Electric Van Promising, As Far As It Goes

February 14, 1994|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Sun Staff Writer

Is this the drive of the future? Hit the accelerator, and instead of a muffled roar there's a high-pitched whine, almost like a jet plane.

That's the sound when you put the pedal to the metal in the Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.'s electric-powered Chrysler minivan, one of four the utility owns.

The van is low slung, and you had better steer clear of deep potholes and commercial car washes.

Yet the thing goes. No jack-rabbit starts, but this is no golf cart either.

"They'll fly," says Les Stephenson, who is in charge of maintaining BG&E's fleet of alternative-fuel vehicles. He says the electric van can reach speeds of 80 mph on highways.

Sounds great, right? Problem is, it will travel only about 70 miles at a more sedate 55 mph before the batteries have to be recharged -- plugged in for up to eight hours.

And if you're still sold on being the first on your block to go electric, consider the price: $100,000, at least five times what a gasoline-powered Chrysler minivan costs.

To reduce urban smog, officials in states from California to Maryland are pushing Detroit to produce electric cars and trucks, which proponents tout as the pollution-free vehicle of tomorrow.

That effort received a boost earlier this month, when a commission representing 13 East Coast states, including Maryland, decided to seek a federal mandate for California-style emissions limits on all cars and light trucks sold from Maine to Virginia. Part of the plan, modeled on California's clean-car program, would require that one in 50 vehicles sold by 1998 produce no emissions.

That decision delighted environmentalists, electric vehicle entrepreneurs and utilities, which hope to sell more electricity and also to avoid more costly pollution controls on their power plants. But it distresses the auto industry, which insists that the snappy new plug-in cars and trucks it is developing at great expense won't be ready to sell by 1998, because of their limited range and sky-high prices.

Meanwhile, a draft Environmental Protection Agency study suggests that electric vehicles may be the wrong tool for cleaning up smog. The pollution produced by generating more power to run the vehicles may offset their lack of emissions, according to the study's preliminary findings.

A recent spin around town in BG&E's electric van reveals the promise of this new technology, as well as the huge hurdles it must overcome to win public acceptance.

The minivan is one of 10 produced by the Chesapeake Consortium, an alliance formed two years ago by Chrysler, Westinghouse Electric Corp., BG&E and the state of Maryland to develop salable electric vehicles. Used to give demonstration drives, the van also has been assigned to utility technicians making service calls in western Baltimore County, where BG&E's marketing and service operations are based.

On the outside, the van looks like any other. But under the hood is a 100-horsepower, alternating-current motor and a flat black box that serves as the "controller," feeding power to the motor in response to pressure on the accelerator.

Beneath the van, instead of a tailpipe, muffler and catalytic converters, there are 30 nickel-iron batteries, weighing 1,640 pounds in all. That load under the chassis gives the van a heavy feel and reduces ground clearance to about 4 inches, meaning drivers must beware of potholes and speed bumps.

For all that, the van gives a smooth and quiet ride. So quiet, in fact, that it had to be equipped with a back-up alarm after it almost ran over a BG&E mechanic. And with special low-resistance tires, the vehicle coasts "like there's no tomorrow," says Mr. Stephenson.

Another plus: Its electric heater begins pumping out warm air as soon as the van is started. There is no wait on icy cold mornings for the engine to warm up.

"They're prototypes," says David P. Brown, director of BG&E's marketing research and field services. "They're up and down, but they've worked out."

The participating companies plan to use what they've learned from these first 10 vans to produce a new generation of lighter, cheaper and even more reliable electric vehicles.

"We believe that they're economically competitive in the transit market, for buses and school buses, and in the fleet market," says Timothy Winter, business development manager for automotive systems at Westinghouse.

A big selling point for electric vehicles is their low operating cost, just 1 or 2 cents per mile compared with 3 to 4 cents for equivalent gasoline-powered vehicles.

Moreover, there are far fewer moving parts: no carburetor or fuel injection to gum up, no transmission to wear out and no muffler or catalytic converter to replace.

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