Will the City get American motorists to TH!NK more positively about battery-electric vehicles?
We’ve been reading – and writing – a lot about “electrification,” lately, especially here on TheDetroitBureau.com. To hear the proponents, everyone from General Motors’ retiring car czar, Bob Lutz, all the way up to President Barack Obama, batteries are the future of the auto industry.
Sure, as our new review of the third-generation Toyota Prius suggests, the hybrid-electric vehicle is quickly coming of age. The latest gasoline-electric technology is nearly seamless and, for many – though clearly not all – American motorists, hybrids are a sound choice. We’ll have to wait to see if the even more advanced plug-in hybrids, like Chevrolet’s much-heralded Volt, will be equally enticing. Certainly, there’s a tremendous appeal to the idea of being able to run your daily commute solely on battery power, while still having a gasoline engine to fall back on should you need to make some detours.
But is there a real future for a car with nothing but a battery and a motor under its hood? That is, arguably, the ultimate goal of the electrified automobile. Forget gasoline, diesel, ethanol, used cooking grease, or whatever else you might otherwise need to tank up with. Simply find a plug, charge up and go.
Reality caught up with concept, back in the early 1980s, when California regulators tried to force the first Zero-Emission Vehicles, or ZEVs, down the throat of a reluctant auto industry and a skeptical public. Back then, the only way to meet the mandate was with the relatively inefficient batteries of the day, heavy lead-acid packs that hadn’t changed much since the legendary Thomas Edison tried to design a better battery for Henry Ford’s wife, Clara, who preferred her clean electric runabout to Henry’s smoky Model T.
California rescinded the original ZEV mandate in a messy politicized process, though their persistence in promoting clean air and better mileage has encouraged automakers and battery manufacturers alike to keep looking for solutions, and the Nickel-Metal Hydride chemistry used in the Prius and other current hybrids is far more efficient than older lead-acid batteries. Next up, we’ll be getting cars powered by the same, basic Lithium-Ion, or LIon, technology that we find in most modern cellphones and laptop computers. If the original GM EV1 had used LIon technology, some estimate it could have gone from 50 miles range to somewhere between 150 to more than 200 per charge.
We’ll soon find out, as an assortment of manufacturers are rushing a new generation of battery-electric vehicles to market. The Silicon Valley start-up, Tesla Motors, has already weighed in, though its $100,000 Roadster will only find a home with the most affluent of green-minded motorists. Nissan plans to weigh in, by 2011, with a more mainstream BEV. And others will follow – many of them non-traditional players, like Tesla, who see an opportunity to enter the normally closed automotive market, and a small wannabe named THINK.