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A Student's Guide to Alternative Fuel Vehicles

Electricity - stored in batteries

Switching on the juice

Electric vehicles have been around for a very long time. In the early 1900s, there were more electric vehicles than there were gasoline-powered cars. The vehicle pictured is a Rauch and Lang Electric Sedan, built around 1922. Rauch and Land

Gasoline back then was very expensive. It also was hard to start a gasoline engine; you had to turn and turn and turn a crank in front of the car to get it to start. They did not have a key to start the car like we do today. Gasoline vehicles were also noisy and put out lots of smoke. The cars either had no mufflers, or the mufflers didn't do a good job. So, electric vehicles were a BIG hit! At one time there were 50,000 EVs on the roads and streets of the United States.

But EVs soon faded away like the horse-drawn carriage. Ways of cheaply making gasoline were discovered. A new invention called an electric starter was made. It started the car with a key instead of a crank. A gasoline car could go much farther than an electric one. So, gasoline-powered vehicles soon became the main method of transporting people.

Automobile companies are making cars cleaner and cleaner. Ten cars built today produce the same amount of pollution that you'd get from just one car built 15 years ago. And oil companies are creating cleaner fuels like a new gasoline called reformulated gasoline. But EVs are back on the road.

Electric Vehicles...Already Here in California

Ford Ranger - Electric California has always been a place for cars. Cars take people to work, to the grocery store, to school. Trucks carry all sorts of goods from farms and factories to our stores. Our state would literally come to a stop without cars and trucks.

California has more than 23 million registered vehicles. And all those vehicles' exhaust produces a large amount of air pollution. Cars, trucks and motorcycles cause the largest amount of air pollution - about 35 percent.

In 1990, the state agency that is responsible for protecting California's air quality passed a rule to reduce the pollution from cars. The California Air Resources Board (ARB) decided that beginning in 1998, two percent of all vehicles sold in California would have to have zero emissions. That would have meant that about 20,000 vehicles sold that year would have been electric vehicles.

In the mid-1990s, the ARB, however, changed its mind following a huge lobbying effort by the auto companies. ARB decided not to mandate the introduction of EVs, but to instead let automobile manufacurers voluntarily sell Zero-Emission Vehicles (ZEVs) from 1998 to 2002. Then, starting in 2003, ten percent, or one out of every ten cars sold, would have to be a zero-emission vehicle. As the deadline approached, the agency changed the regulation even further. The compromise allowed extremely low-emission vehicles to get partial ZEV credits, but required that auto companies only sell two percent pure-ZEVS.

Our vehicles also use a lot of fuel. California's cars and trucks burn 14.5 billion gallons of gasoline each year! That's enough gasoline to fill a line of tanker trucks stretched bumper to bumper from San Francisco to San Diego AND BACK!

Nearly all of California's cars and trucks use only gasoline and diesel, both made from oil. California produces only half of the oil it uses. The rest comes from Alaska and foreign sources. The United States, as a whole, imports more than one-half of the oil it uses from other countries -- mostly from the Middle East and South America. If there were to be a disruption of oil or gasoline supplies, we'd have lots of problems. So, having other types of fuels -- alternative fuels -- to power our trucks and cars will help California and our country.

How Do Electric Vehicles Work?

EV1.jpg Electric vehicles (like the Ford Ranger Electric Vehicle above on the left) don't burn gasoline in an engine. They use electricity stored on the car in batteries. Sometimes, 12 or 24 batteries, or more, are needed to power the car. Just like a remote-controlled, model electric car, EVs have an electric motor that turns the wheels and a battery to run that motor.

One of the first modern EVs was the General Motors Impact. GM changed its name and started selling the GM "EV1" in 1997. This sleek looking car even set a World Record of more than 180 miles per hour!

The EV1 is very aerodynamic. This means that air slides around the body of the car very easily. The less air resistance or drag, the less energy is needed to power the car at freeway speeds.

The EV1 is as aerodynamic as some jet fighter aircraft!

Charging an Impact EV To charge an EV's batteries, the car is usually plugged in at night. In the picture to the left, an Impact test vehicle is plugged into a special charging unit attached to a house. The Impact is not yet available for sale. Some EVs can plug right into a regular electrical wall outlet. Others need a larger outlet, like the kind that a stove or electric clothes dryer plug into.

Electricity, the same energy that lights your lamps and runs your TV, is stored in batteries on an EV.

The batteries can be lead acid batteries, like the batteries you find in our flashlight or in regular gasoline cars. Or they can be ni-cad (nickel-cadmium) like the kind that run portable video recorders or a portable video game player -- only much larger.

Better batteries that hold more energy and last longer are being developed. In 2001, by the time today's fifth graders are ready to drive, electric vehicles should be able to go 150 to 200 miles before recharging.

How far can an EV go? How much do they cost?

Ford 'Th!nk' EV Most EVs today, however, can only go about 100 miles before you need to plug them in and recharge their batteries. They are not like the Energizer Bunny(tm) that keeps on going, and going, and going. But, 50 to 100 miles is plenty for most people who only drive a short distance to and from work, to and from school, or to do some shopping like the Ford Th!nk Neighborhood Electric Vehicle on the right.

Some EVs with special batteries can go a longer distance. The car on the right is made by a company in Massachusetts called Solectria. It is called the "Sunrise." In 1995, a Solectria Sunrise set a world record for going 238 miles on one charge.

Electric vehicles are more expensive to buy than gasoline cars, but when more and more EVs are made, the price of EVs should drop to about the same as gasoline cars.

EVs Available Today

Toyota RAV4 EV Some EVs, like the Toyota RAV-4 EV are made by major auto companies. Other electric vehicles built today are made by small car companies, or by people who build them in their own garages as a hobby. Some people build cars from kits and make them look like gasoline roadsters or like sports cars.
Wilde EV
Other people convert regular cars into electric vehicles. They pull out the motor and gas tank and put an electric motor and batteries into the car. Sometimes, the batteries go into the trunk or even under the back seat...they go where ever there is room.

Beginning in 1999, nearly all of the major auto companies -- Ford, General Motors, Toyota, Chrysler and Honda offered at least one model electric car. That numbers has dropped in 2002, with many auto companies working on hybrid vehices -- a combination of a small internal combustion engine and an electric motor.

Other Vehicles are EVs, too!

Yosemite EV Bus There are other types of electric vehicles, too. Many cities uses electric-powered buses, trolleys, subways or light-rail. Even most trains are electric. Other places will use electric buses with batteries, because they don't want wires over the roads.

One of those places is Yosemite National Park in California where two new electric buses started being used in September 1995. The buses are almost silent, so the buses don't disturb visitors to the national park.

Eventually, all the buses in Yosemite will be electric buses.

ZAP EV Bike Other people are using electric-powered bicycles. The picture on the left is an electric-powered bicycle made by ZAP Power Systems of Northern California.

The motor is mounted just above the rear wheel and under the seat. The bag that's hanging from the middle holds the battery.

The bike can go 20 miles per hour, and it can travel 20 miles before needing a recharge.

Most people use bicycles for exercise. Some people use bicycles for going to school or work. Having an electric bike means you can get to work or school without sweating. For people who have disabilities, an electric-powered bike might allow them freedom to be outdoors.

What About Solar-Powered Cars?

Unfortunately, electric cars will probably not be solar-powered. Solar cells, also called photovoltaic cells, produce too little power. They are not practical to power a full-sized electric car.

Cal Poly Solar CAR Some colleges, however, race solar-powered cars. The picture on the right is the solar car from California Polytechnic University in Pomona, California -- CalPoly Pomona for short.

The back of the car is covered with solar cells, but all those solar cells only produce enough power to run an electric hair dryer...about 1,500 watts.

That's not enough energy to run a heavy vehicle. The CalPoly Pomona solar car is also very light, less than 400 pounds. It's not strong enough to be in traffic and protect a driver in an accident with another car or truck.

The solar car is also rather uncomfortable. Students have to climb into the car and almost lie down in it. It also doesn't turn corners very well.

Solar cars give students a chance to build a better car and to work on advanced ideas in automobile design, engineering and mechanics. Building cars allows them to dream about ways to make cars more efficient and to use fuels other than gasoline.

In 1990, the U.S. Department of Energy by National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) started sponsoring the National Junior Solar Sprint (JSS) for 6th, 7th, and 8th graders. JSS student teams construct model solar-powered cars and race them in interscholastic competitions.

Who knows, maybe ONE DAY, a student just like yourself will invent a real solar car that we ALL can drive.

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Page updated: June 3, 2002
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