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Green Car Time Machine - archive articles from Green Car Journal.

As GM was taking a high-profile with its Impact electric vehicle prototype in the U.S., Nissan was showcasing the marque’s FEV (Future Electric Vehicle) that GCJ editors saw in Japan. Over the next several years, Nissan continued its electric vehicle development and showed its FEV-II, a less sexy but more practical electric vehicle prototype. As its program evolved, the FEV series was dropped in favor of other electric and hybrid electric vehicle studies. Still, the design of the initial FEV in particular resonates as we look back at early electric vehicle programs. This article is reprinted just as it originally ran in Green Car Journal’s December 1995 issue to share perspective on Nissan’s early electric vehicle development efforts.

Excerpted from December 1995 Issue: The Nissan FEV, which debuted at the Tokyo Motor Show in late 1991, was a milestone electric vehicle concept for this automaker. It showed considerable thought as to what an electric vehicle could and should be, from its stylish exterior and handsome interior to an innovative powertrain and quick-charge system that garnered substantial world-wide attention.

Side view of Nissan Future Electric Vehicle concept car.

FEV a Quick Charge Electric Vehicle

As they say, that was then, and this is now. Nissan has now provided a follow-though by introducing its latest electric vehicle iteration, the FEV-II. This model is a bit less sporty than the original but definitely appropriate for the coming electric vehicle market. Somewhat in the vein of Volkswagen's Beetle-like Concept1, the FEV-II is handsome, rounded, and sure to be popular on the auto show circuit, and maybe even the highway.

The four-passenger (2+2) coupe's design is the handiwork of Nissan Design International, located in Southern California. It features a flat floor so batteries can be secreted beneath without infringing upon passenger comfort or space – a nice touch.

Nissan is once again credited with offering advanced thinking in its electric vehicle concepts. The FEV-II uses the advanced lithium-ion batteries this automaker is developing in conjunction with Sony. Top speed of the 3120-pound car is said to be 75 mph, while single-charge driving range is a claimed 125 miles. The EV can be charged from any standard electrical outlet via a detachable charging system.

Nissan FEV II electric vehicle concept rear view.

FEV-II Uses Lithium-Ion Batteries

Nissan is among many automakers who are actively working to develop viable electric vehicles to meet the 1998 ZEV mandate in California and other states. While GCJ editors have not yet road tested Nissan's new FEV-II, behind-the-wheel time has been spent in the automaker's Avenir demonstration EV. Not surprisingly, GCJ testers found it to be quite a capable electric vehicle with good acceleration and handling, indicating a great deal of sophistication in Nissan's EV development program. This electric station wagon also exhibited a high level of comfort – surprising from an electrically retrofitted production vehicle.

The automaker has been field testing 15 Avenir electric vehicles with Kyushu Electric Power Company, a Japanese utility which helped develop the electric variant. The station wagon is reportedly capable of a 50 to 100 mile single charge driving range with a top speed of 70 mph.

Green Car Time Machine - archive articles from Green Car Journal.

The world’s automakers have long pursued diverse alternative fuel technologies for good reason. Simply, the future of transportation may well unfold in surprising ways. Among the many advanced fuels explored has been hydrogen, and in fact, even amid today’s focus on battery electric power there continues to be significant interest in this zero-carbon fuel. Here’s a look at the amazing developmental work that BMW was conducting on hydrogen vehicles 18 years ago, as documented in Green Car Journal at the time. We lend perspective on the BMW H2R hydrogen vehicle’s evolutionary importance by presenting this article just as it ran in Green Car Journal’s Winter 2004 issue.

Excerpted from Winter 2004 Issue: In the quest for environmental leadership, there’s often a delicate balancing act as designers strive to create cars that are environmentally positive, yet offer the features drivers most desire. Clearly, core values must remain in focus during the process to retain the values and identity that distinguish carmakers from their peers.

BMW H2R hydrogen race car in shop.

Hydrogen a Focus at BMW

This has been BMW’s mission over the past decade as it has pursued hydrogen cars and the performance to go with them. You can’t, after all, lay claim to the title “ultimate driving machine” if your zero-to-sixty times are glacial and you slog through corners, even if powered by clean-burning hydrogen.

For years, BMW has been refining the liquid hydrogen fueled sedans that it has placed in field trials on multiple continents, championing the use of hydrogen in conventional engines in lieu of the more popular fuel cell. These hydrogen vehicles have improved over the years, making the most of renewable hydrogen fuel in their internal combustion powerplants.

BMW H2R hydrogen car on race track.

Record Setting BMW H2R

Now, this automaker is putting its stamp on the hydrogen record book with adaptations of this hydrogen engine technology, fielding a land speed record car that has passed the 185 mph mark and claimed an additional eight records as well. Along the way it has achieved recognition by the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile as the fastest hydrogen car in the world.

A distinction achieved at the high-speed Miramas Proving Grounds in France, BMW’s 285 horsepower H2R hydrogen car was propelled to 100 km/h in about 6 seconds, setting records in the flying-start kilometer; standing-start ½ kilometer, kilometer, and 10 kilometers; flying-start mile; and standing start 1/8 mile, ¼ mile, mile, and 10 miles. The record car was piloted by BMW works drivers Alfred Hilger, Jörg Weidinger, and Günther Weber, who took turns at the wheel of the H2R during their record-breaking session.

Cutaway view of BMW H2R hydrogen race car.

Powered by a V-12 Hydrogen Engine

The sleek and imposing car was conceived, designed, and developed by the automaker’s subsidiary, BMW Forschung und Technik GmbH. Its carbon fiber exterior was designed by DesignworksUSA, the California-based strategic design consultancy owned by BMW Group. This is the same design house that worked on the BMW E1 and E2 electric car prototypes in the early 1990s.

This BMW is motivated by a 6.0-liter V-12 engine modified to run on hydrogen, a gasoline powerplant normally found in the automaker’s 760i model. Among the engine modifications is a fuel injection system adapted to handle hydrogen, which uses injection valves integrated into the intake manifolds. Special materials are also used for the combustion chambers. Liquid hydrogen is carried in a vacuum-insulated, double-wall tank that’s fitted next to the driver’s seat.

Front of hydrogen BMW H2R developmental car.

Is the H2R just a whimsical exercise? Nope, it’s part of a larger vision. In fact, BMW plans to launch a dual-fuel 7 Series that will run on hydrogen or gasoline, sometime during the production cycle of the present model, surely at a price far lower than that of a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle. Exercises like the H2R help pave the way.

Green Car Time Machine - archive articles from Green Car Journal.

One of the more interesting electric cars in the early 1990s was the German-designed BMW E1 and then the U.S.-designed E2, innovative yet mainstream looking vehicles that illustrated BMW electric vehicle aspirations. The E2 was slightly more compact than the futuristic-leaning BMW i3 ‘megacity’ electric car that was to come some 25 years later. It was 8 inches shorter, 6 inches narrower, and 5 inches lower than the i3, plus 700 pounds lighter. The E2’s ‘hot’ sodium-sulfur battery was projected to deliver a 161 mile driving range, about 8 miles farther than the i3. To enlighten readers on BMW’s early electric vehicle development efforts, we’re sharing the following article from the Green Car Journal archives as it originally appeared in the January 1992 issue.

Excerpted from January 1992 issue: BMW’s E1, an electric concept vehicle now undergoing road testing in Europe, has just been joined by a new U.S. variant. Introduced at the Greater Los Angeles Auto Show, BMW’s new E2 prototype appears mainstream enough to be a mid-‘90s model. Its appearance is somewhat reminiscent of both a downsized minivan and sedan, leaning toward the look of Mitsubishi’s new 1992 Expo and LRV, and the Mitsu-built Eagle Summit.

E2: A Coming BMW Electric Vehicle?

Is this the precursor of a production model? We asked Robert Mitchel, product information manager of BMW of North America. “It’s a concept car,” Mitchell shares, “although it is fairly close to what a production car could be. Rather than taking a current 3 Series and modifying it as we have in the past, we’ve built this solely with the intent of designing a car that would satisfy consumer needs and potential legislation.”

BMW E2 electric vehicle illustration.

Among the important consumer needs to be served is a handsome package, and the E2 does provide that. Lower ground effects panels, distinctive BMW grillework, and an aero exterior are distinct design features. While the initial E1 was designed in Germany by BMW Technik GmbH, the automaker turned to California-based Designworks/USA (which is 50 percent owned by BMW AG) for the U.S. version.

Designing the BMW E2

According to Designworks/USA president Chuck Pelly, the studio’s intent was to give the E2 a formidable stance, with strong wheel flares and tires moved outboard as much as possible. A more substantial hood and bumper system were also integrated. “It’s a totally new body,” adds Pelly, “that’s more traditionally BMW styled, with less reversals” than the original E1. It’s also longer, wider, and lower with a smoother overall shape.

Inside the E2 variant is seating for four with storage behind the rear seat. A rounded dash integrates driver and passenger side airbags and a speedometer, range indicator, and clock. Forward/reverse controls and an electric handbrake are also provided. Designworks/USA is currently working on a completely new and more luxurious interior for the E2.

Illustration of BMW E2 electric vehicle interior.

Efficient But Not BMW Quick

Both rear drive models use a new Unique Mobility [UQM Technologies] brushless DC motor mounted at the rear axle. The 45 hp, motor is efficient, offering very respectable power by EV standards. But the E2’s acceleration numbers point to fairly sedate performance when compared to internal combustion vehicles.

Bottom line: Could the E2 sell if it were produced as a mid-‘90s model? Green Car Journal editors believe so, with a few caveats. Acceleration is passable for an EV utilizing current state-of-the-art technology. But a projected 15.6 second 0-50 mpg (80 kph) time may not be acceptable to the mainstream BMW buyer who expects sporting performance from his driving machine – even if the E2 does exhibit a typically upscale BMW image.

BMW-style performance is possible by combining more potent electric propulsion with the E2’s advantageous curb weight. Perhaps integrating twin UQM motors would do the job (90 hp total), or using an advanced generation motor available closer to the time the E2 could make it to market. The LRV’s 1.8-liter engine supplies 113 hp total, 1 hp less than the GM Impact prototype’s twin electric motors … so electric propulsion can offer the level of highway performance driver’s have come to expect. It doesn’t seem such a stretch to conjure visions of contemporary BMW performance from an ideally configured E2.

Technical specifications for the E2 BMW electric vehicle..
Green Car Time Machine - archive articles from Green Car Journal.

Everyone is familiar with Tesla these days. In its early years, though, Tesla was just another aspiring automaker with big dreams and enormous challenges, and at times, seemingly insurmountable financial hurdles. That’s all changed and Tesla is now viewed as a serious competitor by the world’s legacy automakers. Today there’s the Tesla Model 3, Model S, Model X, Model Y, and Tesla Semi. Coming up will be a second-generation Tesla Roadster and Tesla's highly-anticipated Cybertruck. Sixteen years ago, Green Car Journal featured the company’s original electric Roadster and shared the emergence of Tesla as a potential competitor in the electric vehicle field. We present this article just as it ran in Green Car Journal’s Fall 2006 issue to lend context to the ever-unfolding Tesla story.

Excerpted from Fall 2006 issue: Only giant corporations have the resources to develop competent, competitive automobiles, and only internal combustion-powered cars offer the performance and practicality required by today’s drivers. The team at Tesla Motors is tasked with turning these conventions onto their respective heads…and they’re doing it. 

Tesla Roadster cutaway illustration.

Lithium-Ion Battery Pack

From its founding in 2003, most of the company’s efforts have gone into developing the heart of the car, the Energy Storage System (ESS). Some 6,831 lithium-ion cells – each slightly larger than a typical AA battery – are contained inside a large enclosure that fits neatly behind the Roadster’s two seats. The batteries are liquid cooled and attached to an elaborate array of sensors and microprocessors that maintain charge balance between the cells. Tesla chose a commonly used lithium-ion cell so that battery development will continue to drive down the cost and improve performance.

Also developed internally is the motor, which features remarkably high output for its small size: 248 hp and 180 lbs-ft of torque. The motor acts as a generator whenever the driver lifts off the throttle, providing an ‘engine braking’ effect similar to conventional cars, while also recharging the batteries.

Tesla Roadster driving on highway.

Tesla Roadster has Lotus Influence

The Roadster’s chassis is based on that of the Lotus Elise sports car, but lengthened and beefed up to handle the Roadster’s roughly 350 pounds of extra weight, largely attributable to the battery pack. The body design was penned by the Lotus Design Studio, and final assembly is completed at the Lotus manufacturing facility in England.

Along with a top speed of 130 mph, the company claims a zero to 60 mph time of four seconds, on par with some of the world’s top supercars. But the real test for an electric car is range. Tesla says the batteries will last for 250 miles of pure highway driving, and can be recharged using Tesla’s home-based charging system in under four hours. The batteries are expected to last five years or 100,000 miles, after which time they’ll have 80 percent of their original capacity. In terms of real-world practicality, these are some of the most impressive numbers we’ve seen from an electric car.

Behind the wheel of the Tesla Roadster.

High Performance, High Price

There’s one more crucial number: price. The Tesla Roadster starts at $89,000 and tops out at $100,000. That’s steep, but not wholly unrealistic given the level of performance the car achieves.

Tesla Motors thinks there’s plenty of demand for their car, and early signs look good: the first 100 Roadsters were snapped up right away. It will be interesting to see if that kind of buying fervor continues as Tesla opens its direct sales and service centers, first in Northern and Southern California, followed by Chicago, New York, and Miami. The company begins the first production run of 600 to 800 cars next spring, maxing out at 2500 per year after three years if demand holds.

Tesla Roadster with blurred background.

Tesla Roadster an Ideal Launch Vehicle

Plans are already in the works for the next model, a 4-door sedan in the vein of Toyota’s Prius. Tesla’s Mike Harrigan thinks that in five to six years, the cost of batteries will have been cut in half – the Roadster’s pack costs about $25,000 today – and will be capable of providing a family sedan with a range of 500 miles, double that of the Roadster.

The Tesla Roadster may be the perfect weapon to launch the Tesla brand. It’s eye-catching and fast and targeted at a segment that can realistically command high prices, thereby helping to absorb the high cost of the batteries and high-tech control system. The next step, and perhaps the greater challenge, is to drive this high concept down to the mainstream. We’ll be watching intently.  

Rear view of Tesla Roadstery.
Green Car Time Machine - archive articles from Green Car Journal.

Toyota’s path to producing all-electric vehicles has been a long one, highlighted by the RAV4 EV model it fielded to fleets in response to the California Air Resources Board’s Zero Emission Mandate in the 1990s. Green Car Journal editors test drove variations of this small electric SUV during those early years of the modern electric vehicle’s development. We were impressed by Toyota’s exploration of the potential market for battery EVs at the time. To lend perspective on this automaker’s electric vehicle development, we present this article on the Toyota RAV4 EV pulled from our archives, just as it ran in our January 2002 issue.

Excerpted from January 2002 issue: Many thought the RAV4 EV – the electrically motivated compact sport utility vehicle from Toyota – was gone, the victim of a completed agreement with the State of California in the late 1990s. But it’s not. Toyota Motor Sales USA is bringing the sporty little EV back, this time making it available to retail customers in California, not just fleets. Sales are slated to begin in February 2002.

Rear view of Toyota RAV4 EV.

Fleet Service First

RAV4 EVs made their mark during the late-1990s as hundreds of these were leased and placed in fleet service. Some 700 of the 900 RAV4 EVs were in use in California. That occurred because of requirements imposed on automakers, including Toyota, by the California Air Resources Board, the result of the Memoranda of Agreement that accompanied postponement of the 1998 Zero Emission Vehicle Mandate.

That was then, this is now. No mandate exists this year, although all automakers are feeling the pressure of the impending 2003 ZEV rule that will require major automakers to sell large numbers of EVs to meet a 2 percent threshold. In retrospect, maybe Toyota’s move to bring the RAV4 EV back isn’t surprising after all.

RAV4 EV Powertrain

The RAV4 EV is powered by a maintenance-free, permanent magnet motor that produces 67 horsepower (50kW) and 140 lb.-ft. torque, providing an electronically governed top speed of 79 mph. Front wheel drive is via a single speed transaxle, with reverse provided by backward motor rotation.

A sealed, 288 volt nickel-metal-hydride (NiMH) battery pack provides energy to the motor. This pack, comprised of 24 12-volt modules, is located beneath the SUV’s floor to minimize intrusion into the passenger compartment and optimize the vehicle’s center of gravity. Charging this pack requires five to six hours.

Driving the Toyota RAV4 EV

Stopping power is supplied by an anti-lock and regenerative braking system that utilizes solid aluminum front discs and steel rear drums. The regenerative system returns energy to the batteries whenever the RAV4 EV is coasting or braking.

Time spent behind the wheel of the RAV4 EV has shown this vehicle to be fun, dependable, and capable of fulfilling most daily missions with ease, so long as they fit within the vehicle’s range capabilities. Since an electric motor produces peak torque immediately, the RAV4 EV offers good off-the-line acceleration but a rather modest 0-60 mph elapsed time of about 18 seconds. Driving range is between 80 to 100 miles per charge.

Efficient Heat Pump HVAC

Seating for five and ample space for cargo is provided in this five-door compact SUV. The interior offers the high level of function and comfort expected of a Toyota product, featuring such standard amenities as split fold-down rear seats, heated driver and front-passenger seats, adjustable-height front seatbelt anchors, and dual front airbags. Convenience is well accommodated by a heated windshield, rear-window wiper and defogger, and power door mirrors, windows, and door locks. An AM/FM stereo system with CD provides the needed tunes. Rear seat heaters and traction control are available options for cold climate use.

One of the advantages of electric vehicles is their use of heat-pump type air conditioning, an innovation that allows climate control functions to operate while a vehicle is turned off and parked. RAV4 EV drivers have the ability to set a timer and adjust their vehicle’s pre-heat or pre-cool function so the SUV’s interior is at a desired comfort level regardless of outside temperatures.

RAV4 EV Priced at $42,000

Toyota says the RAV4 EV will have a rather lofty suggested retail price of $42,000, although a $9,000 California Air Resources Board incentive and $3,000 federal tax credit brings the price of entry down to $30,000. This includes an in-home charger. Three introductory lease options will be offered that also include the use of the charger.

Every major metro market in California will soon find a participating RAV4 EV dealer. While initial sales are aimed exclusively in California due to Toyota’s need to address this state’s 2003 ZEV mandate, success here would certainly find the RAV4 EV making its way to other markets soon enough, starting with those poised to follow California’s lead by adopting the state’s ZEV requirements.

Toyota aims to make it easy for buyers to connect with their new electric vehicle. Like the Prius gas/electric hybrid, customers will have the ability to order the RAV4 EV online and take delivery through a participating dealer, as is the case with the Prius currently.

Green Car Time Machine - archive articles from Green Car Journal.

A few decades back, it was no sure thing that electrification would take a firm hold on the performance world, let alone the automotive market as a whole. Yet here we are today with a great many of the fastest performance vehicles on the road powered by electric motors. Italdesign-Giugiaro and Toyota presented their take on the electric supercar some 18 years ago in the form of the Alessandro Volta concept shown here. This article from our archives is presented just as it appeared in Green Car Journal’s Fall 2004 issue.

Excerpted from Fall 2004 Issue: In an automaker’s portfolio, the flagship should be a car that sets the tone for the rest of its fleet, pushing brand identity and technology to the outermost limits. Shown here is just such a vehicle. Rolled out on the world stage at the Geneva Motor Show, this Toyota hybrid supercar concept is clearly designed to inspire and, not inconsequentially, underscore the very real potential that hybrid electric propulsion has throughout the Toyota brand.

Xray vie of Alessandro Volta electric supercar.

Serial Hybrid Electric Supercar

Toyota’s Volta concept is named for the Italian physicist Alessandro Volta, inventor of the battery. One needn’t look too closely at this car to understand why. It uses a derivative of the high technology drivetrain found in the hybrid Toyota Highlander and Lexus RX 400h, but in this instance configured so there’s no direct link between the gasoline engine and the wheels. Instead, the 3.3-liter V-6 engine’s power is converted to electrical energy for charging the car’s batteries and powering electric motors at both front and rear axles. Drive-by-wire technology allows the combined 408 horsepower to be modulated without the need for a clutch or transmission.

This car puts all those volts to good use, taking advantage of the inherent instant torque provided by electric motors and launching the vehicle from 0 to 60 mph in just four seconds. Combined with a top speed of 155 mph, the Volta certainly has the performance to back up its supercar persona, although these numbers alone aren’t enough to stand out among today’s fastest machines. However, with a claimed 430 mile range and fuel economy around 31 mpg, the Volta would literally leave the rest of the fuel-guzzling pack behind. When was the last time you saw a supercar with those numbers?

Toyota Volta electric supercar.

Dramatic Italdesign Styling

The Alessandro Volta was developed collaboratively by the famous Italian design house Italdesign-Giugiaro and Toyota Motor Company, a fusion of car cultures as disparate as the concept’s nobly duplicitous pretensions. The hybrid drivetrain allowed Italdesign to take some packaging liberties with the lightweight carbon-fiber chassis, positioning the engine behind the rear axle without  need of a driveshaft to connect the front wheels, thus allowing room in the cockpit for three passengers.

Dimensionally, Toyota’s Prius is three inches longer, over a foot taller, and 300 pounds heavier than the Volta. Of course, a 76-inch width, meaty tires, and wonderfully dramatic styling see that ‘economy’ is purged from the mind of any uninformed onlooker...as planned.

Age of the Electric Supercar

Perhaps this blatant contradiction is the real attraction of the Alessandro Volta. A hybrid electric car shouldn’t look this exotic or go this fast, and certainly an all-wheel drive supercar shouldn’t get this kind of gas mileage – and yet there it sits  in all its paradoxical glory. Whether it becomes reality or not, the Alessandro Volta has charted a course of bold possibilities, and we can’t wait to see what surfaces in its wake.

Toyota Volta electric supercar concept.

Green Car Time Machine.

An array of automakers have championed alternative fuels over the years. One of the most notable examples was Honda with its Civic GX, later renamed the Honda Civic Natural Gas, the cleanest-running internal combustion vehicle on the market. Debuting 24 years ago, the compressed natural gas-powered Civic was with us through the 2015 model year and then disappeared from the lineup. GCJ editors had the opportunity to test drive multiple generations of the natural gas Civic over the years including living with one daily over the course of a one-year test. This report, focused on the eighth generation Civic GX that GCJ customized with a smart graphics design and Honda-available accessory parts, is drawn from our archives and appears just as it ran in our Summer 2005 issue.

Excerpted from Summer 2005 issue: Honda’s Civic has proved a formidable force on the market for many years, providing drivers a popular sedan or coupe at an attractive price. This has only improved in recent times as the model has evolved. The latest iteration, all-new for the 2006 model year, offers the most stylish, safest, and most comfortable Civic in the model’s history.

2006 Honda Civic natural gas vehicle driving on road.

Civic Natural Gas Built in Ohio

As is customary in the auto industry, the alternative fuel version of this latest Civic was destined to emerge many months after the standard model. We’ve waited for the natural gas-powered 2006 Civic GX patiently, and now it is available to fleets nationwide and, for the first time, to consumers in California and New York. We were able to get some seat time recently and were not disappointed.

GCJ editors have many thousands of miles behind the wheel of Civic GX sedans since the model’s introduction as an assembly-line produced fleet vehicle in 1998. Built at Honda’s manufacturing facility in East Liberty, Ohio, the Civic GX today goes for $24,590, qualifying as the top dog in the Civic lineup. That's about $2,000 above the price of a Civic Hybrid and some $5,900 more than an EX sedan.

Hood detail of Honda Civic natural gas sedan.

Fill Up with CNG at Home

Is it worth the difference? It depends on your perspective, but keep this in mind: Natural gas goes for an average of 30 percent less than gasoline at public fueling stations, substantial savings on a gallon of gasoline equivalency basis.

It gets even better for those who opt for Honda’s home refueling appliance, called Phill, that’s made by the automaker’s strategic Canadian partner, FuelMaker. At favorable home natural gas rates, Honda Civics typically drive around at about $1.25 to $1.50 per gallon, offering the cheapest per-mile cost of any production vehicle. Plus, a federal tax credit of $4,000 is available to offset the car’s higher purchase price, with up to $1,000 in incentives also available for the purchase and installation of Phill.

Honda Civic natural gas engine.

Driving on CNG Nets 39 MPG

The Civic GX drives like its conventionally-fueled counterparts, with just a slight decrease in horsepower due to its use of natural gas fuel. Realistically, a driver just won’t tell the difference. Fuel economy offered by this 1.8-liter, 113 horsepower 4-cylinder engine is about the same as its gasoline counterparts at an EPA estimated 28 mpg in the city and 39 mpg on the highway. The Civic GX remains the cleanest internal combustion engine vehicle, anywhere.

As you may have guessed, the Civic GX shown here is not exactly the model you’ll see on the showroom floor, but you can duplicate most of the look. It uses readily-available Honda Performance Accessory items including a rear lip spoiler, full aerodynamic body kit, 17 x 6.5” alloy wheels, and 215/45ZR-17 tires. The graphics are one-off custom, so you’re on your own here.

Honda Civic natural gas vehicle on the highway.

Green Car Time Machine.

In the early 1990s, California took yet another leadership position in battling motor vehicle-related air pollution and mitigating fossil fuel use with its forward-thinking 1998 Zero Emission Vehicle Mandate. This mandate would require two percent of the new models for sale in California by the largest auto manufacturers to offer zero emissions in 1998, with larger percentages in future years. While this could potentially be achieved through any available means, it essentially meant the production and sale of battery electric vehicles. Environmentalists and many others were thrilled, while the auto industry in general was not. The result was an increasingly contentious fight to kill, preserve, or modify the mandate. Below is our special report detailing the siege of the state’s ZEV Mandate and an overview of the wave of activities taking place at the time. This report is presented just as it originally appeared in Green Car Journal’s April 1994 issue.

Excerpted from April 1994 Issue: Even as the U.S. Big Three automakers are lining up against the zero emission vehicle mandate, others within the automaking community are showing their support. An increasing number of noted automotive personalities are also becoming involved with electric cars as the pace of development picks up.

For example, Carroll Shelby, developer of the 1960s-era Shelby Cobras and former board member at EV powertrain company Unique Mobility, has shown an active interest in producing a hybrid electric vehicle. Other notables abound. Among them: Former General Motors chairman and CEO Robert Stempel, GM Hughes Aircraft chairman emeritus Malcolm Currie, and Malcolm Bricklin, importer of the Yugo subcompact and developer of the gull-wing exotic car that bore his name in the 1970s, among others.

Electric Vehicles on the Track

Former Indy, Can-Am, and Formula Atlantic drivers are taking their turn at the wheel of electrically-propelled race cars. Example: 1983 Indy 500 winner Tom Sneva raced at Arizona Public Service’s Electric 500 in Phoenix again this year, this time in an electrified 1993 Ford Probe. Auto magazine writers/race drivers like Motor Trend’s road test editor Mac DeMere have taken to the track in Formula Lightning electric race cars, bringing the potential of sharing their positive EV experience with millions of auto enthusiast readers.

Exercises in range and speed abound as performance benchmarks are sought for modern electric vehicles. One of the most significant to date was set just last month by GM’s Impact at the Fort Stockton Test Center’s 7.7 mile oval track in Texas. Running modified power electronics and high-speed Michelin tires, the Impact weighed in at 3,250 pounds once stripped of interior trim and fitted with a roll cage. It ran a United States Auto Club-sanctioned 183.075 mph over a timed mile to establish a record for EVs in the 2,205 pound and above category. Its unofficial international land-speed record remains subject to confirmation by the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile.

Far from being just an exercise in speed, this effort also helps further electric vehicle state-of-the-art, as is always the case in racing. “We wanted to find the vehicle’s top speed because we new it would provide us with real-world data on the car’s aerodynamics, the efficiency and durability of the propulsion system, and it would help us fine-tune the suspension,” offers Kenneth R. Baker, vice president of GM’s Research and Development Center.

ZEV Mandate Spurs Worldwide Effort

Performance milestones achieved since the California Air Resources Board announced its zero emission vehicle mandate in 1990 have been impressive. In 1991, an electric car called the IZA fielded by Tokyo Electric Power Co., Meidensha, and Tokyo R&D claimed a single-charge distance of 343 miles in Japan. This was achieved on a chassis dynamometer at a constant speed of 25 mph. In 1992, a Horlacher Sport EV powered by sodium-sulfur batteries ran 340 miles nonstop at an average of 74 mph in Switzerland. Also in 1992, a retrofitted Geo Metro powered by BAT Technology-prepared batteries and an Advanced D.C. Motors powertrain reportedly achieved a single-charge driving distance of 405 highway miles at an average of 43 mph in Utah.

This same year saw Dr. John Dunning and three associates at Delco Remy drive 631 miles in a 24 hour period behind the wheel of an electric Geo Storm in California. The car, outfitted with a GM Impact battery pack and electric drive system, achieved this milestone by alternating one-hour drives at better than 50 mph with one-hour charging sessions using a 7 kilowatt charger.

In early 1993, Chrysler made news with a 158 hour, 2,604 mile Detroit-to-Los Angeles trip in an electric TEVan while showcasing Chrysler/Norvik quick-charge technology. During this same time frame, Bill Roe set a new national closed-course one-mile oval speed record by breaking the 100 mph barrier in a Brawner Motorsport-prepared electric Lola Indy Car at the Solar & Electric 500 in Phoenix.

Battery Swaps and Fast Charging

The progression has continued in 1994. Roe eclipsed his own closed-course EV record recently at the APS Electric 500, piloting his Exide EX 11 electric IndyCar to a new national one lap record speed of 107.162 mph. And Diversified Technical Services’ Dan Parmley completed a record-breaking endurance run on Phoenix International Raceway’s one mile oval, driving 1,048.8 miles in 24 hours courtesy of 23 battery changeovers.

Battery swap at electric vehicle race.

Parmley’s effort supplanted an electric vehicle endurance record recently established by Solectria’s James Worden. Worden drove 831.8 miles on the 1,477 mile oval at Atlanta Motor Speedway to set a new 24 hour distance driving record in a lead-acid battery powered Chevy S-10 pickup. Sponsored by the Southern Coalition for Advanced Transportation, the truck’s batteries were recharged 13 times at 16 kWh by a fast-acting Electronic Power Technology charger, taking less than 20 minutes each time. It was driven an average of 59 miles between charges.

These efforts do prove what’s possible, but not necessarily what’s realistic for everyday drivers. It’s true that electric vehicles can be made to go very fast. They can accelerate just as quickly as most internal combustion engine cars. With a steady accelerator, a series of battery exchanges, or a healthy dose of quick charges, they can also travel very respectable distances. But at present they can’t do all of these at the same time.

ZEV Mandate Encourages Innovation

That’s sobering news, to be sure. But there are plenty of positives to recognize. Note the significant technology advancements made in just four short years of extensive EV development: Battery exchanges, an obscure concept when first voiced by industry experts, has proven viable in racing. Rapid recharging, which holds promise for overcoming the electric vehicle’s dependence on lengthy recharging sessions and unnecessary downtime, has also shown its promise in the lab, during demonstrations, and on the track. New battery technologies, most notably nickel-metal-hydride, are starting to prove their worth in real-world trials.

Perhaps most important is the promise shown by the advanced electric vehicles being fielded by U.S. automakers in limited numbers. Both the Ford Ecostar and Chrysler TEVan have demonstrated their viability as utility vehicles during test drives at the hands of Green Car Journal editors.

GM's Impressive Impact EV

But as an all-around technology statement, there’s nothing like GM’s Impact. GCJ editors have driven the Impact hard on highways in Michigan, finding it superb in every regard. It distinguishes itself not only as an excellent electric vehicle, but as a rather amazing automobile even when stacked up against its gasoline-powered peers.

The Impact’s technological innovations are many, ranging from an ultra-lightweight aluminum space frame with composite body panels to an innovative heat pump climate control system and blended regenerative anti-lock braking. Like GCJ editors, testers from publications like Motor Trend, Popular Science, and Popular Mechanics also found the Impact a testament to the viability of the electric car.

Public perception is also favorable. In fact, GM has had a substantially greater number of requests to participate in its Impact PrEView Drive than ever anticipated. In response to an announcement sent with utility bills in New York and Los Angeles, the automaker reportedly expected about 5,000 replies in each market. Instead, New York generated a list of 14,000 volunteers, and Los Angeles about 10,000 – far too many for the program.

Tech Advances Via ZEV Mandate

To be sure, the Big Three’s developmental EVs are just that: Examples of electric vehicle development…an engineering ‘snapshot’ of where ewe are now. Anyone who describes them otherwise is exploiting  these vehicles for their own aims, either pro or con. Their cost is very high due to their hand-built assembly and the exotic technologies employed. But they are functioning examples of what automakers can come up with when ‘encouraged’ by regulatory fiat. To think we would have done this far without a mandate in place is folly.

Many experts believe that California’s ZEV mandate has served not only as a motivator for the world’s automakers, but as a wake-up call for industry. Most of the players are involved not because they have to be, but because the electric vehicle field is perceived as being good business. That’s been the impetus for electric vehicle consortia like Calstart, Electricore, Southern Coalition for Advanced Transportation, Northeast Alternative Vehicle Consortium, Mid-America Electric Vehicle Consortium, and Hawaii’s Electric Vehicle Demonstration Project Consortium.

Electric vehicle drive system.

Emerging Opportunities for Suppliers

It's true that regulations now in place will require automakers to build and sell EVs. But that’s not the case with battery companies, electronics manufacturers, energy management specialists, tire manufacturers, engineering firms, composites manufacturers, aluminum companies, and many, many others. They’re on board because of emerging opportunities that will allow them to bring advanced transportation components to a new generation of energy efficient, more environmentally conscious automobiles. In their eyes, this will only take place if the California ZEV mandate survives the intensive automotive lobbying sure to take place in the months to come.

Momentum seems to be on the EV proponents’ side. The Ozone Transport Commission recently voted to adopt California’s low emission vehicle program in the Northeast, including requirements for zero-emission vehicles. On the heels of this decision came a California Assembly Transportation Committee hearing on Assembly Bill 2495, which would have prohibited the state from requiring ZEVs until battery technologies guaranteed arbitrary performance levels. This bill was heavily lobbied on both sides, then soundly defeated. The next round in this battle: Next month’s scheduled California Air Resources Board review of ZEV technologies and the feasibility of reaching the program’s goals. A full report to follow.

Back when the modern electric vehicle was new, automakers explored different strategies for getting in the game while meeting California’s zero emission vehicle mandate. Costs were high so these efforts were limited, with the earliest electric vehicle offerings focused much more on fleets than consumers. One of the more interesting approaches came from Chrysler with its electric minivans. Among its highest-profile explorations was the battery electric Chrysler EPIC that followed the automaker’s first electric minivan, the TEVan, the first limited production electric vehicle sold to the U.S. fleet market back in 1992. Here’s our take on the automaker’s improved version of the EPIC as it was making its way to fleets, straight from the Green Car Journal archives as it originally appeared in the August 1998 issue.

Excerpted from August 1998 Issue: Chrysler, the first automaker to bring an electric vehicle to the fleet market in 1992, is set to begin leasing an advanced battery iteration of its electric minivan to fleet markets in California and New York later this year. This improved version of the automaker’s EPIC (Electric Powered Intra-urban Commuter) minivan, based on the popular Dodge Caravan/Plymouth Voyager platform, will begin rolling off Chrysler’s Canadian assembly line in Windsor, Ontario in October.

Charging the Chrysler EPIC electric minivan.

Electric Minivans for Fleets

The EPIC, which offers an 800 pound payload and seating for up to seven, will benefit from a SAFT nickel-metal-hydride (NiMH) battery pack that will enable the minivan to achieve a claimed 0-60  mph acceleration time of 16 seconds and travel up to 90 miles between charges under moderate driving conditions. The van was previously powered by less expensive lead-acid batteries which provided reduced performance and limited single-charge driving range of 68 miles. Chrysler plans to manufacture up to 2,000 EPICs for the 1999 model year. They will be offered under a three-year lease program with payments of $450 monthly with no down payment, or a one-time payment of $15,000.

It’s no surprise that Chrysler’s EPIC is now joining the ranks of advanced NiMH battery EVs like the Toyota RAV4 EV and Honda EV Plus. Even Ford’s Ranger EV and both electric GM products, the EV1 and S-10 electric, are now being offered with NiMH battery options, or will be shortly. Advanced battery power, with the enhanced performance it brings, is simply a requirement in an era where fleet managers have multiple electric models from which to choose.

Battery powered powerplant for Chrysler's electric minivans.

Simply put, the low-performance, lead-acid battery powered EPIC hasn’t been a particularly desirable option for fleets, as evidence by the less than 20 EPICs that Chrysler has leased to date. Under the terms of the Memoranda of Agreement it signed with the California Air Resources Board along with others like Ford, GM, Honda, Mazda, Nissan, and Toyota, Chrysler is required to field more than 250 EVs for demonstration through the year 2000. Upgrading to advanced battery power significantly decreases this number. In Windsor, EPIC production will take place on the same production line that handles assembly of Chrysler’s conventional gasoline-powered minivans.

Extended Life NiMH Batteries

Craig Love, Chrysler’s executive engineer for electric vehicles, points out that the addition of NiMH batteries also offers another tangible benefit by tripling the expected operating life of the traction battery pack. “Although considerable cost challenges remain, we believe the performance of this battery makes it the best for near-term ZEV (zero-emission vehicle) application among the several battery alternatives we’re investigating,” Love says.

Chrysler electric minivans were powered by advanced batteries.

Those battery alternatives include next-generation lithium-based batteries being developed cooperatively through the US. Advanced Battery Consortium, of which Chrysler is a member. While lithium batteries are popular in cell phones and laptop computers, increasing their size for use in automobiles offers design and cost challenges, Love notes. This is an important detail not lost on Nissan, points out GCJ editors, which pays a huge premium for the Sony lithium-ion batteries it uses in its Altra EV minivan. Chrysler plans to test its first vehicle-sized lithium-based battery in 1999.

“With EPIC, we’re combining our latest ZEV technology with our state-of-the-art entry into the electric vehicle segment. While there’s still a gap in cost and operating range between electric- and gasoline-powered vehicles, we’re working hard to close that gap.”

Chrysler EPIC, one of the first electric minivans.

Green Car Time Machine.

It wasn’t always electric vehicles dominating the news. In recent decades there was also great focus on hydrogen vehicles, which continues in the background today. One pioneer worth noting is the late Stanford Ovshinsky, who with his scientist wife Iris founded ECD Ovonics in 1960. Among the company’s technologies based on its discoveries are Ovonic nickel-hydride batteries, thin-film photovoltaics, and the Ovonic metal hydride fuel cell . In the early 2000s, ECD Ovonics showcased its innovative solid metal hydrogen storage in several second-generation Toyota Prius hydrogen-hybrid vehicles. Our report on these vehicles is excerpted just as it ran in Green Car Journal’s Fall 2005 issue.

Excerpted from Fall 2005 Issue: As the “hydrogen highway” vision takes form through incremental technology advancements and demonstrations on many levels, much of the glory is captured by hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. It’s true that they’re marvels of technology and are deserving of this attention. As shared in Green Car Journal’s Summer 2005 issue (Hydrogen/Where We Are on the Drive to the Future), automakers have come a long way and these vehicles are so good, they make it seem effortless to drive on this most environmentally positive fuel. But that’s far from the case.

Hydrogen hybrid Toyota Prius.

High-Price Experimental Vehicles

The vehicles are truly million dollar machines, using hand- built or limited production componentry handsomely packaged within normal-looking sedans, minivans, and SUVs. They drive seamlessly, for the most part, assuring us that the mission of bringing hydrogen vehicles to the highway can be accomplished. Still, there’s a lot of work ahead to make this vision workable – costs must come down, fuel cell durability must improve, and challenges that go beyond the vehicles themselves must be met. Creating hydrogen economically is one of them, as is developing a widespread refueling infrastructure. Storing hydrogen is yet another significant technical challenge, and that’s what this story is about, although a car once again appears to be the star.

This story begins and ends with Stanford Ovshinsky, an inventor of rarified stature who, many decades ago, made discoveries involving amorphous and disordered materials that created a whole new area of materials science. He was recognized with a Time Magazine “Heroes of the Planet Award” because of this work and how it led to many breakthrough applications, including his patented nickel-metal-hydride batteries (he and the company he founded, Rochester Hills, Michigan-based Energy Conversion Devices, hold the patents). As it turns out, this work has also led to the ability to store hydrogen in solid form at low pressure, a technology being developed by ECD business unit Ovonic Hydrogen Systems.

Fueling a hydrogen hybrid vehicle.

Liquid or Gaseous Hydrogen?

This is no small thing. Before we can buy a hydrogen-fueled vehicle in the showroom, some big technical hurdles need to be overcome in the lab, and one of the biggest is hydrogen storage. A hydrogen vehicle’s range depends directly on how efficiently this fuel can be converted to motive power and, more fundamentally, how much fuel can be stored on-board. Range will be especially important in the early years of hydrogen vehicle commercialization since a refueling infrastructure will still be in its infancy.

Automakers have been grappling with the issue for a long time. Liquid hydrogen, championed most visibly by BMW, is attractive because a much greater amount of liquid hydrogen can be stored in a given tank size than gaseous hydrogen. This translates to greater range. However, the downside is that hydrogen must be stored at -423 degrees F to keep it in liquid form, and getting it down to this temperature requires a lot of energy and special fueling equipment.

Most automakers use gaseous hydrogen in their developmental fuel cell and hydrogen internal combustion vehicles because of this. However, gaseous storage also has its challenges. Current 5,000 psi (pounds per square inch) hydrogen cylinders simply don’t hold enough fuel for a decent driving range. That has prompted many automakers to explore a new generation of even higher 10,000 psi hydrogen storage cylinders, which require additional changes to support this high pressure including 10,000 psi-capable lines, fittings, and dispensing equipment.

Solid Hydrogen Storage

Then there’s the approach offered by Ovonic Hydrogen Systems’ solid hydrogen storage, a concept so clever and intriguing it seems improbable...yet it works. A tank containing powdered metal alloys is filled with hydrogen at relatively low 1,500 psi. Removing heat during the process causes the metal to absorb hydrogen like a sponge, and a new material called a metal hydride is created. Hydrogen stored in solid form like this is in a safer state and can be stored within a tank at a lower 250 psi. On-board systems determine when hydrogen is needed by an engine or fuel cell, providing heat to reverse the process so gaseous hydrogen is released from the hydride and into the fuel system. In an interesting phenomenon, a greater volume of hydrogen can be stored in the same size cylinder with metal alloy than
without it, a consideration that provides better driving range.

Several years ago, Green Car Journal drove a 2002 Toyota Prius hybrid equipped with such a system. Operating as a hydrogen hybrid vehicle, it produced near-zero emissions and drove seamlessly. Ovonic Hydrogen Systems has now gone one better by offering several second-generation Prius hybrids equipped with a similar system to showcase its solid metal hydrogen storage. Some of these vehicles will operate as part of a hydrogen hybrid demonstration fleet at Southern California’s South Coast Air Quality Management District in Diamond Bar, California, a program that will prove the viability of hydrogen hybrids in everyday use.

Beyond the solid hydrogen storage, other modifications to these vehicles include vents and leak detectors to ensure safe operation, as well as hydrogen-compatible fuel lines, an engine management computer that operates new gaseous fuel injectors, and a variety of sensors. A turbocharger is used to compensate for the lower engine output that comes with combusting hydrogen. Extra battery modules are also added for better electric motor performance.

All this technology is wrapped within sharp-looking demonstration vehicles that promise to forward the company’s solid hydrogen storage message in a very high-profile way. These high-tech cars also demonstrate that hydrogen internal combustion could represent a more readily-achievable interim step toward the hydrogen highway as more complex and expensive fuel cell vehicles evolve in coming years. With potentially larger numbers of more affordable internal combustion hydrogen vehicles on the road, there’s also more incentive for building the hydrogen refueling infrastructure that will be needed for those fuel cell vehicles in the future.

Green Car Time Machine.

In the early 1990s, California’s coming zero-emission vehicle mandate drove major automakers to dive into battery electric vehicle development. The challenge was daunting and presented substantial obstacles including high costs and limited range. Then along came Volvo’s Environmental Concept Car. This innovative turbine-hybrid didn’t meet the letter of the law since it wasn’t fully zero emission, but it did illustrate there are diverse answers to environmental goals. This lesson lives on with today’s array of electrified vehicles. This report, presented as it originally appeared in Green Car Journal’s February 1993 issue, shares details on how Volvo proposed to bring hybrids to the highway.

Volvo turbine-hybrid Environmental Concept Car.

Excerpted from February 1993 Issue: It’s interesting to note the diverse ways the world’s automakers are responding to California’s ‘zero-emission’ vehicle mandate that takes effect in just five short years. By most accounts, the majority are involved in intense research and development of battery-powered electric cars that will meet the letter of the law.

Volvo, on the other hand, has a different view. This Swedish automaker, which built a stunning serial hybrid EV called the Volvo Environmental Concept Car, seeks a revision in the California legislative model that would specifically allow electric hybrids under the ZEV category. While this seems to make sense in some ways, it is also highly problematic in others. Some would argue that hybrids could present a regulatory nightmare since it would be difficult, if not impossible, to monitor whether drivers were actually running on straight electric or hybrid power in future urban zero-emission zones.

Volvo ECC turbine-hybrid electric car dashboard.

Innovative Approach to ZEV Mandate

“Our goal, of course, was to meet the zero emitting vehicle standard that California has set,” says Sylvia Voegele, general manager of Volvo’s Monitoring and Concept Center in Camarillo, Calif. “As we studied what consumers want, wish versus reality…we discovered that there were some fabulous pros for the electric car, but there was also a long list of negatives. Since we had to come up with a family vehicle which seats four people-plus, naturally we had a range problem. So our solution could not be with the given technology of today – the straight electric car – which appears to be the only solution to deliver a zero emission vehicle. So we settled for a hybrid.

“We felt that this hybrid solution gave us the best of both worlds,” continues Voegele. “It could be a zero-emitting vehicle for inner city driving or for shorter trips. Plus it could be, with a far better extender range, the vehicle you could drive to Las Vegas if you wish.” The ECC’s short 55 mile all-electric range is admittedly limiting, but may meet the requirements of those commuting average distances to the workplace. In this configuration the ECC does meet the strict ZEV standard.

Volvo ECC powered by a turbine-hybrid powerplant.

Turbine-Hybrid Driving Range

The benefit of Volvo’s hybrid approach is realized whenever lengthier drives are required. Using the ECC’s small gas turbine/generator to power the car’s 76 horsepower (56 kW) electric motor provides a range greater than 400 miles, and at emission levels that meet California’s ultra-low emission vehicle (ULEV) standard. Running on turbine-generated electrical power also provides 0-60 mph acceleration of about 13 seconds, much quicker than the ECC’s 23-second 0-60 mph acceleration times on battery power alone. Again, the slower acceleration would seem to be in a range acceptable within more crowded urban areas, while quicker turbine/generator-inspired sprints seem more in tune with the needs of open-road touring.

“The zero emitting vehicle to us is somewhat artificial because you still have emissions at the powerplants,” says Stephen Wallman, director of Complete Vehicle Product and Process at Volvo Car Corp. “Especially when you introduce global thinking, it doesn’t really matter too much if the powerplant is a little outside Los Angeles or in Los Angeles.”

Volvo ECC's distinctive rotary power control.

More Versatile than a Battery EV

Still, why would Volvo pursue development of a proof-of-concept vehicle that may not qualify to fulfill what could be a huge niche market for ZEVs? “One way of looking at it is that it’s driven by customer demand,” says Wallman of the ECC. “It is one way of overcoming the shortfalls of straight electric vehicles. It has the possibility, with a super-clean heat engine and very efficient energy conversion to electric power, to give very low emissions and good fuel economy levels. It still depends on battery technology, but to a much lesser extent. In our view this makes hybrid propulsion the most realistic alternative in the middle range.”

It remains to be seen how well a production vehicle like the Volvo ECC could weather the zero-emission regulatory climate already in place in California, New York, Massachusetts, and coming soon to other states. With many R&D efforts developing serial hybrid EVs, and the U.S. Department of Energy embarking on a funding program for their development, it seems at least plausible that hybrids may have a place in our future. What that place may be, and to what extent they’ll be used in a zero-emission strategy, is an interesting question that’s yet to be answered.

Green Car Time Machine.

The past few decades have seen plenty of electrified concept vehicles come and go. Many were merely design or technology exercises to generate interest and excitement for an automaker’s future direction. Some concepts led the way to production vehicles in the short years ahead. One that stands out as being well ahead of its time is Volkswagen’s Space Up! Blue concept that was unveiled in 2007. The interesting thing about this concept is that it clearly shared a vision that has led the way to the VW I.D. Buzz concept of today, and the production version of this newest iteration of the microbus that’s being revealed soon. This article shares details of VW’s early exploration of an electric microbus some 15 years ago, presented as it originally ran in Green Car Journal’s Winter 2007 issue.

VW Space Up! Blue electric microbus concept.

Take a look at the Volkswagen Space Up! Blue concept car, and the company hopes you’ll conjure up fond memories of the 1950s VW Microbus. With four roof windows, butterfly doors, and a motor at the rear, the concept resembles a modern, 7/8th scale take on the original. But unlike the ‘hippy van’ of yore that came to symbolize the eco lifestyle, this concept’s powerplant actually bears it out.

Li-Ion Batteries for This Electric Microbus

Replacing the boxer engine is a 60 horsepower electric motor that draws its power from a dozen lithium-ion batteries. These batteries provide enough energy for a 65 mile all-electric trip. After that the Space Up! Blue is either refueled by  plugging into an electrical outlet or seamlessly powered by an on-board fuel cell for another 155 miles. A nice touch is provided by a large solar panel on the roof that feeds up to 150 watts to the battery.

Power illustration for VW Space Up! Blue electric microbus concept.

Fueled by an underbody compressed hydrogen tank, the fuel cell is a new high temperature unit developed by VW’s dedicated research center in Germany. A new high temperature membrane and electrodes allow operating temperatures of up to 320 degrees F, far beyond current low temperature fuel cells whose water-containing membranes are limited to water’s boiling point. VW points out that higher  operating  temperatures mean a much simpler cooling and water management system is needed, making the whole system more compact, affordable, and efficient.

The Space Up! Blue concept is the third variant of VW’s new small family of concept cars to appear at major auto shows in just a few months, following the Up! concept  from Frankfurt and the larger Space Up! concept from Tokyo. Despite the resulting unwieldy naming scheme, the concepts collectively offer VW’s vision for a new kind of small car that is cleverly packaged and simply styled. Now with electric drive, plug-in capability, and advanced fuel cell technology, we like where this vision is aimed.

Solar panels on the roof of the VW Space Up! Blue concept.

Green Car Time Machine.

With Subaru’s recently-unveiled Solterra electric SUV and existing plug-in Crosstrek Hybrid, you might think this automaker’s efforts toward electrification are fairly new. But that’s not the case. Like most automakers, Subaru was exploring electrification many years ago. Among the most interesting example was the Subaru B9 SC Scrambler series-parallel hybrid electric concept that was unveiled almost two decades ago. Here, we take a look at the B9 SC Scrambler roadster in a feature that originally appeared in Green Car Journal’s Summer 2004 issue.

Excerpted from Summer 2004 Issue: Subaru, a marque that doesn’t come readily to mind when talking advanced technology vehicles, can be a bit of a tease. Back in 1991, this auto- maker all but stunned the automotive world with a sports coupe that could generously be called atypical – the cutting edge Subaru SVX.

This swoopy, fast, and decidedly cool car didn’t become a huge seller, but it did establish Subaru’s credentials as a company that could bring advanced vehicles to the showroom with the best of ‘em, something we see today in models like the Impreza WRX STi. Still, Subaru tends to stay on the mainstream side with such well-engineered staples as the Outback, Forester, and Legacy rather than heading for the limelight with flexible fuel or hybrid models.

Well, Subaru has stepped out of the box again, and in a big way. Its B9 SC “Scrambler” hybrid electric concept blends the design direction of Subaru’s Andreas Zapatinas – formerly head of design at Alfa Romeo – with a unique hybrid electric drive technology that works seamlessly with Subaru’s Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive system, and also is adaptable to its current vehicle platforms.

This automaker’s Sequential Series Hybrid Electric Vehicle (SSHEV) system places a generator between a 2.0-liter, 4-cylinder DOHC Subaru Boxer gasoline engine and transmission with a two-way clutch, high-performance electric motor, and all-wheel drive transfer gearing integrated into the transmission case. What’s unique about the SSHEV powerplant is that its Boxer gasoline engine supplements the electric drive motor, rather than the other way around. Up to about 50 mph, the gasoline engine’s primary role is to charge the laminated lithium-ion batteries that power the hybrid vehicle’s electric motor. The gasoline Boxer engine takes over as primary propulsion above 50 mph, a speed range that’s most efficient for this internal combustion powerplant. Both electric and gasoline powerplants jointly provide power under demanding driving conditions.

Subaru says it will be able to offer customers the kind of performance now enjoyed with its turbocharged models by using its own hybrid electric drive technology. After being blown away by the impressive performance of Subaru’s SVX while driving this sports coupe at its debut back in 1991, we have no doubt that Subaru has the technical savvy and is surely up to this challenge…with a few more tricks up its sleeve, to be sure.

Green Car Time Machine.

Automakers, energy interests, and major government-funded efforts have been on the hunt for the ideal battery to power electric cars for decades. It hasn’t been an easy road and remains a challenge even today, as shown by several massive recalls of electric vehicles with batteries that, in rare cases, have suffered spontaneous combustion. Fires aren’t a new thing. During the EV’s drive to market, a small number of battery fires occurred early on, including several in experimental Ford Ecostar electric vehicles powered by sodium-sulfur batteries back in 1994. One battery safety incident that stands out occurred at an electric car race in 1992. Rather than a fire, a race entry running an experimental battery suffered a leak that spewed a toxic vapor cloud that injured racers and race personnel, causing the raceway to be evacuated. Here, we present the following article from the Green Car Journal archives, as it was originally published in June 1992.

Excerpted from June 1992 Issue: It was in the final hours of racing activity at Phoenix International Raceway when the lead car began spewing a reddish-brown vapor trail into turn one, then went into a spin, braking hard.

As the car slowed to a stop, its driver tore at the window’s safety net and dove out of the opening head-first, stumbling, then collapsing as he tried to escape the battery gases that filled his cockpit and the area around the car. Like the driver, James Worden, of the Solectria team (Boston, Mass.), 14 track officials and others who came to his aid would be taken to the hospital to treat breathing difficulties. Worden was admitted in serious condition. Fortunately, all 15 people injured in the accident recovered.

This was the sobering final scene that red-flagged this year’s APS Solar and Electric 500 in Phoenix, Ariz. An important showcase of new and developing electric car technology, the race exemplified new thinking like quick-change battery packs and race-style pit stops under 20 seconds. Many of the cars were substantially faster than just a year ago, and the driving more sophisticated. Products from major sponsors like General Electric, Motorola, Goodyear, and Firestone were used and touted on banners and cars. The event drew a small crowd of enthusiasts and a good showing of research teams from across the U.S. Many were small-time efforts with personal cars converted to electric propulsion. Others were well-financed teams equipped with the latest in electric motors, controllers, and batteries.

It was the experimental battery technology that brought an early end to the Chrysler-Plymouth Electric Stock Car 200. Complexed bromine solution leaked from a dislodged tube in the race car’s pressurized zinc-bromine battery on lap 91, hitting the hot track and creating a toxic cloud near the car and an acrid smell that hung over the infield. The hazardous materials team handling the incident ultimately ordered the raceway evacuated. Although disabled, Worden’s Solectria entry was later declared the winner since he was five laps ahead of the field.

Should this experimental battery have been at the race? Race sanctioning body Solar and Electric Race Association (SERA) regulations specifically cite that “any battery type (except silver-zinc) is generally permitted and any number of batteries may be utilized within the vehicle.” Thus, the prototype zinc-bromine batteries used independently by both the Solectria and Texas A&M entries were allowed. A wide array of other battery technologies, some potentially dangerous, would also be permitted under these rules.

Johnson Controls Battery

Phillip Eidler of Johnson Controls, supplier of the experimental batteries in the Solectria car, told GCJ that of the battery technologies being pursued, zinc-bromine is one of the safer ones. “What you saw out there was one of the worst incidents, short of crashing into the wall, you’re probably going to see from the battery system.” He also cites that the Johnson Controls battery does not contain pure bromine. “It’s a complexed form, in solution, that doesn’t have near the vapor pressure and evaporation rate of pure bromine,” advises Eidler. Johnson Controls is the largest U.S. manufacturer of lead-acid automotive batteries and the leading supplier to both the original equipment and replacement markets.

Sources at Johnson Controls cite the company is engaged in a cost-shared development contract for the zinc/bromine battery with the U.S, Department of Energy for utility applications. Zinc-bromine is said to have 2-3 times the energy capacity of lead-acid batteries and, according to Johnson Controls’ vice-president of battery research Bill Tiedemann, it’s “one of the most environmentally safe battery technologies available.”

"While experimental technology is critical to the developing EV and alternative fuel vehicle fields, it’s equally critical that safety is addressed as vigorously outside the lab as it is inside. "

A spokesman for principal race sponsor Arizona Public Service (APS) told GCJ that the technologies to be used by race teams will certainly be examined more clearly for safety in coming years. SERA’s Ernie Holden cited that closer scrutiny would be built into the safety inspection process for future races as well. Johnson Controls is also offering to help in any way it can to make the race a safer event. Since assurances from entries using experimental technology cannot serve as the final word on safety, though, it’s obvious that an expert inspection team will be needed to independently perform this task.

This incident should sound a warning signal within the industry. While experimental technology is critical to the developing EV and alternative fuel vehicle fields, it’s equally critical that safety is addressed as vigorously outside the lab as it is inside. This is especially true in the case of public demonstrations of experimental technology. With the upcoming schedule or races, ride-and-drives-, and public demonstrations of electric vehicle technology worldwide, it will be imperative that adequate safety measures are taken. The same holds true for future fleet testing of electric vehicles using potentially hazardous batteries. A catastrophic battery failure on city streets could have wide-ranging consequences.

Electric race car powered by a zinc-air battery.

Battery Safety on the Track

Experimental technology will continue to be seen in electric car racing, since racing is the proving ground that ultimately benefits the cars that make it to dealer showrooms. But high-risk system components, or even ones protected by redundant safety systems which could still prove deadly in the event of catastrophic failure, might be penciled out in the rule books for safety and liability reasons. This is especially true of those technologies which could injure large numbers of people in a single incident.

What of experimental components, like batteries, which need to be tested during their evolutionary run to market? That’s why the major automakers have proving grounds In their place, smaller R&D firms can rent a track like Phoenix International Raceway or countless others around the world…and do their testing with the stands empty. “It would probably have been much better for us if we would have just ran and ran the car around the track without anybody there,” muses Johnson Controls’ Eidler. “But we’ve done years worth of testing. After that works, where’s the next place you go?” That’s a dilemma that will surely be faced by many R&D efforts in coming years. He adds: “There comes a point where you have to take it out on the road.”

GCJ editors do expect that electric cars will compete in major-league racing alongside conventional gasoline-engine cars. But it seems certain that some important safety checks will have to be in place. Racetracks packed with tens of thousands of spectators are not the venue for volatile technology that could endanger the lives of those who are on hand to root for its success.

Green Car Time Machine.

Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles have been in development for decades now as automakers strive to show how zero-emission, carbon-free hydrogen may be the ideal motor vehicle of the future. But focus hasn’t always been exclusively on hydrogen power generated through an electrochemical fuel cell. Some, like Mazda, showed us how internal combustion may present an easier and more seamless transition to the use of hydrogen. This automaker’s highest profile hydrogen project was the RX-8 RE that debuted 17 years ago, a model that could alternatively run on hydrogen or gasoline in its combustion rotary engine. Here, we present this article from the Green Car Journal archives as it was originally published in the Spring 2004 issue.

Mazda Hydrogen RX8-RE.

Excerpted from Spring 2004 Issue: No stranger to hydrogen power, Mazda recognized some time ago that its rotary engine and clean hydrogen fuel operate quite well together. Green Car Journal editors understood this first-hand when driving the automaker’s developmental MX-5 Miata hydrogen rotary sports car a decade ago. These days, reinforcing Mazda’s enduring interest in what many consider  the ultimate environmental fuel is its latest developmental vehicle, which is based on the automaker’s acclaimed RX-8.

Hydrogen Rotary Engine

The Mazda RX-8 RE integrates Mazda’s Renesis hydrogen rotary engine, a lean-burn powerplant based on the automaker’s next-generation rotary engine launched earlier this year in the all-new RX-8 sports car. Even when running on conventional gasoline, the new Renesis features significant environmental improvement over previous generation rotary engines with better fuel economy and reduced emissions.

A rotary engine is especially well-suited for burning hydrogen since it uses separate chambers for induction and combustion. This overcomes the troublesome backfiring issues often faced when using hydrogen in piston engines.

In addition, Mazda says the separate induction chamber also provides  a safer temperature for the engine’s dual hydrogen injectors with their rubber seals, which can be damaged by the higher temperatures of conventional engines. Dual injectors are used in each of the engine’s twin rotor housings since hydrogen has an extremely low density, thus greater volumes of this fuel must be injected than gasoline.

Dual Fuel Hydrogen/Gasoline

Mazda’s RX-8 RE aims to provide a traditional driving experience as it achieves extremely low emissions with hydrogen. This is accomplished by integrating a dual-fuel approach that allows seamlessly operating on hydrogen as available, or gasoline when it’s not. This is important and reflects Mazda’s belief that a dual-fuel system promotes the use of hydrogen and a developing hydrogen refueling infrastructure. The RX-8 RE uses both a conventional gas tank and a high-pressure hydrogen tank.

The Renesis hydrogen engine features 210 horsepower when running on gasoline and 110 horsepower on less energy-dense gaseous hydrogen. Power is transferred to pavement through a five-speed manual transmission. Performance is enhanced with 225/45R18 tires over 18x8JJ alloys and double wishbone multi-link suspension front and rear, with stop- ping power supplied by four-wheel ventilated disc brakes.

Electric Assist Turbocharger

An array of advanced technologies is used in the RX-8 RE to allow exploring their value for a future production hydrogen vehicle. These include an electric motor to boost engine torque at low rpm and an electric motor-assisted turbocharger, both used to improve acceleration at low revs. An idle-stop system turns the engine off when the car is stopped and then starts again automatically when the driver is ready to accelerate. Regenerative braking recovers energy during  deceleration and braking to charge the car’s 144-volt battery.

Other environmentally-conscious elements are incorporated into this high-profile hydrogen car, including water-based paint, interior parts made of plant-based plastics, optimized tires, and reduced overall weight. Reduced friction hub carriers and a fast-fill tandem master cylinder also serve to reduce brake drag.

This latest foray into the hydrogen world is a strong message that Mazda is giving hydrogen propulsion serious consideration, as it has for many years now. This automaker’s interest in hydrogen rotary power has been duly noted since the debut of its HR-X hydrogen concept car at the 1991 Tokyo Motor Show. A series of other hydrogen efforts have evolved at Mazda over the years including the HR-X2, MX-5, and Capella Cargo, all powered by hydrogen rotary engines, and the Demio FC-EV and Premacy FC-EV, powered by hydrogen fuel cells.

Hydrogen Vision at Mazda

What has driven Mazda to pursue hydrogen fuel with such vigor for so long? A focus on environmental issues, of course, but also an apparent vision that this fuel stood at least a decent chance of coming out on top. That vision has now culminated in the Renesis hydrogen rotary engine and the outstanding RX-8 RE.

BMW, Ford, and now Mazda are raising the volume on the potential for using hydrogen in more conventional engines and not just in fuel cells. This adds additional motivation to create a hydrogen refueling infrastructure, promising to make things even more interesting as this alternative fuel is driven ever closer to the showroom in the years ahead.

Green Car Time Machine.

Chrysler was in the thick of it in the early 1990s as automakers explored ways to meet California’s new and increasingly stringent Low Emission Vehicle regulations, and in particular the state’s coming Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) mandate. Though there was a flurry of activity in the Chrysler camp at first, other auto brands took the lead and we didn’t hear much from Chrysler for quite some time. Then, in 2008 there was an October Surprise. Chrysler unveiled three electric concepts that got people pretty excited, electrifying models from three of the automaker’s brands – Dodge, Jeep , and Chrysler. At the time, these were to lead to at least one production EV model and a renewed electrification effort at the company over the next few years, something that history shows did not materialize. The following article detailing Chrysler’s renewed interest in electric vehicles and its exciting Dodge EV prototype is pulled from the Green Car Journal archives and presented as it was originally published in the fall of 2008.

Dodge EV prototype.

Excerpted from Fall 2008 Issue: In many ways, Chrysler has been late to the party in recent years. While others like Ford, GM, Honda, Nissan, Mazda, and Toyota have forged ahead with eco-friendly advanced technology vehicle programs, Chrysler has largely sat it out in favor of a more traditional road. Maybe we can chalk it up to its former life as part of DaimlerChrysler, but with that automotive marriage behind it there’s no longer an excuse. And excuses are not being offered by Chrysler LLC, as evidenced by its stunning announcement of not one, but three production-intent electric vehicles.

Playing Catch Up With EVs

Playing catch-up wasn’t always the way at Chrysler. In the early 1990s, Chrysler was on top of its alternative fuel game, with forays into virtually all of the important areas unfolding at the time from methanol and ethanol flexible-fuel vehicles to ones running on hydrogen, natural gas, and electricity. Then Chrysler seemed to all but disappear from the running, making news instead with such stylistic models as the Viper, Prowler, and 300, but with little in the way of alternative fuel vehicles beyond its GEM neighborhood electric vehicle and the occasional eco concept. Apparently, those earlier days are returning with a vengeance.

Now Chrysler has announced the coming of a production electric vehicle for the North American market. The automaker is showcasing its efforts with three prototypes – an all-electric Dodge sports car using Lotus Europa underpinnings and two range-extended electrics, a Jeep Wrangler and a Chrysler Town & Country. Chrysler says it will select one of these for production and sale to North American consumers in 2010. This will be preceded by 100 Chrysler electrics in fleet use in 2009.

Dodge EV Uses UQM Motor

All use what Chrysler says is ‘production intent’ technology, incorporating an electric drive motor, a motor controller to manage energy flow, and a lithium-ion battery pack. Chrysler will work with General Electric to develop batteries for the production model. It has also been reported that the automaker is in talks with battery company A123 Systems, which is separately working with GM on the Volt program and has contracts to provide its nanophosphate lithium-ion batteries for production Th!nk electric cars and BAE Systems hybrid bus powerplants. GE Energy Financial Services has invested $20 million in A123 Systems.

While Chrysler has not identified its other suppliers, photos of the Dodge sports car show the use of electric drive components from UQM Technologies, a company noted for its energy dense and high-performance electric drive motors and controllers. Specs provided by Chrysler indicate a 268 hp (200 kW) electric drive motor featuring a whopping 480 lbs-ft torque that powers the performance electric car from 0-60 mph in under 5 seconds. Top speed is said to be 120 mph. Charging at 110 volts is accomplished in 8 hours, or 4 hours at 220 volts.

The electric vehicles are being developed in an in-house effort that’s focusing on electric drive production vehicles and advanced technologies. This effort – called ENVI – is so-named by taking the first four letters of 'environmental.’

Green Car Time Machine.

In the early 1990s, automakers, their major suppliers, and technology companies of all kinds were scrambling to develop the vehicles and power systems that would enable meeting the stringent requirements of California’s coming zero emission vehicle mandate, plus other government regulations sure to follow. One of the more interesting technology demonstrators created during the period was the Pininfarina Ethos, a developmental car used to showcase diverse powertrains including battery electric and, in this case, an advanced Orbital two-stroke engine. Here, we share our experience with Pininfarina’s Ethos in an article that originally appeared in Green Car Journal’s September 1992 issue.

Excerpted from September 1992 Issue: The Pininfarina Ethos, an environmentally designed sports car introduced at this year’s Turin Motor Show, was recently driven by GCJ at Goodyear’s Mireval proving ground. Time spent behind the wheel at this Mediterranean test track proved the Ethos a concept both interesting and timely for the auto industry.

Pininfarina Ethos electric sports car.

Pininfarina Ethos a Joint Project

A combined project of Orbital Engine Company, Hydro Aluminum, General Electric Plastics, Pininfarina, and others, the Ethos is intended to be both technology demonstrator and sales tool. These companies hope that a fully functional Ethos will help cure the myopia that plagues auto executives by packaging far-sighted vision in an attractive package that can be built today. This is no mere exercise. Rather, its an opportunity for an automaker to put its marque on the Ethos’ easily recycled bodyflanks. Then, either Pininfarina or the automaker can begin producing copies in the short term.

Technologies that allow the Ethos to stake claim to the environmentally friendly title include an efficient three-cylinder Orbital two-stroke engine, a lightweight extruded aluminum frame, a recyclable thermoset plastic body, and water-based PPG paint. These, and other, features allow the car to use comparatively few resources in construction or operation and also make it easy to recycle.

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Decreased Weight and Carbon Emissions

Orbital claims its engine would meet the California ultra-low emission vehicle (ULEV) while still offering an impressive acceleration figure of 0-60 mph in 7.5 seconds. The company also cites that it would achieve a 35 percent improvement in fuel economy over a current vehicle equaling the Ethos’ projected 1450 pound weight. Bottom line: Faster acceleration than a BMW 325i and better gas mileage than a Civic VX. A marked decrease of carbon dioxide greenhouse gas emissions would correspond to the increase in fuel economy since much less gas would be burned to travel the same distance.

But there’s more. An interesting aside is that with further refinement of the Orbital two-stroke engine, it’s also suggested that the Ethos might even be able to attain near-zero emission vehicle (ZEV) levels similar to those specified in California legislation for electric vehicles.

Unlike most of the concept and show cars that debut at international auto shows, the Ethos is a fully operational vehicle. To prove it, our test driver pushed the mid-engine Ethos around Mireval as hard as if it were the latest European production exotic. Though only one example exists, each shift was made at the redline, the straights were run at full throttle, braking was at the last instant for every turn, and the tires’ entire cornering power was exploited.

Driving the Pininfarina Ethos

Impression? This first Ethos felt somewhat like a low-powered Mazda Miata. Since it featured a steel monocoque chassis rather than the planned aluminum spaceframe, it was thus more than 200 pounds overweight. But the Orbital engine also did not offer as much power as company officials say production versions might. The cumulative result is good, but no exhilarating, performance with 0-60 acceleration times in the range of 10-plus seconds.

Handling was entertaining when fitted with sticky Goodyear GS-Ds rather than low-traction, high-mileage tires. But some glitches expected from a one-off driven at its limits showed through, including at one point an overheated engine. The most notable shortcoming was presented by the stretched fabric-over-tube frame seats, the same innovation found in GM’s Ultralite concept car. While it’s possible this type of seat may be comfortable enough for a typical commute, they were bruising during hard driving.

Pininfarina’s Ethos is an important milestone in environmental auto design. It’s stylish, forward-thinking, and with a few areas of refinement will set standards others should consider emulating. Perhaps most importantly, the Ethos dispels the myth that a sports car cannot be both exotic and in tune with the new automotive environment unfolding before us. In a future where myriad alternative fuel and gasoline autos will fill a wide array of niche and regional markets, GCJ editors note that the Ethos, or a similar vehicle, is likely to be one of the many players.

Green Car Time Machine.

Lee Iacocca distinguished himself as an automotive icon over a career that spanned nearly six decades. A hero to many for his leadership role in saving the former Chrysler Corporation from extinction, Iacocca is revered as the father of the Ford Mustang and the man who brought many beloved performance vehicles to American showrooms. Not inconsequentially, he also shepherded to market the Dodge Caravan, the world’s first minivan, changing forever the way that families seek mobility. Iacocca ventured into the environmental automotive realm with Chrysler’s electric TEVan debut under his watch in 1992, and then with electric bicycles and low-speed electric vehicles – decades ahead of today’s trend toward electric bikes – after retiring from Chrysler. The son of Italian immigrants, he exemplified love-of-country by serving as chairman of the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation in the effort to renew our national icon in the early 1990s, an appointment made by President Ronald Reagan. Lee Iacocca passed in 2019 at the age of 94.

This article shares a 2004 interview of Iacocca conducted by editor/publisher Ron Cogan and is presented as it originally ran in Green Car Journal’s Spring 2004 issue.

Lee Iacocca

Ron Cogan: After a long and storied career in the auto business, what motivated you to get into light electric transportation like electric bikes?

Lee Iacocca: “Until 1950, the auto business was not that huge. But two things happened. Eisenhower created a 42,000 mile road system and the G.I. bill. The guys came home, moved to the suburbs, and had a new life outside of the city and had two kids. We caught them in the sixties with the Mustang but that was just for fun. Then twenty years passed, and we caught them with minivans because their lives changed.

Baby Boomers and Electric Bikes

“The reason I tell you this story is, naively enough, I thought I followed the baby boomers so long I knew them, even though I wasn’t one of them. I got them in 1964, I got them in 1984, and I would get them in 2004 with something electric. The same guy who now has kids and grandkids buys our bike and says it seems like an oxymoron to have a bike that you don’t have to pedal, but you can. It has a seven speed Shimano derailleur on it, first class. But when the kids come home he can’t keep up with the grandkids, so he goes for a ride and uses the electric one on the hills. It doesn’t embarrass him. That was a great theory, but I never made it work.

“I have a folding bike in my garage, it’s a knockout. It folds, it goes in the back of a minivan or Jeep, and I thought all the car dealers in America would have embraced it as an option because it gives you mobility where you can’t use internal combustion engines. I tried to force it, but in five years we’ve only sold about 25,000. But the market for bikes is so huge, all you have to do is get a small percentage of ‘em to say, ‘I’ll give electric a whirl.’

“The time is not here for electric cars. I’ve said that very openly. But the technology was here for light electric transportation and I thought there was demand, but I was wrong. I remember Pininfarina’s car. They had a hybrid in it, and I said, ‘Man this is off to the races, it might get support.’ In the background we’ll sell bicycles. It was light electric transportation systems and I said, ‘Let’s do it.’”

RC: So the vision was that electric bikes would lead to other light electric vehicles like neighborhood EVs and lightweight hybrids like the Pininfarina Ethos. How were you going to do this?

Lee Iacocca and his 'Green Team'

Iacocca: “I wanted every university to get on Lee’s Green Team. I wanted them to wear green jackets on campus, put a bike in every bookstore, and we’d get young people to say ‘Wow!’ If I get a bike in every garage, young kids are gonna say, ‘Hey dad, why do we have three cars and none of them are green?’ They’ll force the issue where older generations won’t. So, that’s what I tried to do when I came here.

Iacocca's vision encompassed light electric transportation, ranging from electric bikes to light electric cars and other vehicles like the Pininfarina Ethos hybrid concept shown in this mid-1990s advertisement.

“We’ve got a damn good product, at a damn good price. Why did it fail? Well, like fuel cells will fail…the distribution system. I chose car dealers to sell bikes because I knew most of them. Big mistake. It was introduced right in the heart of three years of all-time car and truck sales. Even my close friends who were dealers and bought 25 to 50 of them as a favor to me never put anybody on the showroom floor to sell them, never. So it didn’t work, and now we’re going to independent bike dealers.”

RC: You say that fuel cells will fail? What about the billions that automakers are spending developing fuel cell vehicles?

Hydrogen Fuel Cell Challenges

Iacocca: “Well, they’ll bet the farm on fuel cells, and it ain’t gonna happen easily. Not because I’m an expert here in California, but I’ve dealt with GM research guys and GM has so much going with fuel cells, although Chrysler, through Ballard, has also invested a ton of money in fuel cell technology. But they’re missing the whole problem here. The technology’s probably here now but the challenge is to change the distribution system. Once you’ve got the hydrogen – a challenge in itself – we’ve got to figure out how to deliver it to customers. Developing the infrastructure will require a huge investment. And what are you going to knock out? Wipe out the oil industry at retail levels? You can’t do that. Fuel cells are getting touted too heavily, I think. Am I for it? Yeah, but I don’t think I’ll live long enough to see it.”

RC: Where does politics fit into all this?

Iacocca: “I’ve written two books and I’ve taken the Japanese apart because of their trade practices, but what I’ve really taken apart is that this country does not have an energy policy. I’ve gone through nine Presidents of the United States and I can’t get them in twenty-five words or less to tell me what our energy policy is. I know that we’re at war because of oil, probably. Deep down, we don’t want to talk about it. We’re there for terrorism, right? We’ve got to make democracy come alive in the Mideast. That’s the oil capital of the world and we can’t avoid it. In a democratic nation, a free-enterprise nation, we’ve put up with a cartel and accepted it, and now we’re hooked on their oil.”

China Has a Plan

RC: What about China?

Iacocca: “Beijing announced they’re going to put restrictions on fuel economy that are stricter than the United States. They’re tweaking our tail here. They’re going to leapfrog and start with hybrids... they don’t want anyone coming over there and giving them a gas-guzzler. They have too much pollution, they depend too much on foreign oil, and they want to stop it.

“Well, that sounds like us in L.A. – we have too much pollution, we want to stop it. We’ve been talking, clacking our gums for 20 years, and nobody really wants to pay an extra dime for clean air. They just don’t want to do it. I’ve been in California 10 years and I’ve never heard people talk more about smog and clean air and do nothing about it, absolutely nothing. The Air Resources Board has tried their best and Detroit fought ‘em like hell, let’s face it.”

RC: Honda and Toyota were the first to market with hybrid vehicles. Many consider them to be in the lead as U.S. automakers are just now striving to bring their own hybrids to the showroom. What’s your take on this?

The Time Has Come for Hybrids

Iacocca: “I’ve worked with hybrids probably all my life and, by the way, the time has come. I’ve said this many times recently, that Detroit better get cracking or we’re going to be lost in the dust. What are they waiting for? Hybrids are complex and they’re more expensive, but they give you terrific gas mileage and it’s a start towards zero emissions. Is it going to happen? As sure as we’re sitting here…can’t fight it any longer. So it might be by small increments, but I would predict within three years from today, if you don’t have a hybrid car or hybrid SUV, you’re not going to be selling them.

“Every invention brings with it a set of opportunities but also a set of problems, and that’s where you’ve got to direct your attention today. I don’t think anybody has more incentive than the Big Three or whoever is left, maybe the Big Two after the Germans bought Chrysler. So the greatest incentive is for the petroleum industry and the biggest user of that petroleum, the U.S. car and truck industry, to get going or somebody’s going to knock the hell out of them.”