Trends: The electrification of the automobile

In an industry where rapidly changing demographics, shifting global economies and tightening environmental regulations are forcing the automobile to change faster than ever, the typical Canadian new car buyer that’s in the market for the first time in six to seven years may not be aware of what’s available with the latest models in regards to body styles, features or technologies. This series hopes to educate new vehicle buyers on these new trends.

Over the past decade, the electrification of the automobile has been a trendy topic. And if you’re in the market for a new vehicle, you may have a few questions about these new electric vehicles — or EVs.

1997 GM EV1

1997 GM EV1

To begin with, the electrification of the automobile didn’t start with recent EVs like the Toyota Prius gasoline-electric hybrid or the pure-electric Nissan Leaf. Man has been using electricity to power modes of transportation since the mid-19th century. As far as we know, the Scotsman, Robert Anderson, built the first electric vehicles used to transport humans in the 1830s. By the early 1890s, while there were a few gas-powered cars chugging around, the majority of automobiles in North America were powered by electricity via on-board batteries. But a number of factors made these EVs virtually extinct.

For starters, there was the continuing expansion of roads and highways (that offered motorists a greater distance to travel than the few kilometres early EVs were capable of). Then there was the discovery of massive oil fields in the United States (that suddenly made gasoline affordable). And finally, an American named Henry Ford (who, by 1913, was able to sell his gas-powered Model T for far less than any electric car) relegated the first EVs to the dustbin of automotive propulsion, alongside other early alternatives to gas, like steam-powered cars.

Nissan LEAF

Nissan’s LEAF and the Renault ZOE top 100,000 sales across the globe
Handout photo, Nissan

For the remainder of the 20th century, the cheap-to-buy, cheap-to-run and easy-to-maintain gasoline-powered vehicles ruled. However, since the late 1960s, concerns over the harm emissions from fossil fuel vehicles have on our planet, plus wars fought over oil rights and diminishing global oil reserves, have meant a resurgence in the exploration of alternative automotive power sources. However, while everything from nuclear to tidal to solar to manure to the air we breath have been considered to replace fossil fuels in cars, EVs have been the most commercially accepted by new car buyers to date.

Unlike the early-19th century EVs, today’s electric cars come in three main forms: non-plug-in and plug-in gasoline-electric hybrids, pure-electric and hydrogen-electric. And while the low-volume, 1996 to 1998 General Motors EV1 plug-in EV was seen as one of the first series produced modern EVs, the current electrification of the automobile arguably started with the original 1997 Toyota Prius non-plug-in gasoline-electric “hybrid”, first going on-sale in Canada in 2001. Now in its third-generation, with over 1.3 million copies sold worldwide as of the end of last year, the sales success of the Prius hybrid has become an icon of the modern EV.

Rumour has it the next-generation Chevrolet Volt will ride on a new front-wheel-drive platform.

Rumour has it the next-generation Chevrolet Volt will ride on a new front-wheel-drive platform.
Handout, GM

The 10% to 30% savings in fuel hybrids like the Prius enjoy over gas-only cars come mainly from an additional electric motor that “aids” the gas-powered engine. Energized by on-board batteries that are charged either directly by the gas engine or via regenerative braking systems, a hybrid’s e-motor adds torque so that a smaller displacement gas engine can be used and also allows the EV to shut down when idling, say at a stoplight.

Less practical and popular than gasoline electric hybrids are plug-in hybrid electric vehicles — or PHEVs. Typically, PHEVs have larger battery packs than hybrids that require an external power source to be fully charged, and can offer a limited amount of pure-electric motoring. Some PHEVs, like the Chevrolet Volt/Cadillac ELR, rely on electric power first, with an onboard gas-powered generator to charge the batteries for an “extended range” of driving. In theory, today’s pure-electric vehicles, like the Nissan Leaf, are most reminiscent of the early-19th century forbearers.

With no gas engine or generator, a pure EV relies solely on electricity stored in its batteries to power the vehicle. Over the past decade, a handful of pure-EVs made by Chrysler, Ford, GM, Honda, Nissan and Toyota were produced to meet California legislative requirements. But the 2010 Nissan Leaf became the first modern mass-produced pure EV, and the most popular. To date, over 100,000 copies have been sold worldwide through mid-January this year. In addition to the Nissan, other pure EVs in showrooms include the Mitsubishi i-MiEV, Smart ForTwo, Fiat 500, Chevrolet Spark, Ford Focus, and Tesla Model S, with more arriving monthly.

Mitsubishi i-MiEV

Mitsubishi i-MiEV
Graeme Fletcher, Postmedia News

The final category is hydrogen fuel cell EVs. In simple terms, these vehicles are powered by an onboard fuel cell that converts hydrogen and oxygen into water, and produces electricity that is stored in vehicle’s onboard arteries. Many automakers have produced hydrogen fuel cell EVs. Some have even run limited-volume demonstration models. But the lack of a substantial hydrogen-filling infrastructure limits the commercial viability. As of today, no automakers are selling fuel cell EVs in Canada.

Despite the lower fuel costs and “feel good” emotions from burning less fossil fuel while driving, modern EVs still have a few drawbacks. Both hybrids and pure EVs cost more than a gas-only car to buy up front. And with a typical 100 to 200 km driving range between battery charges and the extra time it takes to charge (even with so-called “quick-chargers”) pure EVs are less convenient than hybrids or gas-only vehicles.

So now that you’re up-to-speed on the latest in 21st-century EV’s, you may be wondering what’s out there to buy. You may be surprised how many new EV models are on the market.

A Toyota employee demonstrates the charging of a Prius plug-in hybrid in this 2011 file photo. Sales of electric vehicles in Europe have been bolstered primarily by massive incentives.

A Toyota employee demonstrates the charging of a Prius plug-in hybrid in this 2011 file photo. Sales of electric vehicles in Europe have been bolstered primarily by massive incentives.
Kimimasa Mayama, Bloomberg

Riding the success of the Prius, Toyota and its Lexus brand sell and offer the most EVs in Canada. And by 2020, the Japanese automaker has stated it would like to offer an EV in every model range. But most automakers — from Acura to Volkswagen — offer EVs of some kind, from city cars like the Smart ForTwo to the forthcoming BMW X5 PHEV large SUV.

With analysts from Britain’s BP oil company recently predicting that global reserves of oil and gas have only a few more decades to last, it’s easy to see the second coming of EVs lasting longer than the first 19th century versions.

Perhaps the best proof that the electrification of the automobile is here to stay is the fact supercar makers like Ferrari and McLaren are offering high-performance EVs to get a boost in performance.

About John LeBlanc