Electric Cars: The Drive toward Fresh Air
Bacard, Andre, The Humanist
No tune-ups. No corroded mufflers. No oil spills. No smog. Imagine a world without gasoline cars. Envision a planet with electric cars purring quietly and cleanly along our roadways.
What is the up-to-date status of electric cars? To answer this question, I visited US. Electricar, Inc., at its head, quarters in Sebastopol, California. U.S. Electricar has assembled roughly 50,000 electric vehicles since 1946. Sebastopol is a rural town north of San Francisco. As I entered the town, I was greeted by a sign: "Sebastopol: Population 7,000. Nuclear Free Zone." Sebastopol is celebrated mainly for its Gravenstein apple orchards and its relaxed life-style. I half expected to see horse-drawn carriages carrying its citizens to and fro.
U.S. Electricar gave me and a few high-school students a tour of its facilities plus a test ride in one of its electric cars. For years, the company's niche was retrofitting Ford Escorts and similar car models for electric propulsion. This means that U.S. Electricar replaced the gasoline engine, alternator, and supporting parts in a regular automobile with an electric engine. I surveyed one of their refurbished cars. Under the hood, I examined a few batteries, an electrical control box, and many wires. The engine area looked simpler and less congested than in my Toyota. Next I opened the trunk. To my surprise, it was a standard, roomy trunk. I had expected the trunk to be crammed with batteries, but it turns out that the batteries are stored mostly under the car. Remember that an electric car does not have an exhaust pipe or a muffler.
Five of us climbed into the car for a test drive. It was a cold day, but the engine started immediately. The car accelerated smoothly, even more gently than a conventional automatic transmission. As we motored up and down residential streets, one passenger noted, "This sounds like a spaceship." The engine emits a quiet whirling sound. It's easy to hear other cars, singing birds, or the radio, as the engine is so quiet. One challenge was to turn left and accelerate uphill into fast-moving traffic. The car performed beautifully. It can go from zero to 60 miles per hour in roughly 14 seconds. We continued onto a high, way, where we blended into the traffic flow at 55 miles per hour. "This car will make it," said one of the high-school kids, a car buff. "People have to like this car." I quite agree. Whoever has the idea that electric cars are glorified golf carts is simply misinformed.
Why doesn't everyone drive these cars? That is the question all five of us asked as we drove through town. Let's put this question - and possible answers - into historical, technological, and economic perspective. I am, of course, expressing my views - not necessarily those of any company.
Electric cars are, in fact, an old idea. They have been around for a century. At the turn of the twentieth century, 38 percent of American automobiles used electricity, 40 percent employed steam power, and 22 percent consumed gasoline. The world's fastest cars were battery-powered. In 1990, the First National Automobile Show was produced in New York. At this show, electric cars were praised for being "noiseless, odor, less, and free from smoke." Electric cars remained popular until the 1920s; even Henry Ford's wife, Clara, preferred to drive her clean and simple electric car.
Gasoline automobiles (and the internal-combustion engine which burns gasoline) took over the auto industry for three primary reasons: (1) in 1901, vast oil reserves were discovered in Texas; (2) in 1912, a viable electric starter for gasoline engines was introduced; and (3) Henry Ford decided to mass-produce gasoline-burning cars. Technologically, we still buy gasoline-powered cars because they provide high performance and can go long distances without refueling. Politically, we purchase gasoline cars because the auto industry from Detroit to Tokyo has high-performance lobbyists who can refuel political campaigns. …