Living Columns & Blogs

Put the pedal to the metal

Imagine driving to work in a vehicle that costs a penny per mile to run andcreates no exhaust.

That’s what my neighbors Robert and Cecilia Richards do.

The Richards commute from home to work in an electric car called a Zap. Theyrecharge the car at home, racking up whopping 20-cent bills on theirelectric meter.

“It works great for us,” Bob Richards said to me as he gave me a ride in theZap. “We have two kids and can take all four of us around wherever we needto go in this town. We run 10-15 miles between charges.”

The interior of the Zap reminded me of the old VW Bug. Very simple, just atad crowded. But it does feature all-important cup holders. And at apurchase price of $10,000 with fuel costs around one cent per mile, the Zapis a great option for some.

The Zap is on the low end of the quality spectrum of electric and hybridvehicles. It’s made in China and the lead acid batteries that power it arepretty low tech. The batteries will last the Richards family about threeyears and cost about $1,400 to replace. The old batteries can then berecycled.

Both Robert and Cecilia Richards are engineering professors at WashingtonState University.

“My wife and I bought the Zap as an experiment,” Richards said. “We’ve hadit a year and it’s shown us we can get around with very low energy costs andin a much more sustainable manner.”

The Zap tops out around 40 mph, so it’s not something you’d take out on ahighway. But for small town life, it’s a gem.

When the Chevy Volt becomes available around 2010, it will have a high techlithium ion battery that will let you run at normal highway speeds. TheVolt’s power charge will last about 40 miles. Best of all, perhaps, theVolt’s battery is projected to last up to 10 years. And, unlike the Zap,the Volt will also have a gas engine that kicks in and recharges the batteryif you’re driving longer distances.

Batteries in electric and hybrid cars are an engineering challenge. Theyneed to hold large charges with a minimum of weight, survive many cycles ofdischarge and recharge, and dissipate heat as they work.

If you can create a battery that can hold a big enough charge, even amassive Humvee can be powered by an electric motor. And Dean Edwards and hiscolleagues at the University of Idaho have done exactly that, creating theworld’s first hybrid Humvee.

I caught a ride around town in the hybrid Humvee, powered by 30 speciallead-acid batteries that Edwards designed. The batteries create 360 volts ofjuice.

Just like the Prius vehicles that you’ve seen on the road, the Humvee hybridhas regenerative braking --- which means some of the energy lost when youapply the brakes is converted to electricity and stored in the battery forlater use. (The much simpler Zap doesn’t have that energy-saving feature.)

Although the batteries in the Humvee weigh close to 900 pounds, the vehicleaccelerates from a dead stop much faster than my 4-cylinder car. The vehiclecan also cruise at 60 mph. And because the Humvee has no doors, theacceleration and speed feel all the more impressive to an innocent passengerlike myself.

There’s a small diesel engine in the hybrid Humvee, one dedicated to turninga large alternator that recharges the battery pack. This design is basicallythe same as the Chevy Volt.

“The first advantage for the military of a hybrid Humvee is that it can gofarther on a gallon of fuel,” Edwards said. “But this Humvee also can runjust on its batteries for a time, making it quieter and its heat signaturemuch lower. And it’s a generator in itself, so when it pulls up to a placeyou have a power source, ready-made.”

With just two rides in quite different vehicles, I’ve been converted. Thefuture of our national transportation looks to me like it will beelectrifying.