Is the car of the future a thing from the past?

Discussion in 'Other Manufacturers' started by tigerhonaker, Sep 25, 2006.

  1. tigerhonaker

    tigerhonaker Platinum Contributor

    Meet George Jetson

    Is the car of the future a thing from the past?

    - By Monica Bradbury

    From the outside, an electric car looks just like any other car in a parking garage inside an office building in Midtown. It's a little old, true, but its owner was trying to save money, not look pretty. And it's small because, as with gas-powered cars, lighter vehicles are more efficient. If you have an electric car, being more efficient is the whole point. The real novelty of an electric car can't be appreciated unless you ride in one.

    Mike Willmon's '88 Mitsubishi MightyMax pickup seems to roll, not pull, out of the tiny space in the parking garage. He turned the key but there were no other indications that the truck was started. But then it starts to pick up speed, and the realization hits: the car is not only running, it's accelerating. And hardly making a peep.

    You won't hear an electric car if you're sitting next to one at a traffic light. You won't hear an electric car if you're sitting inside one at a traffic light. When a car that runs on electricity is stopped, it doesn't make any noise. And there aren't as many parts operating under the hood, and there's no exhaust, so it doesn't make much noise while it's moving, either.

    At a traffic light on Northern Lights Boulevard the sounds of gas and diesel engines reverberate off buildings. Exhaust pipes putter. Fumes rise into the air. But the MightyMax doesn't even vibrate. When the light turns green, the pickup takes off with head-thrown-back-against-the-seat-if-you're-not-expecting-it speed. And you're not. The electric motor makes a sound like the cars on The Jetsons, but it's about as loud as the pitter-patter of the Flintstones' feet.

    Photos by Matt Hage
    This silence is strange. Even in the newest, most soundproofed gas cars, you expect the rumble of an idling engine. Cars got quieter over the last century, but we're still used to an aural indicator that everything is as it should be. Turn the key - the engine turns over. Step on the gas - hear it rev up. We might drown the car out by cranking the radio, but for most of us, it's like the sound of the refrigerator running: The constant hum is just background noise. In order to enjoy the convenience of automobile travel, we think that noise must be accepted, the same way we have to deal with exhaust and gas prices if we want to maintain the lifestyles we've all become accustomed to - right?

    Willmon is standing next to his pickup outside a Holiday gas station in Spenard when a young, stocky guy in a white T-shirt and tennis shoes pulls up in a delivery truck and approaches him. He asks Willmon about the little vehicle Willmon calls the “Electrabishi.” Willmon converted the truck to electricity earlier this year. He gives the driver a business card with a picture of the Electrabishi and a web address. That happens a lot, Willmon says.

    After watching the documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? at the Dimond Center theater in late August, Willmon returned to his truck to find folks gathered around it. Others who had seen the movie noticed Willmon's truck in the parking lot and the “Electric” stickers and decals that adorn it. They were fascinated.

    Willmon used that kind of curiosity to share information about electric cars at the Alaska Renewable Energy Fair this summer. He put his pickup in his assigned spot on the Delaney Park Strip and waited. Before long people were asking questions and signing up to receive emails and possibly join an Alaska chapter of the Electric Auto Association that Willmon was starting.

    According to co-chair Will Beckett, the Electric Auto Association has more than 1,000 members in 42 states and nine countries. About 50 percent of the members have electric cars, Beckett says from Aptos, California. The others are seriously interested in buying one, should they become available.

    “The vast majority are more environmentally conscious,” Beckett says. But people want electric cars for other reasons too.


    “I've been thinking about it for years now,” Willmon said. “When gas hit three dollars [a gallon] I decided to go ahead and do it.”

    Willmon took out a loan to buy the truck, the batteries, and all the other parts he needed to make his vehicle run on electricity. He put 320 hours into the conversion over three and a half months - always at night after his kids were in bed. When he finished this May, he took the Electrabishi for a spin around his Bayshore neighborhood: “It was about two o'clock in the morning. I didn't have a hood on it or anything.” The next morning he took his kids to the store in the truck. Now he drives it to and from work every day.

    Willmon's electric pickup can get 40 miles to a charge. His daily commute to work and back is 15 miles, so even with errands he's got plenty of juice left at the end of the day. And at night he just recharges the battery. There's a socket where he used to stick a hose to pump gas into his tank. It connects to 16 lead acid batteries that are connected to one another in the bed of the truck, totaling about 192 volts. Willmon uses an extension cord and plugs the truck into an outlet at his house, which costs him about 65 cents a night. The battery is fully charged after four hours.

    Including the purchase of the used truck, the conversion to electricity cost Willmon about $12,000. He says he traded a $12,000 car loan for a $12,000 signature loan. He pays about 20 dollars more a month in electricity now, but he used to spend about $120 in gas each month.

    Willmon is perhaps not the typical green driver. He wouldn't go to the trouble of converting his vehicle to electricity “just to keep from polluting,” he says - “but it's a nice benefit.” So is the fact that the Electrabishi is fun to drive. “It's a lot faster than it was with a gas engine,” he says. Despite being 1,000 pounds heavier with all those batteries in it, the little pickup has some oomph.

    Willmon's wife still has a gas-powered vehicle, a van, which his family can use if they want to go away for the weekend. Still, if his family can ever afford newer, more expensive batteries that get more miles to the charge, Willmon says he'd convert his wife's car to electricity, too.

    John Cooper, a Naval Mechanical Engineer in Juneau, says he wants to move away from gas-powered vehicles, too, although not for precisely the same reasons as Willmon's. Cooper said recently that he's hoping to convert an Eagle Summit to electricity sometime soon. The rising price of gas is one reason. The environment is the other. “I'm kind of a closet environmentalist,” he said.

    “The number one reason to build an electric car is to promote clean air,” said John Wayland, of Portland, Oregon. Wayland built his first electric car in 1980. He still has it. “Twenty-six years without a drop of gasoline,” he said recently. Wayland is another member of the Electric Auto Association. He has two electric cars now - both converted from 1972 Datsuns. Wayland makes his living servicing electric forklifts for North West Handling Systems. He's given forklift training classes in Anchorage and he's due to go to Prudhoe Bay to train workers there in servicing their electric vehicles. But electric cars for him are more than an extension of his work and are about more than cleaner air.

    “You can be politically correct and have fun as well,” Wayland said. Case in point: He drag races his electric Datsuns in Portland, often against gas-powered muscle cars - and wins, he says.

    Some people may think of an all-electric car as an oddity, a blast from the future. They've been wondering when there will be some new, affordable technology to decrease our dependence on oil, ease up on our wallets and save what clean air we have left. They don't realize that technology is already here - and that it's been around for a long time.

    As automobiles became common in the early part of the 20th century, there were both gas- and electric-powered cars. Gas cars smelled bad, required a crank to start and were expensive to fuel. Though electric cars couldn't go very far on a charge, the only real roads at the time were in cities and towns; no one could drive very far anyway. Automobiles were used mostly for local commuting.

    As roads connected cities, people wanted to drive farther. Electric starters were invented, eliminating the loathed hand crank. When oil was discovered in the U.S., gas became affordable for the average consumer. And Henry Ford started mass-production of vehicles with internal combustion engines, making gas-powered cars more affordable. By the 1920s, electric cars could no longer compete. Individuals continued to build or convert their own electric cars, but a major motor vehicle company didn't produce electric cars again until 1996.

    That's the year General Motors made available a new kind of car. The EV1, called the Impact when it first showed up as a concept car in 1990, was an all-electric car. It didn't use any gas. It also inspired California's Zero Emissions Vehicle mandate, which aimed to get auto manufacturers to build and sell vehicles that produced no emissions, as the state was facing a pollution crisis. By 1998, at least 2 percent of vehicles sold in California were to be zero-emissions vehicles; by 2001, 5 percent, and by 2003, 10 percent.

    Toyota and other car companies also introduced all-electric vehicles to conform to the mandate. But they also sued the state of California, claiming its mandate regulated fuel economy standards, something only the federal government is allowed to do. By 2003, the California requirements were modified. New cars didn't have to be completely zero-emissions anymore and car companies were given more time to reach the goals. The all-electric cars were taken off the market.

    GM spokesperson Dave Barthmuss said recently that the EV1 was discontinued because it didn't generate enough interest. Barthmuss said GM built about 1,100 EV1s and only about 800 were ever leased. A few hundred vehicles on the road over several years “does not a business make,” he said.

    With its limited range and hours required to recharge, the EV1 “required too many trade-offs to make it a viable vehicle resource,” Barthmuss said. The car generated a “tremendous passion” from several hundred people, he added, but that wasn't enough to keep it in production.

    Who Killed the Electric Car? is all about those EV1s. Since they were only offered on a leased basis, GM reclaimed all the EV1s when the leases ran out. Many drivers offered to buy their leased cars but GM refused. The cars weren't safe, Barthmuss said. GM couldn't offer replacement parts for them once they were discontinued because they weren't being made anymore. Instead, the EV1s were stripped, crushed and recycled.

    The movie argues that, in addition to car companies, the government and others, one of the guilty parties in the death of the electric car is the oil companies, which testified against California's ZEV mandate.

    The price of oil is always on the rise, but it has skyrocketed since 2003. According to the Government Accountability Office's report on gas trends, the price of a standard barrel of oil went up 64 percent from September 2003 to August 2005. Oil hit an all-time high July 13 of this year, at $78.40 a barrel.

    The price of oil goes up when the supply is down, says the GOA, and when unexpected circumstances, such as pipeline shutdowns, wars or hurricane damage, make access more difficult. Because gasoline is made from crude oil, the cost of the two materials is linked. The only way to avoid paying high prices for gas, some say, is to switch to other forms of energy. Like electricity.

    Electricity isn't free and isn't always 100 percent clean. For one thing, it takes fuel to generate electricity. But that process is still cleaner than gas-powered auto emissions, even at coal-burning power plants. And in cities like Anchorage, where electricity is generated by cleaner natural gas, or in Juneau, with its hydro-electric plants that produce no emissions, it's cleaner yet. And electricity is a less expensive fuel than gasoline.

    The push to replace oil is on. Several companies are developing hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, which create electricity within a car through a chemical reaction. They're extremely expensive to make, argue the maker and stars of Who Killed the Electric Car? But GM's Barthmuss says the EV1 was extremely expensive to make as well. With government subsidies, the company was able to make them affordable. Barthmuss says GM hopes to do the same thing with fuel cell vehicles. (He says he doubts all-electric cars like the EV1 will ever be mass-produced again.)

    Hybrid vehicles are offered through most big car companies now. They use gasoline engines and electric motors. They create fewer emissions than all-gas-powered vehicles, although they're still dirtier than all-electric cars. A plug-in hybrid, also in the works, might be the ideal. The batteries would have greater range and the vehicle could switch to gas power to go even farther.

    And there are still some, like Wayland, the electric-Datsun driver from Oregon, and Beckett, the Electric Auto Association co-chair from California, who think people - and car companies - will eventually come back around to all-electric cars. Batteries are getting better and better, they say, and could become more affordable, too. Until then, they'll continue to take matters into their own hands.

    Wayland's children, now grown, learned to drive in electric cars. And today, when Willmon's 5-year-old son plays with his battery-operated toy tractor, he doesn't pretend to put gas in it like children have done with Barbie cars and little red wagons for decades. He emulates daddy and plugs his tractor in.
  2. rhwinger

    rhwinger Well-Known Member

    Remember the old anti-smoking commercial "Like Father...Like Son?"

    I really like the last sentance of this article.

    Teach our children by our example.

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