May 31st, 2006

Let's Clear the Air

Battery Electric Vehicles Positioned To Make a Comeback

by Andrew Schmidt, NAFTC Student and Contributing Writer

Battery electric vehicles (BEVs) have recently taken a backseat to hybrid and fuel cell development. However, with advancements in battery technologies, rising oil prices, and practical fuel cell technology still many years away, BEVs are positioned to make a comeback. Mitsubishi is currently developing two highway-speed BEVs, the Lancer EV and Colt EV. These vehicles have an individual motor placed in each wheel and are capable of speeds of over 90 miles per hour (mph) with a range of around one hundred miles.

BEVs date back to the 1830s. Although popular in the early 1900s, they virtually disappeared after 1910, making only minor comebacks since then. BEVs are divided into two main classifications: Neighborhood electric vehicles (NEVs) and full-featured highway electric vehicles.

A promising development for BEVs is the use of lithium-ion batteries. Lithium-ion batteries solve two major problems associated with BEVs. First, the long charging times for lead-acid and nickel-metal-hydride batteries, which usually take around six hours to fully recharge, can be reduced to only six–eight minutes using state-of-the-art lithium-ion technology. Secondly, the battery pack of a typical BEV must be replaced approximately every two years. Newer lithium-ion batteries can last significantly longer, although the results of long-term testing are not yet available. Additionally, lithium-ion batteries have three times the energy density as lead-acid batteries. This means that a vehicle with lithium-ion batteries can travel three times farther than a vehicle with lead-acid batteries using the same size battery pack.

In 1998, Nissan produced an electric vehicle called the Altra. It was the first vehicle available in the United States that was powered by lithium-ion batteries. However, it was only produced in very limited quantities for test fleets and never sold to the public. The U.S. Department of Energy has recently announced funding for research for lithium-ion batteries to be used in hybrids. It is almost certain that any successful highway-speed BEV in the future will use lithium-ion batteries.

Much of the technology used on hybrid vehicles today is borrowed from BEVs, including regenerative braking and battery technology. Plug-in hybrid vehicles have even more similarities to BEVs because they require a plug-in recharging method and larger battery storage capacity. BEVs are also similar to fuel-cell powered vehicles because they rely on an electric drive train and can use batteries to store energy produced from the fuel cell or from regenerative braking.

Currently, there are no full-featured highway BEVs for sale in the United States. In the late 1990s, the most popular full-featured BEVs in this country were the General Motors EV1, Chevrolet S10 Electric, Ford Ranger EV, Honda EV+, Toyota Rav4, and Chrysler TEVan. Most of these vehicles were leased in California, and none are still in production. The manufacturers took most of them back when the lease expired. Many were dismantled or crushed to be recycled because the manufacturers did not want to deal with future maintenance and liability issues for such a small quantity of cars. In certain cases, including the Toyota Rav4 and Ford Ranger EV, the manufacturers allowed the vehicles to be purchased or donated when the leases expired.

The most popular BEVs on the market today are NEVs. In 1998, the U.S. Department of Transportation created a new Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS500) for this classification of vehicle. It specifies that an NEV must have a top speed between 20–25 mph and be equipped with lights, turn signals, mirrors, windshields, seat belts, and vehicle identification numbers. Currently, more than forty-five states allow NEVs to be operated on roads with speed limits of 35 mph or less. These vehicles are ideal for short, in-town commutes; retirement communities; and university and corporate campuses.

One of the most popular brand of NEVs is Global Electric Motorcars (GEM). GEM is a wholly owned subsidiary of DaimlerChrysler and currently produces five models that carry between two and six passengers. Since the company began in 1998, more than thirty thousand NEVs have been sold.

DaimlerChrysler's Global Electric Motorcar

DaimlerChrysler’s Global Electric Motorcar (GEM). Credit: DaimlerChrysler

One of the major advantages of BEVs is the low cost-per-mile. The Honda EV+ boasted an operating cost for fuel as low as one cent per mile when charged during off-peak electric rates. With the current price of gasoline at around $2.90 a gallon, a gasoline-powered car would have to get 290 miles per gallon to have the same cost-per-mile for fuel! Also, BEVs don’t require oil changes, tune-ups, or many of the other maintenance and repair costs associated with an internal combustion engine.

BEVs have zero tailpipe emissions, which is especially important in congested urban areas. Although the electricity needed to recharge the batteries is often generated from fossil fuels, it is easier to control the pollution of a single smokestack than to control the emissions from the tailpipe of every vehicle on the road. BEVs are often charged at night, when electricity demand is lower. Some areas offer discounted electric rates during these “off-peak” hours. The most popular fuels for power plants in the United States are coal and natural gas, which are both primarily domestic fuels. Therefore, BEVs help to reduce our dependence on foreign oil. Electricity can also be produced from renewable resources, such as wind or solar energy. A special example is a parking garage in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which features solar panels on the roof and ten electric vehicle-charging stations inside.

One of the challenges to wide-scale use of BEVs is building the infrastructure necessary for recharging the vehicles. Different manufacturers use different methods of recharging. For example, the GM EV1 used an inductive charging paddle, while the Honda EV+ and Ford Ranger use a conductive charging system. Some vehicles feature an onboard charger, but even those differ, with some requiring a 120-volt outlet while others require a 240-volt outlet. This lack of collaboration between manufacturers and lack of infrastructure is one reason that BEVs have never gained widespread use. Careful planning and standardization in the future is needed to ensure that fuel cell vehicles do not face similar problems.

The major auto manufacturers have abandoned BEVs and are instead developing hybrid and fuel cell technologies. One of the reasons cited for not developing BEVs is lack of consumer demand. However, a used 2003 Toyota RAV4 EV recently sold on Ebay for $67,000 in California. If a new BEV is purchased, the federal government provides an income tax credit equal to 10 percent of the cost of the vehicle (up to $1,000). This incentive will expire at the end of 2006.

The NAFTC recently completed a project for a new NEV produced by Miles Automotive Group, Ltd. A vehicle-specific training course, including a video-enhanced PowerPoint presentation and course manual, was created at NAFTC headquarters. A beta-test of this course was conducted at Rio Hondo Community College in Whittier, California, in April. Rio Hondo is an NAFTC National Training Center. Additionally, the NAFTC helped to write the owner’s manual and service manual for this vehicle.

Miles Automotive Group Ltd.'s neighborhood electric vehicle, the Miles ZX40.

Miles Automotive Group Ltd.’s neighborhood electric vehicle, the Miles ZX40. NAFTC file photo

The NAFTC offers courses on electric vehicles, and more information on these and other courses can be found at

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