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He Got a Charge Out of Assignment

Environment * A skeptic is won over by the electric vehicle after spending time with seven different models. They are the cars of the future, after all.

October 25, 2000|JOHN O'DELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Learning to live with an electric vehicle isn't difficult in Southern California, but it is not a seamless transition either.

Think of switching from carnivore to vegetarian: Suddenly you've got some cooking implements you'll never use again, others that you need to rush out and buy. You have to change your shopping habits and hunt farther afield for goodies to make meals tasty.

Same is true with an electric car.

You don't need to hunt for gas stations anymore, but you have to memorize the locations of charging stations, and the routes that best get you to them.

You have to be far more aware of mileage than ever before--and you have to plan even short trips with the precision of a general plotting a military maneuver.

Spontaneous trips to any point farther than half-a-charge away are out, and you'd better always know just how much of a charge your vehicle is carrying.

You also have to invest $800 to $1,800 in a 220-volt charger for your garage, and you'd best remember to plug in every night.

Once you have the charger, though, you always start out in the morning with the electric equivalent of a full tank, at an average cost of about $1 per fill-up at Southern California Edison Co.'s off-peak residential rate of 4.5-cents per kilowatt-hour.

You never have to go to the gas station (or worry about escalating gas prices), and you have few if any routine mechanical repairs or maintenance chores to worry about. Electric motors don't need oil changes, timing chain adjustments, spark plugs or tuneups.

Regular maintenance consists mainly of having the electronics inspected and the special low-resistance EV tires (almost all tire companies make a line of them) rotated every 5,000 miles or so.

There also are a few operational quirks that make an EV different from an ICE-V (internal-combustion engine vehicle), but otherwise, there's not a lot of strangeness involved.

Get used to transmissions with a single forward speed, to the electric hum that replaces a gasoline engine's roar--and to the absolute and initially unnerving lack of any throttle response when you start up or when you jiggle the accelerator pedal while idling at a stoplight--and most EVs available today are almost indistinguishable from their ICE cousins. Most, in fact, are converted ICEs--only Honda Motor Co.'s EV-Plus and General Motors Corp.'s EV1 were built from the ground up to be electric vehicles.

I found that out as I spent four weeks humming around Orange County in a series of electric vehicles to see for myself just how hard--or simple--it would be.

I wasn't an EV fan when I started, but I became one. I don't use one now, because on my household budget I can't afford the payments. But if I could, and if I needed to replace one of the two ICEs my wife and I use for daily transportation, I'd get an electric in a flash.

I'd do it for all the benefits listed above: for the environmental benefits of driving a car with no tailpipe and no tailpipe emissions and because California now allows single-occupant EVs (and other alternative-fuel vehicles) to use the diamond lanes. There's also the pragmatic reason that electrics are the vehicles of the future, so we might as well start getting used to them.

*

That's not a particularly bold prediction, by the way.

The debate over the marketability of electrics today isn't really about electric cars, it's about the effectiveness of the present method of getting the electrical fuel on board.

Batteries, the principal commercial means today, have a lot of problems--foremost their high initial cost and the need to take the vehicle out of service frequently to recharge them. But figure out a way to generate electricity on board (that's what the hydrogen fuel cell does), or to recharge a battery pack in five minutes instead of five hours, and a whole lot of the argument against EVs goes away.

I have another prediction, based on the fact that cars still sell on the basis of looks and performance: Once word gets out that a well-designed EV with its all-torque all-the-time motor can run circles around most conventional ICE-Vs, demand will go up.

(I offer as proof of that performance claim GM's experiments with the EV1, rated at the electric motor equivalent of 137 horsepower and 110 foot-pounds of torque. The motor's governor was disconnected and top speeds of 188 mph were achieved without additional modification. Dodge boasts of the V-10 Viper's 450 horsepower and 490 foot-pounds of ground-shaking torque. But its top speed is just a hair faster, at 192 mph. Need more? How about the tZero electric sports car built by AC Propulsion in San Dimas? Its zero-to-60-mph acceleration time of 4.9 seconds will keep it wheel-to-wheel with a Corvette at the drag strip.

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