Electric vehicles -- Are they part of Canada's automotive future?

Vancouver, Canada (GLOBE-Net) - The 2008 auto season has begun and the major car manufacturers such as Honda, Ford, and GM rolling out an impressive array of alternate fuel technologies that could power the next generation of consumer vehicles. Joining the gallery of fuel cell and hybrid models on display this year is a number of all-electric or mixed technology plug-in vehicles that many believe are the solution to tomorrow’s emerging transportation problems of climate change and peak oil.  Electric Mobility Canada, a group of 52 Canadian organizations including Toyota Canada, Transport Canada, Natural Resources Canada, Environment Canada and Bombardier Transportation among others, believes that plug-in hybrids have the potential to reduce our fuel consumption and greenhouse gas [GHG] emissions by 45% and more. They are not alone. Some of the world’s largest auto makers appear to share that view. But what are the options?

The Los Angeles Auto Show, the first major industry event of the 2008 automotive season, showcased several alternate fuel technologies from manufacturers such as Honda, Ford, GM and Volkswagen, with electric vehicles taking centre stage. The November 2007 event featured a large number of electric vehicles, including hybrid, fuel cell and plug-in models slated for release far sooner than was thought even a year ago.

The overall theme of the LA Auto Show was that there is no one solution to our emerging transportation problems. Honda displayed its FCX Clarity, a fuel cell powered vehicles set to be released in the summer of 2008.  GM showcased its new plug-in hybrid model, the Volt, which is expected to be ready for retail in 2009.  Ford showcased a plug-in hybrid model and announced that a 20 vehicle fleet is being loaned to the state of California for real world testing.

Following the LA Auto Show, the Electric Vehicle Symposium took place in Anaheim, California, and featured several fully battery powered vehicles ready to be released into the North American market.  Many of these vehicles have been released in the European market with great success and manufacturers feel the time is right for a North American launch.

With the exception of hybrids, the adoption of electric powered vehicles into North America has been virtually non-existent.  Several barriers existed preventing the wide spread release of electric vehicles, barriers which are slowly being removed due to economic necessity and technological innovation.

It also has been difficult for small electric vehicle companies to enter a market dominated by major automotive manufacturers still wedded to internal combustion engine (ICE) powered vehicles which are supported by a well established and convenient infrastructure.  Until recently electric vehicle technology also carried with it steep capital costs, and relatively limited range and reliability. All that is changing.

Increased fuel prices, public concerns about climate change, and energy self sufficiency concerns have stimulated major automotive manufacturers to invest more for the advancement of electric vehicle technology.  The obvious success of this technology in the European market has given vehicle manufacturers an additional incentive to launch in North America.

"The automakers know it’s reached a level of concern where if they don’t do something, they’ll lose market share," said Ron Cogan, editor and publisher of Green Car Journal. "We’d like to think they’re doing this for the right reasons, to help the environment, but it’s a business decision. They realize they have to do it."

The Electric Vehicle Options

Hybrid Vehicles: Hybrids are the most accessible and widely distributed electric vehicles on the market.  There are two types of hybrid vehicles currently available, both of which utilize a combination of ICE and battery electric vehicle (BEV) technology.

A parallel hybrid system obtains most of its power from an ICE, with additional power from an electric motor.  The vehicle cannot drive without help from the ICE and the electric motor is primarily used to power accessories such as power steering and air conditioners.

In a series hybrid, the ICE powers an electric generator, which in turn charges a battery and drives the electric engine.  The advantage of a series hybrid is the lack of a mechanical link between the combustion engine and the wheels. The combustion engine runs at a constant, efficient rate and the requirements for the engine are no longer related to driving.  Since the power from the engine has to run through a generator and motor, a series hybrid is not efficient for long distance travel.

Although hybrids offer improved fuel efficiency over traditional automobiles, fossil fuels are still required for the bulk of operation and manufacturers are looking to move beyond hybrids.

The price premium attached to hybrid vehicles has also acted as a deterrent for many automotive customers.  Based on oil prices of US$3.50 per gallon it could take between 3 to 14 years, depending on travel for a hybrid to pay for itself through fuel savings.  For drivers, purchasing a hybrid for light travel may be better for the environment; however it offers little financial incentive for purchase.

Hydrogen Fuel Cells: Hydrogen fuel cells were long considered the holy grail of electric vehicle technology.  In simplest terms, the technology derives energy by combining oxygen (O2) gas with hydrogen (H2) gas over an electrode and in the presence of a platinum catalyst.  The only emission from the process is water.  With recent advances this technology is drawing closer to a reality, but several design and distribution issues need to be settled. 

From a design standpoint, the fuel cell battery must remain at a uniform temperature throughout, however the reaction of hydrogen with oxygen generates a significant level of heat.  Therefore additional systems must be put in place to ensure the battery does not get destroyed through thermal loading. The lifespan of current automotive fuel cells is only 5,000 hours which would require a replacement every 150,000 miles traveled.  The fuel cell also makes use of an expensive platinum catalyst.

The fuel itself, hydrogen, brings about its own set of issues.  The highly combustible gas must be stored under high pressures, as either a highly compressed gas or a super-cooled liquid.  Fuel cells require additional safety measures to ensure there are no leaks and that the hydrogen gas is stored safely.

The most popular method of producing hydrogen is the splitting of methane (CH4) with steam (H2O).  The products of the reaction are CO2 and H2.  Depending on the source of electricity to drive the reaction and create the steam, the production of H2 has the potential to generate more CO2 emissions than using fossil fuels. 

It is expected that after a few more years of research, fuel cells will become a feasible, green, transportation reality; even still the rollout of the hydrogen fuel cell vehicle will be a separate hurdle.  The necessity for a support and refueling infrastructure specially suited to the hydrogen fuel cell will make its widespread distribution very gradual.

With a typical range of a fuel cell vehicle being 100 to 200 miles on a full battery, several hydrogen fueling stations would be required for frequent refueling.  The technology is also very new, complicated and dissimilar to existing automotive technology and thus requires new maintenance facilities and training.  It is estimated that it could take between 30 and 50 years to establish a support infrastructure.

The ‘hydrogen highway’, a reference to a roadmap for the future development of hydrogen fuel cell technology as the planet’s ultimate renewable energy resource, has been viewed by some critics as a diversion or a stall tactic for a technology that will take many years to be developed.

Honda’s announced release of the first fuel cell powered passenger cars is a sign that the automotive industry is looking more seriously into this technology than in the past.  However the limited edition vehicle is expected to only sell in California where a moderate refueling infrastructure has been established.

BEVs and Plug-in BEVs: Battery electric vehicles actually predate the ICE powered automobile, but with the invention of the Model T, BEVs faded into obscurity until the late 1960s when environmental and energy issues began to take centre stage.  It is estimated that there are just over 60,000 BEVs in operation in the United States. BEVs are 100% electric and operate on a rechargeable battery which has also been one of the major limitations to wider distribution of BEV technology.  Three types of batteries are used in BEVs; lead-acid, nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) and lithium ion batteries.

Lead-acid batteries are the cheapest of the three, valued at approximately $1,000; but are also the most inefficient and have the shortest lifespan at 3 years.  A single charge can take a vehicle only 130 km.  The batteries also contain high amounts of lead which is an environmental concern of consequence given the need for frequent replacements. NiMH batteries are the most commonly used batteries in BEVs and can achieve a range of 200 km on a single charge.  These batteries are more energy efficient than lead-acid batteries and can last a few years more but can cost up to $5,000 to replace.

Lithium ion batteries are the preferred choice for BEVs, with an effective range of 400 to 500km on a single charge.  Unfortunately lithium batteries can cost up to $20,000.  A lithium battery will also lose efficiency over time, regardless of how often it is used and must be subjected to low temperatures when in storage in order to extend its lifespan.  Lithium batteries large enough to power vehicles also overheat often and are considered a fire hazard.

Recharging 100% electric vehicles is an inconvenient exercise as well with no infrastructure in place in most of North America.  Recharging at home requires the installation of a special attachment to an electrical outlet and is considered dangerous.

Plug-In Hybrids: Many are looking to plug-in electric automobiles to solve much of the problems associated with BEVs.  These electric powered vehicles can plug into an electrical socket to recharge a lithium battery which fuels the electric motor.  Similar to existing BEVs, the hold up of this technology is in the lithium battery.

Plug-in hybrid vehicles are considered the next step in hybrid vehicle technology, and the bridge to 100% electric plug-in vehicles.  The advantage of the plug-in hybrid is its ability to use a smaller, safer lithium battery.  The lithium battery only holds a charge of up to 100 km, but it keeps an ICE on hand as back-up energy device so it can easily function if the battery is dead. Several plug-in hybrids are slated for release.

Chevy VOLT

The major advantage to plug-in vehicles over fuel cell vehicles is that a support structure for plug-ins is all ready in place.  Anywhere there is an electrical socket, a plug-in can refuel and the technology utilizes simple electronics which is all ready a familiar technology.

In early November, Electric Mobility Canada, which promotes electrically-powered transportation as a solution to Canada’s emerging energy and environmental concerns, along with the Quebec-based Centre of Sustainable Transportation, sponsored PHEV 2007, the first ever plug-in hybrid electric vehicle conference in Canada.  The conference featured many of the plug-in hybrid models that were on display at the LA Auto Show.

Canada’s Electric Options

Canada’s transportation infrastructure was built around the ICE with little regard to what would happen if that form of automobile somehow vanished. The movement away from ICE technology is growing more apparent; however a consensus on how to achieve that transition has not been reached.

Early in 2007 the Canadian government offered an incentive to motivate people to use more public transit by allowing 15% of public transportation expenditures to be claimed on income tax. Regardless, the public transportation operators in major cities, such as the TTC in Toronto, Ontario are continually facing financial trouble due to lack of customer support.  The savings offered by public transit have not been enough incentive to pull most people away from the freedom of the personal automobile

Ten years ago Al Cormier, executive director of ECM helped form the Centre for Sustainable Transporting believing that getting Canadians to use public transit more was a big part of the solution, but has recently changed his mind. "Now I’m convinced we’ll never be able to have truly high levels of public transit use in Canada, because we’ve built so many suburbs that are inaccessible to public transit. I believe we have to deal with the vehicle mix." said Al Cormier in a recent interview.

Cormier came to the conclusion Canadians won’t change their transportation habits enough to solve the twin problems of peak oil and climate change and thoughts must shift to electrically-power vehicles of all sorts, including passenger vehicles, commercial vehicles, buses and other means of public transit. "I became convinced people won’t give up their homes in the suburbs," Cormier said. "If we move to zero-emission vehicles people won’t have to change their lifestyles."

EMC believes the development of plug-in technologies is the ultimate solution for Canada.  Sixty-four percent of Canada’s electricity is generated from hydroelectric power, a generally clean energy source. By 2020, with plans to have 10% of its electricity generated from other renewable energy, Canada seems poised to adopt plug-in automobiles.  The average commute in Canada is only 25 km which is well under the maximum range of a single battery charge.

The EMC is now lobbying for the federal government to remove the 40 km per hour restriction on and to subsidize the purchase of electric vehicles for commercial use.  Electrically-powered vans can cost over $70,000 and the EMC wants a federal program that would provide subsidies of about $30,000 to fleet operators.

Provincial governments have begun answering the call and are providing incentives for the roll-out of electric vehicle technologies.  Ontario has announced a $15-million program to encourage fleet owners to buy more energy efficient vehicles.  Both British Columbia and Ontario refund sales tax on the purchase of energy-efficient vehicles.

Similarly the ecoAUTO Rebate Program, part of the federal government’s ecoTRANSIT program aimed at making a competitive and sustainable transportation infrastructure, refunds up to $2,000 to car buyers who buy vehicles which meet certain fuel efficiency standards.

As roll-outs continue, the cost of electric vehicles is expected to drop offering further incentive to speed up the process.  The reason for the $70,000 price tag is volume.  Tom Gage, president of AC Propulsion, predicts that the company could bring the cost down to "a retail price equivalent of $10,000 per drivetrain" if they were manufacturing between 50,000 and 100,000 units per year.

In Canada, electric vehicles are only allowed to travel in closed loop systems and cannot exceed a speed of 40 km per hour.  EMC believes more support would be found for the technology if the vehicles were allowed to travel in any urban area with a maximum speed limit of 60 km per hour. Regardless of how rapidly the technology is introduced, the speed of the roll-out will be dictated by the consumer.  Passenger vehicles last between 10 to 13 years with proper care, the emergence of the electric vehicle will remain gradual but according to EMC, inevitable.

Click here for more details on the Pollution Savings and Convenience of Electric Vehicles

Auto FutureTech 2008

Auto FutureTech 2008 is the first of its kind summit addressing these issues among others. Over the three day summit, key decision-makers in the automotive and advanced energy technology industries will examine technological innovation, financial performance, customer and market dynamics, global trade issues, and government policy. The summit will focus on the future of the automotive industry and what is required for every company, and the industry on whole, to fully realize the potential of new technologies, including the widest range of power systems, fuel sources and efficiency measures.

The Auto FutureTech 2008 summit, hosted by the Globe Foundation, will run in conjunction with the GLOBE 2008 Environmental Conference and Trade Fair in Vancouver, B.C. from March 12 - 14, 2008.

For More Information: GLOBE-Net
Source 2: EV World

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