2/1/1998 | 9 MINUTE READ

Going Electric

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Frank W. Pereira, brand manager, GM Advanced Technology Vehicles, estimates that within 10 years, 25% of the vehicle market may be electric vehicle (EV) type units. While some other observers seem to think that number is a bit on the high side, prevailing environmental concerns, which are leading to both legislation and consumer awareness, seem to point in the direction of changing the status quo of an internal combustion powered-fleet on the streets and highways not only in the U.S., but around the world. Here's a look at how some companies are addressing EVs.


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Perhaps there's something telling that the venue for the 14th International Electric Vehicle Symposium (EVS 14), hosted by the Electric Vehicle Association of the Americas (EVAA; San Francisco), was held at the Walt Disney Dolphin Hotel in Orlando, FL. The Dolphin and its space-mate, the Swan, had been the two closest hotels to the gates of Disney's EPCOT—the Experimental Planned Community of Tomorrow—until company head Michael Eisner decided that a fully owned Disney property needed to have that distinction.

Still, the Dolphin is close enough to the place where authentic cultures are simulated and the Visions of Tomorrow are actualized. This blending of what is and what will be that's characteristic of EPCOT is also descriptive of the electric vehicle (EV). It takes one part of the authentic auto culture—forget about the early electrics at the turn of the century; the car is an internal combustion engine platform so far as we've known it in any mass produced form—and melds it with the increasingly practical possible, components that are going from the one-off to the mass-made (once, the GM EV prototype Impact was at the Innoventions display within EPCOT; presently, there are production EV1s shown there; during EVS 14 GM and the Walt Disney World Resort announced an agreement wherein Disney will be replacing a number of its vehicles with Chevrolet S-10 Electric pickups [which are presently available], and other no- or low-emissions vehicles as they are developed by the automaker).

Although skeptics abound with regard to EVs, there is one fact that is difficult to dismiss: the companies involved in development and/or production initiatives are not trivial. Consider the major car companies with vehicles—driveable vehicles—at EVS 14: Honda, BMW, Chrysler, Ford, GM, Mercedes, Nissan, Toyota. (Robert C. Stempel, former GM chairman, is the chairman of both Energy Conversion Devices and Ovonic Battery, major players in the EV arena; former Chrysler head Lee A. Iacocca has established EV Global Motors Co.)

Consider the major consumer products companies involved in batteries: Sony, Panasonic, 3M. Others involved are companies like Bombardier (which makes vehicles ranging from the Learjet to the sea-doo) and Lockheed-Martin.

There are significant EV undertakings by a variety of government agencies. Not only is this happening in the U.S., but in other countries, as well. For example, Deutsche Post AG is testing the zinc-air energy system developed by Electric Fuel Corp. in a Mercedes 180E van used for mail delivery. (Wolfgang Buckentin, director, General Directorate of Deutsche Post, said at a symposium held in Tokyo in November, 1997, "As with any other postal service in the world, Deutsche Post AG is expected to deliver letters and parcels anywhere at any time and under any conditions. Looking at our business and, more and more, at our competitors, we cannot afford to wait to find out what ecologically motivated rules will bring in the near future." They want to be ahead of the curve—as, presumably, do the aforementioned auto makers. Summing up, Buckentin stated, "If we take stock of the time operating the zinc-air energy system in Germany, we come to the following conclusion: We are convinced of the technological feasibility of the system, even if there is a lot of work to be done to optimize the components and their interaction within the system. The question still to be answered is the one of the economic viability." And that question is one that plenty of people around the world are still grappling with, and probably will continue to for some time to come.) Utility companies—ranging from Hydro Quebec to Edison International—are pushing EVs.

To be sure, there are numerous issues to be resolved. But the car companies sure as heck aren't spending millions on a lark. The consumer products companies tend, with some exceptions, of course, to provide the public with what it wants—even, in some cases, when the public doesn't know it wants it (e.g., Sony's Walkman and 3M's Post-It Notes). Government agencies...well, that one is tougher. The utility companies in the U.S. are facing deregulation, so you can be sure that they want to make sure that they gain whatever preferred positions they can get vis-a-vis the customer base.

It is no longer a question of if. It is not even so much a question of when. Questions that should loom large in design and manufacturing engineering departments are how EVs—be the motors be driven by batteries or fuel cells or whatever—will affect the design approaches and tooling presently required for internal-combustion-based products, and whether the capacity to create and manufacture EVs can be put in place in the near term.

Here is a look at some of the developments displayed at EVS 14...

Just Like Your Notebook Computer

Nissan is developing the Altra EV, a four-passenger minivan (which resembles a station wagon more than a minivan) for the U.S. market. It is being produced in the Atsugi assembly plant in Tochigi, Japan—but not exactly at the rate that, say, Altimas are being produced in Smyrna, TN. This year, 30 Altra EVs will be delivered to fleet users in California; 90 more will be available to fleets in 1999. At present, the plans are for retail sales in 2000. What will they cost? No numbers are presently available.

The power source for the Altra EV is lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries. Batteries of this type are used in some notebook computers and video cameras. But there are quite a few more batteries involved here: there are 12 battery modules, each of which includes eight cells connected in series. Which means there are 96 cells, each of which measures 2.6 in. in diameter and 16 in. long. The batteries, developed by Nissan and Sony, provide a range of 120 miles (although John Schutz of Nissan R&D says the actual real-world driving range is more on the order of 80 to 100 miles). The construction of the Altra EV is conventional, although there is a double-walled aluminum frame that's used to handle the 800 lb. battery array.

Nissan also displayed a concept vehicle, the Hypermini, a two-person unit that's specifically for taking short trips. The Hypermini also employs Li-ion batteries, but in this case, the official range is said to be 80 miles on a single charge. The vehicle is produced with Nissan Zone Body design, which helps improve safety characteristics. It not only uses recycled materials in its construction, but it is 90% recyclable by weight.


Toyota's Multi-engine Approach

In a Toyota Motor Corp. publication titled "Car(e) for the Earth: Toyota Automotive Eco-Technologies," corporation president Hiroshi Okuda writes, "If the automobile is to remain useful in the next century...our entire industry must face up to some serious environmental problems." He goes on to warn, "But unless we act decisively, the automobile may cease to be a viable transportation option."

It is not surprising, then, that Toyota had a large display at EVS 14. The company is working in five areas: direct-injection, lean-burn internal combustion engines; compressed natural gas-powered vehicles; hybrids; EVs; and methanol fuel cell electric vehicles.

The hybrid—in this case a 1.5-litre, four cylinder, DOHC, 4-valve internal combustion engine mated with an electric motor—is actually on sale in Japan. The vehicle, named the Prius, uses the electric motor when the car pulls away from a stop; under a light load; or along with the engine under heavy loads (the engine alone provides a top speed of 88 mph; the engine and the motor combined bring the speed to 100 mph).

The engine is limited to 4,000 rpm, which means that the engine components don't have to be as robust—and as heavy—as those in higher revving engines. So there's a smaller-diameter crankshaft and lower valve spring loads, and so on, which not only helps cut weight, but which also reduces friction losses.

There is a power-split device in the transmission that uses a planetary gear to constantly vary the amount of power that's supplied from the engine to the wheels or to the generator that's used to charge the batteries and to control the electric motor. Consequently, there is no need to charge the batteries from an external device (there is also regenerative braking used to charge the batteries). The Prius offers double the fuel efficiency of a comparable internal combustion engine-powered vehicle.

In the U.S. Toyota is offering the RAV4-EV, a compact sport utility vehicle that employs a permanent magnet electric motor equivalent in power to a 67-hp internal combustion engine. The RAV4-EV uses nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) batteries; there are 24 of the sealed batteries located under the floor of the vehicle (the fundamental design of the RAV4 permits this without having to raise the seat height or the vehicle profile). The total number of RAV4-EVs scheduled for delivery in the U.S. (they're available only to fleet buyers) is 225 vehicles.

David W. Hermance, general manager, Powertrain, Toyota Technical Center U.S.A., indicated that one of the issues that needs to be addressed with regard to electric and hybrid vehicles is cost. Presumably, once the volumes get to the point where the Toyota Production System can really kick in, some aspects of the cost factor will be handled.


Fast & Stealthy

The "official" name is the "High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle" (HMMWV). This military vehicle is probably better known as the "Humvee." Ordinarily, the HMMWV has a diesel engine power plant. But PEI Electronics Inc. (which was once Chrysler's Pentastar Electronics) developed a hybrid-electric HMMWV for the U.S. Army Tank Automotive and Armament Command (TACOM) and the Defense Research Projects Agency (DARPA) through the Southern Coalition for Advanced Transportation.

This hybrid-electric HMMWV uses diesel fuel—for its 1.9-litre motor generator, which was developed by the Southwest Research Institute. The vehicle is equipped with permanent magnet motors for each of its wheels; these motors, built by Unique Mobility, can provide up to 75 kW (or 100 hp) each. (There is a fifth Unique Mobility motor, this a 55-kW unit, that's a generator on the diesel power plant.) Twenty-four advanced, co-extruded composite matrix lead-acid batteries from Electrosource are employed.

To demonstrate the capabilities of the hybrid-electric unit (it was built as a conventional truck at AM General in South Bend, IN, then the people at PEI pulled the engine and rebuilt the HMMWV), a drag race was held during EVS 14 at a Universal Studios construction site. A conventional HMMWV went up against the prototype. The hybrid-electric won—twice. The 0 to 50 mph time for the hybrid-electric is 7 seconds, as compared with 14 seconds for the conventional. The top speed on a 60% grade for the hybrid-electric is 14 mph; it is 6.8 mph for the conventional. The top speed of the hybrid-electric is 80 mph; it's 70 mph for the conventional. And the hybrid-electric gets 18 miles per gallon of fuel, as compared with 9 for the conventional (both vehicles have a range of 300 miles).

One interesting feature of the hybrid-electric HMMWV is that like other electrics, when it is running in an all-electric mode (which it can do for 20 of its 300 miles), it is essentially silent. What's more, according to the people at Unique Mobility, when the motors are powering the vehicle at less than 10 mph in the all-electric mode, the thermal signature can't be detected with infrared sensors—in other words, this 9,100-lb. beast is stealthy.

Right now there is one hybrid-electric HMMWV. But there are on the order of 140,000 military units world-wide. This could have impressive production possibilities.