Unplug the car and let’s go!

John Sutherland

  • The Car that Could: The Inside Story of GM’s Revolutionary Electric Vehicle by Michael Shnayerson
    Random House, 295 pp, $25.00, November 1996, ISBN 0 679 42105 X

Until 1 January 1996, it seemed as if three mighty powers – American science, General Motors and the State of California – would bring about the most momentous change in personal transport since the carriage went horseless. Now, it seems, ‘Ev1’ (Electric Vehicle One, or the ‘electric turkey’ as critics have unkindly called it) may join the De Lorean, cold fusion and Clive Sinclair’s C5 self-propelled sitz-bath in the technology junkyard.

‘Electrics’ – battery-powered automobiles – have a venerable pedigree. The first successful model was exhibited at the World’s Fair in 1892. William Morrison’s dirigible boasted a four-horsepower motor (at a time when four horses meant something), which gave it a maximum speed of 14 mph. It could run for 13 hours between ten-hour charges from a domestic power supply. The future seemed bright. In 1900 electrical vehicles accounted for 38 per cent of all new vehicle sales in America; noisy (and lethal) steam-powered machines accounted for 40 per cent and smelly gasoline-powered automobiles had a minority 22 per cent share of the market. When, in 1901, President McKinley sustained his mortal gunshot wounds, he was wafted silently to hospital in one of the nation’s fleet of electric ambulances.

The early electrics were held to appeal to the woman passenger and driver. They were odourless; push-button-easy to start; smooth and quiet in movement; reliable in their mechanical operation; they did not cough, belch or frighten horses in their 14 mph career down the highway. The gasoline automobile, by contrast, was quintessentially male. Powered by a series of barely-controlled explosions, with a complicated apparatus of oily pistons, cogs and axles, it required, with its crank-handle, the brawn of Hercules to make it start.

The future lay with gasoline. In 1908, Henry Ford’s mass-produced Model T, priced at a level which Ford’s own $5-a-day workers could afford, gave oil-based fuel (of which America was then the world’s main producer) a commercial edge. In 1912, the electric starter and the regenerating battery, which allowed an independent electrical system to be incorporated into the gasoline car, sealed the fate of the wholly electrical vehicle.

History and generations of satisfied (overwhelmingly male) car-owners have given their verdict. But electrics, enhanced by late-century technology, have their attractions. They are zippy (speeds of over 180 mph have been recorded on race tracks); and the direct power source delivers silkily fast acceleration: General Motors’ EV1 achieves zero-to-60 in under eight (noiseless) seconds and could easily exceed 80 mph in the hands of an absent-minded driver. They require relatively little maintenance, beyond charging. As their advertising slogan puts it, ‘You will never again use the words “Fill ’er up” or “Check the oil.” You will simply say: “Unplug the Car and Let’s Go!”’ The electrical motor bypasses the complex, oil-lubricated, toothed-gear transmission systems of the gasoline-propelled car. Above all, electrics are non-polluting. They are also fun to drive. GM, which is currently taking show-car versions of its EV1 around the American South-West, reports that ‘Cool!’ is the most commonly recorded reaction. (Ironically, cooling the new generation of electrics is a major technical problem: Ford’s ‘Ecostar’ prototype, with which it had hoped to beat EV1 to market, burned up when its advanced-technology sodium sulphur batteries spontaneously combusted in 1994.)

Electrics are still suffering from the problems which handicapped them seventy years ago: range and the energy-to-weight ratio of their power pack. For short-haul, multi-stop trips on the milk-round or golf-course, or a test-drive round the block, they are ideal. When you ‘tour’ or ‘motor’ – travel over a hundred miles – electrics are painfully disadvantaged. They need frequent recharging, which takes an hour or more and (in America, with its low voltage standard) requires current-transforming equipment. Fast charges deteriorate batteries which, at best, are only good for a couple of years. In order to get minimally acceptable range, EV1 has to devote 1150 lbs of its 3000 lbs to 26 batteries, arranged in a clumsy T-frame ‘tunnel’ which sticks up by about a foot between the two passengers – who can scarcely squeeze into what internal space is left. As for luggage, forget it.

At current pump prices, US gasoline is cheaper than bottled water. And, relative to the energy it produces, gasoline is light in weight (8 lbs a gallon), economical in space (most drivers wouldn’t even be able to locate their fuel tank, so neatly tucked away is it) and easily loaded. Shnayerson estimates that, pound for pound, gasoline is some 250 times more efficient than the commercially viable battery.

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