on the market in 2010, have exactly the same range as the 1908 Fritchle Model A Victoria: 100 miles (160 kilometres) on a single charge. The "100-mile Fritchle" was a progressive engineering feat for its time, but it was not the only early electric that boasted a 100 mile range. I have only chosen it because its specifications are most complete, and because its range was certified.

The first electric cars (1894 - 1900) had a range of 20 to 40 miles (32 to 64 kilometres), still better than the 20 km "range" of a horse. The average second generation EV (1901 - 1910) already boasted a mileage of 50 to 80 miles (80 to 130 km). The third generation of early electric cars (1911-1920), including larger vehicles that could seat 5 people comfortably, could travel 75 to more than 100 miles (120 to more than 160 km) on a single charge - and this is still the range of electric cars today. (See our overview on early electrics for the specifications of individual vehicles).

 100 miles = upper limit
In fact, the range of the Nissan Leaf or the Mitsubishi i-MiEV may be far worse than that of the 1908 Fritchle. The range of the latter was (officially) recorded during an 1800 mile (2,900 km) race over a period of 21 driving days in the winter of 1908. The stock vehicle was driven in varied weather, terrain and road conditions (often bad and muddy roads). The average range on a single charge was 90 miles, the maximum range recorded was 108 miles. (sources:  1 / 2 ).
In fact, the range of the Nissan Leaf or the Mitsubishi i-MiEV may be far worse than that of the 1908 Fritchle