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Published on April 11th, 2013 | by Yellow Magpie

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Electric Cars: Welcome To The 21st Century

Electric Car Tesla Model X

The future has finally arrived and it is electric. We are well into the second decade of the 21 st century and a revolution is under-way in the transport sector. Electric cars are starting to show that they are a force to be reckoned with and are just the start of a vanguard heralding the dawn of vehicles that will eventually completely replace the internal combustion engine.

Gone will be the fumes and health problems associated with petrol and diesel cars. Removed too will be the dependence upon foreign oil and the problems that arise from such an attached arrangement. Instead we shall be left with electric cars that offer clean, relatively quiet driving, increased comfort, enhanced performance and safety.

Electric Cars: Nisan Leaf

A Brief History Of Electric Cars

There was a time in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that electric vehicles were favoured over their internal combustion counterparts. They were much easier to start than their hand-cranked equivalents, much quieter and cleaner too. Electric cars were also accommodating to drivers as they did not possess the notoriously difficult to shift early gears. Some of them were relatively fast with the first car to breach the 100 kilometre-per-hour (62 miles-per-hour) mark being electric.

The reason the electric car soon found itself subservient to the internal combustion engine was due to two main factors. Battery technology and charging infrastructure. The electric cars simply did not have the range to compete with their fuel-burning cousins.

At the time the lead-acid batteries were too primitive a technology as they were too heavy and slow to recharge. This coupled with the lack of suitable charging infrastructure meant that the electric vehicle would have to bide its time as the scientific know-how improved.

Electric Cars Tesla Roadster

Concerns about the environmental effects of green house gas emissions, rising fuel prices and the hazards of burning fossil fuels on human health led to renewed calls for electric vehicles. In the 1990’s, with the advent of lithium, battery-powered cars made a short-lived come-back.

Though lithium was a far superior chemistry to lead-acid it was still in its infancy when it came to automotive applications and yet to undergo the refinements that we take for granted today. Essentially the cars of the 1990’s failed for economic reasons. They were just too expensive when compared to internal combustion vehicles.

Previous Stumbling Blocks

The stumbling blocks for the electric car had always been two main factors. Number one on the list was the problem of cost which affected range. The cost per kilowatt of battery was far too high for car manufacturers. This was eventually solved by Tesla who used customised automotive versions of mass-produced laptop batteries. In 2009, this allowed them to build the Roadster, an electric sports car with 390 kilometres (244 miles) of range at a cost of $36,000 dollars for a 53 kilowatt-hour pack or just under $700 dollars per kilowatt-hour.

With the improvements of battery technology it is currently estimated to cost Tesla between $400 to $500 per kilowatt for the Model S battery. It appears that the current trend will see prices falling below $200 per kw/hr in the long-term. Tesla is expected to launch an affordable third-generation $30,000 car with a 300-plus kilometre (200-mile plus) range within the next three years.

Electric Cars Tesla Model S

To be the energy equivalent of petrol, batteries need to have an energy density of 12,800 watt-hours per kilogram. The best batteries of today have an energy density of just 250 watt-hours per kilogram. Nevertheless, the disparity isn’t as great as it initially appears due to the inefficiency of the internal combustion engine and an eleven to twelve-fold increase in performance would bring the battery on a real-world par.

The second problem that remained a barrier for electric cars was charging infrastructure. It is only now with a growing demand for electric vehicles that countries have started to implement widespread charging. European Union directives has meant that there are little to no major towns that do not have public chargers. The availability of quick charging has also meant that electric car batteries can now be replenished much faster than in the past.

Nevertheless, charging still remains a potential problem for householders in the United States. Whereas all the homes of Europe are fed 400 volt-three phase power supply offering between 25 and 40 kilowatts of electricity there are many parts of the United States where single phase 110 volts can be up to 17 times slower.

The worldwide rolling out of fast-charging stations has alleviated much of the concern regarding a lack of infrastructure. Tesla has even implemented a 100 kilowatt Supercharging network capable of fully recharging a Model S giving a range of 480 kilometres at a speed of 90 kph (300 miles at 55 mph) in less than one hour.

Electric Cars Tesla Supercharger Icon

The Benefits Of Having An Electric Car

Owning and driving an electric car brings a lot of benefits. Because electric cars generate such a wide band of torque at all RPM rates they do not need gears. In practice, together with regenerative braking, this results in using just one foot to drive the car with the brake pedal being rarely deployed.

The lack of gears and the fact that the application of power is instantaneous makes electric cars very quick off the line and generally much faster than internal combustion-powered vehicles.

Electric cars also produce no emissions. Even though some electric vehicles may charge from fossil-fuel sources a power plant will produce less carbon-dioxide charging the battery than the emissions produced by an internal combustion engine.

Electric Cars Smart Fortwo Photo By Ludovic Hirlimann

In an age where most people have come to terms with the fact that fossil fuels are a finite resource using an electric car for transport means that this valuable but limited source of energy can be utilised in other areas where they can be more efficiently used.

Electric cars are, on average, six to seven times cheaper than filling up with fossil fuels. What’s more, their motors have a very long lifetime and the cost of maintenance is far less than combustion engines. The use of regenerative braking also means that wear and tear on brakes is minimal.

The Future Of Electric Vehicles

The future of electric cars, and electric vehicles for that matter, is heavily linked with the future of battery technology. As batteries become more advanced – cost less, weigh less, last longer and give better performance specs the greater the range electric vehicles will have.

Eventually electric cars will offer affordable very large range vehicles with the ability to fully recharge in a few minutes. The future belongs to the electric.

Further Reading

For more information on the history of the electric car check out Wikipedia.

You might also like to check out Yellow Magpie’s post on Elon Musk: Leading Contender For Man Of The 21st Century?, Electric Bicycles: The Electric Revolution For Everyone and Nikola Tesla: The Inventor Genius Who Irrevocably Changed The World.


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