The Long History Of Electric Vehicles

Riker Electric Car

Early 1900s Riker Electric Car

Some people hear about the movie “Who Killed The Electric Car” and think that the electric car made it’s big debut in the form of GM’s EV1 in 1996. Others may be sure that the electric car can trace it’s roots to the hippy dippy tree-hugging movement of the 60s and 70s. The truth is, the electric car is well over 100 years old. It predates the gasoline car in fact.

The invention of the electric car has been attributed to several different people. The consensus seems to be however that American Thomas Davenport was responsible for inventing the first viable electric vehicle in 1835 – a small locomotive.

Below is a timeline of the history of electric vehicles. It’s interesting to note that even as far back as the mid-1800s, the major component holding back mass adoption of electric cars was a viable battery pack. Guess what the main thing holding us back from mass adoption of EVs today – an affordable battery pack capable of a respectable range.

1830s – Scottish inventor Robert Anderson is credited with inventing the first crude electric carriage powered by a non-rechargeable battery.

1835 – American inventor Thomas Davenport invents the first viable electric vehicle – a small locomotive.

1859 – French physicist Gaston Planté invents the first rechargeable lead-acid battery.

1883 – England opens the first commercially successful electric tram/trolley engineered by Magnus Volk

1891 – American William Morrison of Des Moines Iowa invents the first successful electric automobile.

first electric car

William Morrison’s Electric Car

1897 – Electric cars used commercially for the first time. Built by the Electric Carriage and Wagon Company of Philadelphia, they were used as taxis in New York City

1899 – Believing that electricity will power the future of transportation, Thomas Edison begins his quest for a long-lasting, powerful battery suitable for use in commercial vehicles. Although his work resulted in improvements on the battery technology of the day, he ultimately abandoned his quest a decade later.

1900 – Electric cars have gained traction in the United States. Nearly 40% of all vehicles in America are fully electric.

1907 – Electric Vehicle Company, which had bought out several other small electric car manufacturers, suffers a fatal blow from a bank crash.

1908 – Henry Ford introduces the mass-produced, gasoline-powered Ford Model T. This car has a profound effect on the American automobile market and is the beginning of the end for production electric cars. Thanks Henry!

Model T Electric Car

1908 Ford Model T

1912 – Charles Kettering invents the electric starter. This is significant as the hand-cranking required to start gasoline cars was a big part of why many people, particularly women, chose to drive electrics.

1920s – The electric car, after decades of success, ceases to be a viable commercial product and production stops completely. There are many factors that contribute to the downfall of EVs. Consumers wanted the longer range and higher speeds offered by gasoline-powered cars. In addition to this, most of the major concerns about gas cars had been addressed by this time. Gearboxes were becoming less complicated and easier to use and gasoline was widely available by the 20s. Really, the issue with electric cars was the same as it is now, people wanted to be able to drive as long as they wanted, and fill up their car quickly.

1920s-1960s – Electric cars are more or less forgotten during this period. It’s the golden age for gas-powered vehicles.

1973 – The Arab oil embargos of ’67 and ’73 have left Americans waiting for hours at gas stations and fuel prices skyrocket. A moderate interest in alternative fuels is rekindled during this period. The US Department of energy funds efforts to try and produce a cost-effective electric car.

Electric CitiCar

CitiCar EV

1974 – The awkward looking CitiCar makes it’s debut at the Electric Vehicle Symposium in Washington, D.C. Built by Vanguard-Sebring, it boasts a top speed of just over 30mph and a respectable warm-weather range of 40 miles. By 1975, Vanguard-Sebring is the 6th largest automaker in the US. Unfortunately, the company is dissolved only a few years later.

Italian car maker Zagato, starts producing the Zele. An electric microcar with an all fiberglass body. It is sold in the US under the name Zagato Elcar. This and the CitiCar are two peas in a pod, both tiny and awkward-looking!

1975 – The US Postal Service buys 350 all-electric delivery Jeeps from AMC to be used in a test program.

1988 – General Motors agrees to fund research for a practical consumer electric car. GM teams up with AeroVironment to produce what would become the EV1. The EV1 is the first serious attempt at a modern, long-range electric car. It was only leased, not sold to consumers. Even though the reviews for the EV1 were almost universally positive, when the leases were up, General Motors took back every unit without offering the leasers an opportunity to buy the car. Every single one was crushed. Some electric car enthusiasts have argued that GM never intended the EV1 to be a serious commercial venture.

GMs EV1 Electric

GMs EV1

1990 – California passes the Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) mandate requiring 2% of the state’s vehicles to be zero emission by 1998 and 10% by 2003. The law is repeatedly challenged and weakened to reduce the number of fully electric cars required.

1997-2000 – Several major manufacturers release all-electric vehicles. Nissan’s Alta, Ford’s Ranger EV, Toyota’s Rav 4 EV, Chevy’s S10 EV, Honda’s EV Plus are all offered in the US, although most of them only for lease. Many have since ended up on the used market. 

2002 – G.M and Chrysler sue the California Air Resources Board to have the Zero Emissions Vehicle Mandate repealed.

2003 -  G.M. announces that it will not be renewing leases on the EV1, nor will it offer the car for sale to leasers. They blame their inability to keep up with parts support.

2005 – All but 40 or so of the EV1s have been reclaimed by G.M. and “recycled”. The remaining vehicles have been disabled and now live at museums and universities.

2006Tesla Motors announces their all-electric Tesla Roadster at the San Francisco International Auto show. It is to go on sale for the 2008 model year with a price tag of just under $100,000.

Nissan LEAF EV

Nissan LEAF

2009 – Nissan unveils it’s new all-electric car, the LEAF. It has a range of over 100 miles, a top speed of 90mph and a battery pack that can be quick-charged to 80% in 30 minutes. Nissan works to set up charging networks in several countries to support charging for the LEAF.

By the end of 2009, several manufacturers have announced new all-electric vehicles. GM’s Volt (actually a parallel hybrid with a 40 mile all-electric range), Nissan’s LEAF and Mitsubishi’s i-MiEV are all to be released over the next two years.

Since the 80s, electric cars have been kept alive thanks to the efforts of regular guys converting vehicles at home rather than by the half-hearted efforts of the major manufacturers. In the late 90s it seemed that some of them were going to take EVs seriously for a while, and then they all cancelled their EV programs.

There is new hope for electric cars on the horizon with Tesla swooping in and quite frankly making the EV effort put forth by the big 3 over the last 2 decades look silly. Tesla, as a new manufacturer has managed to develop and build two commercially viable all-electric cars in the last 8 years, and become profitable in the process (well, sort of).

Because electric cars more or less ceased to exist between the 1920s and 1970s (save for a few exceptions), electric cars missed out on a key period in automotive development. If companies had been investing their research and development dollars into electric vehicles all through the 20th century as was happening with gasoline vehicles, EV technology would be much farther than it is today.

Posted in Electric Vehicle Articles, Uncategorized

Electric Car Battery Pack Basics

Cheap electric car batteries

The batteries in an EV conversion have a way of costing more than anything else. If you want to build a dirt-cheap electric car battery pack, your only option is to use deep-cycle, lead acid batteries. Although Lithium Iron Phosphate have been shown to be cheaper in the long run, the price to buy them upfront is prohibitive for many hobbyists. It is possible to get lead acid batteries for free or very cheap making them the ideal choice for most.

The most basic electric car has 4 to 12 deep cycle batteries wired together to make a large battery pack. It is not necessary to understand complex electrical theory to build an electric car, I sure don’t. This page will help you understand the basics of how EV battery packs work.

 

Batteries wired in parallel

When batteries are wired together as pictured, with + to + and – to -, the capacity (amp hours) of the pack increases but the voltage stays the same. In the example below, these are deep cycle, 12v batteries wired in parallel. If each battery has an amp hour rating of 50ah, the total for the pack would now be 200ah (50ah x 4 batteries = 200ah). The voltage however will remain the same at 12v

electric car wiring diagramBatteries wired in series

In the diagram below, the same four batteries have been wired together in series connecting each battery + to – throughout the entire pack. When wiring in series the voltage of the battery pack increases with each battery added, and the amp hour capacity stays the same. The total voltage of the below pack would be 48v (4 batteries at 12v* = 48v)

*Lead acid automotive batteries actually run around 12.6v but for simplicity sake, I’m calling it 12v.

electric car wiring diagram

Batteries wired in series/parallel

Now, to further complicate things, batteries can be wired in series parallel. This increases both the voltage and the amp hour capacity of the battery pack. Two of the 48v packs pictured above can be wired together in parallel to increase the total amp hours and for EV purposes…extend the range of the EV.

ev wiring diagramTypically, a conversion donor won’t have the weight-carrying capacity to carry two lead-acid packs wired in series parallel. Some guys do it, but by the time you buy 16-24 batteries to build a pack this way, the cost starts to get so close to what lithium would cost that there’s really no point. If you have that kind of money to invest, but the lithium batteries in the first place. That way you won’t have to deal with the issues that arise from hauling so much weight (suspension/frame strengthening etc).

 

Posted in Batteries, Electric Vehicle Articles Tagged with: , ,

EV 2.0 – Why I’m Starting Over

Learning how to build an electric car has been the biggest project I’ve ever taken on. I spent nearly two years collecting parts and building my car….and now I’ve decided to dismantle the Sprint and completely start over. I didn’t make the decision overnight, I’ve been mulling on it for a few months now, but it’s the right thing to do.

So….WHY?

Build an electric carHere’s the thing: my Sprint was never meant to be the finished product. Although I never mentioned it on the blog, I had always intended for this car to be sort of a beta version, a vehicle to make all my mistakes on, so I could build something better in the future. We just had our second child and the Sprint doesn’t meet my needs for a few reasons. It no longer has the rear seats, it’s only a two door (but I’m flexible on this one, as long as there’s 4 seats), it leaks water like a sieve (from the windshield no less) and needs a bunch of other misc. work. Basically, it’s not what I want, so I’m not investing the money into fixing everything.

Something else happened as well. My batteries were completely drained twice, once by my wife (insert joke about women and driving here), and the second time by me. I got my pack used, and as far as I’m concerned, I got my $100 out of it after the first few test runs, so the fact that I drove for 5 months on that pack is just a bonus. As I got into winter, the batteries were getting more and more worn out and it got to the point where I couldn’t even get to work anymore, so I need a new pack.

What’s Next?

Suzuki Swift electric conversionI’m going to build the car that I really want. I’m on the hunt for a 4-door Geo Metro, Firefly, Sprint or Swift in either a hatchback or sedan, with Swift sedan being my preference. This next one will need to be in great shape. I want to stick with this car for the same reasons I chose it to begin with. They’re super light, cheap to buy, easy to work on and there are tons of others out there who have converted the same car, making advice and ideas easy to come by. Not to mention I’ve done it once already so I know what I’m getting into this time!

I still have my motor, adapter plate, controller, contactor, vacuum brake setup, cables etc. So starting now, I’m going to be collecting everything else that I will need to build my next EV, which will be a car I’m hoping to keep for a long time. Here are the things I wanted for this car but never got around to:

Instrumentation – I’m going with the best, the TBS E-xpert pro meter.

Heater – My crummy ceramic heater never put out nearly enough heat to face a Canadian winter. I’m going with a fluid heater this time.

DC/DC converter – This is just to simplify my 12V system and make the battery last longer.

Lithium pack and new charger

Switching To Lithium

Lithium EV batteryWhen I first started this project, I wanted to build an electric car as cheap as I could, and I did exactly that. The whole thing from start to a driveable EV was $2570, and It can be done much cheaper than that. I realized somewhere along the way however, that I wanted to build a cheap car, and show others that it can be done, but I also wanted something long-term, a car I can take my family places in. I have to compromise on something. On my Sprint conversion I compromised on comfort and range, this next car is going to be comfortable and go much farther on a charge than the Sprint ever could.

Lithium batteries are expensive, and not the best choice for a budget conversion. I have realized though, that they are cheaper in the long-run. 8 flooded lead acid batteries to replace the ones I have will be around $1500, with a sealed, AGM pack costing almost $3000. I can upgrade to lithium for $3500-$7500 plus about $500 for a charger. It’s more money up front but the lithiums will last 8-12 years and the lead-acid batteries will likely only last 1-3. So spend say $6000 once every ten years or spend $3000 once every two years…it just makes sense to spend the money.

In addition, you gain with lithium batteries because you can discharge them deeper, they’re lighter, and because of the light weight you have more options for mounting. It’s just the way to go. This means that I’m going to have to save for a while but what I really want is a car that I can drive for a full day and not have to worry about opportunity charging everywhere I go. An informative little article on the advantages of lithium vs lead can be found here.

A new charger will also give me the option to take advantage of the charging stations around town. They all use j1772 plugs and run 220V so I can’t use them with my little chargers that I have now.

Another great thing about doing a second build is that I’m planning on documenting it much more closely than I did with the first. I’m going to take photos and video of the process to help out other would-be converters who want to take on their own projects. Reading about other people’s conversions and watching their videos made it a whole lot easier when I was doing my own, and I want to contribute to the material that’s out there for people to learn from.

So stay tuned! This new project is going to take some time, but it’s going to be far more exciting than the first. I’m shooting for a range of 80 miles (128 kilometers) for range. Super ambitious, but I think that I can make it happen. I’m going to focus on aerodynamic modifications on this next car as well as low rolling resistance tires and driving style of course!

I’m excited for you to follow along as I build EV 2.0!

 

Posted in Chevrolet Sprint Conversion, Electric Vehicle Articles

The Downside Of Electric Cars

nissan-leaf-12I love electric cars. I love the idea, the technology, the simplicity. In my opinion, they are an all-around better way to get places than gas-burners. That said, I’m an enthusiast. We enthusiasts have a way of only presenting one side of the equation. As wonderful as electric vehicles are, they have some major shortcomings. Of course gas cars do as well but we’re all so used to them that we barely notice them anymore. Having built and driven my own electric car, I can honestly say that I have a far better understanding of the argument against them. That said, I owe it to my readers to paint the full picture. So here it is. I’m going to swallow my pride and lay out the negative aspects of electric vehicles.

The Downside Of Electric Cars

These are in my opinion, the best reasons to not consider owning an EV.

1. They’re Way Too Expensive (New)

There, I said it. I’ve driven factory EVs, and they’re fantastic. I don’t understand how anybody could test drive a Leaf and a Sentra…and then leave with the Sentra. That is if you’re not factoring in price. The starting price for the Versa hatch is $13,398… the starting price for the Leaf is $31,698. Now, guys like me understand the amount of value you’re getting for all of that money, but you’re still paying more than double for a car that’s roughly the same size.

In my opinion, if EVs were priced the same as their gas-burning cousins, they’d outsell them hands down. But it takes a certain type of person to see the value of an EV and be willing to spend a lot more today to realize savings in 5 or 6 years. The reality is, we’re a credit based society. Most people these days make buying decisions more on what the monthly payment is than the total cost, and the electric car is going to lose every time. They just cost too much and in my opinion, factory EVs will never take off until they can shave a lot off of the sticker price.

2. Charging Is A Nuisance

EV charging has come a long way, and it has a long way to go yet. There are more charging stations around than ever and still it can be tough to make sure you’ve got access to power wherever you go. Unless you’re only driving short distances around town, you will need to plan ahead and be sure that you can charge where you’re going. You may want to make sure that there’s a restaurant and a movie theater nearby as well because charging can take hours. Fast chargers are improving this, but they’re not an everyday solution.

My experience was a little different as my little Sprint only charged on 110v. I was able to charge at most of my friend’s houses and a few local businesses. I couldn’t however, charge at any of the commercial charging stations as they’re all 220v. Charging for a few hours would only put a small boost into my battery pack but often made the difference between me driving or walking home! That said, apps like PlugShare are making it easier than ever to charge your electric car.

3. Limited Range

This is in my opinion, the main thing holding back mainstream adoption of electric cars. Even though the Leafs and iMievs of the world are statistically able to meet the commuting needs of the majority of the population, I don’t think most will jump on board until they see the same sort of range numbers that they get from a tank of fuel. 500-800k. We’re not too far away from that, and Tesla is proving that long-range EVs are in our future. For the time being however, most people will think about range not in terms of daily driving, but the few times per year that they will want to leave town and not be able to, and that’s fair. If you buy an EV, you need to be comfortable with a limited driving range.

4. Limited Choice

If you’re going to drive an electric car…your options are severely limited whether you’re buying new or building your own. There’s a reason that most EVs are small cars. They’re lighter and more aerodynamic. That will always be the case with factory EVs. For most people, there’s no point building large electric trucks and SUVs  because you won’t ever get an acceptable range from those types of vehicles, they’re just too heavy.

That’s not to say it can’t be done. There are F150 and even F250 builds out there, but they’re aftermarket, expensive to build and have a very short range.

There you have it, the downside of electric cars. They have some very real limitations that will always keep some people away from the technology. The thing is, gas cars have major limitations as well, we’re just used to dealing with those. Major engine maintenance, the expense of gasoline and unnecessary damage to the environment to name a few. We’re so used to living with internal combustion that we rarely think about just how imperfect our regular cars are! Just some food for thought.

Posted in Uncategorized

Electric Car Tires

Unfortunately, at some point you will need to change the rubber on your EV just like every other car. It’s irritating and expensive, but it’s a good time to look at your electric car tires and whether or not they’re the best choice for your needs. For any vehicle that is intended to be ultra-efficient whether it be hybrid, electric or a hypermiling project, it’s a good idea to consider low rolling resistance tires.

What Is Rolling Resistance?

Low Rolling Resistance Tires

Rolling resistance is basically a measurement of how easily a given tire will roll down the road. If you had 2 identical cars, one with LRR tires and one without, drove them both to 50kph and then let them roll to a stop, the car with the low rolling resistance tires would roll farther down the road than the one without. Low rolling resistance tires are built using special materials and tread design to achieve higher efficiency. They do this by reducing the energy wasted as heat, as well as in the sidewall. Using these tires on your car can result in a fuel savings of up to 6%, a significant amount over time.

Upgrading To LRR

Is it worth upgrading to these tires for your electric car? The answer from any die-hard EV enthusiast would be an emphatic YES! But in reality, it’s like any other automotive upgrade, it depends what your priorities are. If you own an electric or hybrid car, it’s a safe bet that you want to get the very best mpg possible, and upgrading your tires is a good way to see quick results. If your commute is well within your electric car’s range and comfort is a priority for you, you might want to stick with standard tires.

 

Posted in Electric Vehicle Articles, Electric Vehicle How-To Guides

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