Friday, May 16, 2008

Hot new car class--the extended range electric

Plug-in hybrids are all the rage, but pure electric cars are making a surge, with the announcement by several major car companies of new manufacturing plans for electrics.

And hot off the design tables is a new class of vehicle—not a gas or diesel, not a pure electric, not a hybrid. It's the “extended range electric vehicle.” More on that later.

The hottest electric vehicle out there may be the sleek Tesla Roadster (blue car above), which is promised out next year (2009). It will cost well north of $100,000, for or five times the price of a

Nissan is the latest in the electric car field, with a proposed zero emission car that will be available in limited numbers within two years and in mass production by 2012. That's what Nissan boss Carlos Ghosn told National Public Radio.

He told the New York Times that what's driving Nissan's interest is that consumers appear to be ready for them, finally—even if government agencies haven't mandated the shift to cleaner, more efficient vehicles.

“What we are seeing is that the shifts coming from the markets are more powerful than what regulators are doing,” Ghosn told the Times.

This isn't new ground for Nissan, which put out an electric car as early as 1947. In 2000, it developed the Hypermini Urban Electric Vehicle (green Hypermini at right), which was

tested in the U.S. but never developed into a commercial model. The Hypermini was a two-seater, with batteries down low under the floor for stability. It could reach 60 miles an hour, had a 60-mile range. It was a tiny thing, eight feet long.

But it was different from the doorless golf-cart-looking vehicles that some associate with electric vehicles. The U.S. Department of Energy refers to those as NEVs, for neighborhood electric vehicles. The Hypermini fell into the class of UEVs or urban electric vehicles.

The new Nissan electric may be the same car announced in January 2008 by Renault. (Renault and Nissan are partners.) That electric car was to be built in Europe and initially sold in Israel. Some reports indicated it would be built along the lines of Renault's Megane Sport Saloon.

(Megane Sport Saloon at right)

That's a standard-looking family car, and is likely to be far more acceptable to many consumers than something looking like the Hypermini.

Hybrids, and something new

Virtually every car company is now producing or working on a hybrid car, which can run off petroleum fuel or electrical power, or a combination. They get substantially better fuel mileage than standard fuel engine cars.

What many don't know is that a couple of new classes of cars have snuck in between the hybrid and the pure electric.

One is the plug-in hybrid. Simply, it's a hybrid car that also lets you charge its batteries from the grid. The plug-in Prius, to be available next year (2009) will be the first internationally marketed plug-in hybrid.

But that's not all. There is now also the the extended range electric car.

Nissan's Ghosn said his firm could produce Renault's electric Megane in an extended range model. That car would have a gasoline engine on board—but it would only recharge batteries. It would not directly drive the car. It would be something like carrying a little generator along.

In the Wall Street Journal Thursday (May 15, 2008), Ghosn said the range extender could push the 100-mile range of a pure electric to 400 miles.

Chevrolet's Volt car, to be out in 2010, will also be an electric with a range extender. Chevy says it could have a range of 640 miles.

What this all suggests is that we're going to have to develop a new automotive lexicon.

It used to be you had the car, the truck, and later the SUV.

There's the gasoline fuel vehicle, and the diesel, and the natural gas-powered car.

And the one that can use up to 85 percent ethanol, the E85.

The straight electric vehicle (EV, plus of course modifications like the NEV and the UEV above). This one you just plug into the wall when the batteries are discharged.

The hybrid electric vehicle (HEV) of which there are now more than a dozen models on the market. Generally, this is a car whose wheels can be powered either directly from the battery bank, or directly from a fuel engine, or in various sorts of combinations—as an example, the car runs off battery until there's a demand for extra acceleration, and then the fuel engine kicks in.

The plug-in hybrid (PHEV)--the promised 2009 Prius model has gotten the most notice. With it, you can minimize the use of liquid fuel, but still have the security of being able to fuel up for long trips away from electric grids.

And the finally there is the extended range electric vehicle (EREV). As we understand it, the difference between an HEV and an EREV is primarily that the engine on the EREV cannot be used to directly power the wheels—it only generates power to the batteries.

This month's (May-June 2008) Technology Review, in an article by Kevin Bullis, makes the distinction:

"'Extended-Range Electric' vehicles represent a radical departure from conventional hybrids. Whereas in conventional hybrids, the wheels are turned by an electric motor, a gasoline engine, or both, the wheels in these new cars will be turned only by a large electric motor. For short trips, the motor will run on battery power alone. For longer trips, a gasoline-powered generator kicks in to supply electricity.”

© 2008 Jan W. TenBruggencate