In today’s electric vehicle (EV) market, small is beautiful.
Thanks to a change in regulations in California and several other states, a new breed of sub-1,500-lb cars is changing the EV landscape. Increasingly, vehicles in this new category are weighing in at under 1,500 lbs and measuring less than eight ft long. They travel at speeds below 35 mph and need frequent, six-hour recharges.
And they’re carving out their own niche.
Government fleets, college campuses and retirement communities are using so-called “neighborhood electric vehicles” while commuters are looking at slightly more powerful “city vehicles.”
Engineers say both types are a far cry from GM’s infamous EV1 and the Chrysler EPIC electric minivan of a decade ago.
“Since the EV1, fuel prices have gone up tremendously, and the awareness and acceptance of short-distance, low-power vehicles has changed,” says Richard Kasper, president and chief operating officer of Global Electric Motorcars, a Chrysler company that produces battery-powered neighborhood vehicles.
Indeed, several companies have begun testing such vehicles in cities around the world, particularly in areas where commuters are likely to travel short distances to work. In London, for example, Daimler AG has launched a pilot electric-vehicle program that calls for customers to drive tiny battery-powered cars, called the smart fortwo ED, under everyday conditions. The program attempts to prove a prescribed swath of the car-buying public can be happy with pure, battery-powered vehicles.
“It shows that some people don’t need 200 kilometers per day,” says Heiko Bornhoff, head of product marketing for Daimler’s smart brand.
Judging by the number of companies displaying battery-powered mini-cars at the recent North American International Auto Show, automakers believe the tiny EVs can carve out a market niche. At the show, Global Electric Motorcars (GEM, a Chrysler company) displayed six such vehicles, saying it has sold 36,000 of them over the past few years. Similarly, Chinese auto manufacturer Tang Hua showed off battery-powered cars as small as 400 kg (880 lbs). And Daimler Chairman Dieter Zetsche rolled on stage at a press event in a smart fortwo to show off the company’s commitment to the technology.
Neighborhood travel is hardly a new niche for battery-powered cars, but the size of this new niche is raising some eyebrows. Only a decade ago, every major automaker introduced a big electric car. Along with GM’s powerful EV1 and Chrysler’s EPIC minivan, Ford marketed a Ranger EV Pickup, while Honda had its EV Plus, Nissan sold its Altra EV and Toyota marketed its RAV4-EV.
Those vehicles lost momentum, however, after California, Massachusetts, New York and Vermont modified regulations calling on automakers to market and sell EVs in those states. New laws unveiled in 2003 gave car sellers greater flexibility, and the market for smaller EVs was born.
Unlike the EVs of a decade ago, however, today’s smaller electric cars aren’t trying to use cutting-edge technology. GEM’s vehicles, for example, employ lead-acid batteries and common brush-type dc motors. Those vehicles contrast sharply with the old EV1, which used nickel-metal hydride batteries and with the Nissan Altra EV, which used lithium-ion.
“Safety is very important when you charge vehicles at home, so we use lead-acid because it gives us a 100-percent safe battery,” says Larry Oswald, GEM’s chief executive officer. “And with our technology, we don’t need to go very fast or very far, so brush-type motors work very well.”
Others in the new EV market are using similar strategies. ZENN Motor Co. (“zero-emission, no-noise”), for example, now markets a 25-mph, three-door hatchback that employs six 12-V, lead-acid batteries. An eight-hour recharge gives the car a range of 30-50 miles. Another small vehicle maker, ZAP! (“zero air pollution”), markets three-wheeled Xebra electric sedans and trucks that can hit speeds of 40 mph and offer ranges of 25 miles on their lead-acid batteries.
To be sure, not all the manufacturers are going the lead-acid route. smart’s 100-vehicle pilot program in the UK uses Zebra nickel sodium chloride batteries, created by MES-DEA of Switzerland. Nickel sodium chloride differentiates smart’s EVs from other city-type EVs, which are now leaning toward lithium-based batteries. Daimler representatives say the Zebra battery offers an advantage over lithium for safety reasons.
No one knows how much the market for such vehicles will grow over the next few years. Today, the market appears to be about 10,000 vehicles annually, but some say it could ultimately reach 100,000 or more. To grow, companies such as GEM say they will move into the arena of “city car.” Such vehicles would hit top speeds of 55 mph and achieve a 100-mile range. Doing that, though, would require they move to more costly lithium-ion battery packs. Even with the lithium-ion, however, recharge times would still be measured in hours.
“Every consumer would love to have a full-function electric vehicle like the EV1,” Oswald says. “But the issue, of course, is still the recharge time. At 110V, you can’t recharge it in 15 minutes because you just don’t have enough electricity in the lines to do it.”
Still, makers of small EVs see an opportunity, especially if they market to the right buyers.
“As the technology continues to advance, the day will come when we will see extended ranges, higher speeds and full-function vehicles,” Kasper says. “And then the market will really grow.”