The battery pack of the extended-range electric vehicle that is the Chevrolet Volt weighs 198kg, the T-shaped box occupying much of the car’s centre tunnel and invading the rear cabin sufficiently to reduce this family car to a four-seater. The Volt’s modest 7.74-gallon fuel tank, on the other hand, weighs just 21.1kg – around a ninth as much as its 288 lithium-ion cells. On battery power alone, the Volt can travel 35 miles. Using petrol energy – which is converted to electricity to drive its electric motor – it will travel 340 miles.
There you have the reason why petrol is a hell of a lot more convenient than a battery as a means of propelling a car. It is a vastly more space-efficient means of storing energy, and hugely cheaper. But a battery is a carrier of energy generated by multiple means, and that enables it to store clean, green power, whether it be kinetic energy gathered from the regenerative brakes of a hybrid, or carbon-neutral hydro-electric energy drawn from the grid. The need for clean power is one reason for the rebirth of electric cars like the Volt and Nissan’s Leaf; tapping energy sources less geo-politically troublesome than oil is another.
Rebirth? Yes, the electric car is far from new, a profusion of examples humming about from the turn of the previous century, most of them in the US. But the virtual disappearance of the electric car is one reason why North America’s 1887 William Morrison six-passenger wagon is not revered in the same way as Karl Benz’s 1886 internal combustion three-wheeler. Morrison, a Scottish chemist who settled in Iowa in 1880, built his electric car in a basement known as ‘The Cave’. The four horsepower, front-drive surrey-style car rode on steel-clad wooden wheels and was first shown at a parade in 1888, where it stunned onlookers who had never seen a horseless carriage. It had a top speed of 20mph and a range of 50 miles, but Morrison’s interest was in batteries rather than cars, and after patenting it in 1891 he sold the rights to the American Battery Company.
Morrison’s machine would soon be joined by many others, including 1899’s torpedo-shaped record breaker La Jamais Contente, which launched its Belgian creator Camille Jenatzy to the record-breaking speed of 65.8mph. But it was not so much record-breaking that drove the electric car forward as convenience. Compared with petrol cars they were clean, easy to start, quiet, odour-free and likely to complete their journeys. That made them attractive to women – the Baker Electric came with a woman’s make-up kit, as fitted to Octane columnist Jay Leno’s example. The fact that they were mostly used for short trips meant limited range was not an issue.
Cleveland-based Baker Electric’s first car was bought by none other than Thomas A Edison of lightbulb fame in 1899, who believed that electric cars were the future and had begun developing batteries for them. A year later Baker Electric had moved to bigger premises, and by 1910 the company had become the biggest maker of electric vehicles in the world. Yet Baker’s descent came even faster than its rise. By 1915 it had merged with Rauch and Lang to concentrate production and seek other forms of business, and its 1916 range would be the last. Baker was far from alone, Detroit Electric, Columbia, Woods and others experiencing similarly vertiginous lives.
Some of these cars could travel quite some way on a single charge – as much as 100 miles in the case of Mr Leno’s Baker. Now, if a 100-mile range sounds familiar, that’s because it’s the distance the new Nissan Leaf can manage. So modern, mainstream electric cars go no further on a single charge than their equivalents could more than 100 years ago. The problem is that pesky battery. But 110 years ago the electric car appeared to be the future; a mere 15 years later it was doomed.
What killed it? Petrol. But not before Henry Ford – whose own phenomenally successful Model T would virtually annihilate the electric car – had gone into partnership with his friend Edison to develop a car known as the Edison-Ford. That project foundered, allegedly because of the internal resistance within Edison’s nickel-iron batteries. When Ford learned his engineers had substituted more efficient lead-acid batteries behind his back, he killed the project!
But it was electricity harnessed to a different end that further hastened the demise of the electric car, Charles Kettering’s 1912 electric starter making petrol engines a lot easier to live with. And Henry Ford’s mass production techniques rapidly reduced the price of petrol cars to a level that electrics simply couldn’t compete with. This, and the realisation that the car could be used for a lot more than local commuting, made electric cars unviable by 1920. By the middle of the following decade they were dead.
And they pretty much stayed that way for decades, the easy availability of cheap, portable and energy-dense petrol allowing the internal combustion engine a dominance that continues to this day. But internal combustion engines have their problems and, in the early ’60s, pollution and energy security floated to prominence through California’s increasingly unpleasant smogs. That prompted small-scale attempts to revive the breed from manufacturers both major and minor. General Motors’ experimental 1964 Electrovair I, based on its rear-engined Chevy Corvair, was followed by an improved 1966 Electrovair II, though even with a boot filled with silver-zinc batteries it was capable of no more than 80mph and a range of 40 to 80 miles.
An earlier rear-engined conversion was produced by the US-based National Union Electric Company, which developed an electrically driven Renault Dauphine with coachbuilder Henney. The Henney Kilowatt was initially propelled by a 36V battery pack allowing a 40mph top speed, but upping this to 72V gave it a top speed of nearly 60mph and a similar range. During a two-year production run 100 were planned, but only 47 built; a handful survive. Electric Renaults seemed to hold a curious attraction for Americans. Another attempt based on the Renault 10 was boldly called the Mars II – disappointment at the reality must have been overwhelming. Few of them realised that a rear-engined Renault’s fearsome capacity for dissolving would have been fast-tracked with battery acid spills. Some 47 Mars IIs were built in 1967, for Oregon’s electric utility company EWEB.
But these numbers were nothing to the 2300 CitiCars produced by Sebring-Vanguard during the late ’70s. Imagine a short-wheelbase, four-wheeled Bond Bug without the cool and you have it. And it’s easy to mock, except that the man behind it, car dealer Bob Beaumont, established a post-war electric car company that, until mainstream makers like Nissan came along, held the record for having sold the most volt-powered cars in the world. His golf-cart-based post-’73 fuel crisis CitiCar sold well until a damning review in Consumer Reports, possibly prompted by its having the crashworthiness of a wheelie-bin, a 38mph top speed and a 50-mile range. Despite this setback it evolved into the CommutaCar to score a total of 4444 sales.
It was around this time that a serious EV attempt came from Britain, the neat Isle of Wight-built 1973 Enfield Electric, backed by the Electricity Council. Of the 120 built, 65 were used by the Council in southern England until the late ’70s. Quite a few survive today and change hands for surprising sums, despite a top speed of 48mph and a 40-mile range.
Much more convincing than this was General Motors’ infamous 1996 EV1, a brilliant little teardrop-shaped two-seater that was years ahead of its time – and the necessary level of battery development. It was born out of the 1990 Impact electric concept car, and GM boss Roger Smith surprised both the world and his staff by declaring that GM would build it to meet some wildly optimistic Californian emissions legislation, which required that 2% of cars sold in the state be zero-emission by 1998.
The EV1 was hugely expensive to make, its lead-acid battery packs reputed to cost between $20,000 and $30,000, a sizeable chunk of the car’s nominal $33,995 list price. Nominal, because all 2234 EV1s were leased. This lightweight, aluminium-framed, plastic-bodied two-seater with a still-unbeaten production car drag factor of 0.19, would whirr to 60mph in 8.0sec (though not many times), and offered a range of 50 miles. This improved to the magical 100 miles with nickel-metal hydride batteries, but GM’s enthusiasm for this money-pit was waning and in 2003 the EV1 programme was axed, and most of the cars crushed, to howls of protest from their owners. The highly critical and somewhat unfair film Who Killed the Electric Car? was just a slice of the PR fall-out GM suffered as a result, although some of what it learned has been channelled into the Volt.
The same 1990 Californian Clean Air Act Amendment that yielded the EV1 also produced battery-powered models from Toyota, Ford, Honda and Chrysler, but the usual cost and range issues ensured they made little headway. A serious European effort also emerged in the mid-’90s, when Peugeot developed an electric version of its 106 supermini with French coachbuilder Heuliez. Intended to capitalise on the fact that much of France’s electricity is nuclear-generated, Peugeot anticipated 100,000 sales of the 106 Electrique, but high prices, a top speed of 56mph and a range of 62 miles saw only 6400 finding homes, most of them bought by the French administration. Some survive, but this turned out to be another false dawn for the electric car.
Britain’s global-warming fears, which reached a government and media-induced frenzy a few years back that may yet prove justified, allowed the bizarre little Reva G-Wiz electric car briefly to take root in the country. This short, narrow, plastic-bodied and steel-framed quadricycle can quite often be seen in London, where some shortlived parking concessions allowed it a brief moment in the sun until Top Gear crash-tested one, with impressively destructive results.
But the G-Wiz was the start of a new wave of 21st-century electric cars, some of them even mildly credible. The 2008 Elise-based Tesla Roadster is certainly one of these, its 6831-cell, 990lb lithium-ion battery pack allowing it a range of 245 miles and spectacular 3.7sec 0-60mph sprints. The Roadster was expensive at £86,950, but more than 1700 have been sold.
Mitsubishi was the first mainstream maker to launch an electric car this century, its i-MiEV hatchback being fun to drive and looking the part, though its real-world range was less than 80 miles. An equal disadvantage is its absurd £28,990 price, similar tags burdening its badge-engineered Citroen C-Zero and Peugeot Ion siblings.
The i-MiEV is an adaptation of a petrol car, whereas the Nissan Leaf is a bespoke electric car. It’s a fine drive and a World Car of the Year award winner but, like the Kangoo, Fluence and Zoe coming imminently from sister company Renault, it suffers the same high price/high weight/short range curse that has plagued electric cars forever. As GM’s researchers point out, progress in battery efficiency is slow; the 80W/hour output of its experimental 1992 Opel Impuls has only improved to 90W/hour for the 2010 Ampera. True, weight has fallen and power outputs have climbed but, while GM believes that battery technology will gradually improve, it does not foresee breakthroughs.
And that’s why hybrids are evolving at ever-greater pace. Some, such as Toyota’s Prius, use an electric motor to boost the petrol engine’s efforts that is, in effect, propelled by kinetic energy captured when the car brakes, while extended-range hybrids such as the Chevrolet Volt/Vauxhall Ampera duo are continuously driven by an electric motor whose battery charge is maintained on longer journeys by an on-board petrol engine. But if you think the hybrid is a relatively new invention, think again.
The Prius was the first mass-market hybrid of modern times, the first version released in Japan in 1997, and before that in 1989 Audi produced a batch of ten hybrid 100 Quattro Avants called Duo. The aim was to tackle the then-pending requirement for zero emission vehicles (ZEVs) in smog-troubled California, and it was to meet this legislation rather than tackling carbon dioxide emissions that other hybrids were originally developed. GM also built a hybrid concept, its stylish XP-883 hatchback appearing in 1969 with a petrol 570cc twin-cylinder and a DC motor whose lead-acid batteries were charged by a flywheel alternator. Despite its viability it remained a concept, a fact that GM must often have rued when the Prius took off.
But much older than any of these hybrids were the multiple-motored beasts developed by Ferdinand Porsche with the Jacob Lohner company at the turn of the previous century. Lohner’s first car was the flawed 1898 Electromobile, whose tyre-threatening battery weight led Porsche to develop the world’s first fully working hybrid car, the Semper Vivus of 1900. A magnificent working replica of this was completed for the Porsche Museum last year.
Today hybrids are commonplace – Toyota has sold over 3.3 million – and they’re about to become more so with Peugeot-Citroen’s diesel hybrids, Ford’s teaming with Toyota to develop hybrid SUVs, and the Volt’s extended-range hybrid system promising to prompt imitators.