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The Buzz About The Electric Car

NEVA_webconference_jpegIf you were to read the typical review of an electric car – a Nissan LEAF, say – you’re likely to be left with the impression that electric cars are a brand new technology that’s never been seen before.  Unfortunately (or should that be fortunately?), this impression is incorrect.

This is only one of the misconceptions about the electric car.  The other main one, which typically got heard in the 1980s and 1990s before electric and hybrid vehicles git the market, was a juicy conspiracy theory about big vehicle manufacturing companies or oil magnates finding out about plans for an electric car and taking steps to rub out either the invention… or the inventor.  Seeing as most big car companies are putting out hybrids and electrics these days, we now know that this sort of story probably needs to go in the thriller fiction category.

But what about the idea that electric cars are a new thing?  Many people are surprised to discover that they aren’t new at all.  They were new and hot back in the USA in the 1890s, after a number of inventors had played around with them. In the early days of the automobile, fossil fuels didn’t have it all their own way – there were a few steam numbers knocking about, alongside the electrics, the diesels (and, of course, the horses and the bicycles).

So what happened?  How did the electric car go from having about one-third of the private car market to being so rare that it was the subject of the aforementioned conspiracy theories?  You can probably blame two main factors.  Number one was the mass production methods of Henry Ford, who made his cars cheap for the masses. They just happened to be petrol powered.  Number two was, of course, World War 1, which got inventors to pay attention to things that would useful for combat.  Electric cars might have been fine for puttering around the streets of London Detroit or New York but were not so good if you had to go long distances, like the taxis that took troops from Paris to the French–German border did.  What’s more, a lot of the inventors who had concentrated on aeroplanes during the war turned to cars after the war (or, more accurately, between the wars) and by that time, they were kind of used to working with petrol and diesel.  Petrol was pretty cheap, too, what with oil well after oil well being discovered in the Middle East and in Texas. So the electric car just sort of fizzled away.

Well, it fizzled until petrol stopped being quite so cheap and the world became much more aware of the twin problems of dwindling fossil fuel supplies and air pollution in all its forms. Now, we’re all wanting electric cars back again.

However, it’s not quite as simple as all that.  For one thing, although electric cars have the advantage of having fewer moving parts to break down as well as having the low, low emissions when used, they still have the problems with range.  At the moment, an electric car is great for an urban commute (oh, the joys of not sitting there idling at the lights!). However, if you regularly drive interstate or if you live on a farm, then an electric car isn’t going to have the range you need to get from A to B… which can be quite a long way.

While electric cars don’t need to be filled with petrol and they can use some of their kinetic energy while braking to recharge themselves, they will still need to be recharged when the battery runs low.  Just like everything else that uses a rechargeable battery, such as your laptop, your phone and your camera.  Now, you know how long it takes to charge your other electronic devices.  As an electric car battery needs to do a lot more than your phone or laptop – getting something moving needs more energy than crunching data does – it will take a lot longer to recharge.  Overnight, in most cases.

The slightly more complicated issue is the fact that the electricity needed to recharge the batteries has to come from somewhere.  This can make the electric car not quite as green as the advertising makes it out to be.  All is well if your electricity comes from a renewable source, such as hydro, solar, wind or geothermal (and all the other interesting new ones they’re looking at, like tidal). However, if the power station nearest you relies on coal or some other fossil fuel, your electric car probably has the same carbon footprint as the typical family car.  Don’t even get me started on the potential hazards of nuclear power plants, as the folk of Fukushima or Chernobyl can testify to.

The other potential problem with electric cars, which the manufacturers are working on, is the battery.  For one thing, batteries are horribly expensive to produce.  This is the factor that makes electric vehicles a bit on the pricey side.  And the battery will have to be replaced at some point during the car’s lifetime, putting the price tag of owning an electric vehicle up a bit higher.  However, this is always the case with new green technologies. They start out really expensive and only a few people take them on. Then it becomes cheaper and more widespread.  It’s happened with solar panels and it will probably happen with the batteries in electric cars, too.

The second thing with batteries is that they tend to be made of some pretty lethal stuff, as are all batteries.  Lead, lithium and nickel are typically used.  This might prove to be a bit of a problem as electric cars get more widespread and disposal of old batteries becomes more of an issue.  Thankfully, some companies, such as Nissan, will take old batteries back and recycle them.  So do some specialist recycling companies.

Things will change with the electric car.  There’s a typical pattern that all new technologies follow as they become more widespread and popular.  At the moment, about halfway through 2015, will the purely electric car be right for you? It could well be if you can say yes to the following:

  • You are passionate about the environment and don’t mind spending a bit more to minimize your carbon footprint.
  • You are based in a city and don’t drive long distances.
  • Your local power company runs on sustainable energy or you have lots of solar panels on your house.
  • You know where to recycle the battery.
  • You have a lifestyle that allows you to recharge the battery overnight (and you don’t mind having a power bill instead of a petrol bill).

The rest of us will have to make do with hybrids, biodiesel and driving what we’ve got as frugally as possible… at least for now!

Safe and happy driving, no matter what powers you,