When AT saw the documentary Who Killed the Electric Car, we were equal parts riled up and inspired. So we had Mark Taylor from the Australian Electric Vehicle Association provide us with a state of the union. Long live the electric car

When AT saw the documentary Who Killed the Electric Car, we were equal parts riled up and inspired. So we had Mark Taylor from the Australian Electric Vehicle Association provide us with a state of the union. What’s happening? What should be done? What CAN be done? Before, we knew nothing. Now, like many ordinary vehicles across the country, we are becoming converted. 


Rising fuel prices getting you down? When public transport doesn’t meet your needs and riding a bike isn’t an option, the only way from A to B has to be the petrol-guzzling car. Well, maybe not for long. The automobile we’ve all grown up with is heading for some radical changes.


Concerns about global warming, depleting non-renewable natural resources and our dependence on foreign oil supplies have got car manufacturers looking closely at alternative technologies. And electric power, excuse the pun, is leading the charge. We’re not talking about glorified golf carts or souped-up mobility scooters but inexpensive, practical Electric Vehicles.


Way back when the travelling public first decided to swap horse for motorised buggy, the smooth, silent electric car was very popular. Women and the well-to-do set particularly liked the absence of a troublesome gearbox and crank handle, as did doctors and other professionals who needed reliability and a quick start-up. Although those cars enjoyed fairly good power and a range of about 130km, their petrol-powered counterparts had the luxury of quicker refuelling. With oil so cheap and manufacturers like Henry Ford mass-producing petrol cars, the electric car soon became obsolete, put back on the shelf for another day.


It wasn’t long before that day arrived. With the oil crisis of the mid-1990s and the introduction of California’s “Zero Emissions” standards, US General Motors developed the infamous EV1. More than 1000 of these purpose-built, fully electric cars were leased to the public, but despite a queue of hopeful customers and rave reviews from lessees, GM decided to terminate the program, taking back the cars and eventually crushing them all. The movie Who Killed the Electric Car? graphically illustrates some of the controversy that went on at the time. Other manufacturers built small quantities of battery-powered private and commercial vehicles, but that emerging technology was as yet unproven. The price of oil stabilised and EVs were again taken off the agenda.


Today, the motivation for change is greater than ever. Not only is the price of oil rising dramatically but people are becoming more aware of the damage being done to our environment. The indiscriminate burning of fossil fuels is constantly pumping carbon dioxide into the air, choking up the atmosphere, slowly turning the planet into a hothouse. Cars are now a luxury we can’t do without, so automobile manufacturers are being forced to clean up their act and rethink their designs. The old faithful internal combustion engine is getting close to its used-by date. After years of development, its efficiency is still only around 30 percent, which makes it a more efficient heater than it does an engine. By comparison, electric motors are usually around 90 percent efficient and are extremely simple, with just one moving part.


Hybrid cars like the Toyota Prius and Honda Civic Hybrid are helping to regain public acceptance of battery power, but they’re not the answer; just a small step in the right direction. Their use of a piston engine still makes them unnecessarily complicated.


Car owners expect performance to be the same as, if not better than, the vehicles they drive now. That is possible, but very expensive at present. New forms of power storage are being researched the world over. Electronics companies like NEC, Panasonic, Bosch and Samsung are joining forces with automotive manufacturers to develop batteries such as lithium-ion and nickel metal hydride. The CSIRO, which has designed some of the world’s most efficient motors for Solar Challenge cars, is one of many working on “super capacitors”, which can quickly receive and discharge electrical energy. The cutting edge Chevy Volt uses a small generator, charging its batteries on the move and greatly extending its range. Tesla, the high-performance electric roadster recently released in the US, uses 7000 lithium-ion cells. All the major car companies admit that electric cars are the logical answer – but they’ll need a couple of years to develop and manufacture.


There is another option, without having to wait for car companies and politicians to act. The beloved family car, which has given faithful service over the years, can be easily converted to clean, cheap, battery power. With a DIY EV conversion, tired old petrol guzzlers are given a new lease of life. The piston engine and all its supporting equipment, along with the fuel tank, are removed. In its place go a simple electric motor, a solid-state controller and boxes to carry the batteries. Lead acid batteries are making way for the new generation of lithium-ion batteries, which are not only safer and more efficient, but considerably lighter. This makes small hatchbacks and even motorbikes viable conversion candidates.


EV conversion specialists are popping up all over the country. Some, like Victoria’s Blade Electric Vehicles, specialise in converting one brand of late-model car, while others convert older vehicles that would have otherwise gone to the scrap heap. Many people carry out the majority of work themselves but may call on assistance to do more specialised tasks like wiring or welding. Most conversion parts can be sourced locally or imported from the US, where EVs are big business. A new breed of proactive motorists is already travelling silently along with the traffic, blissfully ignoring the rising petrol prices and queues on cheap fuel days. Enthusiast groups like the Australian Electric Vehicle Association have nationwide branches. Here you can find people passionate about EV development, all too willing to share their years of experience converting cars.


A conversion can be tailored to suit the owner’s needs and budget, from sports cars that will silently rocket away from most things on the road, to sedate sedans that use zero energy sitting in traffic. A basic converted EV should have a range of around 100km and a top speed of 100km/h. New battery technology is extending these boundaries, and with features like regenerative braking, you can actually generate electricity braking down hills and pulling up at stop signs. Most EVs are used as a second car for work commuting, shopping or taking the kids to school. The energy used charging an EV is comparable to running a small fridge and it can be charged at night off-peak. Unlike fuel cell-powered cars that require compressed hydrogen, the only infrastructure needed to run an electric car is an extension cord and a power point. No more oil changes, broken exhaust or coolant leaks. No rough idle or hard-to-start days. Just silent, clean, zero-emission motoring.


At present there are no government incentives to convert to electric, although there’s a substantial rebate to convert cars to gas. Drivers of zero-emissions cars in England enjoy free on-street parking, no annual road tax and no congestion charge. It’s incentives like these that will encourage motorists to convert. Discounted registrations for EVs are offered by some State Road Authorities, but more incentives offered to individuals and businesses by our state and federal governments could see the tide build.


The recently released Jamison Report highlights a disturbing reticence on the part of the Australian government when it comes to tough decisions about climate change and our dependence on fossil fuels. Motor vehicles may only be responsible for around eight percent of the country’s carbon emissions, but that’s a figure that can easily be reduced. Our vast reserves of compressed natural gas (CNG) and sugar-based ethanol could be used as a short-term solution. And again, tax incentives for alternative technologies and a reduction in subsidies for fossil fuel industries would seem the most prudent course.


The US Department of Energy is offering $30 million in funding to companies developing plug-in hybrids; we gave $70 million to a manufacturer who was going to build hybrid cars here anyway. The Governments of Denmark and Israel, through Project Better Place, have made a commitment to replace the majority of their country’s cars with EVs. China built a fleet of economical, pollution-free electric buses for the Beijing Olympics. We were offered a similar New Zealand-built fleet to use during Sydney 2000, but the Minister for the Olympics turned it down, preferring to showcase the ECommodore. This one-off hybrid Holden Commodore, jointly developed by GMH and the CSIRO, showed to the world that Australia was actively researching hybrid electric-powered vehicles.


Changing to EVs may be just a small piece in the overall picture, but it’s a choice we may soon need to make. We won’t need much: a generation of politicians looking past their terms in office and making decisions that benefit everyone in the long term; automotive businesses that consider future environmental impact, not just yearly profits for shareholders; and a travelling public, all of us, embracing new technologies and making some changes to old, unsustainable habits.


The automotive industry is heading towards some challenging times, but the final outcome will be worth it. Electric Vehicles won’t replace all our transport needs, but it’s a logical progression towards taming CO2 emissions, reducing our wasteful use of non-renewable resources, and keeping the planet liveable for future generations.

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