Friday, September 11, 2009

Leif's January 1991 Report on Electric Cars

My sons were always in the forefront of technology, both in wanting to own it and in learning about it, and Leif was always vitally interested in vehicles of all kinds, but especially cars and motorcycles. In his sophomore year of high school at Antilles High School in Puerto Rico, he had to write a research paper for his English classwith Mrs. Solis. The length and excellence of this paper is definitely a mark of Leif's deep interest in it, because he normally wrote as short a paper as he could get away with and while he did good work, it wasn't of the depth and detail of those subjects that really caught his imagination.

At the time, electric cars were seemingly a new idea, though the history of electric cars he includes in his paper shows that wasn't true, and Leif thought they had a bright future. It's a reality check to read this paper eighteen years later and see how far . . . or how little . . . we have really come since he wrote it.

Living at Fort Buchanan, Puerto Rico, Leif had very few resources available to him to research this subject, but he had a (nonemployed at the time) reference librarian for a mother, and I had subscribed to something new and wonderful for that time, an information database service called "Knowledge Index" which gave us access to electronic versions of a myriad of publications, in text only. Leif patiently worked with me to learn how to search the databases for articles on his topic and we printed them out, all using our Atari 1040 Stf computer and a dot matrix printer, and a telephone modem. How primitive that seems now, and yet how wonderful it was to be able to have that kind of access to the world of knowledge, long before the World Wide Web and a graphical interface.

So here is Leif's paper, including his list of sources, written when he was just about to turn sixteen. He was going by the nickname "Alex" then. [Note: The Henry Ford mentioned as dying in 1987 is Henry Ford II, the grandson of the Henry Ford who founded the Ford Motor Company.]
Electric Cars by Alex Garretson
January 14, 1991

With growing concerns over the ever-increasing decadence of our environment and the general attitude of neglect on our part as citizens, the question remains, what can can be done about the pollution problem? Perhaps the greatest threat to our world is air pollution. The nitrous oxides and hydrocarbons that are found in the emissions of automobiles powered by internal combustion engines are poisoning our air and destroying our precious ozone layer.

The most promising solution, if only a partial one, is the electric car. Electric cars are no longer glorified golf carts but a realistic and feasible solution to the energy crisis and air pollution problems that have been plaguing our major cities.

Electric cars have always sounded like a good idea. They produce no pollutants; they don't consume our dwindling petroleum resources; they are quiet, reducing noise pollution; plus they can be recharged at home overnight instead of being driven to a gas station. (Haverdink, p. 396)

It has come to the attention of several figures in our government that electrically powered vehicles or EV's are needed for pollution control. Representative George Brown, Jr. of California introduced a bill in Congress in February of 1990 proposing a five-year program in which the government would join with our major auto manufacturers to produce 50,000 competitive priced EV's for sale in smog plagued cities. Senator Hershel Rosenthal proposed the induction of a law that would require 25% of all government vehicles purchased in the future be low emission or electric. Senator William Leonard suggests giving EV buyers a tax break as part of California's 20 year clean-air plan. A key element in southern California's 20 year clean-air program is getting motorists into alternative fuel or electric powered automobiles using economic incentives. It also will require that by 1992 all delivery vans purchased to be owned and operated by the government, including mail trucks, be electric or alternative fuel powered vehicles. (Gathright, p. 3)

The department of water and power and Southern California Edison have teamed up to invest $7,000,000 to develop an electric sedan and guarantee a market for 10,000 of them by 1995. Their contract with a Swedish EV maker, Clean Air Transport, calls for a 150 mile range between charges and a 0-30 m.p.h. in 9 seconds acceleration rate. It also requires that the car have a back up battery for getting the car to an outlet should the driver be unable to make it to the next recharging point on the main battery power. ("Electric Cars: Turning On Another Light," p. 4)

The government and several companies, especially General Motors, have tinkered with prototypes but have never gone to production. The main reason for this is battery design has been slow to improve for a very long time and then stopped improving completely. However, the 10,000 car guaranteed market and having all of southern California as a testing ground is a good incentive for manufacturers to try again. In addition, Southern California Edison and the Department of Water and Power claim they could charge a million electric cars without expanding. However, officials say it will take at least six million cars to put a significant dent in the problem. This is in spite of the fact that electric cars produce 98% less hydrocarbons and 83% less nitrous oxides even when the added output of electric power plants is taken into account. ("Electric Cars: turning On Another Light," p. 4)

California has adopted new air quality standards that mandate the development of ultra clean cars and cleaner burning fuels. These standards tighten the strictest emission regulations in the world. These new standards are expected to have far-reaching effects on the automotive industry and could serve as a model for other states, especially because California is the nation's largest auto marketplace. "This could pave the way for a whole new generation of cars and technology and will redefine what we consider an environmentally acceptable car for the next two decades," said James Bopt, executive officer of the California Air Resources Board which set the new standards. (Casuso, p. 1)

California's new standards will require that 2% of all cars sold by 1998 must be zero emission and 10% by 2003, making EVs an everyday reality. Auto makers are showing concern over the fact that they may not be able to meet the standards. (Casuso, p. 1)

"These regulations will impact everyone associated with the automotive industry well into the next century," said Samuel Leonard, director of automobile emission control for General Motors. "It will also change the very nature of cars and trucks." The new program requires some cars to run 50-80% cleaner than they do now. By 1994, 200,000 must be sold and by 2003 every new car sold in America (about 2 million a year) must meet the standards. This calls for transitional vehicles to a future when all cars will be either electric or alternative fuel. Service stations will carry alternative fuels such as methanol, ethanol, and nitromethane by 1994 in southern California and state-wide by 1997. (Casuso, p. 1)

The Government must see that a market is developed for the electric car because it is a long way from being a competitive family car.

Auto makers are extremely reluctant to make a quick change to electric power because of the billions of dollars they have invested in manufacturing plants. "If Detroit doesn't do it Japan will," said Rosenthal. "State and federal legislators are hearing from their constituencies. The message is: clean up the air." (Gathright, p. 3)

Many ideas have arisen from the tumult of technology that designers are attempting to apply. These are taking form in several ways and in several places around the world. Honda has been making prototypes for the 1990 Solar Challenge in Australia. Toyota has made arrangements with the power companies in Japan to build an electric car. Nippon Steel, Japan's largest steel company has built an electric car that uses off-the-shelf lead-acid batteries and claims it can travel at 69 m.p.h. for 150 miles. (Reuters, p. 6)

Chrysler Technologies has developed an electric vehicle known as the TEVan. Chrysler claims that it has a 120 mile range and a top speed of 65 m.p.h. The vehicle could be used as a commuter or shuttle van. It is powered by nickel-iron batteries instead of lead-acid batteries. A Swedish company has an electric vehicle with a fiberglass body and a small generator with low emissions that recharges the batteries while driving to extend the range to 150 miles. It will be offered in passenger, utility mini, van, and pickup models. Fiat/Bertone has plans to build an electric version of their popular Panda sub compact and expects to sell at least 500 Panda Electtros in 1990 at $20,000 each, making them the first to offer an electric car to the public. (Gathright, p. 3)

The first mass produced electric vehicle will be the G-van. Vehora, a subsidiary of Canadian auto parts giant Magua Inc. has begun production of 500 vans for 1990. Based upon a General Motors Vandura body, the van will be hard to recognize as an electric. The project is sponsored by battery maker Chloride EV Systems. The van is said to have a 60 mile range and requires overnight charging, making it useful only for around town deliveries. The biggest problem is the $32,000 price tag which is about double that of a conventional van, plus the batteries must be replaced every 3-5 years at $6,500. Southern California Edison has a fleet of 15 that it lends to people considering using them at their companies. Pacific Gas Electric will obtain a six van fleet to be used for demonstrations. After a test drive, John Maka of Sears Service Center in Long Beach is considering adding G-vans to his 60 van fleet. He was pleased with the performance and easy maintenance it provided, which is required by his company. (Gathright, p. 3)

This further demonstrates that at this time mail and newspaper deliveries and other such duties are the only use for the EV, but electric vehicles are doing very well in that regard. There are a few tens of thousands of them doing just that in Japan. However, Japan trails American and European manufacturers in the development of electric cars. They are beginning to sense environmental pressures as well and should enter the race very soon. (Reuters, p. 6)

One example of the progress that Japan has begun to make is Isuzu's revolutionary new electric storage device. However it will not substitute for the battery in electric cars. The device is one twentieth of the weight and has twenty times the output of conventional batteries, but it has limited capacity. It is also considerably less expensive to manufacture. Allen Rothwart, an electrical engineering professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia says, "I don't think we're looking at anything that is going to replace the battery in electric cars." He also says that it is not a battery in truth but a kind of sophisticated capacitor which stores and quickly releases large amounts of electricity, being rapidly drained in the process. Batteries, on the other hand, spread the energy out over a longer period of time. The capacitor could be used in conjunction with the main battery as a supplement to provide added surge power for passing, accelerating, climbing hills, pulling out into traffic, etc. (Haas, p. 15)

The electric car appeared in the late 1800s slightly before the gasoline internal combustion engine became popular. Ninety-eight years ago a man from Iowa named William Morrison built and drove an electric car on the streets of Chicago. The first electric cars most people saw were "1887 electric handsome cabs in New York City." They were built by Morris and Salom out of Philadelphia. They had previously won a medal at a contest in Chicago for vehicle design. The company, however, went belly up due to the expensive charging stations and excessive cost and weight. Soon afterwards, electric cars dominated the first National Auto Show in 1900 in New York. Gas cars ran a poor third after the electric and steam cars. "Man will never sit on an explosion," said Albert Augustus Pope of the Colombia Electric program in reference to gas cars. (Rothenberg, p. 5)

Albert Pope, after making dire predictions for the gas buggies, became a leader in the electric car development race. The Hartford Connecticut industrialist and Civil War veteran had been producing the Colombia bicycle in 1897. He then hired engineer Hiram Percy Matim to develop Colombia Auto. At the end of the first year, 511 electrics and 40 gas cars were built despite Pope's dislike for internal combustion engines. In 1899, William Collins Whitney merged Hartford Electric Vehicle Company with Pope to form the Colombia Automobile Company. They projected 12,000 cars for production but only 2,000 were built and the company faded from the scene. (Rothenberg, p. 5)

The Waverly Company of Indianapolis created a car with 3 1/2 horse power, 36 inch wheels, inner tube tires, and herringbone gears. Powered by four motors and a big battery, the delivery wagons were sent around the world and could be found in London, Paris, Stockholm, Frankfurt, Florence, Capetown, and other cities. (Rothenberg, p. 5)

Electric cars have been hailed as "man's silent servant." In truth they faired better with the ladies of the time because they didn't require cranking like gas cars and didn't need to be lit and fired like a steam engine. Women did not think it proper or feminine to engage in such activities. Likewise, men were rarely found driving electric cars as they felt it diminished their masculinity. (Rothenberg, p. 5)

The seating in the electric coaches was unusual and dangerous by today's safety standards. The driver would sit in the middle of the back seat and would have to look past the passengers that faced the driver from the front. The car was controlled by a tiller that could be moved back and forth and left and right to control direction and speed. (Rothenberg, p. 5)

The primary challenge with electric cars is coming up with a battery with adequate power and longevity. Electrics were silent, slow, and cumbersome with a limited range of about 40 miles, but in spite of this they could still exceed the speed limits of the day (8-10 m.p.h.), with some capable of 20 m.p.h.. Wood Motor Vehicles of Chicago made a larger car for $3,000 and for a while it made dual powered "hybrids" that used electric power for 0-15 m.p.h. and a four cylinder engine to boost it up for 15-30 m.p.h. (Rothenberg, p. 5)

Henry Ford was quoted saying, "The electric car is not feasible within my lifetime." He was correct, as he died at the age of 70 in 1987. If he had survived to this day he would undoubtedly agree that we will not see them on a large scale until well into the next century. (Rothenberg, p. 5)

Edison had a brief fling with electric cars. He bought a gas car and converted it to electric to demonstrate nickel-iron batteries. He denied rumors that he would mass produce them. Historian Wren found that Edison concluded, "the future is gasoline," telling his old friend, auto pioneer Henry Ford of the clear limitations of electric cars. But still Ford persisted in driving an electric car around on his own estate. It would seem now that if there is to be a future it must be electric. (Rothenberg, p. 5)

"The Horseless Age," a noteworthy publication of the era, editorialized September 27, 1899, "No modern invention has enlisted so large an expenditure of time and money with so little result as the electric storage battery." Many cars were built but none survived for any length of time and disappeared almost completely after the 1920s. Commercially produced electrics that crawled urban thoroughfares faded after World War Two. Production had ended long before but some people kept theirs till the 1950s. Since that time, getting around by electric car is rare except for the occasional mail truck or delivery van. (Rothenberg, p. 5)

Electric cars hit their peak in 1912 and have experienced a steady drive downhill ever since. Electric cars have been virtually defunct since 1920 but have gained popularity a few times in recent history. First there was the incident of Ford's announcement to build a new sodium-sulfur battery which was greeted by hordes of headlines but never actually had any effect. General Motors started two experimental electric cars when environmental concerns began in the late 60s. First there was the Electrovair which was based on the rear engine Corvair. It carried 800 lbs. of batteries on board. These were expensive and were only good for about 100 charges. Realizing there was no way they could successfully market such a car, the project was dropped. They also experimented with an electric Chevette that toured the country but never even approached production. Then in 1980 General Motors announced that they planned to get an electric car into the show room by 1985 but the project was soon dropped. And finally in conjunction with Earth Day 1990, General Motors announced they are serious about building the revolutionary new Impact electric car. (Rothenberg, p. 5)

Since then there have been rumors of BMW making an electric car and Tokyo Electric Power claims that it will built an electric car capable of traveling at 112 m.p.h. for 310 miles. It is also said to have an air conditioner. However, it is still just a concept and they have yet to build a prototype. They also have not named a price but considering that the car will be powered by nickel-cadmium batteries and made out of carbon-fiber plastics and aluminum, the price should be quite high, as those materials are more expensive than the steel that is used in conventional automobiles. The company has no immediate plans to market the vehicle. ("Tokyo Electric Power to Build a Sophisticated Electric Auto," p. 4)

At this time the only functioning electric car is the Impact, a sleek aerodynamic sport coupe whose performance rivals all but the best of today's gasoline powered sports cars. In preparation for Earth Day April 22, 1990, General Motors made an official announcement on the 18th. The announcement stated that they will produce an electric car. This car, dubbed the Impact, is said to be capable of going from 0-60 m.p.h. in 8 seconds, which is faster than most high performance sports cars, and is said to have a top speed of 100 m.p.h. with a range of 120-150 miles without recharging. (Mateja, p. 1)

General Motors' chairman wouldn't reveal when production would begin or how many would be built. He also wouldn't comment on which division of General Motors would produce it: Pontiac, Cheverolet, Oldsmobile, Buick, or Cadillac, or if a new division devoted entirely to electric cars would be created. He refused to reveal the price or if there would be a four seat version. When asked about his reluctance to answer, he attributed it to "competitive purposes." (Mateja, p. 1)

A two seat prototype was unveiled at the Chicago Auto Show in February 1990 and received high praise. The car requires 2-8 hours to charge on a standard 110 volt house outlet. The batteries have a limited life and must be replaced about every 25,000 miles. The 32, 10 volt batteries batteries weighing 870 lbs. were projected to cost about $2,500 to replace and the question still remains as to what is done with spent batteries and if they can be recycled. General Motors has also considered making the Impact a hybrid to extend its range. (Mateja, p. 1)

General Motors' goal is to be the first company to mass produce electric cars that perform as well as gas cars without the pollution. Donald Runkle of GM says, "$20,000 is a back-of-the-envelope number for now." GM has planned, "an aggressive schedule in order to pull along the technological developments that we still need." This includes applying for a dozen patents on innovations i electronics, motor design, structural materials, tires, and batteries. They must also discuss with government officials whether the same safety standards apply as to a gas car. General Motors also wants the government to construct a formula to figure electric cars into regulations on fuel economy. (Mateja, p. 1)

GM is considering leasing or renting batteries to customers to help with the replacement costs but that won't extend the range. Runkle also said GM was considering a test of the Impact with a handful of cars (by consumers) before putting it on the market. (Mateja, p. 1)

GM does not intend to use the new supercapacitor that was developed by Isuzu (2/3 of Isuzu is owned by GM) in the new Impact because they believe the car has more than adequate performance without it. (Haas, p. 1) The Impact is the most advanced electric vehicle yet, with its impressive performance that is better than most conventional high performance automobiles. However the present replacement cost of $1,500 for the batteries is still in the way. The Impact will be more feasible after the battery life is raised to 40 or 50,000 miles which they say isn't too far down the road. GM intends to introduce the Impact in urban areas where the limited range will not be a problem. But the primary obstacle is the price to own and operate an electric car and how it compares to the gasoline powered cars. (Mateja, p. 1)

Still, the Impact is a very big step and has proven that the electric car is a feasible, realistic and absolutely vital solution to our environmental and energy problems. It is extremely important that it is developed because automobiles are the primary cause of air pollution and although alternative fuels will help, they, too, will pollute the air, only at a slower rate. Air pollution will continue to be a problem until we limit it to a level the environment can successfully cope with. This will require us to have at least as many electric cars on the road as internal combustion powered cars and probably more. If auto manufacturers continue at the rate that they have been going in recent years such a time may be reached in the near future.


Casuso, Jorge, "Calif. Sets New Air-Quality Standards." Chicago Tribune, (Sept. 29, 1990), p. 1
"Electric Cars: Turning On Another Light," Los Angeles Times, (Sept. 10, 1990), p. 4
Gathright, Alan, "California, Recharging Electric-Car Drive," Chicago Tribune, (April 1, 1990), p. 3
Haas, Al, "An Electric car breakthrough? Isuzu New Device Won't Replace Batteries in Electric cars Experts Say," Chicago Tribune, (June 24, 1990), p. 15e
Haverdink, William H., "Electric Cars," World Book Encyclopedia, 1989, VI p. 396
Reuters, "Sun Rises on Japan's Electric Car Drive," Chicago Tribune, (Sept. 2, 1990), p. 6
Rothenberg, Al, "Close Up: Electric Classics-Battery Question Still Charges Electric Car Debate," Chicago Tribune, (May 13, 1990), p. 5
Mateja, Jim, "GM Gives Go-Ahead to Electric Car," Chicago Tribune, (April 19, 1990), p. 1
"Tokyo Electric Power to Build a Sophisticated Electric Auto," San Juan Star, (Dec. 6, 1990)

I think this photo of Leif was taken the summer of 1992 just before we moved from Puerto Rico to Kansas. He is a bit sunburned and has white areas around his eyes from his diving mask, as we had been snorkeling and out in the sun on the water for hours.

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