All and partially electric driven automobiles are heading mainstream.
Jeffrey Steele - Appeal Democrat - Mar. 8, 2007
Chevrolet Volt Concept could do away with trips to the gas station altogether and save money in the process.
Automakers' record in producing electric vehicles has been spotty at best. In the mid-1990s, for example, General Motors launched the EV1 electric car in California. That early electric had to be plugged in every 60 to 90 miles in order to continue running. After the initial leases ran out, GM recalled the EV1s and scrapped them.
Now GM is motoring down Electric Avenue again. The automaker is charged up about its new Chevrolet Volt, an electric vehicle it introduced to great fanfare at Detroit's North American International Auto Show in January. Unlike the EV1, the Volt will be capable of traveling more than 600 miles on a single charge. Before purchasers of Chevrolet Volts can turn on the juice, a lot of creative juices will have to be expended to make this concept an assembly line and dealer's showroom reality.
When gas-electric hybrids were first introduced in 2000, the American car buying public mistakenly assumed these alternative vehicles had to be plugged in order to recharge the electric motor. That, of course, was not the case, but it is with the new Volt.
“The Volt is a hybrid that's actually what people always thought a hybrid would be: an electric vehicle that runs on an electric motor you charge overnight in a standard household 110-volt outlet,” says Joe Wiesenfelder, senior editor with Chicago's Cars.com.
If your commute is 40 miles or less, the vehicle will be able to take you to work and back on a six-hour overnight charge, Wiesenfelder says. In this gasoline-only mode, users would pay only about two cents a mile to operate the vehicle, as opposed to six to eight cents a mile at today's comparatively economical gas prices.
When Volt drivers travel farther than 40 miles, a backup engine powered by gasoline, E-85 (a blend of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline) or biodiesel comes to life, driving the on-board generator producing electricity to power the car up to 600 miles farther. That generator also can be used while the car is in park, if the owner hasn't had sufficient time to recharge the batter pack overnight.
Owners who drive a Volt and stay within 40 miles of home on trips, never using any gasoline, would save up to $900 a year compared to driving the average 30-mile-per-gallon car, based on costs of $300 a year in electricity and $2.40 a gallon gas, says Frank Markus, technical director of Detroit's Motor Trend magazine. Motoring 60 miles every day, Volt drivers could save up to $1,000 a year based on the above measures.
“The main thing to remember is the Volt is electrically driven,” Markus says. “The engine never turns a wheel, it only turns a generator, much as a locomotive does. If you have a 20-mile commute, it's conceivable you'd never need to use the engine.”
Simplicity is another benefit, Wiesenfelder adds. “One reason I think the Volt is interesting is that it has only one drive train, whereas hybrids essentially have two drive trains. And that is not cheap to produce.”
The big challenge in bringing the Volt concept and other electric vehicles to the mass market is the development of a large, lithium-ion battery with a 10-year life and demonstrated dependability motorists have come to associate with today's vehicles. At GM's request, two different partnerships have signed contracts to produce and deliver test batteries later this year for evaluation in Saturn Vue Green Line plug-in hybrids.
The electric car challenge is daunting. A lithium-ion battery would weigh in at 400 pounds, have to withstand thousands of recharges over its lifespan and be available at a price that would enable the Volt to be sold without breaking car buyers' banks.
That sort of powerful battery is not likely to be ready for prime time until at least 2010, so the Volt is still a ways down the road. Fortunately for those intent on deep-sixing their internal combustion engine cars and taking a bet on new technology, a few electric vehicles are offered for sale today.
The Northern California company ZAP, Santa Rosa, offers a three-wheeled electric car called the Xebra that travels up to 40 miles per hour. Founded in 1994, ZAP (the initials stand for Zero Air Pollution) claims it has delivered more than 90,000 fuel-efficient vehicles to customers in more than 75 countries.
The Xebra can range up to 25 miles per charge using an onboard 110-volt AC charger. The vehicle seats up to four, is 10 feet long and weighs approximately 1,800 pounds. Featuring an “upgraded radio” and CD player, leather seats and Xebra car cover, the vehicle is available in Ocean Blue, Zebra Flash, Kiwi Green, and Lipstick Red, and can be had for less than $10,000 from one of about 20 ZAP dealers in the U.S.
ZAP promotional materials tout the zero-emission Xebra as a quiet and agile car that lets users forget about high oil prices, gas stations, oil spills and fumes. “Even after counting emissions from electric generating plants,” ZAP claims, “Xebras produce 98 percent fewer pollutants than gas cars.”