Electric cars – Present or Future?

What is an Electric Car?
In its simplest form, an electric car is just like any other car in appearance but is propelled by an electric motor instead of an internal combustion engine. The source of energy in an electric car is a set of batteries unlike fossil fuels like petrol, diesel or gas in a traditional car.  However, if one was to get into details, an Electric Car is very unlike a traditional car in more ways than one.
This article explores the history of electric cars in brief, their obsolescence and come back, the current electric car market and future outlook.
Electric Cars – A brief history
Electric automobiles dominated the small automobile market that existed in the early 20th century. The key reason for this was that electric motor technology at that point in time was much more mature than any other propulsion method. Moreover, technical features of an electric motor – like the power-torque characteristic are very favorable for being used as a drive-train as it needs little modification. Electric cars had a significant share of automobiles in the first two decades of the 20th century. Some of the well known players then were Baker Electric, Columbia Electric and Detroit Electric.
However, with the advent of compact and safe internal combustion engines, Electric Cars lost their market share very quickly. This was further supported by the low prices of fossil fuels in the early 20th century. Vehicles powered by petrol & diesel were much more powerful than the electric vehicles of those times and were easy to refill and use over a long range. All these advantages made electric vehicles fade into oblivion very quickly.
Come-back of Electric Cars
While Electric Cars, fuelled by development of new battery technologies, saw continued interest in terms of academic research over the years, the 1990s saw a revival of commercial interest in the product. This was driven mainly by the rising oil prices and growing dependence of the industrialized countries on imported oil. Initiatives to reduce pollution and government incentives for such research served as additional reasons for commercial interest in electric cars. The past two decades have seen every major car manufacturer in the world devote considerable resources to build a commercially feasible electric car.
It is of interest to note that when electric cars made a comeback, the technology they started with (DC Motors powered by Lead Acid batteries) was almost same as those of the early electric vehicles. This is additional evidence that indicates a lack of commercial interest in Electric Vehicle technologies ever since it was replaced by IC engines.
Current status of the Electric Car market
Even today the market for pure electric cars, that is cars powered only by an electric motor and a set of batteries, is miniscule. The only player in the Indian market is Reva. Reva has sold electric cars in India since 2001. Apart from the traditional Lead Acid powered cars, Reva has also launched models based on newer technologies like Li-ion batteries and is consistently engaged in research & development with new prototypes showcased at major auto shows every year. Recently, Mahindra & Mahindra bought a 55.2% controlling stake in Reva, after which the company was renamed as Mahindra Reva Electric Vehicles Private Limited. General Motors India had also tied up with Reva in 2009. However, this tie-up did not last long and was called off in May 2010. Such alliances indicate a strong interest in the electric car market amongst the major automobile industry players in India and not just within niche companies.
Apart from Mahindra and GM, Tata Motors and Mitsubishi are other big names that have evinced interest in this market. Lesser known firms like Hero Electric and the clock maker Ajanta have also announced their plans to enter the domestic electric car market. In the international market too, all major car makers are engaged in sustained Research & Development efforts in electric car technologies. This is apparent from the presence of several prototypes of electric cars at all international auto shows. In the global market, Nissan Leaf, Mitsubishi iMiEV, BMW Mini E, Tesla Roadster are some of the electric vehicles that are commercially available or are in advanced stages of road testing. Hyundai has also ventured into this market with its ‘Blue On’, which is expected to be mass produced by 2012.
Future Outlook for Electric Cars
Year on year, auto makers have come to the realization that electric cars still continue to be ‘cars of the future’. Despite all the R&D that has been going into electric cars by the major auto makers of the world, they continue to face two major constraints – price and convenience of use.
Electric vehicles are priced significantly higher than traditional cars with similar features and performance. Electric cars using the old lead acid batteries have to carry a considerable load and hence compromise on space and performance. Cars with newer battery technologies like Li-ion are very costly. Moreover, in order to reduce weight the electric car body and other components also use more expensive materials. One solution to this problem is subsidies offered by governments for zero pollution vehicles. Another solution is that the batteries are not owned by the car owner but are rented. This reduces the one time burden on the car buyer. However, neither of these solutions has proved successful on a large scale.
The second issue is that of convenience. Electric vehicles have either a limited range (per charge of batteries) or a low maximum speed/power. Most electric cars are not meant to be versatile – that is capable of being used in cities as well as on highways. This becomes a bottleneck in the absence of supportive infrastructure (like charging stations) for electric cars.
In the near term, hybrid electric vehicles that can run on both gas and electricity provide a more pragmatic solution. Some automakers have tested reasonable commercial success with these vehicles. Prime examples are the Toyota Prius and Honda Civic Hybrid. A specific variety of hybrid vehicles, the plug-in hybrids have received more attention recently. Plug-in hybrid cars can run on both gas and batteries and also allow the batteries to be charged directly by plugging in.
It appears that pure electric cars would continue to be the next generation technology at least as long as the hybrid electric car market grows and matures. Till then, let’s hope that we continue to find new sources of fossil fuels.

One thought on “Electric cars – Present or Future?

  1. The key selling point for an electric car can be 1. its environment friendly 2. its cheap to run 3. it has better performance (e.g. tesla which is significantly more torquey than a petrol car). The first point is debatable because electric power is itself derived from sources which harm the environment in most cases. Then there are the trade-offs between cost vs. performance vs. range per charge which you have mentioned above. These trade-offs outweigh the selling points 2. and 3.It can be argued that with advances in technology these issues will erode. But that scenario does not seem likely in the near future. Thus, I do not have faith in electric cars being the future of transport.The answer to all this seems to be a hybrid car then. That can be debated too. Because despite the very high initial cost a consumer pays for a hybrid, he has to compromise on performance and its carbon footprint is not significantly less than a normal car too. It is because of the highly complicated technology which adds to the manufacturing and raw material movement overheads. But, it is definitely more practical and promising than an electric car.Another development in this area worth mentioning is hydrogen fuel cell based cars. Cars like Honda FCX clarity have already been built on the platform. But, for this technology to be successful, substantial capital investments need to be done for cheap extraction of hydrogen and its distribution.Electric power based small distance mobility solutions like Toyota iReal also show the promise to change the city transport scene very soon http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gEOGOR00OCUFor me the future of motoring is iReal for small distances, and FCX Clarity or a much improved Prius for long distances.

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