From the origins of Stanley Steamer to a test-drive of a Nissan Leaf, 25 guests received an evening of history and science at “The 180-Year History of Electric Vehicles” at Apex’s Halle Cultural Arts Center on July 10.
The Apex Historical Society sponsored the event. Dr. Ewan Pritchard, Director of Industry, Collaboration and Innovation for Advanced Transportation Energy Center at North Carolina State University, presented a brief timeline of electric and hybrid vehicles. It stretched from 1821, when British scientist Michael Faraday invented the electric motor, to 1901, when Thomas Edison invented the nickel-iron battery.
Dr. Pritchard discussed how electric vehicles attracted drivers because of their easy use.
“The thing people really liked about electric vehicles was they could just get in and drive,” unlike gasoline-powered cars that required turning a crank to start, Dr. Pritchard said.
He also displayed early 20th century advertisements for electric cars. One featured the Baker Electric Torpedo, which dominated the market from 1905 to 1908 and reached a speed record of 42 miles per hour in 1902.
What killed the electric vehicle movement, Dr. Pritchard said, was the release of the Ford Model A in 1908 and Model T in 1909. Henry Ford’s landmark gasoline-powered cars had faster speeds, longer ranges and lower costs than Baker Electric or Detroit Electric vehicles, and sales skyrocketed over the next two decades.
Production of electric vehicles stopped altogether in the 1930s, Dr. Pritchard said. One casualty of gas-powered cars was Stanley Steamer, which originally sold steam-powered cars, then moved to carpet cleaning after gasoline won the day.
Dr. Pritchard talked about modern America’s dependence on fossil fuels for its energy needs.
“As fuel prices increase, there’s an increased need to improve fuel economy,” Dr. Pritchard’s PowerPoint slide said.
Dr. Pritchard listed several toxins associated with gasoline emissions. They included nitrogen oxides, which form ozone with sunlight and can cause lung damage when inhaled, nitric acid, which causes acid rain and carbon dioxide, which contributes to the greenhouse effect and global climate change.
Dr. Pritchard also said that particulate matter from emissions, depending on the particles’ size, can enter the upper respiratory system or travel through the lungs to the bloodstream. There they can cause congestion, lung damage, pulmonary distress and damage to arteries and veins.
Dr. Pritchard also talked about the semantics of cars. He said that of a single gallon of gas:
- 62.4 percent goes to the engine
- 17.2 percent is lost idling
- 12.6 percent is used to propel the car forward
- 2.2 percent goes to accessories like headlights
He said that electric cars minimize losses to driveline, idling and the engine that are commonly found in gasoline cars.
Dr. Pritchard showed several videos on different electric and hybrid cars, including the Chevrolet Volt. According to the video, the Volt can travel 94 miles per gallon on electric power and 37 miles per gallon on gas. A Volt driver can drive up to 900 miles between fill-ups and save $1500 per year in gas.
Dr. Pritchard also showed a video displaying what NC State students are doing to improve cars’ battery life. The experiment featured students cooking a non-woven fiber, pressing it into polymers and testing its durability in different climate conditions.
In the video, Dr. Pritchard called energy and its storage “the next big frontier,” and compared its study today to the curiosity about desktop computers in the 1980s.
“You don’t quite know where it’s going, but you know it’s going to be big,” Dr. Pritchard said.
He also discussed problems with implementing electric and hybrid technology. He referenced Advanced Energy’s Plug-In Hybrid School Bus Program, which has succeeded in getting 200 hybrid buses on the streets, including one in Wake County. He said public hesitancy and the $220,000 price tag of each bus have been big obstacles to getting more school districts to adopt the buses.
“These things need a lot of engineering and a lot of development. People don’t have the confidence in these vehicles yet. We want government support to help us get over that one big hurdle,” he said.
Dr. Pritchard said that while the technology is catching on, it will take much more time and work to convince a significant portion of the public to buy electric and hybrid vehicles.
“We’re not going to make [President] Obama’s goal of 1 million [hybrid] vehicles by 2015. We’ll probably make it by 2018. We just can’t convince that many people that quickly to change,” he said.
The presentation ended with an up-close look at a Nissan Leaf parked outside the building. Dr. Pritchard took two groups of guests for a test drive around the block, where he pointed out the car’s low noise and how the car saved energy when idling and used just enough to get over hills.
Dr. Pritchard said that electric and hybrid vehicles are the way of the future, and that today’s young people are paving the way.
“The easiest vehicle to build is an electric vehicle, by far. We have high school students doing it,” he said.