From the September 2006 Idaho Observer:

The Death and Rebirth of the Electric Auto

(Note: Everyone who reads the following article has the same five-word response: "I want one of those.")

by Hari Heath

I recently went to see the movie "Who Killed the Electric Car?," directed and written by Chris Paine. It was released this summer and was playing at a conventional multiplex theater along with Hollywood fiction thrillers such as "World Trade Center." Lured merely by the title, I wasn’t sure what I would see when I went into the theater. By the time I left I felt, well, simply devastated. Those bastards had done it again!

The movie documents the life and death of General Motor’s EV-1, a working, production electric vehicle. California, the leader in regulatory innovations and the problems they are intended to resolve, passed a zero-emissions vehicle (ZEV) mandate, requiring auto manufacturers to sell a certain percentage of zero emission cars. The regulation took effect in 1998 requiring that two per-cent of a manufacturer’s total sales be zero emission (electric or hydrogen) cars. The percentage was to increase to five per-cent in 2001, and ten per-cent in 2003.

Industry responded first by producing electric cars, which were successfully marketed and performed quite well as commuter sedans. Several California cities further supported electric cars by providing park-and-plug-in parking areas. The EV-1 was General Motors’ electric car. Toyota, Honda and Ford also marketed electric cars, which met a fate similar to the EV-1.

After going to the trouble of producing the EV-1, developing a market and a sales department (which would later be fired and become GM’s adversary), GM literally killed its own billion-dollar EV program. The film documents this absurd process of GM simultaneously creating and destroying its own success.

The regulations were implemented and controlled by the California Air Resources Board (CARB). Alan C. Lloyd was the chairman of CARB and was also chairman of the California Fuel Cell Partnership—a corporate amalgamation hydrogen fuel cell interests. In spite of overwhelming citizen opposition, science and evidence, the board voted to modify the ZEV Regulations to include fuel cell, hybrid and "partial ZEV" vehicles with the new mandate beginning in 2008. This effectively killed the ZEV mandate, which had forced the petroleum powered automakers to produce and sell EVs.

The loophole allowing the repeal pivoted on the absence of "market demand." The industry presented "doctored" figures claiming there was no market demand. Former EV-1 sales employees and EV-1 owners formed, which eventually became "Plug in America," showed ample evidence of a viable market and a waiting list of thousands of customers for electric vehicles. The powers behind the repeal effort (surprise, surprise) were gas guzzling car companies and, quietly, the oil cartel.

Why would auto-makers seek to destroy their own successful products? The movie showed a table piled with conventional maintenance parts for gas cars that would no longer be needed in an EV world. The auto-maker’s profits come largely from after-sale products and service. A former GM EV-1 mechanic explained the simple beauty of the electric cars he worked on: he didn’t get all greasy, he would check a few things, fill up the windshield washer fluid and send the EV-1 out for another 5,000 miles. Instead of the complex motor under the hood of a gas car, EV motors typically have one moving part and some don’t even need a transmission because of the wide range of power in electric motors.

But a real problem faced the auto industry: Electric vehicles were catching on and would revolutionize transportation. The days of the oil dependent, inefficient, high maintenance, complex and dirty piston-powered auto would become history much sooner, if the EV trend, inspired by the CARB regulations, were allowed to continue.

How was the electric car killed? All the EV-1s were leased. Ford, Honda and Toyota followed similar programs. At the end of the lease, GM "recovered" the vehicles and refused to allow the leasers to purchase their EV-1s. The people found where GM had stored the recovered EV-1s and staged a multi-week, 24-hr. vigil at the site, once they learned that GM had been crushing other EV-1s. They offered GM $1.9 million for the remaining 78 EV-1s, but GM refused. The police removed the protest vigil and the cars were sent to the crusher.

Who Killed the Electric Car is a well done documentary detailing the rise and demise of the production electric vehicle in California. It conveys a heartfelt understanding of EV potential and the forces that killed it—at least for now. In the process, the auto industry created an organized and inspired adversary:

Considering that GM is on the verge of bankruptcy, Ford is barely holding on with a 10-1 debt-to-asset ratio, and Chrysler has long been sold to foreigners, the "Big Three’s" days are numbered.

Meanwhile, advanced technology combined with Nikola Tesla’s earlier innovations have given new fuel to American ingenuity and entrepreneurship in the automotive world…

Electric vehicle development timeline

1834 First EV built with non-rechargeable batteries.

1889 Edison builds EV with nickel-alkaline batteries.

1890 William Morrison builds EV that can do 14 MPH for 13 hours.

1895 First American auto race is won by Electrobat II, an EV.

1899 Andrew Rike Co. begins building EV.

1900 BGS Company’s EV sets record: 180 miles on a charge.

1900 33% of cars are electric; 33% are steam powered; 33% are gas.

1903 First speeding ticket is given to the driver of an EV.

1903 Krieger manufactures first hybrid gas/electric.

1930 Progress on EVs halted with the introduction of the Ford Model T.

1960 GM begins work on their Electrovair, a Corvair conversion.

1970 Electric Auto Association is formed.

1970s Oil crisis renews interest in the EV.

1976 Congress passes Electric and Hybrid Vehicle Research Act over automakers’ protest and Pres. Ford’s veto.

1988 GM CEO, Roger Smith, begins to fund the prototype consumer EV.

1990 GM Impact (later named the EV1) concept car unveiled at LA Auto Show.

1996 GM begins leasing the EV1 at $400 to $500 a month. 800 cars were leased by 2000.

1998 CARB Zero Emission Vehicle mandate begins.

1999 GM purchases Hummer from AM General Corp.

2001 GM begins to lay off their EV1 sales team.

2002 GM, Daimler Chrysler and seven car dealers sue CARB in Federal Court to repeal ZEV mandate—US DOJ supports carmakers as Friend of the Court.

2003-2004 GM recalls leased EV1s and crushes them at their Arizona Proving Grounds. Ford, Honda and Toyota follow a similar policy with their leased EVs.

2003 Toyota halts sales of their RAV4 EV, terminating EV sales from major manufacturers.

2003 CARB modifies ZEV mandate to include fuel cell, hybrid and low emission vehicles, effectively killing the ZEV mandate.


The Tesla Roadster

Tesla Motors has just unveiled the Tesla Roadster, a 0-to-60 in 4 seconds, two-seat electric sports car. For about the price of a mid-level Porsche, an electric car that accelerates faster than a turbo Porsche, will be shipped to buyers in late spring/early summer of 2007. It will exceed 130 miles per hour and can travel (at normal highway speeds) 250 miles on a single charge. A full recharge can take as little as 3.5 hours from a garage-mounted charger or it can be topped off more slowly from an ordinary 110 socket using Tesla’s mobile charger. It can also be plugged into the solar panels on the roof of a garage for "free energy," off-grid motoring.

Martin Eberhard, the CEO of Tesla Motors, reports that "all 100 are gone," which means those who have paid the $100,000 deposit have guaranteed themselves delivery of the first Roadsters in 2007.

How does an electric sports car perform? Joshua Davis, from Wired magazine reported: "Martin Eberhard holds the brake down with his left foot and presses on the accelerator with his right. The motor revs, the car strains against the brake. I hear ... almost nothing. Just a quiet whine like the sound of a jet preparing for takeoff five miles away. We’re belted into a shimmering black sports car on a quiet, tree-lined street in San Carlos, California. ‘You see any cops?’ Eberhard asks, shooting me a mischievous look. The car is vibrating, ready to launch. I’m the first journalist to get a ride. He releases the brake and my head snaps back. One-one-thousand: I get a floating feeling, like going over the falls in a roller coaster. Two-one-thousand: The world tunnels, the trees blur. Three-one-thousand: We hit 60 miles per hour. Eberhard brakes. We’re at a standstill again—elapsed time, nine seconds. When potential buyers get a look at the vehicle this summer, it will be among the quickest production cars in the world. A cop drives by, and Eberhard smiles benignly as the Roadster edges forward silently from a stop sign. It’s an eerie, disconcerting feeling. There’s no engine hum—nothing to make you think that this car should be sold with a neck brace. Most high-performance cars telegraph their power. That’s part of the allure of a seriously fast car—you can hear it coming. The Roadster seems like a sneak attack. As with everything about this car, Eberhard has a fast answer. ‘Some people are going to miss the sound of a roaring engine,’ he says, ‘just like people used to miss the sound of horse hooves clippity-clopping down the street.’"

Eberhard says he wanted to avoid the electric car designs of the past: small, cramped and limited in performance, they "looked like they were designed by people who thought you shouldn’t be driving to begin with." Eberhard calls them "punishment cars."

What he wanted to build was a classic sports car—he wanted to have his eco-friendly ride and race it, too. If the Tesla Roadster was to succeed, it must be a serious car with a radically different approach. His radically different approach is based on the quietly famous inventor Nikola Tesla, who built the first brushless AC induction motor in the 1880s.

Eberhard’s update of that motor is powered by a copper and steel rotor that is spun by a magnetic field. There are no moving parts besides the rotor. An onboard computer provides traction control, similar, but opposite, to the way ABS brakes prevent skidding, keeping the car from burning rubber. The result: 0 to 60 in about four seconds.

Or as Jalopnik editor Mike Spinelli reported, "Even judging from our brief test ride, we’ll proclaim that this thing will slay on the backroads. The torque is unbelievable. And eerie. The power just comes on right now and does not abate. It’s absolutely batty; unlike anything we’ve experienced. We think our kidneys may still be embedded in the seatback. And it sticks."

Without the complexity of pistons moving up and down, it can spin much faster than, for example, Porsche’s $440,000 Carrera GT, which redlines at 8,400 rpm. The Tesla Roadster has a ceiling of 13,500, allowing it to go 70 mph in first gear.

The 3-phase, 4-pole electric motor develops 248 (electric) HP (185 kW) and features regenerative engine braking coupled to a 2-speed electric-shift manual transmission with integral differential. The entire powertrain of the car, including motor, transmission and differential, only weighs 160 pounds.

The Tesla Roadster is powered by a 900-pound, water-cooled and heat-regulated battery pack containing 6,831 rechargeable lithium-ion batteries, similar to laptop and cell phone batteries. The useful battery life of the microprocessor-controlled battery pack is in excess of 100,000 miles, after which it is still usable, but performance is expected to be at 80 percent of new batteries. According to Tesla Motors, the batteries currently cost $20,000 per car. They note that Li-ion prices have been dropping about 8 percent per year, and they estimate when the first battery packs are due for replacement the cost should be around $12,000. The batteries are recyclable and classified by the federal government as non-hazardous waste.

Energy efficiency is estimated at 1 to 2 cents per mile. The Tesla Roadster is twice as efficient as the Toyota Prius hybrid, while also being able to out accelerate numerous top-of-the-line sports cars. More on efficiency, performance and emissions later.

Preproduction cars weigh about 2,500 pounds and production versions should weigh the same pending the outcome of safety and performance tests. The cockpit instrumentation tells you the time (synchronized to the correct time zone), your remaining charge, your tire pressure, and even your fastest acceleration of the day.

Four wheel ABS disc brakes bring the Roadster to a quick stop and airbags, roll-over protection and front, rear and side impacts are minimized by energy absorbing sections. The charging system and battery pack has multiple safety systems to isolate and prevent any malfunction. Security systems include a PIN number required to operate the car and a "Valet Mode" which limits the car’s range, acceleration, and speed.

The first cars will be built at the Lotus factory in England. The Power Electronics Module (PEM) and the unique features of the battery pack are proprietary to Tesla Motors. Other components come from a variety of manufacturers around the world.

But selling a few high-end sports cars is only Eberhard’s launch plan. He’s already preparing a sedan, which could hit streets as early as 2008. The sedan won’t be as lightweight or aerodynamic as the Roadster, so its performance is likely to drop. But battery power is improving steadily, and several companies say they may soon double battery life. By the time the sedan comes out, he says, batteries will be ready to deliver: "We’re going to ride that technology curve all the way home."

Some will argue that EVs merely transfer their emissions and power demand to a distant source and won’t really solve energy and pollution problems. This perspective would seem to have merit, if the EV owners don’t have their own solar, wind or hydro-electric source. But on closer analysis, the Tesla EV still comes out ahead.

On its website, Tesla Motors has some "White Papers," which use unique and comprehensive "well to wheel" calculations to compare the Roadster’s overall energy consumption against both high-performance and efficient autos. This calculation includes the energy content of the source fuel as it comes from the ground (crude oil or natural gas); the energy content of the fuel after conversion to its final fuel product (gas or electricity); subtracting the energy needed to transport the fuel to the car; and ultimately, the efficiency of the car itself.

The White Papers express the energy content of each fuel type as mega-joules per kilogram (MJ/kg) and the well-to-wheel efficiency as kilometers driven per mega-joule of source fuel consumed (km/MJ). The various well-to-wheel efficiency "facts of life" are discussed for gas, hybrid, electric and hydrogen fuel-cell cars; their source fuels and the inherent energy losses as each fuel type are made useful for automotive power. A similar analysis of CO2 emissions is provided for the Roadster and its competition.

The electric car is a true multi-fuel vehicle because it operates from any source capable of providing it with the necessary electrons. The White Papers use a natural gas-powered electric generation plant and the conventional electrical grid when calculating the efficiency and emissions of the Roadster.

Already in a class by itself, off-grid renewable sources of electrical power would radically enhance the Roadster’s standing among its competition. In fact, with no "well" energy source or emissions, it would literally be "off the charts" in their White Papers. Once your own private infrastructure is in place (solar, wind, hydro, etc.) your transportation energy costs could essentially be free. The $20,000 or $30,000 you might spend for such a system is cheap, compared to what you will be paying for gas over the next 10 or 20 years—the minimum life expectancy of such off-grid sources.

Hydrogen fuel-cell cars are also multi-fuel vehicles, because electricity is used to manufacture the hydrogen. But the hydrogen is ultimately converted back to electricity, which powers the fuel-cell car. The Tesla Roadster’s charger and lithium-ion batteries are at least three times as efficient as the process to charge and release the energy in a hydrogen fuel-cell. As the film Who Killed the Electric Car? points out, 15 years ago they were promising hydrogen fuel-cells in 15 years. Billions of dollars of federal funding later, they are still promising fuel-cells in 15 years. Lithium-ion cells are here today.

The performance advantages of electric power are also discussed. Gas powered autos are engineered via a complex series of compromises that result in an either/or choice. Electric power has such a wide spectrum of utility that many EVs don’t need a transmission. The Tesla Roadster can perform all necessary local and highway travel in first gear. Second gear allows its "extra-legal" speed. In stop-and-go traffic, an electric car’s engine is literally stopped. There’s no idling while you wait in a traffic jam.

And there’s no motor oil, ignition parts, filters, exhaust, carburetor or fuel injector, valves, timing belts, hoses and vacuum lines—just one moving part. With Tesla Motor’s electric technology you can have power, efficiency and simplicity.

While most of us can’t afford and don’t need a $100,000 roadster, what it can do and what it means to our automotive future does matter. This combination of technologies may become our greatest automotive leap since Henry Ford developed the assembly line. As Tesla Motors’ White Papers chart, comparing the Roadster to various high-performance and high-mileage cars demonstrates, it’s a "Disruptive Technology" because it excels at both ends of the spectrum.

It has faster 0-to-60 acceleration than the Chevy Corvette, the turbo Porsche and the Ferrari 550 Maranello AND double the energy efficiency of the Toyota Prius. It uses one-third of the energy necessary to fill and drive the Honda FCX hydrogen fuel cell car. Using the conventional electrical grid in their "well to wheel" calculations, it produces one-half to one-tenth the CO2 emissions—the alleged source of global warming—than its performance and efficiency competitors.

The technology it represents will launch us into a better future, especially when it comes in a more practical and affordable form. With current U. S. automakers barely skirting receivership, Tesla Motors may eclipse them—if they can avoid the "Men In Black" and the Black Hole of Big Oil.

The Tesla Roadster can be found at Who Killed the Electric Car will be out on DVD November 14; will lead you to more info on the EV.

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Hari Heath

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