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Put the Pedal to the Metal

Posted by | November 15, 2008

Imagine driving to work in a vehicle that costs a penny per mile to run and creates 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. They recharge the car at home, racking up whopping 20-cent bills on their electric meter.

“It works great for us,” Bob Richards said to me as he gave me a ride in the Zap. “We have two kids and can take all four of us around wherever we need to 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 a tad crowded. But it does feature all-important  cup holders. And at a purchase price of $10,000 with fuel costs around one cent per mile, the Zap is a great option for some.

The Zap is on the low end of the quality spectrum of electric and hybrid vehicles. It’s made in China and the lead acid batteries that power it are pretty low tech. The batteries will last the Richards family about three years and cost about $1,400 to replace. The old batteries can then be recycled.

Both Robert and Cecilia Richards are engineering professors at Washington State University.

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

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

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

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

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

I caught a ride around town in the hybrid Humvee, powered by 30 special lead-acid batteries Edwards designed. The batteries create 360 volts of juice.

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

Although the batteries in the Humvee weigh close to 900 lbs, the vehicle accelerates from a dead stop much faster than my 4-cylinder car. The vehicle can also cruise at 60 mph. And because the Humvee has no doors, the acceleration and speed feel all the more impressive to an innocent passenger like myself.

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

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

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