Tesla sedan concept
Tesla Roadster
Tesla sedan concept, top, and Tesla Roadster. Click image to enlarge

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By Jil McIntosh

Back when the automobile was young, many cars ran solely on electricity. At a time when you had to manually crank a gasoline engine to start it, battery-powered models offered the ease of simply pushing a button.

Cadillac’s introduction of an effective gasoline engine self-starter in 1912 changed all that. But today, concerns about fuel prices, oil reserves and the environment have automakers looking at a variety of vehicles that use electricity either alongside or instead of gasoline.

A few are already here: hybrid vehicles are common on our streets, and some Americans are now driving the Tesla all-electric roadster (expected to come to Canada later this year) and the Honda FCX Clarity Fuel Cell Vehicle, offered on lease in limited numbers in California. Scheduled to arrive in the near future are the all-electric Nissan Leaf and the Chevrolet Volt extended-range sedan, while Ford, Volvo, Mitsubishi, Toyota and others all have alternative vehicles in test projects.

In many cases, the holdup isn’t the vehicle itself, but the battery. Energy storage technology hasn’t kept pace, and a major hurdle has been in developing a battery that’s lighter-weight, longer-range, and not prohibitively expensive.

As with all vehicles, there isn’t a single “one size fits all,” and if you’re considering an alternative-fuel model, you need to know how they work, and also understand their limitations.

Honda FCX Clarity
Honda FCX Clarity. Click image to enlarge

The hybrid models available today – cars like the Toyota Prius, Honda Insight, and hybrid versions of the Ford Fusion, Nissan Altima, Chevrolet Silverado and others – don’t get plugged in. Instead, they capture energy from the gasoline engine and regenerative braking system to charge the battery. Depending on driving conditions, they run on gasoline, electricity, or a combination of the two.

Plug-in electric hybrids (PHEVs) are coming, but they’re not here yet. These can be plugged into a wall outlet to charge the battery, dramatically reducing the amount of gasoline needed. If you can’t recharge it right away, not to worry: once the charge depletes, the car works like a regular self-charging hybrid. Battery-electric vehicles (BEVs), such as the Nissan Leaf, run only on electricity and produce no tailpipe emissions (naturally, they don’t even have tailpipes). They’re primarily for urban drivers whose daily commute doesn’t take them further than the battery’s range before recharging.

Nissan is already on board with Vancouver, and has undertaken a partnership with the city, the province and BC Hydro to launch the Leaf in 2011, ahead of other provinces and in advance of the car’s 2012 global roll-out. The venture will also explore the establishment of a charging infrastructure in Vancouver.

Nissan LEAF
Nissan LEAF. Click image to enlarge

Extended-range vehicles, such as the Volt, get plugged in and then run emission-free on electricity alone. When the battery runs down, a small gasoline engine starts up. Instead of powering the wheels, it acts like a generator to supply electricity to the car’s electric motor, so the driver isn’t stranded. Fuel cell vehicles, such as Honda’s FCX Clarity, also run on electricity, produced on-board by the fuel cell from hydrogen. Their only tailpipe emission is water vapour, but their obvious drawback is that few drivers have a hydrogen refilling station nearby. British Columbia has a project underway to build a “Hydrogen Highway” from Vancouver to Whistler, and Honda’s prototype solar-powered station might one day produce hydrogen at drivers’ homes, but widespread adoption of these vehicles will be strictly limited by refuelling facilities. BMW has also built several dual-fuel demonstration cars that run on both gasoline and hydrogen, but unlike fuel cell vehicles, these burn hydrogen in a conventional engine. They drive like regular cars, but in hydrogen mode, they emit only water vapour.

While all these have environmental benefits, and some are scheduled for sale within the next few years, they’re still expected to remain niche vehicles for some time to come. Above all, price will be a major issue. The best you’ll get right now is estimates: no automaker has announced how much any of these upcoming vehicles will cost, but expect them to be pricy, at least initially.

Chevrolet Volt
Chevrolet Volt. Click image to enlarge

“All automakers realize that they need to have an environmental position in the marketplace, and the best way to do that is to have these types of vehicles on offer,” says Ryan Robinson, automotive industry practice leader for J.D. Power & Associates in Canada. “I’m not sure that consumers are going to be rushing headlong into electric cars anytime soon.”

Even though hybrid vehicles have been available here for a decade, they only account for a small percentage of vehicle sales; J.D. Power’s sales data for the last two years indicates a high of only 1.8 per cent of the Canadian market.

Early adopters of electric vehicles will undoubtedly be environmentally conscious, but in many cases, a desire to lessen one’s carbon footprint must be carefully measured against the realities of infrastructure. While projects for charging and refuelling are underway in locations across the continent, those buying PHEVs or battery vehicles will need to be able to easily recharge them – meaning that, at least initially, their most likely audience will live in single-family homes.

“For fully electric vehicles, (J.D. Power’s) forecast is very, very minor in the foreseeable future,” Robinson says. “These are halo cars. If a company positions itself as having an environmental vehicle in the fleet, it starts to position itself in the mind of the Canadian consumer in regards to environmental sustainability.

“Whether it’s a PHEV, or extended range vehicle, or even a diesel or biodiesel vehicle, it’s a competitive battlefield out there right now, and I think it’s a mistake to think there is one clear winner going forward. My bet is a combination of these alternative fuels and environmental systems that wins the day in the end.”

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