Toyota threw in its lot with the alternative vehicle crowd when it predicted that gasoline and diesel engines will be virtually extinct by 2050. Kiyotaka Ise, senior managing officer of the world’s best-selling automaker, said that gas-electric hybrids, plug-in hybrids, fuel-cell vehicles and electric cars will account for most of its auto sales by mid-century.
People tend to think that Teslas and the Nissan Leaf are new developments, but in fact the electric car has a history stretching back to the 19th century.
The first electric car was built in 1884 by Thomas Parker, the man responsible for designing the London Underground, plus various overhead tramways in Liverpool and Birmingham, all running on electricity. Parker powered his independent vehicle with rechargeable batteries of his own design.
Soon variations on the EV began to appear across Europe and America. Gasoline engines were still loud and dirty and required a hand crank to get started. Steam cars were regarded as much cleaner and easier to use. Although they took a little while to get warmed up, they did not require long recharging periods, as did the electrics.
As a result, in the year 1900, 40 percent of American cars on the road were powered by steam, 38 percent by electricity and the remaining 22 percent by the infant gasoline engine. Henry Ford, then an employee at Detroit Edison, was as interested in electric cars as the internal combustion engine. In 1896 he was driving an electric “quadricycle” around Detroit. He met Edison, who was his employer, and showed him his plans for an internal combustion engine. Edison encouraged him to go ahead, even though he had his own plans for an electric vehicle.
Ford founded his own company in 1903 and introduced two revolutionary changes: the electric starter motor and the assembly line. Soon the Ford Model T, known as the Tin Lizzy, was going through the production process in 90 minutes. With the arm-twisting crank no longer necessary, the internal combustion engine took off, quickly replacing both the steamer and the electric.
Meanwhile, Edison had not lost interest in the electric car. He replaced the lead-acid battery with a more efficient nickel-iron version and announced the conversion of four touring cars from gasoline to electricity. He also wrote in favor of the technology:
Electricity is the thing. There are no whirring and grinding gears with their numerous levers to confuse. There is not that almost terrifying uncertain throb and whirr of the powerful combustion engine. There is no water-circulating system to get out of order — no dangerous and evil-smelling gasoline and no noise.
To this he could have added “no polluting exhaust and no carbon emissions,” but the advantages he mentions still remain today.
Nevertheless, Americans learned to live with the roar of the ICE and the smell of gasoline. Ford’s interest in electricity did not die, however, and as late as 1914 he and Edison were rumored to be working together on an electric car. It was reported that the car would sell for somewhere between $500 and $750 and have a range of 100 miles. Edison wrote:
Mr. Henry Ford is making plans for the tools, special machinery, factory buildings and equipment for the production of this new electric. There is so much special work to be done that no date can be fixed now as to when the new electric can be put on the market. But Mr. Ford is working steadily on the details, and he knows his business so it will not be long.
I believe that ultimately the electric motor will be universally used for trucking in all large cities, and that the electric automobile will be the family carriage of the future. All trucking must come to electricity. I am convinced that it will not be long before all the trucking in New York City will be electric.
Ford even bought interest in a power plant at Niagara Falls to provide some of the electricity. But Edison’s nickel-iron battery proved to have internal resistance and was not powerful enough to propel the vehicle. So the lead-iron battery was re-substituted without Ford’s knowledge. When it proved to be too heavy to be carried by the vehicle, Ford was furious, and the project was abandoned.
So the electric car gradually faded from view. By the 1950s, the only person in America still driving an electric was Walt Disney’s Grandma Duck, who as the grandmother of Donald was a symbol of octogenarian irrelevancy. But the oil crisis of the 1970s changed all that. Once again there was widespread interest in finding a substitute for gasoline and foreign oil.
California got the ball rolling with a mandate that the car companies produce a zero-emissions vehicle or be banned from selling in the state. One result was GM’s EV1, an electric vehicle made in the late 1990s that won praise in the industry but was probably ahead of its time. Vijay Vaitheeswaran, energy writer for The Economist, described his experience when he rented an EV1 during a visit to California:
The vehicle proved to have a much shorter range than I thought it would – closer to 50 miles than a 100. The fact that I sped along at 80 mph in those empty HOV lanes might have drained the battery faster, but only certain highways had that lane; more often, I was crawling along in traffic like everyone else. And most of the time, I was going nowhere at all, since my vehicle kept running out of power. Charging proved the biggest nightmare. There were plenty of chargers around, but some were of the wrong sort; others were locked or nonfunctional. And rather than the “pretty quick” recharge, my useless battery took more than five hours for a full charge. As a result, my entire visit turned into a fiasco of delayed or missed appointments, apologetic cell-phone calls, and panicky exits from the highway to obscure malls and commuter-rail stations in search of a charger.
Most EV1’s ended up in the shredding machines. The story was then told in a bizarre documentary, “Who Killed the Electric Car?”, which found four people who said they would have liked to buy one and attributed the whole failure to a conspiracy by the oil companies.
But the ice was broken, and in 2006 PayPal founder Elon Musk introduced the Tesla, a high-end vehicle that he said would redefine the automobile industry. The $103,000 Tesla Model S P85D was named the “best car ever” by Consumer Reports last week (“on a scale of zero to 100, a 103”). Musk is currently planning to reach the average car buyer with the Model 3 that will sell for $35,000. Nissan’s Leaf, an urban run-around, has racked up 170,000 in sales worldwide.
The obstacles remain the same as those Thomas Edison and Henry Ford faced: limited driving range, long charging time, the weight of the battery and a scarcity of recharging stations. But Tesla and Nissan are working hard to overcome them.
So will the electric vehicle once again be consigned to the ranks of those novelties that never quite worked out? Or will it fulfill the long-lost dreams of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford as a legitimate alternative to the internal combustion engine? We’ll know in about two years when the Model 3 hits the market.
So, is everybody out there waiting for the spiffy new editions of the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt? If EV-makers and proponents are waiting for those holdouts to show up, it could be a very long few months.
The website Inside EVs, which keeps track of monthly sales for all-electrics and plug-in hybrids in the U.S. and globally, has published its July numbers, and they’re abysmal: Only 7,102 were sold during the month, compared with 11,242 in July 2014. There are still six models for which numbers are not available — Ford’s Fusion Energi, C-Max Energi and Focus Electric; Porsche Cayenne S-E and Panamera S-E; and the Kia Soul EV — but even if those cars come in at the same level as this June, the overall sales tally will still be well under last year’s pace.
For the first six months of 2015, a total of 61,449 EVs have been sold domestically, compared with 123,049 during the same period last year. Meantime, the rest of the world continues to outsell the U.S., thanks in part to generous subsidies in many European countries.
This marks the third straight month that U.S. EV sales have lagged the same month in 2014, and there’s a running debate about why. The dominant argument is that consumers are waiting to push their hard-earned money toward the next-generation Leaf and Volt, both of which are due out in 2017.
According to Inside EVs, the 2016 model year of the Leaf will have a 30 kilowatt-hour (kWh) battery, compared with the 24 kWh currently out there, giving the 2016 version an estimated range of 105-110 miles, up from the current 84. The range for the redesigned (and much more stylish) 2017 Leaf should be even better, and Nissan is testing battery technology it hopes will allow a future version of the Leaf to get 250 miles on a full charge.
The current iteration of the Volt can travel only 38 miles without recharging, but the 2016 model of the hybrid will be able to go 53 miles before the gasoline-engine kicks in, The Los Angeles Times reported Tuesday. On a full charge and full tank of gas, the range is 420 miles. Details about the redesigned 2017 Volt are sketchy.
The Times notes that the all-electric Tesla Model S has a range of 265 miles, but it costs $100,000. The cheaper EVs are, the generally shorter their battery ranges are. The 2016 Volt’s MSRP is $33,170 (without incentives), and the last iteration of the Leaf, the 2014, starts at $28,980.
Tesla’s upcoming Model 3, which is supposed to retail at $35,000 and is slated to be released in early 2016, is expected to have a battery range of about 200 miles. Tesla expects big things from its first “mainstream” EV. The Model S already is the hottest-selling EV in the nation so far this year, with 13,200 units sold, although only 1,600 were sold in July, compared with 2,800 in June and 2,400 in May.
The other splashy new release is the $30,000 Chevy Bolt, an all-electric that’s supposed to go on sale in 2017 and also has a range of about 200 miles.
So there’s a bounty of high-tech, much-improved EVs and hybrids hitting the market in the next year or so. But if sales remain flat even then, the depressive effect of low gasoline prices could emerge as the true motivator.
With the 2014 gas-price spike long in the distance (a gallon of regular was $2.64 Tuesday, compared with $3.50 a year ago), there’s little incentive for consumers to buy or lease a new electric car now, especially if they’re not sure they’ll have a battery strong enough to get them to work and back.
Sales of conventional vehicles are going in the opposite direction as EVs: The big automakers are on track for their first year of 17 million units sold since before the Great Recession. SUVs, crossovers and pickups led a strong sales month in July. “That segment of vehicles continues to be smoking hot,” Mark LaNeve, Ford’s vice president of sales and marketing, told the Detroit Free Press.
For perspective, more Chevy Silverados were sold in July (56,380) than the eight top-selling EVs combined that were sold from January through July (55,365).
If you’re shopping for a new or used car and want the benefits of cleaner-burning, cheaper, American-made fuels, consider buying a flex-fuel vehicle that can use E85. Check out E85Vehicles.com to see which models are FFVs.
One narrative for 2014 is that cheap gasoline reduced the incentive for energy-efficient vehicles.
Tell that to all the people who bought electric cars during the calendar year.
With sales data still coming in, it appears certain that U.S. sales of EVs, including both all-electric and plug-in hybrids, surpassed 100,000 units.
That marks the third straight year of sales increases, since the electric vehicles we know today first went on sale in December 2010, according to Green Car Reports. The growth rate won’t come close to 2013, however, when 97,000 EVs were sold, nearly doubling the 2012 total of 53,000.
Nissan is emerging as the sales champion for the year, having moved 30,200 all-electric Leafs, a new U.S. record for an EV. That’s up nearly 34 percent over 2013, when 22,610 Nissan Leafs were sold.
Compare that figure to the Chevy Volt, of which 18,805 were sold — down 19 percent from the previous year, when 23,094 were sold.
According to the Auto Blog, Volt sales really tailed off in December, with just 1,490 units, a 38 percent falloff from the same month in 2013. Nissan sold 3,102 units for the month, up 23 percent from December 2013. The federal government’s $7,500 sweetener might have played a role, as new-car buyers sought to grab that tax savings before the calendar turned.
More Auto Blog:
The Leaf outsold the Volt every month in 2014. The closest gap was 215 units, in February. The biggest was 1,612, in December.
One theory for the Volt slowdown is that potential buyers are waiting for the redesigned 2016 model. Although the car won’t be officially unveiled until the Detroit Auto Show next week, Chevrolet opened the kimono to allow journalists a peek Sunday night at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Check out stories here, here and here.
What about sales of the Tesla Model S, you ask? The company doesn’t post monthly sales reports, so we’ll have to wait until later in the winter for its annual report. But Inside EVs mentions both Nissan and Tesla “hitting it out of the park” in December.
Inside EVs also has a breakdown of how other anticipated models sold during the year. For instance, Cadillac moved 1,310 units of its plug-in ELR. And BMW moved 6,092 units of the i3, “not bad considering it was only available for 7 full months in the US.”
Current owners got some good news this month as earlier, long standing issues surrounding the onboard chargers being muted to avoid failure incidents has now been rectified and BMW has a recall/repair bulletin out for owners to now get new units installed. 7.4 kW charges again for everyone!
Toyota is the world’s most successful car company. The Prius is the most popular gas-electric hybrid ever, with 3 million sold in 80 countries worldwide. Toyota can be said to have pioneered the first vehicle that has challenged the traditional internal combustion engine.
So why is the Japanese giant now moving away from hybrids and placing its bets on the hydrogen fuel cell?
It’s a tough question. Not many analysts can see the sense of it. Elon Musk dismisses the whole idea as “fool cells” and says it can’t succeed. Yet, Toyota maintains that there are inherent advantages in the technology that will eventually emerge. Most of all, the decision by Toyota, Honda and Hyundai to go with hydrogen instead of electric vehicles has set off a fierce debate on which technology — if either — represents the better route to replacing the internal combustion engine.
It is not as if this is a snap decision for Toyota. In 1992, the company set up two task forces — one to investigate the gas-electric hybrid and one to pursue the hydrogen vehicle. In 1997 the Japanese giant introduced the Prius, which has gone on to become one of the most successful models of all time. But work never stopped on the fuel cell project. Now, as company officials reportedly believe hybrid technology may have reached the point of diminishing returns, they feel it is time to move on to something new. “Of all the advanced power train systems we have in our portfolio,” Toyota Senior Vice President Bob Carter told Green Car Reports, “we see hydrogen fuel cells as being the no-compromise, primary-option vehicle for the next 100 years.”
All this is happening, of course, at the moment when Tesla seems to be proving that electric vehicles can go head-to-head with gas-powered cars. So the question is, what does Toyota see in hydrogen that can’t be achieved by following up with electrics?
Range is one answer. Toyota is still convinced that electric vehicles will never get beyond the 150-200-mile range that most EVs now achieve — although Tesla is already pushing toward 300. The new Toyota Fuel Cell Vehicle (FCV) that will go on sale in California next summer will have a range of 300 miles, with hopes of future improvement.
Even more important than range is refueling time. A fuel-cell vehicle can fill up at a hydrogen pump in ten minutes — still significantly longer than gasoline — but an EV takes from four to six hours. Even the new “superchargers” that Musk is installing around the country take 20 minutes to give a half-charge. But Musk is also working on a battery-pack replacement that would be faster than a gasoline fill-up.
Of course all this is predicated on having “filling stations” available, and on that score, hydrogen is even further behind. There are only 60 such facilities in the entire country. Tesla just announced its 100th supercharging station in April and that’s just a small part of the action. Most EV owners recharge at home and the electric grid is everywhere. Providing hydrogen around the country would require a whole new infrastructure.
Joseph Romm, who once promoted hydrogen cars as Assistant Secretary of Energy under Bill Clinton and later wrote the book, “The Hype About Hydrogen,” remains one of the fiercest critics of the technology. “Hydrogen is the smallest molecule and escapes almost any container,” he wrote in his blog, ThinkProgress. “It makes metals brittle. It is almost impossible to transport. These are physical barriers that will be very difficult to overcome.”
Another surprising aspect of hydrogen is that it is not particularly cheap. Unlike EVs, ethanol or methanol made from natural gas, hydrogen does not offer consumers any financial incentive. At the J.P. Morgan Auto Conference in New York last week, Senior Vice President Carter admitted that a full tank of hydrogen needed to carry the driver 300 miles will cost $50, slightly higher than ordinary gasoline. By contrast, the owner of a Prius only pays $21 for the same trip, and the owner of a Tesla Model S would pay $9.60 at off-peak rates. It’s hard to see how there is going to be any appeal to consumers.
Now it must be admitted that much of the fierce debate taking place on the Internet concerning fuel cells vs. EVs revolves around reducing carbon emissions rather than freeing ourselves from foreign oil. EV advocates imagine a grid running on wind and solar energy while H2 partisans envision windmills and solar collectors turning out prodigious amounts of hydrogen. Other environmental critics have argued that without a larger component of non-fossil-fuel sources generating the electricity, converting to electric vehicles will do nothing to reduce carbon emissions, although some people disagree with all this.
It sometimes seems as if we are trying to accomplish too many things at once. Putting more FCVs and EVs on the road would definitely move us toward energy independence. The source of the hydrogen or electricity can be sorted out later, and the same goes for methanol and ethanol as a liquid substitute for gasoline. These fuels might originally come from natural gas, but renewable sources such as landfill gas and manure piles could be substituted later.
The important thing is to keep moving forward on all fronts. No one knows when some vast new battery improvement or an entirely different method of extracting hydrogen may prove to be a game-changer. Toyota is doing this by pursuing the fuel cell vehicle — even though for the present the odds seem slightly stacked against it.
“Toyota FCV-R Concept WAS 2012 0629″ by Mariordo – Mario Roberto Durán Ortiz – Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.