The Electric Future
November 17th, 2011 by Kalie Eyman

The increased driving range and affordability of lithium-ion batteries will drive plug-in car sales

A new Nissan Leaf charges at the Royal Moore dealership station in Oregon before it is delivered to a customer.

A new Nissan Leaf charges at the Royal Moore dealership station in Oregon before it is delivered to a customer.

Long gone are the days when car electricity came from a lead-acid battery and the only device plugged in the garage outlet was a power tool. Electric hybrid technology has come a long way in the past couple of years, and major automobile companies have caught on.

The Toyota Prius has been a staple for the hybrid car movement, but the recent development by several competitors of efficient and reliable plug-in cars could make electric hybrids an increasingly popular choice. In 2011, Chevrolet was the first major American auto manufacturer to release a plug-in hybrid. The Chevrolet Volt, which starts at $41,000, features a 16-kilowatt lithium-ion battery that can be fully charged in eight hours from a standard 120-volt outlet.

The key difference between earlier hybrid models and new plug-in hybrids is the battery. For its size and weight, a lithium-ion battery can store more energy for longer when compared with other rechargeable batteries.

Recent hybrid models—such as the 2011 Ford Escape—still use a 330-volt sealed nickel-metal-hydride battery, but many large auto companies plan to release a plug-in hybrid with a lithium-ion battery next year.

The 2012 Ford Escape will have a lithium-ion 10-kWh battery. Hyundai, Audi and Mercedes also plan to release lithium-ion plug-in hybrids in 2012.

Dave Von Tersch, sales manager of Royal Moore Auto Center in Hillsboro, Oregon, says the amount of electricity used to charge an electric car is minimal compared with the electricity used by an average home.

“It costs about $1 a day to charge the car, but that’s only if you completely depleted the charge every day,” says Dave. “Knowing the environmental benefits and how this would lessen our oil dependency, it is well worth it compared to gas.”

The 2011 Nissan Leaf features a timer the owner can set to stop the car from drawing electricity at a certain hour or when it is fully charged.

The Leaf had been delayed since December due to manufacturing issues and the earthquake in Japan, but now is one of the first 100-percent electric cars on the market, starting at $33,720 without possible rebates and tax savings.

Unlike many of the hybrid plug-in models that include a gas option, the Leaf has no gas motor and, therefore, is emissions free. The Leaf has a driving range of about 100 miles before it needs to be recharged. The Volt can go 35 miles gas-free and up to 375 miles on gas mode.

“In time, the battery pack will have shorter charging times and longer driving ranges,” Dave predicts. “In a few years, along major highways you will see charging docks available to the public as well.”

Older electric vehicles and plug-in models have a significantly lower driving range on electric mode. One of the most recognizable hybrids—the 2009 Prius—has a full-electric range of about 12 miles.

Although the 2011 plug-in Prius has a lithium-ion battery, it still has a short electric driving range of 13 miles. However, the 2011 Prius charges from a standard outlet in three hours using about 1 kilowatt, and it is about $7,000 cheaper than the Leaf. The shorter driving range of the Prius might not make it a good option for those who commute long distances to work or into town, and want to use the gas-free mode.

For now, plug-in hybrids offer the most realistic option. The Volt gets 60 miles per gallon on gas mode, and more than 90 mpg equivalent mileage on full-electric mode.

A common concern about hybrid vehicles is the battery life and cost of replacement. The average cost of battery replacement for the Prius is $2,500. Nissan has not yet released a battery replacement estimate for the Leaf.

Nonetheless, many consumers are willing to pay the price for the sake of efficiency and the environment. Electricity does not depend on foreign oil, and it is a domestic energy source that can be environmentally-friendly through solar, hydro, nuclear or wind power.

As battery technology advances and charging stations become more prevalent, the new plug-in hybrids offer the best of both worlds: more efficient energy use and great gas mileage.

A Driverless Road
Google has kept a tight lid on its potential entry into the automotive market, but a Google spokesperson recently mentioned the company is researching the possibility of driverless cars.

The technology for this futuristic idea may not be that far off. Auto manufacturers have researched it for years.
Autonomous cars would help reduce traffic and accidents, and would provide drivers with free time during the drive.

Although Google claims to be in the research stage, rumors circulated about the company lobbying for legislation in Nevada to allow driverless cars.

According to Google, the car system would use video cameras, radar sensors and a laser range finder.
It may be a stretch to assume Google will enter the auto market as a supplier or manufacturer, but there is a strong possibility Google could supply the driver system software necessary for driverless cars of the future.

Sources: Fortune Magazine, CNN