Can Electric Vehicles Compete?

A recent headline announced the demise of the once much-touted General Motors EV-1. A great deal was expected from the "pure" electric car whose power was stored in on-board batteries that had to be recharged using an outside source of current. Introduced with fanfare and accompanied by a clever advertising campaign, the EV-1 was predicted to usher in a new era of zero-emissions vehicles. Instead, it is leaving the road with its tail between its legs, as GM has tacitly admitted its failure.

Does the demise of the EV-1 signal the death knell of zero-emission electric vehicles?

No, says a new study from the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI.) The study predicts a combination of greatly improved battery life and projected cost reductions for batteries and other components can make electric-drive vehicles cost competitive with gasoline vehicles. There is a caveat though: EPRI includes engine-hybrid EVs (like the current Honda Civic Hybrid and Toyota Prius) and plug-in hybrid EVs (none of which have hit the road yet) with pure EVs in predicting their future economic viability.

Of these, the plug-in hybrid EV is the most intriguing. It works as a pure electric vehicle for a portion of its daily travel, running on battery power that is replenished when plugged into a 120-volt outlet. After its battery-stored electric range is used up, the vehicle switches automatically into hybrid mode, using a small on-board internal combustion engine to operate a generator to recharge its battery. Depending on the size of the battery, it can provide 20 to 60 miles of daily range in zero-polluting EV mode, and that might be sufficient for many commuters most of the time. Another benefit of the plug-in hybrid EV drive system is that it is compatible with all vehicle models and does not sacrifice vehicle performance and driver amenities for the sake of clean air and reduced consumption of petroleum. To the drivers behind the wheel it will feel much like their current vehicles.

The EPRI study chronicles steady improvements in battery technology, even over the past few years. Researchers specifically found that advanced batteries used in electric drive vehicles are exceeding previous projections for cycle life and durability, key considerations in cost. Longer battery life means reduced cost to operate. These developments and the fact that vehicle manufacturers plan to increase production of hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs) substantially, will bring down costs of the special electric drive components, making electric-drive vehicles more cost effective.

After considerable testing on the road and in the laboratory, the researchers concluded that nickel metal hydride (NiMH) batteries could be designed, using current technologies, to meet the vehicle lifetime requirements of some full-size battery EVs, subcompact "city" battery EVs (which are "pure" electrics,) and plug-in hybrid EVs. It also appears that only one battery pack per vehicle may be required instead of two as previously projected. With this new information, the EPRI study suggests that savings in fuel and maintenance can pay for the higher upfront cost of battery EVs and hybrid EVs with and without plug-in features. All this won't happen, though, unless popularity of various electric vehicle types increases markedly.

"The cost of advanced batteries for non-plug hybrid EVs, plug-in hybrid EVs and battery EVs is highly dependent on the establishment of a growth market situation, a predictable regulatory environment, and consistent production volumes that encourage capital investment in production capacity and line automation by battery and automotive manufacturers," said Bob Graham, EPRI's area manager for transportation.

The non-plug hybrids, plug-in hybrid EVs with a 20-mile all-electric range, and subcompact "city" battery EVs with a 40-mile all-electric range that were analyzed in the study can cost-effectively reduce smog-forming gases, greenhouse gases and petroleum consumption in all scenarios analyzed, the study said. The higher initial cost of electric-drive vehicles is due to the battery, but in the long-term, fuel and maintenance savings cover this. According to the EPRI research, plug-in hybrids could reach life cycle cost parity with conventional internal combustion vehicles after relatively small production runs of 50,000 vehicles per year.

Based in Cleveland, auto journalist Luigi Fraschini has always had an interest in electric-powered vehicles.

The SUV Controversy

Sport utility vehicles and their drivers have been taking a bashing over the past several months. Fueled by a campaign sponsored by political aspirant Arianna Huffington and the activist group Earth Liberation Front, negative publicity surrounding SUVs has reached a very shrill pitch. Some of the most virulent of the activists have said that SUV owners are making our country oil-dependent and are creating unsafe highways. Some have even claimed consumers who purchase SUVs are supporting terrorism.

The anti-SUV campaign has resulted in an extreme case of piling on, especially in New York where many who are pontificating about the evils of the SUV don't even drive. Media pundits have suggested that SUV drivers are vain, self-absorbed, and have little interest in their community. Even the Administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), Jeffrey W. Runge, who ought to know better, urged consumers in a January speech to "educate themselves" (what a concept!) before purchasing vehicles he implied were rollover-prone.

While the furor plays out in Manhattan and inside the Beltway in Washington, one has to wonder how the rest of the nation feels about sport utility vehicles. Is this country's love affair with the substantial, useful SUV still blooming, or is it being sullied by the nay-saying publicity?

Well, a recent poll indicates that the American populace, as a whole, sees through the doomsday publicity about the supposed ills of SUVs. A New Vehicle-Buyer Attitude Study on sport utility vehicles released by Kelley Blue Book shows more than half of its respondents feel the negative press around SUVs is hype and more than 70 percent felt that groups criticizing SUVs ignored the vehicles' positive aspects.

Despite the scurrilous publicity, the study shows six out of 10 shoppers still feel positively toward SUVs, and of those considering an SUV the number rises to eight out of 10. (One has to wonder why 20 percent of those considering the purchase of an SUV feel negatively about the vehicles, but that could be the subject of another study.)

When it comes to the attitudes of current car shoppers, survey results show that SUV manufacturers have little to worry about when it comes to consumer acceptance of their products. Based on the study results, the rollover issue raised by Runge may be the only issue that resonates with consumers. The study shows shoppers rank rollovers as their number-one concern in purchasing an SUV. Four out of 10 surveyed say that concerns of rollovers could even keep them from buying an SUV, yet more than half rate the vehicles high for safety.

The other negative issues appear to have been dismissed by in-market car-buyers. Kelley Blue Book survey respondents, who represent the opinions of one out of every four new car-buyers in America, disagree with the assertion that SUV drivers are vain and have little interest in their community. Results show the top attribute respondents assigned to SUV drivers is "family oriented" with "safety oriented" coming in at number three out of 12 attributes. Few shoppers believe SUV drivers are selfish or irresponsible.

With the looming possibility of war, oil dependency issues have become a major topic in the press, but those currently shopping for SUVs ranked environmental concerns and oil dependency issues last among their concerns in buying an SUV. In-market car-buyers understand SUVs are less fuel efficient than compact vehicles, however that does not appear to be a deterrent to purchase.

"We have not seen an effect on SUV values or sales due to recent news. Any effect thus far can be attributed to uncertainty in the economy," said Charlie Vogelheim, Executive Editor, Kelley Blue Book. "We do expect to see a drop among larger SUVs but attribute the decline to market saturation as well as the growth and popularity of crossover vehicles, not necessarily criticism or hype."

The KBB New Vehicle-Buyer Attitude Study on SUVs was administered on the company's Web site. The study was completed over a four-day period at the end of January 2003 to determine the attitudes and views of SUVs.

Cleveland-based Luigi Fraschini is a conservationist who writes frequently on automotive subjects.

Hybrid Vehicles

The first two gas-electric hybrid vehicles to hit the American market -- the Honda Insight and the Toyota Prius -- were greeted with a collective yawn. It wasn't that the vehicles weren't good. Indeed, they were remarkably good, especially when compared to the nearly useless pure electrics like the GM EV1 that preceded them. But neither Honda nor Toyota was prepared to blanket America with hybrid vehicles. In the first place, they didn't have the production capacity to sell more than a few thousand Insights or Priuses a year. And, second, theY wanted to keep the introductions fairly quiet just in case one of the cars turned out to have terrible technical teething trouble. (Say, that three times real fast.)

Certainly Honda and Toyota have impeccable engineering credentials, but a relative quiet launch seemed to be an intelligent course of action. General Motors took the opposite course with the EV1 and then saw its technical travails and lackluster sales results splashed across newspapers and magazines throughout the country.

Now, though, Honda appears ready to let the hybrid cat out of the bag. Just before Christmas, American Honda Motor pulled the wraps off its new gas-electric Civic Hybrid model in Washington, D.C. The highlight of the announcement was the revelation that sales are expected to average about 2,000 vehicles a month. If our math skills are correct that means Honda plans to sell about 24,000 Civic Hybrids in the U.S. per year, around 10 percent of overall Civic sales in this country. That's big news.

By placing the gasoline-electric hybrid system in its mainstay Civic line Honda is proclaiming that its system is ready for mass production and mass consumption. Unlike the low-volume, two-seat Insight, which has limited mass-market appeal, Honda is betting the Hybrid Civic will become a substantial part of overall Civic volume.

Will the market accept it? Aside from a relatively high suggested retail price -- Honda says it will likely be around $20,000 -- there is no reason the Civic Hybrid shouldn't do well, because the Honda hybrid system, like Toyota's, results in a car that acts and feels much like a conventional car. For one thing, to re-fuel you fill its tank up with gasoline; you don't plug it in. And its road manners are much the same as a gasoline-powered Civic. The bonus in the deal is excellent fuel economy, although we you consider the lower initial price of the gasoline-powered version, the payback period of the hybrid will be a long one.

How does the new Honda work?

The Civic Hybrid uses a small gasoline engine coupled with an electric motor to provide excellent fuel economy and good performance. Compared to the Insight, the Civic has a new, more advanced version of Honda's patented Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) system. The 1.3-liter i-DSI 4-cylinder engine features two spark plugs per cylinder, allowing for a more complete combustion process. A newly developed cylinder de-activation system uses Honda's VTEC technology to idle three of the engine's cylinders during deceleration. This system reduces engine friction by 50 percent and greatly increases the amount of energy recovered during deceleration. That energy, stored in electric batteries, provides added power when needed for acceleration.

Another significant advancement from the Insight's IMA system is the combination of the Power Control Unit (the computer "brains" of the system) and the battery pack into a central system called the Intelligent Power Unit (IPU). The compact unit has minimal impact on trunk cargo volume and no impact on the Civic sedan's interior volume.

EPA fuel economy figures for the Civic Hybrid have not been finalized yet, but are expected to be about 50 miles per gallon for both city and highway driving. That's about a 30 percent improvement compared to other Civic sedan models, and would make it the most fuel-efficient five-passenger sedan sold in the world.

Blessed with an electric personality, Tom Ripley observes and reports on the world's automotive scene from his home near Paris.

Is Renewable Fuel Too Expensive?

Conventional wisdom in the United States seems to favor the continued quest for "renewable" fuels. Of these, ethanol, which is alcohol derived from plants (predominantly corn), has risen to the top of the list. In fact, motorists in several states, mostly notably in the Midwest, current fill up their vehicles with a combination of gasoline and ethanol commonly called "gasohol." But now a fight is brewing between proponents of ethanol and proponents of methanol, another alcohol derived primarily from natural gas, over how much Americans should spend to subsidize the use of ethanol.

Congressional leaders are considering a renewable fuel standard mandating the increased use of ethanol in gasoline, which could have an enormous price tag. According to the Methanol Institute, one legislative proposal would cost over $63 billion, with half the cost coming from increased pump prices for gasoline and half from federal excise tax subsidies for ethanol.

One of the proposals being considered is the "Renewable Fuels for Energy Security Act of 2001," introduced by Senators Chuck Hagel (R-NE) and Tim Johnson (D-SD) (S. 1006), and Rep. John Thune (R-SD) (H.R. 2423). The bill would mandate that the content of ethanol in gasoline rise from 0.8 percent of the gasoline pool in 2002, to five percent by 2016. Under this proposal, the amount of ethanol required to be used in the gasoline supply would increase from about one billion gallons in 2002 to nearly nine billion gallons in 2016. This might be good news for corn farmers, but bad news to most consumers.

Based on economic forecasts by the State of California, the Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management and others, the use of 10 percent ethanol blended gasoline may increase pump prices by $0.05 per gallon. Based on this estimate, the annual cost to consumers of the renewable fuel standard would reach nearly $4.5 billion by 2016, or a cumulative cost of $31.5 billion between 2002 and 2016.

In fact, an increase in the use of ethanol could be costly in another way as well. Most of the gasohol sold in the Midwest is a blend of 10 percent ethanol and 90 percent gasoline. When blended at this level, each gallon of ethanol sold qualifies for the full federal excise tax subsidy of $0.53 per gallon. So, assuming that ethanol refiners and gasoline distributors will maximize their use of the excise tax subsidy by blending at this level, the renewable fuel standard could result in lost revenues to the federal Highway Trust Fund of as much as $4.5 billion annually by 2016, or over $32 billion between 2002 and 2016 if the excise tax rule is not changed.

"We are concerned that the laudable goal of increasing the use of renewable fuels in gasoline may come at too high a price," said Methanol Institute President and CEO John Lynn. "Congress needs to consider whether the nation's 185 million licensed drivers should be forced to pay billions of dollars more at the pump, and the impact on driver safety this loss of federal highway funds will have on the country's roads and bridges."

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, 28 percent of all arterial road miles in the U.S. are in "poor" or "mediocre" condition, and 30 percent of the 172,572 U.S. bridges are either "structurally deficient" or "functionally obsolete." In addition, 53 percent of urban interstate highways are congested during peak travel hours, at a cost to the economy of $78 billion each year. With our roads in this condition, a loss in Highway Trust Fund money would be especially difficult.

Since 1979, the Highway Trust Fund has lost about $10 billion from the ethanol tax subsidy. Today, the ethanol tax subsidy costs nearly $900 million per year. The Texas Department of Transportation has estimated that its share of the revenue loss to the Trust Fund was about $64 million in 2000.

Ironically, states that sell ethanol-based gasoline are at a disadvantage to states that do not use ethanol in receiving Highway Trust Fund allocations, so farmers in those states who grow corn for ethanol are being subsidized at the expense the friends and neighbors. Testifying before a Senate Committee in June 2000, Gordon Proctor, director of the Ohio Department of Transportation, said that Ohio's federal formula funds are reduced by $185 million annually because the state is the third largest purchaser of ethanol-based fuels. In light of the international situation, it seems prudent to have the ability to lessen America's reliance on foreign fuels, but the question must be asked: at what price?

Cleveland-based auto writer Luigi Fraschini is a fan of ethanol, but he thinks it should always be mixed with a soft drink or fruit juice and never mixed with driving.

Neighborhood Electric Vehicles

Many see neighborhood electric vehicles as little more than overgrown toys or overpriced golf cars, but a new study has shown that NEVs may have a worthwhile role in planned communities.

The study examined a pilot NEV program at Heritage Village in Otay Ranch, one of the largest master planned communities in the country in the Southern California city of Chula Vista, near San Diego.

Giving a strong endorsement to the use of NEVs, the study data, collected and analyzed by the Green Car Institute, found nine out of 10 trips taken with NEVs were ones that otherwise would have been taken by car and truck. Thus a nearly pollution-free form of transportation took the place of one that does pollute.

"We strongly believe that alternative and clean-fuel vehicles of all types have a place in our nation's transportation system," said Green Car Institute president Ron Cogan. "NEVs are a potentially ideal answer to short-duration, around-town transportation needs where low-speed vehicles are a good fit."

One of the primary goals of the 60-day program was to analyze how NEVs fit in a real-world environment as daily transportation vehicles for 28 participants who live and work within the "village" of Otay Ranch. Over the study's duration, most participants drove their GEM-brand NEVs daily, keeping track of how they used these vehicles for work and play. Of particular interest in the data collection was how these vehicles offset the use of other modes of transportation.

The Otay Ranch study showed that, given a choice of travel modes for short trips, participants chose a NEV over their private cars 90 percent of the time. Study results also showed that of the trips taken in NEVs, some 53 percent were for purposes defined as "business" or "delivery," meaning trips of necessity. Some 33 percent of the trips taken were classified as "leisure," while 14 percent were designated "other."

"The study results are important because they quantify the value of the NEV as a viable transportation and land use tool," says Erik Amerikaner, Green Car Institute executive director. "NEVs can help shape the way cities and communities grow by increasing individual mobility while decreasing traffic congestion and air pollution."

The "trips of necessity" are only one part of the story, though. Chula Vista city planner Rich Whipple pointed out that "the other part of the equation is that 33 percent of the GEM trips were 'leisure' trips, meaning a whole lot of trips were taken just for fun."

"This program in Chula Vista has shown us on a small scale what could possibly be accomplished on a large scale, should communities embrace NEVs as an integral part of the transportation mix," added Cogan.

He pointed out that the use of neighborhood electric vehicles, which emit zero localized emissions, could have a dramatic effect on cold-start emissions in areas when large numbers of these vehicles are driven.

The Otay Ranch NEV program reinforces the development's goal of providing an environmentally sensitive and sustainable urban design, reducing traffic congestion and vehicle emissions, and showing the NEV's practical use in a modern planned community.

A key aim of the project was to help the City of Chula Vista and the developers of Otay Ranch plan the community's transportation infrastructure from the "inside out," that is, from the user's perspective, as opposed to the standard perspective coming from professional planners or traffic engineers.

For further information, contact the Green Car Institute, 805.541.2308, or visit the Institute's Web site.

Cleveland-based automotive writer Luigi Fraschini has written extensively on environmental issues involving cars and trucks.