The age of the electric car

14 Apr 2009

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Can you envisage a time when many of us will be driving the electric car? Some of the cost benefits are obvious in the long term – not having to fork out on petrol or diesel. Plus, think of how you could recharge your car battery at night, at off-peak electricity times, for instance.

Global warming, rising oil prices and the carbon debate are forcing us to re-think our whole approach to transport. And it seems the car manufacturers themselves are pumping precious R&D into the idea of the electric car.

In early April, the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Eamon Ryan TD, described his department’s aim to have 10pc of the vehicles on Irish roads (circa 230,000) running on electricity by 2020.

Speaking at the announcement of a collaboration between the ESB, the Government and car manufacturers Nissan and Renault concerning the introduction of electric cars to the Irish market, Ryan indicated the swerve towards the electrification of transport, promising the arrival of electric cars on Irish roads within two years.

As part of their collaboration, Renault and Nissan will commit to providing electric cars for sale in the country by 2011. Ireland will be one of the first countries in the world to be supplied with both Renault and Nissan electric cars and the ESB will supply the infrastructure necessary to charge the vehicles.

So how does an electric car work?

Instead of an internal combustion engine, an electric car uses electric motors and motor controllers. In most cases, electric cars are created by converting a petrol-powered car with an electric motor.

Electrical power generally comes from battery packs carried on board the vehicle. Other energy storage methods in the pipeline include the use of ultra-capcitors or the storage of energy in a spinning flywheel.

The design of the electric car goes back a long way, however. It is part of automobile history.

Between 1832 and 1839, Scottish businessman Robert Anderson invented the first crude electric carriage. And, in the Netherlands, Professor Sibrandus Stratingh designed the small-scale electric car in 1835.

More successful electric road vehicles were invented by Thomas Davenport (US) and Robert Davidson (Scotland) in 1842. Both of these inventors were the first to use non-rechargeable electric cells.

Some recent electric car inventions to hit the marketplace include the Dodge Zeo, an electric concept car that was launched by Dodge in early 2008.

In November 2008, Ford and PML Flightlink joined forces to create the Hi-Pa Drive Ford F150 pick-up truck.

Meanwhile, Fuji Heavy Industries is testing versions of electric cars, while General Motors and Toyota are working on battery-powered vehicles that have small gasoline engines for recharging.

By 2010, Nissan plans to have a broad range of electric vehicles, beginning with small cars.

So what are some of the most alluring electric cars available right now, including the super-fast ones?

The 250 hp (183kw) Tesla Roadster (pictured) is one … This car claims to be the world’s fastest electric sports car, as it goes from 0 to 60mph in 3.9 seconds. Its 185kw 3 phase AC motor and 53 kwh Li-ion battery pack is capable of a range of 240 miles (384 km). Charging takes just 3.5 hours for a complete cycle (partial cycles are faster). However, its base price in the US is a steep US$109,000.

In Ireland, GreenAer distributes the REVAi (electric vehicle) and the REVA L-ion, the world’s first mainstream lithium-ion powered vehicle. The REVA is designed in California and manufactured by the Indo-US Reva Electric Car Company.

This car has a top speed of 80kmph and range of 80km per charge, ideal for daily commuting.

While some electric vehicles are already on sale in Ireland, conversions of existing vehicles are another option.

An Electric Vehicles Working Group has been set up by the Government. Sustainable Energy Ireland is also in the process of carrying out a €1m pilot scheme to assess the suitability of Ireland for electric vehicles.

Senator Deirdre de Burca, for example, is cruising the streets of Dublin in a 90kw Smith Edison van, as part of the lead up to the June elections. Run on a 90kw electric motor, the van can achieve 160 km on a full charge.

A lecture will be held tomorrow in the RDS at 6pm on the topic of electric cars. Organised by Committee of Industry & Commerce, in association with the Energy Institute and Engineers Ireland, the conference is entitled ‘Electric Cars – An Energy Saviour or another False Dawn?’

For further information on this event, visit: www.sei.ie.

By Carmel Doyle

Pictured: Tesla Roadster

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Carmel was a long-time reporter with Siliconrepublic.com

editorial@siliconrepublic.com