The More Things Change

When I was a kid, building an electric vehicle that would go farther than a few miles seemed like such a simple thing: just put a generator on board. When the batteries needed charging, fire up the generator et voilà: just keep on driving. It was a simple-minded solution at the time. Weight, energy density, friction – you name it – the laws of physics were against me: none of the technology could make it happen. Of course, I had no idea. In 1974, electric cars had a top speed of about 30 mph (48 km/h) – 50 mph (80 km/h), with a range of barely up to 40 miles (64 km) per charge. There was nothing fun or practical about driving a Comuta-Car. Adding a heavy generator and some fuel would have been impractical, if not insane.

Call me crazy.
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We seem to be entering a time when electric cars with state-of-the-art onboard ICE “generators” are beginning to proliferate. Due to dramatic advances in automotive technology – especially battery technology – that dream I had as a kid is not only possible, it’s almost affordable.

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Now, Harald Kroeger, the vice president of electrics and electronics for Mercedes Benz is predicting another big change in battery technology.

“How long before we have twice the range for the same-sized battery? Ten years.” He told Auto Express at the 2015 Geneva Auto Show. “There are literally thousands of scientists working on the problem. A breakthrough happened with lithium-ion technology not long ago when it wiped out nickel-hydride, and another one will come soon.”

Perhaps one day, the plug-in hybrid will be obsolete. But not for now.

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RANGE is, was, and always will be the key ingredient to the success of ANY vehicle. Nobody would buy a gasoline powered car if it had a 2 gallon fuel tank. Range is practical. Range is peace of mind. That’s why I’m going to boldly claim that the only owners of a modern all-electric vehicle who aren’t trepidatious about driving their car any real distance are Tesla owners. But that will change.

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When hybrid vehicles first came out, they were about maximizing fuel economy. Instead of thinking of a hybrid as an electric car with an onboard generator, it was created as an amalgam of shifting between electric and gas power to the drivetrain for better mpg. I was disappointed. Then, Chevrolet introduced the Volt, and a truly electric way of thinking was unveiled: all-electric drive. (True, there is a point in a Volt’s operation when the ICE generator might be mechanically linked to the drive axle via planetary gears, but rarely.) A lot of other manufactures have followed suit, turning to the “plug in hybrid” as a solution to extended range driving. From the Ford C-MAX Energi to Audi’s newly-introduced plug-in diesel hybrid Q7 E-Tron, all-electric range is now the starting point for discussion.

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The real dream, of course, is owning an all-electric vehicle that you can drive cross-country without anxiety and intense planning. If Mr. Kroeger is correct, that time is coming. Combined with advances in fast charging and added charging infrastructure, stopping after 600 miles for a quick replenishing of power will seem as natural as filling up the gaswagon and taking time to eat and stretch your legs. Plug-in hybrids may no longer be necessary.

The more things change, the closer we come to living that reality.

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