Friday, May 19, 2006
Sometimes you have to look to the past to see the future.
Photo: Etienne Gibeault standing in front of his battery-powered car.
When Etienne Gibeault starts his car in the morning, the first thing he notices is what’s missing – a big puff of dirty exhaust from the tail pipe.
That’s because Mr. Gibeault, President of the Electric Vehicle Council of Ottawa (EVCO) drives an electric car. From the outside, it looks like an ordinary 1998 Geo Metro, but under the hood it is entirely different.
A Boston-based company – Solectria Corporation – converted the car from gas to electric. Mr. Gibeault drives his car – which is powered by 13 batteries – 23 kilometres to and from work every day.
The car will go 60-80 kilometres before its batteries need to be recharged.
“I bought the car used for $12,000 U.S., said Mr. Gibeault. “I have never had a problem with it. It is pretty much zero maintenance.”
Unfortunately, not enough people bought these cars and the company no longer does gas-to-electric conversions.
EVCO members brought their enviro-friendly vehicles to the Canada Museum of Science and Technology to promote not only the group, but also to show the public they don't necessarily need a gas-guzzling SUV to get to work.
One of the biggest attractions of the show was a 1915 Milburn light electric coupe. Designed and built as an electric car, the Milburn four-seater was popular in its day – especially with people who did not want to hand crank an internal combustion engine to start it.
The American-made Milburn could travel approximately 30 kilometres an hour and cover a distance of 100 kilometres before needing to be recharged.
EVCO members Micheline and Rick Lane own the car.
“I did not drive it here,” said Mr. Lane. “But I do take it out for a spin once in a while.”
The car still has many of its original parts.
Electric vehicles were invented in the mid-1800s and were popular for a time. However, the high cost and low top speed of electric vehicles caused a decline in their use.
Cars with internal combustion engines became more popular with the public after electric starters and radiators made these cars easier to use. They were faster than electric cars and could go longer distances. But perhaps the biggest selling point was the fact that gas was cheap and plentiful.
Fast forward to 2006 and gas is no longer cheap. It is expected to be over one dollar per litre all summer, according to industry analysts.
Undeterred, Honda just announced it is building a new engine plant in Alliston, Ont., which will produce 200,000 four-cylinder internal combustion engines per year when it reaches full capacity.
Apparently, no one thinks the gasoline engine is going away any time soon. What many do support, however, is the need to complement it with an electric motor – hence the hybrid.
Hybrids have been around for a while, but reduced production and high costs have impacted their popularity. However, with more and more higher-technology models being introduced each year, it will only be a matter of time before they will be at a price point consumers are willing to pay.
According to Honda Canada’s website, a 2006 Honda Civic sedan starts at $16,980 while the hybrid version starts at $25,800.
The Civic hybrid just won the World Car of the Year Award for being the greenest car.
The downside to gas / electric hybrids is the fact that the electric motor only works part of the time – mostly in stop-and-go traffic. Also, in most models, the driver cannot choose to run electric only.
A California company – The California Car Initiative (CalCar) – has taken hybrids one-step further by converting a Toyota Prius into what is called a Plug-In Hybrid Electric Vehicle (PHEV). This allows the driver to plug the car into the electrical grid to charge the batteries on demand.
By using larger battery packs and not needing a gas engine or generator to recharge them, CalCar claims PHEVs can go the equivalent of 100 miles per gallon (42 kilometres per litre).
The cost of going green is still not cheap. To convert a Toyota Prius with a plug-in kit, a Canadian company, Hymotion, expects to charge customers $9,500 U.S., installed. They are aiming to start selling kits by October 2006. Currently, the conversion kits are only available for government and fleet use.
Buyer beware – according to Hymotion’s website, because the kit modifies the existing hybrid system in both the Toyota Prius and Ford Escape, the car’s warranty will be voided.
Still, for owners of “green” vehicles, there is a sense that they are doing their bit to reduce global warming and dependence on fossil fuels. As long as the price of gas keeps going up and our Kyoto commitments keep staring us in the face, Canadians should expect (and demand) to see more choice from carmakers.
Photo: 1915 Milburn electric car