Jumpstarting the electric car

Government subsidies, high technology, 'green' consumers and rising fuel costs usher in a new electric car era — again

March 04, 2011|By Gus G. Sentementes, The Baltimore Sun

Electric wagons powered by heavy batteries quietly zipped through the streets of Baltimore, carrying beer, milk, fruit and other goods from wholesalers to shops and homes. Some delivery companies installed their own charging stations or used a downtown garage maintained by the local utility to charge their wagons overnight.

This experimental period in transportation wasn't during the gasoline price shocks of the early 1970s. Try 1911.

Electric vehicles would grow to account for about one-quarter of the automobiles in the United States by the 1920s, historians estimate. But the internal-combustion engine would soon outrun electric motors, steam and even horses. As gasoline-fueled cars improved, electric vehicles would be all but forgotten.

Now Baltimore and the nation may again stand at the beginning of a new era in electric vehicles.

A new generation of electric cars is hitting the streets, including the Chevrolet Volt, the Nissan Leaf and the Ford Focus Electric, which debuts later this year. And over the next few years, 25 vehicle models that can be charged by plugging into a regular electrical outlet are expected to be on the market, according to the Electric Drive Transportation Association, a trade group.

The federal government is pumping more than $4 billion into supporting the electric vehicle industry, from the construction of factories for batteries and high-tech motors, including in Baltimore County, to the rollout of charging stations across the country. And Baltimore Gas & Electric Co., whose predecessor operated an electric wagon sales franchise at the turn of the last century, is drawing up plans to prep the electrical grid for car charging.

"We haven't seen anything like this in 100 years," said Bradley Berman, founder and editor of PlugInCars.com and HybridCars.com, which track developments in the electric vehicle industry. "There's a real challenge to the internal-combustion gasoline engine."

Despite great technological strides and research dollars spent on electric as well as hydrogen fuel cell, hybrid and natural gas vehicles, none of them has come close to toppling the hegemony of the gasoline-powered engine. Some critics question the feasibility of the alternative-fuel vehicles, citing their high costs and dependence on energy sources that have their own negative environmental tradeoffs.

And auto manufacturers have modest goals for the electric cars going on the market, with sales targets in the tens of thousands of cars per year. Even with the success of the Toyota Prius, hybrids — whose electric motors and batteries are recharged and complemented by gasoline motors — represent less than 3 percent of the market.

Said Berman: "We're at the beginning of all this."

In the early 1900s, electric vehicles were on the streets of New York, Chicago, Boston and Baltimore, and they were, for a time, favored because they were cleaner and easier to operate than the gasoline engines of the time. The Baltimore region's electricity grid was still in its infancy.

The first electric wagon debuted in Baltimore in 1900 and was built by the Schaum Automobile and Manufacturing Co. at its works in the city on Park Avenue. The wagon came with a 4.5-horsepower electric motor and an 80-volt battery, and could carry 1,200 pounds.

"The new wagon has been tested on cobblestones, Belgian blocks and asphalt and, it is stated, can move up any hill in the city faster than a horse-drawn vehicle. The speed on a level is 12 miles an hour," according to a Baltimore Sun article at the time.

The demise of those early electric vehicles began when Cadillac introduced the electric starter for gasoline-powered cars in 1912, automotive history experts say.

In subsequent years, the electric starter would eliminate the need for drivers to hand-crank their gasoline engines to life — a tedious and strenuous process. And gasoline motors soon outperformed electric motors in speed and distance.

It wasn't until the 1960s and 1970s — with the rise of the environmental movement and the first significant gasoline price hikes — that researchers began experimenting with electric vehicle technology again in any meaningful way. But the batteries were still heavy, large and unreliable, and the cars were still too expensive for automakers to produce.

That has changed in recent years, with heavy investment from the federal and state governments as well as auto companies. At the same time, battery life has vastly improved and can be more efficiently managed using onboard computer systems. And consumers can charge their electric vehicles at home.

In the mid-1990s, General Motors produced an electric car, the EV1, whose lead acid battery weighed 1,000 pounds. (The Chevrolet Volt uses a lithium ion battery weighing 400 pounds.) But the EV1 was pulled off the market because it was too costly to produce — to the dismay of passionate users who had leased the vehicle.

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