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The challenge of electric vehicles Add to ...

During preparation for AJAC's 2012 Canadian Car Of The Year program, we organizers are having discussions with manufacturers about the infrastructure and different testing methods necessary for electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles. Two key factors have become abundantly clear - range limitations and provision for recharging.

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We are on the cusp of a significant change in the auto industry, one where the internal combustion engine will be joined by other forms of motivation, and perhaps ultimately, although not I believe in my lifetime, be replaced.

During the earliest days, hybrids were treated separately during the testing process conducted by the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada, but in the past few years they have been incorporated into the mainstream categories.

But now we have a new class of vehicle, or should I say classes. They include pure electric, partial electric and plug-in hybrids as well as a rapidly growing number of what have become "conventional" hybrids.

CCOTY testing is conducted in three phases at the AJAC TestFest each fall:

1) Instrumented acceleration and braking data is obtained under strictly controlled circumstances on a closed course with all vehicles in a class tested back-to-back on the same course and under the same conditions. The results are posted on the association web site (ajac.ca) allowing voting members to take them into consideration and consumers to do their own comparison.

2) A closed-course, simulated two-kilometre-long race track where speeds range from a full-stop to more than 200 km/h. Only AJAC members who possess a racing license or who have recently completed an approved advanced driving course are permitted on this course which is used to judge engine, suspension, brake and steering performance.

3) The final testing component is a series of 30- to 45-minute drive loops on public roads developed for specific vehicle types. There is an off-road or low-grip component for pickups and SUVS while luxury cars get more highway time, for example.

Now, for the first time in the 25-year history of the Canadian Car of The Year program, these testing procedures will have to be changed, or separate provisions made for electric vehicles. Taken in itself this is not a big deal. But looked at in an overall societal sense it's an early indication of the changes that will be necessary in homes, offices and community across the country.

Electric vehicles, in this stage of their development, do not have the range to complete the traditional testing employed during CCOTY. While they may be capable of meeting the top speed required in the 80-120 passing test, the need to do repeated 0-100 and 100-zero tests would seriously deplete the battery, affecting results and take them out of commission for the remainder of the day.

And, obviously hot laps and constant full throttle on the track is beyond the purpose and capability of these vehicles. Even the normal public road loops are out of the question as the second or third run would come to a halt with a dead battery. And, if the weather turns nasty and we have to use wipers and heaters, battery life will be even shorter.

One manufacturer asked if we could provide a 480-volt charging station as this would considerably shorten the time required to recharged the batteries. At a minimum, we will need a 220-volt source.

This points to the whole issue of infrastructure. In this vast country with great distances between population centres, electric vehicles will be restricted to major population centres and drivers with short commutes. And they will require a separate source of electricity for recharging.

While a 110-volt recharge may be theoretically possible, the time required prevents daily use. A 220-volt outlet, separate from the range/dryer one in most households, will likely be required and possibly new wiring-safety regulations to suit. That's at home. Recharging while at work is another story.

During these early days, pure electric vehicles will be glorified golf carts, useful for short distances, in good weather conditions. However, I believe there is an excellent opportunity for vehicles that offer the ability to supplement electric drive.

These can be the hybrids we now have in growing numbers that use an electric motor and an internal combustion engine for motivation. That engine and energy captured during braking are used to recharge the battery. A group of plug-in hybrids is coming that will allow you to plug into a 110-volt outlet to fully recharge the battery and there are vehicles that will rely purely on electric power for motivation but have a tiny little internal combustion engine onboard to recharge the battery, extending the range to equal that of a conventional car.

The infrastructure necessary for the next generation of volume-produced passenger vehicles will determine their success. It won't be gas stations as we know them, it won't be recharging stations because of the tremendous voltage and recharging time required. Will you stop for several hours on the way to the cottage or every couple of hours during that vacation trip to recharge?

My money is on fuel cells and hydrogen stations. Until then, we will have to change our driving habits or drive extended-range vehicles. It seems clear that the internal combustion engine will be around for a long time to come.