When I attended the Electrical Vehicle Symposium 23rd (EVS23) last year, I wondered: After 23 symposiums, why are there still no electric vehicles to speak of? Does that mean a collection of scientists, academics, and government officials have just been talking about the subject since 1969, when the first EVS conference was held? It may seem that way on the surface. However, we've recently driven electric vehicles, some of which seemed almost ready for prime time. (Read our EVS23 report "Who revived the electric car?") Beyond those commendable vehicles, a few other developments are lurking behind the scenes.
For Earth Day, we thought it would be appropriate to highlight some of the ongoing projects that may advance the international electric car cause.
At the 2008 New York auto show, Mitsubishi showed the iMiEV an electric car based on the "i"—a rear-wheel-drive micro car that's sold in Japan. Subaru has a fleet of electric micro cars, called the R1e, that are used by the Tokyo Electric Power Company. Nissan is also testing an electric-powered version of its Cube - its home-market competitor to the original Scion xB. All three use lithium-ion batteries.
If any automaker is poised for real-world mass-market electric vehicle, it might be Nissan. Here's why: The alliance between Nissan and French automaker Renault will soon be selling electric cars in Israel. Renault has recently partnered with a Silicon Valley based Israeli start-up Project Better Place (PBP) to supply electric-powered Renault Megane sedans to be sold in Israel starting in 2011. PBP, in turn, will create a network of 500,000 battery charging and replacement stations throughout Israel, as well as charging points in public parking garages and along streets.
Israel seems an unlikely candidate to be the first county to adapt an electric car, where environmental causes are not generally considered a top priority. However, it is a country where driving distances are relatively short, which alleviates the main concern associated with electric vehicles' inherently limited range. In fact, 90 percent of car owners drive less than 44 miles a day and the country's three largest cities are within 100 miles of each other.
The electric Renault Megane, a sedan the size of a Volkswagen Jetta, is said to be able to accelerate from 0-60 mph in eight seconds and have a range of 125 miles. Purchase price is expected to be similar to that of an equivalent-sized car with a 1.6-liter engine, according to Carlos Ghosn, President and CEO of Nissan Motor Co. and Renault S.A., and Shai Agassi, CEO of Project Better Place. A generous tax subsidy by the Israeli government will help make the price of the car competitive.
Megane EV owners will subscribe to a battery replacement or recharging plan that's based on their mileage. An onboard computer will indicate mileage left and the location of the nearest battery replacement or recharging spot. Removing and replacing the battery is planned to be performed by a robot. Operating costs are expected to be significantly cheaper than filling up with gasoline. This is no surprise, as a gallon of regular unleaded costs about $6.90 in Israel.
A similar experiment is planned for Denmark, another country known for relatively short driving distances. In the Danish scenario, cars would be plugged in for recharging and that energy will be generated from renewable wind power. In Israel, most electric power comes from coal power stations; coal is neither a renewable source nor clean. Consequently, a mile covered by the electric Megane emits no CO2 compared to the 293 gram per mile for the conventional model, there would be added CO2 emissions at the power plant.
The battery for the Renault is an advanced lithium-ion type, developed by Nissan and NEC of Japan. This type of battery is commonly considered the next step from nickel-metal hydride batteries used in today's production hybrids. Li-ion batteries are still considered by many experts to be in their developmental infancy for automotive use and concerns about its longevity, charging time, and potential to overheat are still being addressed.
When it comes to electric vehicles, it's hard to determine if the number of enthusiasts outnumber the skeptics. Nevertheless, such mass-market experience gathered in terms infrastructure, and especially in battery charging/replacement, may give Nissan a competitive edge. More importantly, it may significantly push the EV cause forward. If the Israeli and Danish tests prove successful, it would be only a matter of time until other markets take a serious look at the potential.
Hopefully, by the time EVS24 convenes in 2009, 40 years after the first EV symposium, even more promising electric vehicles will emerge.
For suggestions on how to live more green, visit Consumer Union's Web site Greenerchoices.org and our Earth Day special section. For more tips on saving fuel and alternative fuels, see our fuel economy guide.
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