Electric Vehicles but Not as We Know Them

Peter Harrop | Aug 19, 2010


Electric vehicles use electricity wholly or partly for traction - making them go along. That encompasses an increasingly large variety of modes of travel by land, sea and air. Add to that fresh water. Electric vehicle manufacturers and those supplying their components vary from ones that are so large, well funded and ambitious that they go for the biggest opportunity, which is hybrid cars for the next decade. At the other extreme, small niche players with astute marketing are dominating niches. Sadly, in between, there are a lot of underfunded, delusional vehicle and parts manufacturers that go for the largest markets without much thought about how they could have more chance of success in niches, let alone create such niches. Yet those smaller market sectors often involve premium pricing, specialist technologies and components and power trains both much larger and much smaller than those for cars.

The truth is that an electric power train offers a huge number of benefits from quietness, reliability, maneuverability and acceleration to environmental credentials and, in the military, little or no heat signature for missiles to home in on. A hybrid vehicle can even act as a power supply for military or civil work carried out at destination.

Here are just a few of the increasing variety of applications of electric vehicle technology.

Year of introduction of new types of electric vehicle.

Micro hybrids are just off the radar. This is a tongue in cheek term for conventional vehicles that automatically switch off the engine when the vehicle comes to a halt and automatically switch it on when the accelerator is next pressed. They tend to use larger batteries and/ or regenerative braking to manage this. Many vehicle manufacturers are caught wrong footed with no electric vehicles in their range, so calling stop start conventional vehicles "micro hybrids" buys them time while helping to meet tighter pollution laws such as those recently introduced in Europe.

Forecasting the future markets for real electric vehicles is tricky because so many new sectors are emerging. For example, over 37 million will be sold in 2015 but the variety will be formidable.

Let us look at some of the niches, many of which have hefty funding and can lead to billion dollar activities.

Military innovation

Military traction batteries need to be very reliable, even bullet proof, and, when they are in hybrids, sharply reduce fuel consumption to create operational flexibility. For example, in 2010, Quantum Fuel Systems Technologies Worldwide, Inc., announced its Clandestine Electric Reconnaissance Vehicle (CERV), an all-wheel-drive diesel hybrid electric vehicle designed by Quantum and TARDEC's National Automotive Center (NAC) with funding support from the US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM). The unit can maintain speeds of 80 miles per hour and climb 60 percent grades - all while reducing fuel consumption by up to 25 percent compared with conventional vehicles of comparable size. QT has developed a land-based V22 hybrid reconnaissance surveillance and targeting vehicle "RSTV", a hybrid FMTV truck and a hybrid line hauler. The development budget granted by the US military for the projects was $43 million.

New marine markets

Battery driven surface craft help to meet pollution regulations from India to the USA. Indeed, on some inland lakes, the internal combustion engine is banned so even fast boats pulling water skiers are pure electric. Out at sea, the Autonomous Underwater Vehicle AUV has considerable funding because its uses are widening rapidly. They already include sea condition monitoring, meteorology, oil rig maintenance, research, mine and submarine detection and countermeasures, search and rescue and mineral prospecting. Some stay at sea for years, so their batteries, energy harvesting and control electronics have to be highly sophisticated. These are not toy traction batteries either. AUVs may look like torpedoes but their traction batteries are typically 60kWh in capacity and some being developed to take 300kWh batteries, much bigger than those in an electric car and pressure resistant. The market for existing types of AUV alone is worth $2.3bn over the next decade with 1,400 new AUVs built particularly for military, scientific and oil and gas sectors according to the IET. AUV traction battery packs can be 20% of the cost and some AUVs cost $5 million each. Read about the Gulf of Mexico and realise that many more AUV types are needed.

Yachts become electric vehicles

A particularly brilliant example of creation of a new market for traction batteries happened this year. In February, Valence Technology signed a deal worth up to $45 million to supply the largest yacht maker in the world, Bénéteau Group of France with traction batteries for a new concept of fully integrated hybrid yachts, sailboats and motor boats. The global leisure boat market is at least $20 billion - some niche.

"This is a revolution, not an evolution, in marine propulsion, energy generation, storage and management," said Robert L. Kanode, President & CEO, Valence Technology. "Bénéteau is setting a new blue water standard for cleaner sailing yachts. Ports and harbors around the world will be cleaner, quieter and safer thanks to Valence Technology's safe, dynamic energy systems and the forward thinking of companies like Bénéteau Group, and ZF Marine, a pioneer in electric pod drives."

"The teams from the Bénéteau Group and Valence Technology have been working closely together for many months now, with the combination of their expertise paving the way for this major technological breakthrough," said Dieter Gust, Management Board Member, Bénéteau Group.

In a major departure from the way boats and yachts have been manufactured for decades, new hybrid-electric sea-going vessels yield low to zero-emissions, reduce fuel consumption and require less maintenance than traditional diesel marine propulsion systems. Valence Technology dynamic energy storage systems can power both propulsion and auxiliary power systems without affecting the vessel's performance or functionality. One of the most innovative features of the new hybrid drive system is the capability to recharge the advanced battery packs without the use of noisy, polluting diesel generators.

Electric aircraft get serious

Electric aircraft are ceasing to be one offs. Many organisations are involved including AeroVironment, Aurora Flight Sciences, Electric Aircraft Corporation, GE Aviation Systems, Yuneec International, Sonex Aircraft, Earthstar Aircraft, DARPA, ACV Electroservices, Electravia, NASA and a host of universities and research centers. There is even APAME in France, which translates as the Association for the Promotion of Electrical Engine Aircraft. This is getting to be quite an industry.

Related Topics


Very informative and interesting article Peter much better than many I have read here that focus on electric vehicles as though it is the only market. In fact it is likely the last market that will be impacted by electric vehicles due to the formidable infrastructure and economics surrounding gas driven vehicles. I see natural gas as making more inroads into that market than electric vehicles.

One area that you did not discuss is electric trains which are very common in Britain and Europe but almost non-existent in North America. Given the long distances high speed electric trains are ideal for the North American market but it requires the infrastructure first and that initiative is sadly lacking in the US and Canada. Even the new rail line to Toronto airport is going to be operated by diesel trains running through highly populated areas. How dumb is that!!!

Linear electric hovertrains would be the perfect solution for North America but we have exactly none of these......and we wonder why we are still dependent on oil.

The point is that it seems rather idiotic to develop exotic devices such as electric aeroplanes when we seem to be completely incapable of deploying the electric train technology we already have.


Flying with batteries seems a dubious venture to me when yet the railroads haven't chosen to convert.

Greetings Peter,

You've presented a very interesting perspective on electric vehicles. The batteries that may be best suited for vehicular application may not be the optimal choice for private cars. The flow battery that stores energy in the liquid electrolyte is suitable for certain types of marine applications and light duty railway application. The shock loads that most railway locomotives routinely encounter require an virtually indestructable battery.

NGK has developed a large scale molten metallic battery of several megawatt-hour storage capability . . . best used for stationary applications and perhaps some marine applications.

Compressed air and battery is well proven in mining locomotives and is being developed for some automotive applications (eg: Tata Motors of India). The cost of Lithium batteries will result in electric vehicles for a high-end consumer market such as the Tesla vehicle.

When it comes to storage, stationary energy storage powering commuter trains, streetcars and trolleybuses is one of the more cost competitive options.

For niche applications, batteries may well be feasible in aircraft, though only a very few will every carry people. At least one European manufacturer has built an electrically powered aircraft that can fly for just under an hour. It may be a motor glider, in which case the 40 hp electric motor gets the glider airborne and then it's shut off.

Of all the things you are forgetting the Sun. This will be main source of Energy for the future and for charging the Batteries.Have you forgotton Nuclear Bateries?. True in an accident this will be catastrophic but then these can be made collision proof . Nuclear batteries for Vehicles will be far long lasting than chemical ones
These batteries are no longer a case for Science Fiction.When mass produced and using enormous amount of spent radioactive material thru recycling these will prove highly economic..

Hybrid vehicles that use an electric drive train do not change anything.

They are marginally more efficient than conventional gasoline powered vehicles. However, reducing vehicle size and weight would have the same effect using a straight gasoline engine. Diesel engines offer about the same efficiency as hybrids, but the efficiency increase with diesel engines is spread over the entire operating range, city and highway.

PHEVs would decrease petroleum use a little, but would be very dependent on the type of driving being done.

It all boils down to, if you not use petroleum you can't do it with a hybrid or a plug in hybrid vehicle. You still have to put in petroleum to get anywhere .

The only way that hybrids really make much sense is if they use a charging engine that runs on a biofuel. I don't know of any that do.

"You still have to put in petroleum to get anywhere ." --- If that's true, then this social organization has PERHAPS one more generation to last.

Unless we make some big changes, and fast, that is right.

The EEU took all the known oil reserves, and using the current rate of consumption as of Jan. 1, 2010 calculated the date that the last drop of oil on earth will be used.

20:58 Oct. 22, 2047.

Assuming of coarse, that we do not increase the rate of consumption, which we have been doing at the rate of 2.6% per year over the last 20 years on average according to the DOE and USGS. Also assuming that we don't pour hundreds of millions of gallons into the ocean. Deduct 1 year for each 1% increase in usage.

US DoD expects us to start reaching critical effects of peak oil sometime between 2015 and 2020. They are making strategic planning scenarios based on these assumptions right now.

I am looking at manufacturer's advertisements and pictures of electric cars of a hundred years ago.

This article is titled "Electric Vehicles but Not as We Knew Them." I would have titled it "Electric Vehicles, How little You Have Changed." I can't at the moment think of anything that has changed less in the last hundred years. There was the Pope, the Baker, Argo, Rauch and Long, the Columbus and more. I actually saw some of these cars gliding silently along and many Marshal Field electric delivery trucks in service in the Loop with their distinctive horn to gently warn pedestrians of their silent approach.

Then, as now the intractable problem was the range restricted by their lead/acid batteries. By 1910 range had increased to about 75 miles at 25 mph. In 1910, except for city boulevards, there was hardly anywhere you could drive even 25 mph. Regular streets were clogged with horse-drawn vehicles.

"I can't at the moment think of anything that has changed less in the last hundred years." -- 1) AC motors 2) Three-phase IGBET inverters 3) high-voltage AC chargers 4) Lion and NICad batteries. 5) Intelligent cell-charge-discharge monitoring 6) Regenerative braking 7) solid-state digital signal controls.

An electrician from the 1900's wouldn't have a clue how a modern electric vehicle works, it would be magic to him. The IC engine has changed less, at least a mechanic from 1900's would recognize the main components.

8) Permanent magnet motor fields. 9) etc. etc.

9) high-performance structural alloys in the motor structures. 10) waterproof shaft seals. 11) permanently lubricated motor bearings. 12) motor bearings capable of 11,000 rpm in normal long-life operation. 12) etc. etc.

Very interesting and thoughtful article.

It was intriguing to see the name Ferdinand Porsche in the table of electric vehicles. The latest Porsche Magazine has an article about the latest Porsche racing cars that spin up a fly wheel when braking into turns, then a motor clutches in to add acceleration through the turn. It increases total acceleration and reduces the fuel load the car needs to carry, making it more competitive. Hybrids may become standard technology for high end race cars.

I have misplaced an article published by the American Automobile Association (AAA) about how the limited amount of oil available will hinder the growing use of automobiles, and I doubt I will be able to find a reprint of that 1922 article. Remember how we ran out of natural gas in the 1970s? Oops, we have a lot of it.

As an economist I read the engineering thoughts with interest. It appears electric vehicles can make sense for stop and go, low speed city driving, and natural gas for a range where we know we can get refueled. In my family fleet I would readily include one each. I am probably not unique at all in being ready to purchase cars to fill multiple niches. So where is the dealer with a diesel cycle natural gas burning car that handles like a BMW?

Dean---a hybrid, or plug in hybrid that has a charging motor that runs on compressed natural gas would make sense. A diesel charging motor could run on petroleum, petroleum and biodiesel mixtures, and/or natural gas---whichever is available. It costs about 1/2 to drive the same distance using compressed natural gas as it does using petroleum.

You can have the high efficiency and durability of a diesel engine, the increased stop and go efficiency of a hybrid and low pollution in urban environments, and the economy of CNG for long range. CNG produces only 65% of the CO2 producing the same amount of work compared to petroleum. It is abundant and easy to extract. It can be shipped by pipeline, or liquified to become very energy dense. Since it is a gas, there are no problems with vaporization even in very cold conditions, and it is easy to remove impurities before it is used.

There are however problems with this type of vehicle idea and it will probably never see production. Diesel and electric motors are very durable and long lasting. They do not fit the use it then lose it economic model of planned obsolescence we currently have. These vehicles could easily be made to last 30-50 years of normal service with minimal care. Auto manufacturers are not anxious to build cars meant to last 50 years. Petroleum producers are not anxious to have vehicles use fuel that costs less than 1/3 of their product on the road. Governments are not anxious to offend carmakers or energy companies and lose the big $$$ they lavish on them.

There seems to be this peculiar notion in the environmental movement that the “evil” car makers, oil producers, utilities etc, etc are all conspiring against man to ruin the environment. Utter crap.

Provided the government does not stifle competition, there is a constant interplay between those willing to buy and those willing to sell, with the impact on the planet varying more or less in proportion to what we collectively are willing to put up with. That may not always please everyone. Those in the minority need to accept this fact and stop attempting to dictate how we are to live out our lives.

Michael Keller-----" There seems to be this peculiar notion in the environmental movement that the “evil” car makers, oil producers, utilities etc, etc are all conspiring against man to ruin the environment. Utter crap."--------

Yes, it is utter crap. What they are conspiring to do is make as much profit as they possibly can, at the expense of the environment and the safety and well being of people. Why do you think the CEO came out of the meeting with President Obama all smiles----and suddenly Obama is telling people that having BP go into bankruptcy is not in the interest of anyone? Because he allowed them to pledge $20 Billion against future earnings from the sale of oil that the American people own, to the American people, to clean up the mess that they made. No matter who writes the checks, the American people are paying for BP's negligence. The American people will pay entirely for the oil spill and its consequences whether they are taxpayers or when they buy oil---and that means any oil, not just BP oil, because oil is a commodity.

-------" Provided the government does not stifle competition, there is a constant interplay between those willing to buy and those willing to sell, with the impact on the planet varying more or less in proportion to what we collectively are willing to put up with."-------------------

There is no competition to stifle. The petroleum industry functions as a cartel monopoly. There is no competition. When the government mandates that all new vehicles sold in the US need to be multifuel and biofuel capable, then there will be competition. When consumers have a choice of what to put in their fuel tank, then there will be competition. Want proof that petroleum is a monopoly? Watch some advertisements for oil companies. Most of them do not even mention what the company sells.

---------" That may not always please everyone. Those in the minority need to accept this fact and stop attempting to dictate how we are to live out our lives."--------

How would a mandate that all vehicles sold must be multifuel capable be dictating how you live out your life? The Fiat Siena Tetrafuel can run on gasoline, gasoline and ethanol mixtures, pure hydrous ethanol(straight from the still, no blending) and methane(compressed natural gas and/or biomethane or any % mixture of the two) Let consumers choose what they want to run their vehicles on. If YOU want to use petroleum, fine, use all the petroleum you want. I am confident that most consumers will want to use methane. Methane produces only about 65% of the CO2 that petroleum to provide the same amount of energy, it costs about 1/2 to drive the same distance, and it burns so clean that oil changes only need to be done about 30,000 to 50,000 miles instead of 3,000 to 5,000 as with petroleum.

I am sure that given an even up free choice of what to use, you will find that the people choosing petroleum will be a minority..........a small minority.

BTW----I have driven CNG vehicles when I lived in Europe. Without checking the fuel switch monitor light, it is impossible to tell if you are running on petroleum or CNG, unless you are driving a diesel----there is no exhaust smoke with biodiesel or methane, and no diesel smell.

So who’s the arbiter of what constitutes “too much profit”. The government? The leftist environmentalists? Neither are qualified. Let the marketplace and well defined limits (i.e. laws that we, the majority, collectively put in place) work it out.

Did the BP screw-up knock the planet off its axis? No. Was it a mess? Sure, but there was no reason to go into the utter hysterics of the press and liberal elite.

If there appears to be a good demand for “multi-fueled” vehicles, then industry will build them. That demand is driven by cost. Toyota had the wisdom to design and build hybrid vehicles, in part so they could make money. The US government did not direct them to do it.

I seriously doubt that most folks will pay massive premiums (e.g. the Volt) for “green” vehicles because it makes no economic sense.

---" Did the BP screw-up knock the planet off its axis?"-------

It did if you happen to be a person whose world depends on Gulf fishing or tourism. And that is several hundred thousand people.

-----" .......but there was no reason to go into the utter hysterics of the press and liberal elite."--------

I would not term most Cajuns I know as "liberal elite"---far from it.

====" If there appears to be a good demand for “multi-fueled” vehicles, then industry will build them."========

Fiat does, in Brazil, where the government has mandated that all new vehicles sold must be flex fuel, biofuel capable.

=======" That demand is driven by cost. "=======

Under $20,000 US. Demand has run about 2 to 3 X manufacturing capability.

======" I seriously doubt that most folks will pay massive premiums (e.g. the Volt) for “green” vehicles because it makes no economic sense."=======

Appearantly it does in Argentina and Brazil, it costs about 1/2 the amount to run their vehicles on CNG as compared to petroleum. And if CNG is not available, they can run on Brazilian regular gasoline, E25(25% ethanol). Or, they can run on pure ethanol if the price of gasoline should skyrocket again. Or, they can run on pure petroleum gasoline if they leave Brazil and there is no ethanol or CNG available.

"The government? The leftist environmentalists? Neither are qualified. Let the marketplace and well defined limits (i.e. laws that we, the majority, collectively put in place) work it out." -- Sorta wierd. A uniquely american attitude. Fred, "we, the majority" and "government" are one and the same thing. Even in the USA. Even if you don't agree with "the majority".

Len-----you are quoting Micheal.

The marketplace will decide. But EVs look very promising for local and commuting travel. There are 132 million US commuters and the average commute is well within the 80-mile range of present vehicles. If vehicles were streamlined to minimize electricity use (i.e. not SUV’s), the night grid can easily handle that load.