Friday, May 29, 2009

The electric car has been around since shortly after the invention of the automobile, but the limitations of battery capacity has constrained its success. When the electric starter made gasoline engines more user-friendly, electric-powered cars became the nearly-exclusive purview of golf carts.

After fitful development in recent years, however, it appears as though the electric car will finally emerge in 2010 as a bona-fide product. That means it will be sold by mainstream manufacturers, through their regular dealers to normal people for a reasonable price. Ford, Chrysler and Nissan say they will deliver such cars soon.

These electric cars will rely exclusively on plug-in juice from the power company, and will not have on-board gasoline engines to help out when the batteries go dead. Driving range will still be limited, but the range will finally be long enough to be practical.

“The demand is absolutely out there for battery-electric vehicles,” said Mark Perry, Nissan’s director of product planning.

He quickly rebutted two areas of skepticism relating to battery-electric vehicles.

The first is that such cars will create a toxic battery waste nightmare at the end of the cars’ lives. The materials used in the batteries are valuable and will be recovered for reuse when the car is retired, he explained.

Another concern is that battery-electric cars only move the source of pollution from the tailpipe to the smokestack. But even with today’s coal-heavy mix of electric power generation, electric cars produce only 40 percent the amount of CO2 gas-powered cars produce, and this percentage can improve over time as utilities shift away from coal, Mr. Perry said.

Nissan’s electric car will be a compact, similar in size to the new Cube, which is currently serving as the company’s demonstration vehicle for its electric drivetrain. The car will have space for five occupants and will have a driving range of 100 miles on a charge, a distance that is sufficient for the daily driving needs of 98 percent of Americans, according to the company. It will also offer premium amenities, so customers won’t be suffering in a glorified kit car, and will provide advanced safety features to protect occupants in the event of a crash.

Nissan will begin offering the new, as yet unnamed model, in 10 to 15 markets nationwide in 2010, gradually expanding to full availability in 2012, as more public charging stations are built to permit recharging while away from home.

Parking garages at work and at shopping centers are a prime target for charging stations. Initially, drivers will have two options for charging their car: a regular wall-type 110-volt outlet that will take 14 hours to charge the lithium-ion batteries completely, or a 220-volt Level 2 charger that will do the job in about four hours. The expectation is that customers will have an L2 charger installed in their home for quick everyday charges, which might even be coordinated with their utility company to get a better rate by charging in the middle of the night, and use the L1 capability to top off the battery when they are parked elsewhere.

Meanwhile, carmakers are working with power utilities and others to define the standard for a planned L3 charger, which would recharge Nissan’s electric car to 80 percent of capacity - good for 80 miles of driving - in 26 minutes.

This would make it practical for gas stations to have charging stations that drivers could use if they needed to drive somewhere beyond the range of a full charge. Although 26 minutes is still a good while to wait, it turns out that the average customer’s dine-in visit to a fast food restaurant lasts about 20 minutes. So, it’s possible that even McDonald’s could emerge as a player in the emerging industry infrastructure of recharging electric cars.

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