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.