The Case for the Electric Automobile

Can the electric automobile save us all from asphyxiation? The author of this argument thinks so, and that the getting there will be at least as much fun, insurance rates lower, and driving more comfortable. Mr. Carr is a veteran research chemist who has directed research for petroleum companies and has written two books, THE BREATH OF LIFE(on air pollution) and DEATH OF THE SWEET WATERS(on wafer pollution).

by Donald E. Carr

As AN urban-suburban “subcompact” vehicle, the electric automobile is undeniably the only hope for stopping the otherwise inevitable asphyxiation of our cities. Yet only two years ago, when I brought out a book recommending the electric car as a solution to air pollution of the Los Angeles kind, both oil and automobile industries reacted as if I had recommended returning to the surrey with the fringe on top. An oil company spokesman said, “Pollution problems have become aggravated to the point where we cannot afford to spend money and waste time going up blind alleys.”

The implication here is that the electric automobile is a blind alley. On the contrary, the darkest of blind alleys is the pathetic attempt to doctor up the internal-combustion engine so that it will stop emitting poisons. Since this attempt is going to be enforced by federal law beginning with all 1968 cars and pickup trucks, it is worthwhile to discuss the present emission-control program.

Two systems now prevail: air-injection in the exhaust manifold to reduce the concentration of unburned fuel and carbon monoxide; and improved piston design to accomplish more complete primary combustion combined with carburetion tuning so that the fuel-air mixture never becomes excessively fuel-rich. The latter is the “Chrysler Clean Air Package” and seems to be gaining ground, since Ford and American and probably General Motors are switching to it, primarily because it is much Jess expensive (about $14 compared with about $40 extra for air injection, as factory installed). Both of these systems when correctly adjusted in brand-new cars will reduce hydrocarbons in the exhaust to the legal maximum of 275 parts per million and carbon monoxide to the 1.5 percent limit.

As shown by recent tests on 1966 cars in California, where emission control is now required by law, these systems falter, get out of kilter, and after as little as 2000 miles of city driving, no longer can do the job. Pollution control officials in Los Angeles County and elsewhere in the state agree with the car manufacturers that frequent mechanical checks, inspections, and revamps are going to be necessary, yet the checking process is so timeconsuming that a car owner must sacrifice his vehicle for twelve hours or at least overnight just to find out whether he is obeying the law. Moreover, there are not enough trained mechanics to go around.

Far worse than the matter of inefficiency or inconvenience is the fact that the 1966 emission control systems, especially the now dominant Chrysler technique, would actually increase the nitrogen oxide content of the exhaust. This result, predicted by all combustion chemists, including myself, has been borne out by recent surveys which showed an average of 50 percent more nitrogen dioxide. This is the whiskey-brown poison gas that killed 125 people in 1 929, when an explosion in a stack of nitrocellulose X-ray films released deadly NO2 fumes throughout the wards of the Cleveland Clinic Hospital. In experiments it has been possible to convert the nitrogen oxide to inert nitrogen gas with a catalytic muffler. But because this requires a reducing rather than an oxidizing atmosphere, which the present factory-installed systems emit to the exhaust manifold, one is faced with complication piled upon complication. It would be necessary, for example, to inject hydrogen or carbon monoxide into the muffler upstream of the catalyst bed. This would involve a snake pit of pipes, tubes, and control valves that would frighten even the most sophisticated mechanic.

With one rather fantastic but conceivable exception, the electric automobile gives off no pollutants at all. Mr. B. C. Lucas, a professional engineer, has claimed that a city full of electric automobiles would be badly polluted with ozone, because ozone, perhaps the most dangerous of all smog ingredients, is produced by the opening and closing of electric circuits. Ozone is in fact detectable in some generating plants and transformer stations, but in such cases the voltage and corresponding field intensity are high enough to result in ionization of the air and actual electric discharge, It is doubtful that atmospheric discharge would occur in the case of the battery voltage involved in automobiles. Nevertheless, this is a point that needs to be cleared up.

THE power train of an electric vehicle consists fundamentally of a number of batteries (the number depending on the horsepower required), an electric motor or motors, and simple transmission connections with the drive wheels. The connection may actually consist merely of placing the motors on the wheels. Since the electricity is produced as direct current, the simplest system would involve a DC motor. Usually these arc somewhat ponderous, with a low ratio of horsepower to weight, although Ford and its subsidiaries and others have experimentally designed much more efficient DC machines of one quarter the conventional weight. By the use of an inverter or rectifier to convert the electric flow from the batteries to alternating current, the more highly developed technology of small AC motors can be used — for example, the brushless induction, squirrel-cage motor, which has a very high ratio of horsepower to weight and size. In modern designs for electric cars a modulating voltage control system is included, which automatically prevents an excessive rate of discharge and delivers the current in pulses to the motor. The pulse rate or width is automatically adjusted to the required torque, the technical term for the “push” needed for the wheels. (One needs more torque to start a car from a dead stop than to cruise at high speech)

The torque characteristics of an electric car are ideally suited for stop-and-go driving. Unlike the gas-turbine car, acceleration from standing still in traffic is strong and instantaneous. I know this from personal experience because I drove the Yardney Electric Company’s electric Renault Dauphine in rush-hour traffic in the Wall Street district. After scores of years with a gasoline engine, which keeps up a little snorting even when idling, it is an uncanny and delicious sensation to wait at a red light with no noise at all, not even a gentle hum (because nothing whatever is happening in the power train), then suddenly to ease gracefully and instantly into motion at the change of the signal.

I believe it is safe to say that there are no really bristly problems connected with converting electricity into the horsepower of motion. There are many alternatives, and no serious obstacles. One of the interesting options is to design the motortransmission hookup so that some electric power can be recovered by converting the energy of the wheel motion into reverse current to recharge the batteries when coasting. This can increase the range of the vehicle between charges by 25 percent. One can also arrange the motor-transmission train so that the equivalent of engine-braking is obtained — an important brake-saving function in hilly cities like San Francisco. Within a city as large as Los Angeles, for example, one would need a range of at least fifty miles before stopping to recharge. There are two solutions to this problem, one of them purely technical, the other involving primarily a marketing or dispensing innovation. Let us take the technical solution first.

The classic lead-acid battery used to start the ordinary car has been improved in efficiency by 75 percent since it drove competing starting systems such as Edison’s nickel-iron battery out of the automotive market; but it still has a rather low ratio of energy to weight and size. The more recent nickel-cadmium cell, used in a special form for cordless service in electric, toothbrushes and the like, is better than the lead-acid battery; but the so-called Jung-Berg nickel-cadmium battery, more suitable for motive uses and applied widely in Europe for many years, has for some mysterious reason not been available commercially in this country. (The Electric Automobile Club of America blames this on the worldwide cartelization of the battery industry.)

The silver-zinc battery, developed primarily by Yardney Electric Company for missile, space, and torpedo use, is very efficient on an energy-in-relation-to-weight basis, but it is intrinsically quite expensive, although, as we shall see later, this need not make the investment cost of the customer’s car any higher. Other new concepts in high-energy cells that have recently come upon the scene include Ford’s liquid-sodium-molten-sulfur system, the metal-air cell (especially the zinc-air combination developed primarily by General Dynamics), and three new experimental cells which all use lithium as anode but use different electrolytes and different cathodes (Gulton Industries, General Motors, and Electrochimica Corporation).

Although at the present stage of development, it is popular to compare the various systems on a theoretical energy per pound basis, this doesn’t mean very much practically, since the available, energy in a battery will always depend on the rate of discharge. On the basis of a hypothetical “commuter” passenger car somewhat smaller than a Volkswagen, but improved in tire-rolling resistance and aerodynamics, the range between charges in stop-andgo city driving would be 38 miles with the leadacid battery, up to 100 miles with the zinc-air cell or with the lithium anode cells. This is about half the distance between refuelings for a heavy conventional gasoline-powered car, which can go about 180 miles in stop-and-go driving on a tankful of gasoline.

In my opinion the most practical developmental possibility is the zinc-air battery, which is also being studied by Yardney, Leesona, Gould-National, and Electric Storage Battery as well as General Dynamics, although one should by no means discount the already well demonstrated silver-zinc system. The Ford battery, although very ingenious, operates at high temperatures and presents some collision hazard. Hot liquid sodium is an uncomfortable commodity which will react explosively with water. The GM lithium battery also operates at elevated temperatures. From a certain standpoint, however, the hot batteries may have one advantage in that they may serve as a source of heat for the passengers in cold weather. But to divert any appreciable energy from a battery pack for this purpose would cut down on the precious miles between recharges.

Most exponents of the electric car make a big point out of the fact that one would recharge the batteries overnight in one’s garage. Or that parking lots would be equipped for recharging during a day of business or shopping. Recharging is a rather slow affair for most available batteries, and I am not inclined to be optimistic about the car owner as a do-it-yourself recharging serviceman. The better, and it seems to me quite inevitable, answer for the electrified urban and suburban areas would be to convert service stations to battery-exchange stops. Exchanging a fully charged battery pack for a run-down pack in a simple low horsepower vehicle should take no more time than filling up a tank with gasoline and checking the oil. From a business standpoint there are alluring possibilities in this field for the ambitious entrepreneur, which are compatible with the major problem of financing a car inherently more costly than a gasoline-powered vehicle only because the batteries cost so much.

The obvious financial answer is the one that has put the electric forklift truck suddenly ahead of competition from internal-combustion trucks. Electric Storage Battery Company leases the batteries and charges only on the basis of energy consumed.

If the battery pack is leased and a system of battery exchange is set up, the two transactions being coupled by credit card accounting, then we approach the present forklift financing plan. One would, in effect, be paying for energy consumed, plus a service charge, just as one pays for electricity for the home or for energy in the form of gasoline. Under such circumstances, the electric car would not only cost less than the present car in primary investment, but even with a rather steep service charge for battery exchange, the operating cost would be much lower than that of the gasolineengine car. Although much depends on the precise nature of the two different automobiles being compared —gasoline-powered versus electric — it has been conservatively estimated that the operating cost of the electric would run about one third that of the internal-combustion auto.

Professor Henri Andre’s 2200-pound DynaPanhard car (somewhat smaller than present Corvair and Falcon compacts, which weigh 2600 and 2500 pounds, respectively), using silver-zinc batteries, has been running around Paris since 1954. gets a range of 150 miles on only one charge at a top speed of 50 miles per hour, and he claims, with vouchers to prove it, that the total operating cost has averaged one tenth that of a conventional car of the same weight. Of course, gasoline costs more in Europe because of the tax load, but the one-third ratio mentioned previously could obviously be improved both by technical advances and by the functioning of economic laws. For example, with more or less nationwide electrification of automobiles, the need for electric power would about double, since approximately one half of the energy consumed in the United States now goes into automotive use. Since the battery industry could do its recharging at off-peak hours, mainly at night, the cost of battery power should be reduced by as much as 20 percent. In this connection it is vitally important that additional power plants be so designed that the smog abolished by electrification of the automobile is not restored by burning more coal or higher-sulfur fuel. Indeed, the policy seems to be shaping up in southern California to require all new power plants to be nuclear, with incremental power to be obtained by long-distance transmission from the Northwest.

PERHAPS the most important economic advantage would be an eventual reduction in automobile insurance rates. This stems from what could turn out in the long run to be the single greatest boon of the electric car — one that Warren Magnuson, senator from the state of Washington, has justifiably emphasized in his vigorous speeches — a reduction in the appalling mortality and injury rates from car accidents which at the present time far overshadow the smog problem. Senator Magnuson reasons that a new world of car safety could be attained if full advantage were taken of the degree of freedom allowed the designer in planning a new kind of vehicle in which the power package can be located in any convenient place, instead of wrapping a large glossy envelope around a fixed-position power plant as we do in the current automobiles. The present pusillanimous safety regulations consist, in effect, of adding things like belts (which only 20 percent of the drivers use, even when factory-installed) or substituting foam rubber for hard plastic or removing outside rear mirrors. But if we start from scratch, the inherent performance properties of the electric car (high low-speed torque, low maximum speed, low momentum because of light weight) could combine with clean, imaginative interior and exterior design to add a new dimension —systematic planning of the whole vehicle and its operating habits precisely and deliberately for safety. We might not have an idiot-proof car, but we would have one we could better entrust to teenagers, old men, and the vast army of the absentminded and accident-prone among us.

Hubert Humphrey has said, “You do not put in charge of transportation the man who runs the local livery stable.” One might paraphrase this to read, “You do not put in charge of transportation, as it affects the nation’s health and safety, the private companies which now make a hundred billion dollars from the gasoline-powered automobile.” It is noteworthy, however, that both Ford and Chrysler are optimistic and that Ford is even working on a hybrid vehicle that would run on batteries in metropolitan areas and switch to gasoline power when out on the highways. The batteries would be recharged by the gasoline engine.

In addition to the enormous inertia of a vested energy industry (which includes the petroleum companies), we have public inertia and pride of car ownership to cope with. Frank Stead, chief of the Division of Environmental Sanitation, California State Department of Public Health, has demanded that state legislation be passed to serve legal notice that after 1980 no gasoline-powered motor vehicle shall be permitted to operate in California. Especially in the West, Mr. Stead points out, car ownership is a “deep-seated question of culture and self-image. . . . The West was won by men on horseback and the private motor is today’s horse.” His basic contention is that Western man will not go for mass transportation. But will he take a more modest horse?

To get the electric automobile on the streets before the Europeans take away the initiative (Great Britain has some 50,000 electric vehicles in continual Operation and has ambitious plans), the best suggestion is probably that of Dr. M. E. Feldman of General Electric. His organization is in a strategic position since it has the only fuel cell development which eventually might make possible an electric car that could also run, without toxic emissions, on gasoline or kerosene and air.

Dr. Feldman believes that the first electric cars should be glorified golf carts, like the shopper-type electric vehicles used by old people in Long Beach, California, and that they should not be exposed to the dangerous abrasion of gasoline-powered traffic. They should be introduced in new cities, such as Irvine, California, where the community could lie laid out with “transportation paths” to accommodate them. Eventually, when they graduate to the great smogged-in cities, separate streets and routes should be set aside for them.

As an indication that American enterprise is not going to wait for the turning of the ponderous wheels of Detroit, or even for a new kind of battery, Westinghouse Electric Corporation has announced an immediate program to make and sell electric cars. The model, several hundred of which will be offered for sale this year at “under $2000,” is called the Markette, uses 12 six-volt conventional lead-acid batteries, reaches a top speed of 125 miles per hour in acceleration time of 12 seconds, and has a range of 50 miles between rechargings. It is recharged in 8 hours from an ordinary AC retractable-cord outlet.

In spite of the weight penalty of the antiquated battery system (800 pounds of battery for a total curb weight of 1630 pounds), is optimistic that the car will attract owners interested in two-passenger vehicles for short-range city driving. It is a noteworthy commercial experiment, and although it follows a series of failures by smaller concerns somewhat along the same line, one cannot afford to laugh it off. Westinghouse is a big company, and the Markette may prove to be the first salvo of a healthy cannonade which is bound to become more sophisticated as the battle goes on.