Auto Tech: Our electrical future auto tech
Ford Transit Connect Electric. Click image to enlarge

Article by Jim Kerr; photo by Jil McIntosh

Long past are the days when a hybrid vehicle was a rarity. Today, you can find hybrid vehicles operating in every part of the country and in all weather conditions. True, they are not as efficient at minus 40 degrees Celsius driving in Winnipeg as they are at plus five degrees in balmy Niagara Falls, but the vehicles do operate well in all conditions, and even in cold winters can save drivers money on fuel.

Now we are moving into the next generation of vehicles: electrics and plug-in hybrids.

The concept of pure electric vehicles is relatively easy to understand. A battery provides the energy. An electric motor provides the propulsion, and we need to recharge the battery before it goes dead. If you forget, then you are looking at a tow or a very long extension cord! Actually, the long extension cord wouldn’t work well because the longer the path of current, the bigger the conductor needs to be to overcome internal resistance, so a tow is the only real solution.

Fortunately, electric vehicles are also designed with gauge displays that show your range dependent on your actual driving style and power usage, so you shouldn’t run out of power, but then drivers shouldn’t run out of gas either, and some do.

Electric vehicles excel at short trip driving, which is what most of us do everyday driving back and forth from work and the grocery store or out to a sports event with the children. Vehicles such as Nissan’s Leaf, Mitsubishi’s i-MiEV and Ford’s Transit Connect and Focus will be some of the first electric vehicles on the road (the Leaf is already for sale in limited quantities) but industry experts predict there could be as many as 12 electric vehicles available by the end of 2012.

Hybrids have been around long enough that most of us understand that these use a combination of gasoline power and electric power, although in the future we could see other combinations such as diesel and electric or gas and fuel cells – another form of electric energy other than a battery. The advantage of a hybrid is that it will offer good fuel economy around town operating mainly on electric energy, but has a range only limited by access to gasoline filling stations to operate the gasoline motor at higher speeds. Even this is changing, with Ford now introducing its next generation electric systems on the 2013 Fusion that can move the vehicle up to 100 km/h on electricity alone.

So what is a plug-in hybrid? In simple terms, it is a hybrid vehicle that can be plugged into the power grid to recharge the battery rather than relying only on the gasoline engine to charge the battery. I would classify the Chevy Volt as a plug-in hybrid because it can connect to the electrical grid to recharge the battery but it also has a gasoline engine that provides power for extended driving. I am sure GM would disagree with me and call the Volt an electric car because it is actually moved almost totally by the electric motor, but it is still using a hybrid of power sources.

Plug-in hybrids will play a much bigger role in the near future, and one of the differences between them and a regular hybrid, other than the ability to plug it in, is the use of more powerful battery packs. The bigger battery gives the plug-in hybrid a longer range on electric operation only, and the gasoline engine will mainly only be used when the battery is depleted or if you are travelling long distances. Even then, if you had the option of plugging in every time you stopped for coffee or a break, you may be able to drive almost totally on electricity.

To give you an idea of the savings possible with this type of vehicle, fuel economy for them is rated as MPGe or Miles Per Gallon equivalency. These are U.S. figures, but Ford estimates that at current average power rates the MPGe will be 100 MPGe for the 2013 Fusion Energy. If you converted that directly to Imperial gallons, that would be 125 MPG! However, converting isn’t that easy. We will have to wait and see how Transport Canada rates them, but you can be sure the fuel economy will be good.