The full current on cars and electricity

By Casey Williams

(December 25, 2012) Electric cars have rolled an incredibly long distance since I first drove a GM EV1 13 years ago. Hybrids were still on the horizon and pure electrics were supposedly going to rule the school. While the EV1 drove like a jet-powered whir of a sports car, it posted a range of about 75 miles if all the stars aligned.

Real world driving met something closer to 40 miles in a two-seat car that cost as much as a Mercedes. GM killed its electric car.

Japanese automakers had a better idea. They designed hybrids that sipped little petrol by using batteries to creep through traffic and provide extra power during acceleration. Regenerative brakes recaptured energy during deceleration.

The 1999 Honda Insight achieved 61/70-MPG city/hwy. while the first-generation of the Toyota Prius achieved 52/45-MPG city/hwy. The second-generation Prius brought futuristic mid-size utility to the mainstream; the 2010 third-gen Prius is even more impressive.

Hybrids like the Ford Fusion, Toyota Camry, Chevy Malibu, Honda Civic, and Lexus LS600h are essentially like the Prius. There are varying sizes and robustness of battery packs and motors, but they are essentially “enhanced” gas-powered vehicles.

Things get interesting when an extension cord appears. Ford and Toyota have introduced plug-in hybrid versions of their respective cars and crossovers. By enlarging the battery and allowing it to be charged at home, these vehicles can spend more time running on electric power, further increasing mileage. Yet, they are still primarily gas-powered vehicles.
By comparison, the Chevy Volt reinvented the automobile. GM originally planned to develop a car with wheels driven directly by electric motors and a hydrogen fuel cell. Problem is you can’t exactly fill up on hydrogen at the local Shell.

Using the same technology, GM replaced the fuel cell with a small gasoline engine. Engineers also attached a plug so drivers can get the first 35 to 40 miles from their local utility company before the gas engine cycles on and off to extend range to that of a normal car. The mid-size Volt hits dealerships during 2010. A Cadillac version, based on the Converj concept, will be available in 2013.
I remember hearing San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom on Larry King Live sometime ago. He suggested Americans should drive cars like the all-electric Tesla Roadster. Based on the Lotus Elise, it runs 0-60 mph in under four seconds, hits 125 mph, and posts a 220-mile range. It’s a perfect car if you are willing to pay $120,000 for a two-seat convertible. The new Tesla Model S sedan is less expensive and more practical. (It was named Motor Trend's 2013 "Car of the Year" a month ago.)

If you’re going to get into the electric car debate, know the facts. Pure electrics run on batteries alone like the Nissan Leaf. Hybrids are gasoline-powered cars with an auxiliary electric system to improve mileage and performance. Plug-in hybrids are regular hybrids with enhanced battery packs and motors that allow limited driving on electric alone. Extended-range electrics like the Chevy Volt are pure electric cars — batteries and all — that have a back-up generator to extend range. Pick your poison. Know the side affects.