This is part of IEEE Spectrum's special report: What's Wrong—What's Next: 2003 Technology Forecast & Review.
The starter motor-generator in TOYOTA'S CROWN MILD HYBRID improves fuel economy and lowers emissions
42-V AUTOMOTIVE ELECTRICAL SYSTEMS, the coming standard for cars, are critical to the operation of mild hybrid vehicles
The proprietary POLYMER ELECTROLYTE FUEL-CELL STACK that powers Toyota's fuel-cell hybrid car holds enough compressed hydrogen to run its 80-kW motor for 290 km between refuelings
We've been told that electric cars would cure our passionate yet troubled relationship with the automobile. With their superior efficiency and cleaner emissions, we could keep the good things, freedom and mobility, and limit the bad, pollutants and oil dependency.
For six years now, electric vehicles have been available in a variety of configurations and styles. But like an earnest yet boring suitor, they've been mostly spurned.
The courtship began in 1996, when General Motors Corp. (GM) leased its first electric vehicle (EV-1) to drivers in Arizona and California. Disappointingly few went out on the road: for example, in 1999, GM leased just 137 EV-1s.
The company pulled the plug on the car early last year. Though expected, it was a ringing blow to the EV industry after a series of jabs, including the discontinuance of the Ford Ranger EV, and the Nissan Altra EV. Also last year, Ford Motor Co. put its Th!nk Mobility subsidiary up for sale. Ford had bought Th!nk, maker of a two-seat plastic-bodied electric hatchback, in 1999, and had pumped US $100 million into it.
Though so-called pure EVs were battered in 2002, the year was fateful in more ways than one. The good news is that hybrid EVs (HEVs) picked up the slack from the declining pure EVs. Hybrid sales were surprisingly strong, carving out what seems to be a growing niche in the United States, Europe, and Asia.
What went wrong with EVs?
The differences between pure and hybrid EVs go a long way to explaining their crisscrossing trajectories. Consider the EV-1: it perished amid a storm of finger-pointing and conspiracy theories, clouding the issue of why it failed. It was widely rumored that GM lost money on each EV-1 produced, and proponents of the car insist GM took to subverting its own product to minimize its losses, discouraging people who were interested in it. GM denies the accusation, and says it was merely a matter of supply and demand: too little of the latter to justify the former.
Regardless of the contretemps, it is clear that EVs suffer from limitations that were simply unacceptable to the average motorist. Their worst deficiency is range: EVs on the road today can go only about 80 km between charges. A full recharge takes at least several hours. And the batteries, usually bigger versions of the lead-acid type found in all cars, perform poorly in cold weather, and have none too long a life. Owners have to replace the batteries periodically, at a cost of $10 000 or more.
Hybrid-electric vehicles get around these problems. In their most popular configuration, the small gas engine helps propel the vehicle only at cruising speeds above, say, 30 km/h, and only operates in the narrow rpm range over which it delivers maximum torque and is most efficient. On long trips, the gas engine recharges the car's battery pack as needed, using the electric motor as a generator. Recharging on the fly extends a hybrid's range to that of a conventional car. At higher speeds or on hills, the motor assists the engine, pitching in extra power.