The silent traffic jam is not beyond reach.
This year GM will launch the EV1, a fully electic car, in California. In ideal conditions (i.e. temperate highway driving) the EV1 can travel roughly 120 km before it needs to be charged, which takes up to 12 hours. As Ottawans know, cold weather is not battery friendlyl the EV1's range would be greatly reduced in our wintry, stop-and-go traffic. And who can charge up for 12 hours on the way to Montreal? [The trip from Ottawa to Montreal is about 200 km, and a very common one for Ottawa business-people]
In Nepean, Estco Energy Inc. is part of an Ontario consortium at work developing an electric vehicle for use in Canada.
The company has been monitoring the performance of its 20 electric vans across the country. The battery powered vans have performed well in various weather conditions and provide the company with valuable information in the design of the prototype, scheduled to be demonstration-ready in June of 1997.
The prototype will be a modified version of one of these vans with a small turbine engine charging the battery. Estco aims to improve the existing electric vehicle's capacity to store and convert energy with less waste - that is, get it from the sourfce (fuel or battery) to the wheels without losing it. The project combines ambitious fuel efficiency with environmentally sound emission reduction.
However, as Tom H. Lewison, executive director of Nepean-based Electric Vehicle Association of Canada (EVAC) explains, a consumer habit as pervasive as the internal combustion engine takes more than environmental good will to change. Not onl must regulatory standards and fueling infrastructure be in place, the electric car must be seen by the consumer as a better buy.
An initial niche is the second vehicle market. For getting around town, the present 120km range is ample, and at 1/7 the running-cost of conventional cars, the electric vehicle could sell, provided consumer trust is earned. Another possible market is the uban cargo fleet. With stationary shut-off and harnessed brake power, electricity drives the average postal van 40km per day far more cheaply than any other fuel.
As for conquering the larger market, electric vehicles have to be demonstrably better all around. Lewinson is convincing on the technical aspects of this point. Only about 15% of combusting fuel energy is available to make a car move, and much of this is lost to idling, coasting and braking.
Electric vehicles run off batteries or flywheels which are charged externally, or by various kinds of on-board engines (which make them hybrid vehicles). Whatever the charging technology, eletric engines expend little or no energy when the vehicle is stopped and running or coasting, and can be designe to harness energy released from braking (reducing or reversing the 'stop and go' energy-drain). They are felt by most proponents to be potentially maintenance free.
Depending on battery type, home recharging units that take as little as two hours are not far off. Centralized charging stations could do the same in five and a half minutes. And the cold battery problem is solved by warming is with a small portion of its own energy.
Under-exploited, viable electric engine technology exists and will only improve; it remains for it to be sucessfully marketed. The automobile is bound to change. Lewinson speaks of a potentially huge telecom opportunityat the interface between the recharging car owner and the utility company. Such fields of research are languishing to the potential detriment of Canadian industry.
We 'should be jumping madly at the bone, as is the case with the U.S., European and Asian corporations,' according to EVAC. Estco would seem to be on the right track.
By Sean Locke
Last updated October 3, 1996