by Elisabeth Traugott
Parked in a gas line in 1973 in the air-conditioned comfort of his Lincoln Continental, Bob Schneeveis vowed that the tank of gas he was about to buy would be his last. As he read the banners espousing the use of electric cars displayed by environmentalists as they paraded past the gas queue, he was inspired to "go electric." He kept his vow, and before the gauge on his Lincoln read "empty" he had rebuilt his Harley K-model motorcycle so that it ran with an electric motor.
"I built it with whatever I had lying around," said Schneeveis, a machinist at Stanford University. "I sold that Lincoln with that same tank of gas."
Early electric car enthusiasts like Schneeveis tended to be mechanical by nature, using purchased kits or even using spare parts from their garages to convert cars to the less-polluting, more economical electric power.
These days, electric car manufacturing has become more mainstream with major manufacturers from General Motors to Toyota announcing plans to unveil electric models in the coming months. This influx of prototypes has been driven in part by technological advances, but also by changes in government policy, making it necessary for companies to go green.
In 1990, the California Air Resources Board established a mandate requiring 2 percent of all new vehicles to be emission-free by the year 1998. That rule has since been replaced by a new mandate requiring 10 percent of vehicles not to pollute by the year 2000, according to Will Beckett, vice president of the Silicon Valley Electric Auto Association.
General Motors has taken the lead in the industry "roll-out" with the 2-passenger EV-1, which was on display at an electric car rally held at Stanford in September. Featuring a sleek, sporty exterior and an engine that is virtually noiseless, the car retails for $30,000 and will be available in early January 1997 in Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix and Houston. With its lead-acid batteries, it can travel 70-90 miles per charge, and it accelerates from 0 to 60 in 8.5 seconds.
People "think (electric vehicles) are like golf carts," Beckett said. "It's a big myth."
Other car companies plan to follow suit in the near future; Honda, Toyota and Chrysler will offer electric vehicles within the next year.
While the future of electric vehicles looks promising, industry experts admit they are still not for everyone. The most common reservations expressed about electric vehicles have to do with their batteries: their limited driving range and the amount of time it takes to recharge them.
Currently, most electric cars run with between 12 and 20 lead-acid batteries of between 6 and 12 volts. When fully charged, battery packs have a range of anywhere from 50-70 miles. According to Beckett, this is more than sufficient for the average commuter. The nickel-metal hydride battery, while it is more expensive, has a range of over 100 miles. Experts hope that the price of this battery, currently out of the range of most consumers, will come down as more models are introduced, much like what happened in the personal computer market.
But the Electric Power Research Institute, based in Palo Alto, recently released information about a new lead-acid battery with 50-100 percent more specific energy (which will increase the range to 60-100 miles per charge) that can be recharged to 80 percent in 30 minutes, and to capacity in one hour. The increased efficiency of the battery is due to a patented manufacturing process in which a mesh woven with lead-coated fiberglass is used for its strength and corrosion resistence. The battery recently won R&D Magazine's R&D 100 award, which has been awarded in the past to the inventors of the fax machine, anti-lock brakes and automated teller machines.
Officials at EPRI hope the HORIZON battery, as it is known, will be the first step in helping electric cars become a legitimate option for new car buyers. Brian Hirt, a technical specialist with the Electric Transportation Business Unit at EPRI, says the Horizon battery is "quite a step forward in terms of our ultimate goal, which is making electric cars a viable option for consumers."
Yet another innovation has been the advent of regenerative braking systems. This technology allows the battery to recapture energy when the brakes are applied, instead of simply dissipating the energy. Thus power is reused, stored and reapplied to increase the range of the vehicle.
The advantages of electric vehicles are many. Because they do not have internal-combustion engines, there is very little maintenance involved: no tune-ups, no oil changes, fewer parts to wear out. Except for adding one gallon of water per month, the only maintenance required is to plug the car into a socket every night, drivers say.
In fact, Beckett says, "the only thing I go to the gas station for is to put air in my tires." And the cars are friendly to the environment and the pocketbook. They produce very little pollution, and if charged overnight, which is the most convenient time for most drivers, cost less than $1 per day to run. PG&E estimates that including the energy production process involved in running battery-powered vehicles, they emit 97 percent less carbon monoxide than gas cars, and 99 percent less reactive organic gasses, which contribute greatly to smog.
For some, the environmental factors alone are reason enough to make the switch. "It gets down to the personal," Schneeveis said. "Do I want to be part of the problem or part of the solution?"
Incentives for buying electric vehicles or for investing in the necessary infrastructure exist on the federal, state and local levels, Nationally, a 10 percent credit not to exceed $4,000 is offered to electric vehicle buyers. California has initiated a similar policy that would grant a 55 percent state tax deduction up to $1,000 to those who buy or convert to an electric car.
In addition, the state Assembly passed a law in August of this year that will allow electric vehicles with single passengers to use the carpool lanes on California highways in peak-traffic hours.
According to Patrick Siegman, transportation analyst with Stanford's transportation programs department, the university has recently applied for a grant with co-sponsor city of Palo Alto to bring 50 2-passenger electric vehicles to campus.
If Stanford gets the cars, they must agree to retire 50 of their gas-powered vehicles. The cars will be used around campus for trips between departments and for site visits, but Siegman hopes they will eventually be used as "station cars" as well. With the permission of CalTrain, cars would be left at the station to charge overnight, and would then be driven onto campus during the day by commuters.
"We could probably open up CalTrain for a lot of people who can't use it right now," Siegman said.
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