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Is there an electric car in your future?Is there an electric car in your future?

DN Staff

June 23, 1997

14 Min Read
Is there an electric car in your future?

No, there will not be an electric car in every garage in the near future. However, based on a few advanced prototype models about to enter the marketplace, EVs seem likely to shed their overgrown golf cart persona and be seen as practical--even fun--transportation.

In the early 2000s--a manufacturing eye blink away--improved batteries will double vehicle range, recharge times will drop, and auto engineers will better understand the nuances of EV design. And the forces of mass production will drive down prices to the point where, when looking for a new car, you'll check out an EV without recoiling from sticker shock.

Why the optimistic forecast? Test drives conducted by Design News editors of the General Motors EV1, Toyota RAV4-EV, and Solectria's Sunrise, Force, and E-10. The latter two have been on the market for a few years. So it's really up to the advanced prototypes to change the buying public's impression of EVs being too high-priced, too short-ranged, and too inconvenient to "refuel."

Still, it seems unlikely that public approval alone will drive buyers to EV show rooms. A possible push for EV sales could come from looming government mandates in several states that require a percentage of the vehicles sold there to be zero emission models. Tax incentives might help, too. So the question remains: are these EVs "real" cars, or poseurs meant to satisfy the bureaucracy? Let's find out.

EV1:GM's current alternative

by Michael Puttre Associate Editor

I came to the GM Proving Grounds with charitable thoughts. The only electric vehicle I had ever driven was the golf cart I almost flipped working summers at a county club.

GM's EV1 is no golf cart.

There are a dozen or so EV1s on hand, including the yellow Impact (an ominous name) experimental model that set the electric car speed record of 185 mph. None of us are allowed to drive that one. My test car is a red preproduction model that is nearly identical to the EV1s that hit selected Saturn showrooms late last year.

It does have those unsightly rear wheel skirts. I am told those are for streamlining and provide an additional 3/4 mile of range per charge. It doesn't have an external radio antenna. That buys 1/6 mile. The aft end is rather more pinched than I like. Better aerodynamics, the engineers explain.

Everything about the EV1 is designed to overcome the limitations of current battery technology. The EV1's steering wheel and seat frames consist of magnesium and are said to be the lightest in the industry. The aluminum body frame is fabricated using a weld-bond adhesive process to make it stiff and light. But those lead-acid batteries--all 27 of 'em--weigh 1,170 lbs.

Once in the driver's seat, the EV1 presents an assortment of unfamiliar controls, plus that new car smell. My driving partner is a fellow journalist. As the EV1 only has two seats (and very spacious seats they are, with useful trunk room to boot), we do not have any GM corporate types with us to tell us how to drive. GM tries to exercise some control with an electric car driver efficiency contest, but we came in near to last, so we won't dwell on that point.

The EV1 does not require a key. Instead, I punch a code into a keypad and we're on-line. The car makes a sci-fi humming noise when accelerating and braking that is not unpleasant. The absence of firing pistons and changing gear harmonics takes some getting used to. The EV1's regenerative braking system reclaims some energy spent slowing down and gives it back to the batteries. In addition, there is a button on the shifting column that, when pressed while coasting, is supposed to do the same thing.

I whisper us around GM's Truck Loop test track, hang a left at the Pinkerton security guy, and drive out into the real world. The lack of engine noise means you must pay attention to the speedometer. A minor but persistent annoyance: the high-tech steering wheel is too small. I feel like I'm at the wheel of Barbie's 'Vette--until I step on the accelerator (I almost said gas pedal). I have no problem attaining whatever speed I want whenever I want it.

After changing seats, my partner makes this point utterly clear when some bloke in a blue Corsica wants to see what we we're made of at a red light. You can't rev the engine of an electric car, but we quietly get respect. I watch the Corsica recede smoothly in my rear-view mirror.

On the highway we get up past 80 mph--until we hit a construction zone. Unfortunately, we use up power in stop-and-go traffic at nearly the same rate as we do at speed. We want smokes but discover to our horror that the EV1 is not equipped with a cigarette lighter. Consider: We are sitting on a 312V electrical system but we can't get a light. So we pass the time fielding questions from curious drivers.

"What the hell is that?" yells a trucker from on high. "An electric car!" I yell back over the grumble of his idling diesel. The trucker grins and gets on his CB, presumably to alert comrades to watch out for us.

"How much do they cost?" asks a beefy, red-haired guy in a green Intrepid, visibly impressed. "About $35,000," I tell him. "Whoa!" he blanches. "I'd rather buy a gas car."

And therein lies the chief barrier to the widespread acceptance of electric cars. The EV1 performs like a dream: it's quick, fast, responsive, stable, and quiet. But it costs too much.

To be fair, GM invested $350 million in the technology required to make the EV1 happen. They're not just going to give them away. Even with an attractive lease program, GM does not expect to see a profit on this particular model. Frank Schweibold, director of finance and strategic planning for GM's advanced technology vehicles group, says the company hopes to reap its rewards on future offerings.

Next, I take a couple of laps around the Truck Loop, this time in a silver-blue EV1. In the passenger seat is Jim Ellis, engineering director for the EV1 program. The cup holder holds my soda firmly. My electric window is down as efficiency is no longer an issue. I palm the wheel and thoroughly enjoy myself, although I regret not having my Metallica album on hand to try out the standard-issue CD player. Ellis takes delight in thumbnailing the six-year story of EV1's development.

"This is a great car," I acknowledge when relinquishing the EV1 to GM. "I wish I could afford one." Ellis smiles sympathetically: "Back to the smelly, noisy world of internal combustion engines."

RAV4-EV:A Toyota with a mission

by Mark A. Gottschalk Western Technical Editor

Open the door of Toyota's RAV4-EV, slide behind the wheel, and you'll find yourself staring at the interior of...a RAV4, what did you expect? Almost boringly normal in appearance, it shatters the futuristic image of electric cars shaped like eggs. And that's the point. If it looks like a normal car and feels like a normal car, perhaps it is a normal car.

Closer study reveals several subtle EV-specific features. For one, the dash includes two voltage meters. A standard meter displays the status of the conventional lead-acid battery that powers the headlights, dome light, radio, etc. A second meter tracks the instantaneous output from the 24 12V nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) batteries that provide motive power. Next to the instantaneous voltage gauge lies a charge-level indicator that looks and acts very much like a conventional fuel gauge.

Turn the key to "start" and, of course, nothing happens, save for a green "ready" light that appears on the dash. Move the floor-mounted gear selector to drive, and you're off.

I pull out of the parking lot of Southern California Edison--the utility company that kindly arranged my test drive--and turn onto a busy four-lane road towards SCE's Electric Vehicle Technical Center, 25 miles away. Acceleration easily compares to a normal compact car, with the only sounds being a slight whir of the 45-kW (60 hp) motor, wind, tires, and suspension. The EV's extra 400+ lbs of weight--compared to the gas model--isn't noticeable.

Pull your foot off the pedal and the car coasts freely. Shifting to a special "B" mode from "D" activates the regenerative braking, which proves to be a joy around town. Accelerating and decelerating in traffic--even slowing for lights--could be accomplished almost entirely with the throttle. At a stop, the motor stays lightly engaged, providing a "creep" effect similar to that of a standard car with automatic transmission.

The air conditioner ices the interior in minutes, dispelling the notion that electric cars will offer reduced comfort. It does, however, lop 10-20% off the car's respectable 118-mile range. I obtain a range of 85-90 miles with the A/C blasting constantly. Based on a heat pump, the system produces warm air for the winter as well. Heated seats, windshield, and rear-window defogger compensate for the gasoline version's natural abundance of thermal energy.

On the freeway, the RAV4-EV easily keeps with traffic and almost effortlessly reached its electronically limited 79 mph top speed. A button on the shift selector lets the driver change from power to economy mode. The latter noticeably reduces current drain, but couldn't maintain speed on some steep highway grades.

The EV chops annoyingly over seams in the concrete freeway. However, this might be the result of the SUV's sporty suspension and special low-rolling-resistance tires, and not an inherent quality of the electric drivetrain.

Due to the high demand for tests of this prototype, I didn't get the opportunity to live with the vehicle. Had I, I'd have found the 6-8 hour charging process, which seems as simple as plug-it-in-and-leave, a bit more daunting. Most buyers will need an electrician to add a special 220V, 40-amp circuit to their garage, at a cost of $500-$1,000, says SCE.

The charge cord terminates in a handle that resembles a gas nozzle. Two flip-up doors on the right front fender conceal conductive plugs for normal and rapid charging. A timer system in the center console lets the user start recharging immediately or schedule it during off-peak hours. Placing these controls right at the socket would prevent having to get in and out of the car twice every time you recharge.

A price hasn't been announced. Toyota plans to lease RAV4-EVs in 1997-98.

The drivingforce in production EVs

by Michael Puttre Associate Editor

Solectria Corp., Wilmington, MA, has a big pile of mufflers out in back of its corporate office/research center/manufacturing facility. Compact sedans and small pickups are lined up along the side with extension cords plugged in where the gas caps should be. Out front, signs read, "EV Parking Only." All others will be what--zapped?

Solectria founder and CEO James Worden says he has never owned a gas-powered car in his life. Worden, MIT Class of '89, built himself an electric car in high school, won the state science fair with it, and is also his company's director of research and development. Solectria might be considered a big garage hobby shop: a copper coil battery & light bulb experiment to the nth power--except it sells cars, over 160 of them to date. In fact, Solectria manages to sell just enough cars, attract just enough investment capital, and get just enough government grants to keep the mufflers piling up out back.

Solectria's primary EV is the Force, a conversion from a gas-powered car. OK, it's a Geo Metro. I own a VW Fox, which seems like a King Tiger by comparison. But there are lots of Metros out there. Karl Thidemann, Solectria's marketing manager, informs me that Metros are manufactured all over the world under many different guises--and each one could be reckoned an aspiring Force. Thus, Solectria's design could be applied to any number of overseas markets.

The Metro, as it's name implies, is a useful enough four-seater about town. The Force inherits this quality. I get behind the wheel with Thidemann riding shotgun and consider that two (small) friends could have come along, too. By now, I'm an EV veteran, so I don't get all excited by the fact the Force doesn't make any noise when I turn the key.

The Force has a box with a knob on it where the stick shift had been reminiscent of a model train control unit. There are three power level settings going forward, plus neutral and reverse settings. I turn the knob to high, step on the accelerator, and whine out of Solectria's lot into an industrial park.

While driving, the car makes a buzzy sound I don't like very much at first but quickly come to ignore. The accelerator is very soft, too. Basically, I alternate between flooring it and coasting to maintain speed. The regenerative braking system, however, is a very comfortable way to slow down. It pays, too. I enjoy watching the LCD display show me how much charge I'm putting back into the lead-acid batteries as I roll up to stop signs.

Out on busy Route 128, I can go as fast as I would want to for local distances. The Force has a rated top speed of 75 mph and I approach that. The usage meter chides me though. It reels off ever-increasing numbers like one of those real-time national debt displays. The $35,000 Force would carry me an average of 50 miles between charges. I could opt for NiMH batteries and double that range--provided I want to spend $75,000. It takes a special person to plunk down that much for an electro-Metro.

Still, Solectria's vehicles can be recharged overnight from 110V outlets. The reduced maintenance and fueling costs for electric vehicles might compensate for the large initial outlay: Solectria hasn't done any long-term ownership studies. A number of utilities and nearby Hanscom Air Force Base have fleets of Solectria EVs, albeit of the lead-acid variety.

Many fleet buyers opt for the E-10 pickup truck, a conversion from a Chevy S-10. The E-10 features light pickup loading characteristics and significantly more power than the Force. I immediately recognize this when I drive the E-10. It rides higher, the acceleration is brisker, and it is a lot quieter than the Force. Since there is more room for batteries under the flatbed, the EV pickup claims a range of 60 miles at 45 mph. It costs $50,000.

Solectria's technological tour de force is the Sunrise, winner of the 1996 Tour de Sol endurance race sponsored by the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association, Greenfield, MA. The EV, an advanced prototype of a vehicle scheduled to go into production in less than two years, managed a run of 375 miles before its NiMH batteries had to be recharged. The record for a production vehicle, by the way, is 249 miles. This was established during the 1997 Tour de Sol by a NiMH-equipped Force.

At first glance, the Sunrise is an aerodynamic cousin to GM's EV1. However, the composite body does not use a lick of metal structurally, making it a lighter. The workshop where Sunrise prototypes are assembled resembles a boat shop. In fact, the fiberglass-like body panels are outsourced to a sailboat maker.

The Sunrise seats four comfortably with ample surplus legroom for the driver and front passenger. The car has a vast expanse of dashboard for keeping great quantities of the sundry items that tend to accumulate in cars. In fact, there is almost too much room up there (imagine that).

I go to roll up the window (standard operating procedure for aerodynamics-conscious EV drivers) but find no button or crank. Windows, when carried, are held in place by Velcro. This will not be so in the production model, I am assured. I am offered a window, but I decline.

The power control box is replaced by a circular knob on the vertical dash, rather like the cycle knob on some washing machines. I set the Sunrise to high and hit the road. This accelerator is squishy, too, and seems to be a Solectria trade-mark. However, Sunrise is very well behaved acoustically.

Out on Route 128, Sunrise's aerodynamics provide a smooth ride at all speeds. The car sports a bright yellow futuristic look and has all sorts of racing-style corporate sponsorship stickers on it. I check out other drivers on the highway, expecting to receive admiring gazes. I don't get so much as a glance. The locals must be used to seeing EVs in their midst.

So might we all, one day.

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