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hyundai-kona-electric-drivinng-1Hyundai’s 2019 Kona joins a growing list of long-range EVs aiming to entice new car buyers to go electric. The Kona Electric subcompact crossover looks like its conventionally-powered counterpart save for its closed front grille, silver side sills, unique 17-inch alloy wheels, and appropriate badging. It is available in three trim levels – SEL, Limited, and Ultimate.  Like the gasoline Kona, the Kona Electric is available with a two-tone roof if the sunroof is not ordered.

Power is provided by a 201-horsepower electric motor driving the front wheels, energized by a 64-kWh lithium-ion polymer battery that enables an estimated 250-mile range. It can be recharged from a depleted state in about 54 minutes via a fast 100 kW Combined Charging System (CCS), or in 75 minutes with the more common 50 kW CCS. Charging with a 240-volt Level 2 charger takes about 10 hours. An EPA estimated 117 MPGe is expected. The Kona Electric accelerates from 0-60 mph in 7.6 seconds and has an electronically limited top speed of 104 mph.

hyundai-kona-electric-cabinA 7-inch TFT screen instrument cluster shows the speedometer, battery charge level, energy flow, and driving mode. There’s also a 7-inch infotainment touchscreen system that offers HD and satellite radio as well as BlueLink data connectivity. The system is also compatible with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Navigation with an 8-inch screen is optional. BlueLink app-based remote charge management and charge scheduling is fitted. Other available features include a flip-up head-up display and wireless inductive charging for personal electronics.

hyundai-kona-electric-displayPush button shift-by-wire controls are located on the center console. Adjustable regenerative braking is controlled by steering wheel paddles. Electrically-assisted power steering has been tweaked to accommodate the enhanced low-speed performance of an electric vehicle.

A host of driver assist features are provided depending on the trim level. All trim levels get Forward Collision-Avoidance Assist, Blind-Spot Collision Warning, Lane Keeping Assist, Rear Cross-traffic Collision Avoidance Assist, Rear View Monitor, and  Smart Cruise Control. The Ultimate trim level adds Parking Distance Warning for reverse, Smart Cruise Control with Stop and Go, and a head-up display.

The Kona Electric will initially be sold only in California. It will eventually be available in states that have adopted the California ZEV mandate.

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2017-chevy-bolt-ev-front-3General Motors has been at work electrifying cars for decades, from the EV1, Spark EV, and an array of ‘mild’ hybrids to the acclaimed Volt extended-range electric that’s seen on highways across America. Volt owners interviewed universally respond with positive accolades, which means GM has done this car right. Now, the automaker’s 5-door, crossover-like Bolt EV hatchback aims to deliver a similarly satisfying ownership experience while providing even greater battery electric driving range.

The measurably fun-to-drive, imagination expanding Bolt EV features an EPA estimated 238 miles between charge cycles. That’s a groundbreaking figure in the realm of affordable electric cars for the masses, at an MSRP starting at $37,495 (before federal and state incentives). And that’s cool, but not what this gearhead finds most compelling when considering the purchase of a very viable, full-drive-time electric.

2017-chevy-bolt-ev-underhood-1In short, the all-new Chevy Bolt EV is the first stand-alone electric plug-in that I could justify purchasing as my sole mode of transportation. The price is right and proven component and battery module reliability is a given, backed by an 8-year/100,000-mile warranty. Importantly, I discovered the Chevy Bolt to drive, ride, and handle well during our travels on country roads and city streets in the San Francisco Bay Area’s urban expanse.

Dropping into the driver’s seat of the Bolt EV not only leaves an impression of a comfortable and spacious cabin, but also proof of how effectively GM has ‘normalized’ the EV experience. Truthfully, one forgets it’s an electric vehicle being driven within minutes of taking the wheel. And that’s precisely what GM engineers had in mind when designing the Bolt EV – it’s that good.

2017-chevy-bolt-ev-rear-1Driving the Bolt EV is enlightening. The car’s low center of gravity delivers minimal side roll, excellent hill-climbing, on-tap torque, and quick sprint speeds. Satisfying power is delivered by a 200 horsepower electric motor powered by a 60 kWh lithium-ion battery pack. Chevy specs peg 0 to 60 mph acceleration at 6.8 seconds, and that seems about right. Steering response is better than anticipated and the regenerative braking system offers a familiar hydraulic-like feel.

Transitioning from driving the environs of Half Moon Bay to the more urban streets of San Francisco, the Bolt EV’s in-city maneuverability and ease of parking proved to be exceptional. Little to no electric motor noise was noted while wind and tire-to-pavement noise transmitted to the cabin was minimal, all thanks to advanced glass and considerable noise damping provisions. Keep in mind that these sounds are normally masked by the background sound of internal combustion in conventionally-powered cars, and thus magnified in vehicles with silent electric propulsion. Delivering a quiet driving experience in a battery electric vehicle is no small accomplishment, and the Bolt EV does this well.

2017-chevy-bolt-ev-rear-seat-1The Bolt EV’s compact gel foam front seats are unusually comfortable for a subcompact car, providing ease of adjustment and good driver-to-control positioning. Rear seats accommodate taller passengers without compromises in comfort or position due to the car’s relatively high bodyline.

It took just a few minutes for the learning curve in operating the Bolt EV’s center stack and segmented digital instrument cluster. Features are near-intuitive to operate and driver-to-car personal electronics connectivity is straightforward. In dash navigation, Android Auto, Apple CarPlay, and your preferred personal entertainment device will all pair and display effortlessly through Bolt’s easy-to-view and manipulate 10.2 inch, center stack color touchscreen monitor.

2017-chevy-bolt-ev-display-1Pushing the Bolt EV to levels that would be considered near-redline in a conventionally-powered car was no problem. After 2 1/2 hours of speeds up to 75 mph over variable terrain and road conditions, our test car still showed 130 miles remaining on the range-minder. That’s just a bit of a mind blower! In fact, real-world driving indicates understated range and we have no doubt the Bolt EV could do better than its rated 238 mile battery electric driving range, given a more reasonable pressure on the accelerator pedal.

With its impressive driving range, driver and passenger convenience features, comfort, quality of construction, and available electronic active safety features. Chevy’s 2017 Bolt EV requires no sacrifices to drive electric. It effectively “normalizes” the electric car while firing a warning shot across the bow of the auto industry. The future of personal transportation seems ever more likely to be an electric one and the tech-rich Bolt EV delivers this message in the strongest way possible, at a price affordable to the masses.

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Green Car Journal has named the all-electric 2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV its 2017 Green Car of the Year® during AutoMobility LA at the Los Angeles Auto Show. The Bolt EV emerged the winner over fellow finalists BMW 330e iPerformance, Chrysler Pacifica, Kia Optima, and Toyota Prius Prime. Widely recognized as the auto industry’s most prestigious environmental honor, the award was presented by Green Car Journal editor and publisher Ron Cogan and accepted by Chevrolet Cars & Crossovers marketing director Steve Majoros.

The Green Car of the Year jury selected the 2017 Bolt EV for its milestone 238 mile battery electric driving range, stylish design, pleasing driving dynamics, and welcome suite of advanced and connected technologies. Along with its distinction as the first production battery electric vehicle to achieve a 200-plus mile driving range, the 2017 Bolt EV offers an array of features that provide a unique and catered ride to the driver.

ron-cogan-and-steve-majoros-at-gcoy-stageEditors and jurors note that Chevrolet’s all-new 2017 Bolt EV is a breakthrough vehicle in every sense, sending a clear signal that an electric car’s environmental achievement is well-suited to the mass market. From the time modern electric vehicles emerged in the 1990s, limited driving range has presented a core challenge to the commercialization of electric cars affordable to everyday drivers. Bolt EV overcomes this with its 238-mile battery electric driving range and approachable price, the first production electric car to achieve this milestone.

Each year, an expanding number of environmentally positive vehicle models are considered for the Green Car of the Year® program, an illustration that the auto industry is continuing to expand its efforts in offering new vehicles with higher efficiency and improved environmental impact. The Green Car of the Year® is selected through a majority vote by a jury that includes celebrity auto enthusiast Jay Leno, as well as leaders of noted environmental and efficiency organizations including Jean-Michel Cousteau, President of Ocean Futures Society; Matt Petersen, Board Member of Global Green USA; Dr. Alan Lloyd, President Emeritus of the International Council on Clean Transportation; Mindy Lubber, President of CERES; and Kateri Callahan, President of the Alliance to Save Energy.

2017-green-car-of-the-year-stage-1Staff jurors include Cam Benty, Ron Cogan, Drew Hardin, Jeff Karr, Todd Kaho, and Dr. Bill Siuru, all veteran auto writers and editors with decades-long careers in the auto industry. Their deep understanding of the importance and nuances of vehicles includes their time spent as editors of such noted legacy auto publications as Motor Trend, Hot Rod, Car Craft, Truck Trends, Popular Hot Rodding, and others.

During the award’s vetting process, Green Car Journal editors consider all vehicles, fuels and technologies as an expansive field of potential candidates is narrowed down to the final five.  Finalists are selected for their achievements in raising the bar in environmental performance. Many factors are considered including efficiency, performance characteristics, ‘newness,’ affordability and overall environmental achievement. Availability to the mass market is important to ensure honored models have the potential to make a real difference in environmental impact, and finalists must be available for sale by January 1 of the award year.

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2017 Chevrolet Bolt EVChevrolet’s milestone Bolt EV will be coming to showrooms in late 2016 as a 2017 model, representing the first truly affordable battery electric vehicle with a sought-after 200 mile driving range. This is a big win for Chevrolet since the Bolt beats the 200 mile Tesla Model 3 to market, likely by a long shot. Unlike the Chevy Spark EV, an adaptation of a gasoline-powered model that’s been available in select markets since 2013, the Bolt EV was designed from the ground-up as an electric vehicle. Thus, there are no compromises along the way.

The heart of the Bolt EV is a nickel-rich lithium-ion battery pack developed with LG Electronics. The 200 mile range provided by this pack is about twice that of competitive EVs now on the market. New battery chemistry delivers desired levels of power, in this case 160 kW, and energy of 60 kWh. The chemistry also provides improved thermal performance that requires a smaller active thermal conditioning system to keep the battery operating at its optimum temperature, delivering longer battery life and maintaining peak performance under varying climates and driver demands.

2017 Chevrolet Bolt EVThe battery pack consists of 288 lithium-ion cells in a configuration that spans the entire floor to maximize interior space. The five-door Bolt EV seats five passengers and has 16.9 cubic feet of cargo space behind the rear seat. Thin-frame seats enhance rear-seat roominess.

A standard 7.2 kilowatt onboard charger allows overnight charging from a 240 volt wall charger. A typical commute of 50 miles requires a charge of less than two hours. The Bolt also features an optional SAE Combo DC fast charging connector so the battery can be charged to deliver up to 90 miles of range in just 30 minutes at a public fast charger, if one is available.

2017 Chevrolet Bolt EVElectricity is supplied to a 200 horsepower drive motor featuring 266 lb-ft torque that delivers 0-60 mph acceleration under 7 seconds and a top speed of 91 mph. Power delivery is controlled by Chevrolet’s first Electronic Precision Shift system. This shift and park-by-wire system sends electronic signals to the Bolt EV’s drive unit to manage precise feel and delivery of power and torque based on drive mode selection and accelerator inputs. A by-wire shifter requires less packaging space than a traditional mechanical shifter resulting in more interior space and improved interior layout.

Regenerative braking has become more than a means to boost range by recapturing energy. Now it can also can provide an improved EV driving experience. The Bolt EV has a new regenerative braking system that can provide one pedal driving through a combination of increased regenerative deceleration and software controls. When operating in Low mode or by holding the Regen-on-Demand paddle located on the back of the steering wheel, a driver can bring the vehicle to a complete stop under most circumstances by simply lifting their foot off the accelerator. However, the system does not eliminate the need to use the brake pedal altogether. Operating in Drive mode without pulling the paddle while decelerating requires using the brake pedal to stop.

2017 Chevrolet Bolt EVhe Bolt EV will offer connectivity and infotainment technologies that seamlessly integrate smartphones and other electronic devices. Low energy Bluetooth, designed specifically for the Bolt EV to minimize energy usage, seamlessly connects a smartphone to the car as an owner approaches the vehicle. Many of the Bolt’s technologies are supported by OnStar 4G LTE, which turns the Bolt EV into a Wi-Fi hotspot that provides easier access to apps and services via a high-speed wireless connection.

Additional connectivity and infotainment features include a 10.2-inch MyLink color touchscreen display, rear camera mirror, and Surround Vision that provides a bird’s-eye view around the Bolt for improved safety during low-speed driving and while parking. An all-new MyChevrolet Mobile App combines important owner and vehicle information and functions including battery charge status, OnStar Map service, remote start, cabin pre-conditioning, owner’s manual information, and dealer service scheduling. EV-specific navigation capability provides routes that maximize range and while identifying nearby charging locations. In the future an accurate driving range projection will be based on the time of day, topography, weather, and an owner’s driving habits.

2017 Chevrolet Bolt EVThe Bolt will be built at GM’s Orion, Michigan assembly facility while its battery pack, motor, and drive components will come from Korea. Its price is expected to be $37,500, a figure that dips below $30,000 after full federal tax credits.

 

There’s something almost magical about plugging your car into an outlet at night and waking up to a full ‘tank’ in the morning. There’s no need for a stop at the gas station, ever. Plus, there’s no nagging guilt that the miles metered out by the odometer are counting off one’s contribution toward any societal and environmental ills attendant with fossil fuel use.

This is a feeling experienced during the year Green Car Journal editors drove GM’s remarkable EV1 electric car in the late 1990s. Daily drives in the EV1 were a joy. The car was sleek, high-tech, distinctive, and with the electric motor’s torque coming on from zero rpm, decidedly fast. That’s a potent combination.

ev1-rolling-chassis-1The EV1 is long gone, not because people or companies ‘killed’ it as the so-called documentary Who Killed the Electric Car suggested, but rather because extraordinarily high costs and a challenging business case were its demise. GM lost many tens of thousands of dollars on every EV1 it built, as did other automakers complying with California’s Zero EmissionsVehicle (ZEV) mandate in the 1990s.

Even today, Fiat Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne says his company loses $14,000 for every Fiat 500e electric car sold. Combine that with today’s need for an additional $7,500 federal tax credit and up to $6,000 in subsidies from some states to encourage EV purchases, and it’s easy to see why the electric car remains such a challenge.

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This isn’t to say that electric cars are the wrong idea. On the contrary, they are perceived as important to our driving future, so much so that government, automakers, and their suppliers see electrification as key to meeting mandated 2025 fleet-wide fuel economy requirements and CO2 reduction goals. The problem is that there’s no singular, defined roadmap for getting there because costs, market penetration, and all-important political support are future unknowns.

The advantages of battery electric vehicles are well known – extremely low per-mile operating costs on electricity, less maintenance, at-home fueling, and of course no petroleum use. Add in the many societal incentives available such as solo driving in carpool lanes, preferential parking, and free public charging, and the case for electrics gets even more compelling. If a homeowner’s solar array is offsetting the electricity used to energize a car’s batteries for daily drives, then all the better. This is the ideal scenario for a battery electric car. Of course, things are never this simple, otherwise we would all be driving electric.

Ford Focus ElectricThere remain some very real challenges. Government regulation, not market forces, has largely been driving the development of the modern electric car. This is a good thing or bad, depending upon one’s perspective. The goal is admirable and to some, crucial – to enable driving with zero localized emissions, eliminate CO2 emissions, reduce oil dependence, and drive on an energy source created from diverse resources that can be sustainable. Where’s the downside in that?

Still, new car buyers have not stepped up to buy battery electric cars in expected, or perhaps hoped-for, numbers, especially the million electric vehicles that Washington had set out as its goal by 2015. This is surprising to many since electric vehicle choices have expanded in recent years. However, there are reasons for this.

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Electric cars are often quite expensive in comparison to their gasoline-powered counterparts, although government and manufacturer subsidies can bring these costs down. Importantly, EVs offer less functionality than conventional cars because of limited driving range that averages about 70 to 100 miles before requiring a charge. While this zero-emission range can fit the commuting needs of many two-vehicle households and bring substantial fuel savings, there’s a catch. Factoring future fuel savings into a vehicle purchase decision is simply not intuitive to new car buyers today.

Many drivers who would potentially step up to electric vehicle ownership can’t do so because most electric models are sold only in California or a select number of ‘green’ states where required zero emission vehicle credits are earned. These states also tend to have at least a modest charging infrastructure in place. Manufacturers selling exclusively in these limited markets typically commit to only small build numbers, making these EVs fairly insignificant in influencing electric vehicle market penetration.

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Battery electric vehicles available today include the BMW i3, BMW i8, Chevrolet Spark EV, Fiat 500e, Ford Focus Electric, Honda Fit EV, Kia Soul EV, Mercedes-Benz B-Class Electric Drive, Mitsubishi i-MiEV, Nissan LEAF, Smart ForTwo Electric Drive, Tesla Model S, Toyota RAV4 EV, and VW e-Golf. While most aim at limited sales, some like BMW, Nissan, and Tesla market their EVs nationwide. The Honda Fit EV and Toyota RAV4 EV are being phased out. Fleet-focused EVs are also being offered by a small number of independent companies. Other battery electrics are coming.

BMW’s i3 offers buyers an optional two-cylinder gasoline range extender that generates on-board electricity to double this electric car’s battery electric driving range. A growing number of electrified models like the current generation Prius Plug-In and Chevy Volt can also run exclusively on battery power for a more limited number of miles (10-15 for the Prius and up to 40 miles in the Volt), and then drive farther with the aid of a combustion engine or engine-generator. Both will offer greater all-electric driving range when they emerge as all-new 2016 models. Many extended range electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids like these are coming soon from a surprising number of auto manufacturers.

coda-evIt has been an especially tough road for independent or would-be automakers intent on introducing electric vehicles to the market. Well-funded efforts like Coda Automotive failed, as have many lesser ones over the years. Often enough, inventors of electric cars have been innovative and visionary, only to discover that becoming an auto manufacturer is hugely expensive and more challenging than imagined. In many cases their timeline from concept and investment to production and sales becomes so long that before their first cars are produced, mainstream automakers have introduced models far beyond what they were offering, and at lesser cost with an established sales and service network to support them.

A high profile exception is Tesla Motors, the well-funded Silicon Valley automaker that successfully built and sold its $112,000 electric Tesla Roadster, continued its success with the acclaimed $70,000-$100,000+ Model S electric sedan, and will soon deliver its first Tesla Model X electric crossovers. While Tesla has said it would offer the Model X at a price similar to that of the Model S, initial deliveries of the limited Model X Signature Series will cost a reported $132,000-$144,000. It has not yet been announced when lower cost 'standard' Model X examples will begin deliveries to Tesla's sizable customer pre-order list.

tesla-model-sTesla’s challenge is not to prove it can produce compelling battery electric cars, provide remarkable all-electric driving range, or build a wildly enthusiastic – some would say fanatical – customer base. It has done all this. Its challenge is to continue this momentum by developing a full model lineup that includes a promised affordable model for the masses, its Model 3, at a targeted $35,000 price tag. It will be interesting to see if the Model 3 ultimately comes to market at that price point.

This is no easy thing. Battery costs remain very high and, in fact, Tesla previously shared that the Tesla Roadster’s battery pack cost in the vicinity of $30,000. While you can bury the cost of an expensive battery pack in a high-end electric car that costs $70,000 to over $100,000, you can’t do that today in a $35,000 model, at least not one that isn’t manufacturer subsidized and provides the 200+ mile range expected of a Tesla.

tesla-model-xThe company’s answer is a $5 billion ‘Gigafactory’ being built in Nevada that it claims will produce more lithium-ion batteries by 2020 than were produced worldwide in 2013. The company’s publicized goal is to trim battery costs by at least 30 percent to make its $35,000 electric car a reality and support its growing electric car manufacturing. Tesla has said it’s essential that the Gigafactory is in production as the Model 3 begins manufacturing. The billion dollar question is…can they really achieve the ambitious battery and production cost targets to do this over the next few years, or will this path lead to the delays that Tesla previously experienced with the Tesla Roadster, Model S, and Model X?

Tesla is well-underway with its goal of building out a national infrastructure of SuperCharger fast-charge stations along major transportation corridors to enable extended all-electric driving. These allow Tesla vehicles the ability to gain a 50 percent charge in about 20 minutes, although they are not compatible with other EVs. For all others, Bosch is undertaking a limited deployment of its sub-$10,000 DC fast charger that provides an 80 percent charge in 30 minutes. A joint effort by ChargePoint, BMW, and VW also aims to create express charging corridors with fast-charge capability on major routes along both coasts in the U.S.

chargepoint-chargerThe past 25 years have not secured a future for the battery electric car, but things are looking up. The next 10 years are crucial as cost, infrastructure, and consumer acceptance challenges are tackled and hopefully overcome to make affordable, unsubsidized electric cars a mass-market reality. It is a considerable challenge. Clearly, a lot of people are counting on it.

Der neue Volkswagen e-GolfVolkswagen has called for greater state and federal government support to bolster the next level of adoption of electric vehicles. At the 2015 Electric Drive Congress in Washington D.C., VW product marketing and strategy VP Jörg Sommer pointed out that automakers have largely delivered the electric vehicles that can satisfy the needs of most drivers, but also said more is needed. VW is investing $10 million in electric vehicle charging infrastructure by 2016 with other companies and industries also making significant EV infrastructure investments. Still, Sommer says that continuing legislative support is needed to accomplish strategic electric vehicle goals.

Specifically, VW would like to see federal financing support for creating fast charge networks along interstate corridors and in urban areas. It is also calling for a greater commitment on the part of state and federal organizations to buy battery electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids, with federal purchasing guidelines that support this by giving fleet purchasers greater flexibility. Also on VW’s radar is additional congressional support with the mid-term review of EPA’s greenhouse gas regulation, with the aim of extending plug-in vehicle multiplier credits beyond the 2021 model year.

DC Fast ChargeExpanding the driving range capabilities of electric cars through fast charging is of growing interest. Tesla has keyed in on this with its high-profile Supercharger network of fast chargers along major transportation corridors. While this is great for Tesla owners, it’s not a comfort to drivers of other EVs since the SuperCharger network is not compatible with their cars.

Enter ChargePoint, VW, and BMW, which have joined together to offer similar capabilities for other electric vehicle models. The three are developing express electric vehicle charging corridors with fast charging stations that allow EV drivers to recapture up to an 80 percent charge in just 20 minutes. Fast charging sites will be strategically spaced no more than 50 miles apart to make longer trips possible for EVs that incorporate a DC fast charging capability.

Initial efforts will focus on heavily-traveled routes on the East and West Coasts, providing 100 DC fast chargers at existing ChargePoint sites. The aim is to expand fast charging capabilities to other sites within the ChargePoint network, which already offers more than 20,000 charging spots in North America. EV drivers can access the network with a ChargePoint or ChargeNow card or with the ChargePoint mobile app.

toyota-fcvToyota has unveiled its hydrogen fuel cell vehicle that will be available for sale to California customers in summer 2015. The Toyota FCV four-door sedan is forward-looking with its blending of traditional sleek styling and aggressive futuristic exterior touches.

This is quite a departure from the Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell now on sale in California that packages hydrogen fuel cell power within a conventional-looking Tucson SUV. Honda took a more middle-of-the-road approach with its FCX Clarity fuel cell sedan that it began leasing to limited numbers of California customers in 2008, offering an advanced body design that, while not necessarily wildly futuristic, did preview many of the styling cues that would show up in Honda’s model lineup in future years.

toyota-fcv-rearLike its fuel cell competitors, the Toyota FCV is driven by electric motors powered by electricity electrochemically generated by a hydrogen fuel cell. Since there is no combustion, no CO2 is produced and the car emits only water vapor. The Toyota FCV is expected to travel 300 miles on a tank of hydrogen, providing the advantages of an electric car without the limitations of short driving range. Refueling is said to take less than five minutes.

While hydrogen fueling opportunities are admittedly sparse these days, Toyota is working toward a solution in California through its partnership with FirstElement Fuels. The aim is to support the long-term operation and maintenance of 19 new hydrogen refueling stations in that state, accessible by all model fuel cell vehicles. The availability of hydrogen fueling will determine where automakers initially offer their first fuel cell vehicles, thus the interest in California.

 

ron-cogan-test-driver-1Electric drive vehicles of all types are increasingly in the news, often led by a near-nonstop focus on Tesla and its Model S, Model X, and planned Model 3 battery electric vehicles. People want electric cars. Some feel they need them, or more accurately, that we all need them. It has been so for quite some time.

I was one of those pushing hard for electric vehicles in the 1990s, driving prototypes on test tracks and limited production models on the highway as I shared their benefits on the pages of Green Car Journal and Motor Trend before that. It was an exciting time filled with hope that battery breakthroughs would come, bringing full-function EVs offering the same driving range as conventional vehicles.

Expectations were high that a public charging infrastructure would expand to make topping off batteries convenient. New ideas like 15-minute rapid charging and battery swap stations would allow drivers of all model EVs the ability to renew on-board energy in the time it takes to enjoy a cup of coffee, enabling them to head back on the road in short order with a full battery charge. Importantly, there was an expectation that EVs would be affordable, both to manufacture and to buy.

If only this unfolded as expected, automakers would commit to developing battery electric vehicles of all types to meet the needs of an emerging market. But things have not unfolded as expected.

California’s Zero Emission Vehicle mandate drove the electric car surge in the 1990s and it’s a huge influence today. While less refined than electric models we have now, electrics of the 1990s like the Toyota RAV4 EV, Nissan Altra minivan, and Honda EV Plus were quite well engineered. Then there was GM’s EV1. Sleek, sexy, and fun, it provided a daily driving experience unparalleled in the field, something I came to appreciate well during the year I drove an EV1.

The challenge then was the same as now: cost. The EV1 was so costly to build with such massive losses there was no business case for it to continue, and so it ended, as all other electric vehicle programs of the 1990s ended, for the same reason.

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Early on, Volvo had the foresight to challenge the status quo. While evaluating ways to meet California’s impending ZEV mandate, the automaker concluded there was no way to do this realistically with a vehicle powered exclusively by batteries. In 1993, I test drove Volvo’s answer – its high-tech Environmental Concept Car (ECC) that added a high-speed turbine-generator to an electric drivetrain, thus creating what we now call a range-extended electric vehicle (think Chevy Volt). Sadly, the ECC’s high cost turbine-generator meant this innovative car never saw production. But it was at the leading edge of a movement that brought us hybrids and range-extended electric cars. Today, even BMW – a high-profile champion of electrics with its innovative  i3 – understands the importance of offering a range-extended variant with a gas engine-generator for those who prefer the convenience of longer range.

In answer to the chorus of Tesla enthusiasts sure to raise their voices, I am aware that Tesla is committed to all-electric vehicles and the range of the $70,000-$95,000 Model S (before the addition of popular options) is substantially greater than its competitors. The coming Model X electric crossover is expected to be in the same aspirational category as the Model S with a price suitable for premium buyers. The company's planned Model 3, presumably a vehicle accessible to the masses at a price Tesla says will be about $35,000, is said to be three years away. That's a good thing since significant battery cost reductions will be required to make this Tesla-for-the-masses electric an affordable reality. Will three years be enough? Achieving battery cost reductions of the magnitude required is no sure bet and, as history has proved, battery technology advances move at their own pace.

One stock analyst recently quoted in a major newspaper article shared that Tesla has the ability to reduce battery costs by nearly half in the coming three to five years. Of course, the backstory is that this ‘ability’ is really but a ‘potential’ based on batteries that do not yet commercially exist. The past 25 years are replete with examples of major government and industry efforts aimed at developing energy-dense, safe, and affordable electric car batteries that deliver the range and cost expectations of auto manufacturers and consumers. Over these years there have been many incremental improvements in battery design and chemistry, a slew of failures, and pending ‘breakthroughs’ that have often been promoted only to have expectations and actual production sidelined for a plethora of  reasons du jour.

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As just one recent example, Panasonic's 2009 announcement of a lithium-ion battery breakthrough using a silicon alloy cathode was accompanied with a claim it would be manufactured in 2012. Many positive reports on electric vehicles take into account this very ‘breakthrough’ and others like it, with the considerable cost reductions that would follow. Yet, Panasonic did not begin mass production of this battery technology in 2012. According to a Panasonic spokesman, the company’s work on developing high-capacity battery cells using a silicon-based negative electrode is ongoing. Hopefully,  developments like these will lead to the kind of mass production that could bring long-hoped-for battery performance and cost reductions. Perhaps this will come to pass with a mass effort by Tesla through its proposed $5 billion battery ‘Giga Factory,’ and perhaps not. But after 25 years of following battery development I have learned not to count on claims or development, but rather actual production and availability in the real world.

Tesla continues to develop its Supercharger quick-charge network and has potential plans for a battery swap system, both exclusively compatible with its own vehicles. An innovative and expanding infrastructure for battery electrics will be required for their ultimate success and these are very positive moves, although only for those with a Tesla product and not electric vehicle owners as a whole.

Battery electric vehicles priced at levels accessible to everyday buyers will continue to grapple with cost and marketing challenges until a battery breakthrough comes. This is illustrated by Fiat Chrysler Automobiles CEO Sergio Marchionne's comment earlier this year that the company is losing $14,000 on every one of the Fiat 500e electric cars it sells. Is it so different for other automakers also selling EVs in limited numbers and in constrained geographic locations? Not inconsequentially, to bolster the market battery electric cars will also require continuing federal and state incentives that combined typically total $10,000 or more. Hopefully, innovative thinking and real technology and cost breakthroughs will emerge in the years ahead.

In the meantime, gasoline-electric hybrids and plug-in hybrid models, plus range-extended electric vehicles that combine all-electric drive with an on-board electric generator, are providing functionality for everyone even as battery-only electric cars fight hard to establish their place in the automotive market. Let's hope that mass-market, nationally-available models like BMW's innovative i3 electric car change this dynamic sooner than later.

Available next month in California and Oregon, the new 2014 Spark EV 1LT can now be leased for as low as $199 per month for 36 months. Requiring a nominal $999 due at lease signing, which includes a security deposit but is exclusive of tax, title, and registration, now makes this small Chevy EV an affordable option for new car buyers interested in electric transportation.

The Chevy Spark EV's MSRP starts at $27,495 but is as low as $19,995 when factoring in an available $7,500 federal tax credit. Other state and local tax credits may be available to bring the price down further. Chevy says that compared to the average new gasoline-powered vehicle, the Spark EV can save drivers an average of $150 per month in fuel costs.

Driving range is an EPA estimated 82 miles, similar to that of other small EV models. Its combined fuel economy equivalent is rated by EPA at 119 MPGe. Charging with a Level 2 240-volt charger takes about seven hours and a 120-volt convenience charge cord comes standard, although charge time is considerably longer. Chevy points out that the Spark EV is the first electric vehicle on the market to offer an option to be charged via the recently approved SAE combo charger for DC Fast Charging, which will enable the Spark EV to recharge up to 80 percent of its capacity in 20 minutes. Of course, that’s when DC Fast Charging stations become available.

In-vehicle connectivity is well looked-after with Chevy’s MyLink infotainment system, which includes a seven-inch touch screen and integration with third-party apps and features such as Siri Eyes Free, Pandora, and BringGo navigation. These features require the user to purchase third party apps separately on a compatible smart phone. The Spark EV RemoteLink application, which requires a smart phone and OnStar subscription, provides an array of desired functions including charge status, scheduled charge timing, interior temperature pre-conditioning, and the ability to send a text or email for charge reminders.

Integrating photovoltaic cells on vehicles is nothing new. In fact, solar-powered race cars have been around for more than 25 years, proving that the power of the sun can indeed provide enough energy to propel a car down the road.

Of course, these cars are ultra-lightweight and plastered with solar cells on every conceivable surface, tasked with carrying just a driver at a constant speed.

While not practical for driving as we know it, they are valuable engineering exercises that helped move the bar in developing electric vehicle efficiencies. Just one example is GM’s Sunraycer solar race car, built under the guidance of the renowned master of efficiencies, the late Paul MacCready of AeroVironment, which won the World Solar Challenge in Australia in 1987.

Lessons learned were applied to the GM Impact electric car prototype – precursor to the GM EV1 – that AeroVironment built under contract for GM and was unveiled by the automaker at the 1990 L.A. Auto Show.

Solar panels were notably integrated on the hood and rear deck of Solar Electric Engineering’s Destiny 2000, an electric car upfitted from a gasoline powered Pontiac Fiero we test drove back in 1994. Today, Audi uses a solar panel on its top-of-the-line A8. Toyota offers an optional Solar Roof package for the Prius.

While some might think these can help power an electric car, their relatively low energy output can realistically do little more than trickle-charge batteries or, more appropriately, power low-demand ventilation systems while an electric car is parked to help keep interior temperatures cooler on hot days without draining the battery.

Today there’s a new champion of solar ingenuity on the road. The Fisker Karma plug-in electric hybrid luxury sedan features probably the most sophisticated solar roof ever offered on a production model, using the world’s largest continuous-formed glass solar panel on an automobile. Not only does it keep the Karma’s interior cool on a hot day, but also supplies electricity to the car’s 12 volt system used for starting and accessories, relieving the high voltage lithium-ion battery system from tapping energy needed for driving. This can increase range, though admittedly a small amount.

To create the large solar panel, 80 small monocrystalline cells are individually hand-laid under automotive safety glass to follow the contours of the roof.  The solar panel has four electrically separate zones, each consisting of 20 cells in series. Each of the four zones incorporates MPP (maximum power point) tracking to optimize power output under various solar radiation angles and partial shading conditions. The splayed solar cell array design maximizes solar ray absorption under various lighting conditions, while the graphic accent running between the cells lends a unique and futuristic appearance.

A Karma driver can choose three solar power modes. In the Charging mode, as much solar energy as possible is stored in the battery. When Climate is chosen, solar power is used to ventilate the passenger compartment to reduce the effects of radiant heating. In the default Auto mode, the Karma will use solar power to maximize energy recovery and usage.

On a typical day, the solar panel supplies 0.5 kilowatt-hours of electricity. When used for battery charging, Fisker says over the course of a year that translates to maybe 200 emissions-free miles. That’s free energy, for sure. But how meaningful is that in the scheme of things? Like others before it, the Karma’s solar roof – with its imposing look and obvious green credentials – is a step in the right direction, showcasing innovation and yet another way to embrace renewable energy. It is an environmental friend, with benefits…but it’s hardly a statement that solar powered, highway capable cars are upon us. Still, free energy is, well…free energy…and we like it.