Electric car being charged by a power cord.
My wife and I purchased an electric car in November 2011. Nine months later, we had logged about 3,000 miles. We were lucky because Oregon, the state we live in, is one of nine states to receive support for the deployment of electric vehicles. This allowed us to get a grant for an in-home 220-volt charger. It also allowed our hometown to install 34 charging stations and there are nearly 150 in our greater metropolitan area. Last month my total cost for electricity to charge our car at home was $5. It’s estimated the cars can go 70 to 100 miles on less than a $2 charge—the current cost of a half-gallon of gasoline.
The Nissan Leaf and other electric cars—those that run on electricity only—are primarily designed to be city cars, that is, for driving short commutes, local errands, and trips around town. Trips greater than 50 miles one-way are a problem for us. We begin to exhibit so called “range anxiety.” Running out of gas in a conventional car is no fun, but a call to roadside service providers can result in a quick refill and you are on your way.
If our battery runs down, there is no quick fix for us. Although mobile quick charge units are being developed, today our only alternative is to have our car towed home.
Luckily, the car is very smart, and it does everything it can to help prevent this from happening. On-board computers let us know the state of charge in our batteries and what kind of range of travel we have left. If there is a convenient charging station near our destination, we can always plug in for a while before returning home. The nice thing about this is that these charging stations are free (for now), although some charge a parking fee. On-board navigation helps us find these charging stations.
The first electric cars
It’s not clear who first invented electric cars. Records show a number of early inventors who made working vehicles. As far back as 1828, Hungarian inventor Ányos Jedlik, created a simple electric motor and installed it in a tiny model car. In 1834, a blacksmith from Vermont named Thomas Davenport invented a direct current (DC) electric motor and used it to power a miniature model car that ran around an electrified track.
But production of conventional electric cars didn’t happen until the 1890s. By then, the technology for producing rechargeable batteries had progressed to the point where cars didn’t need to operate on electric tracks. By the early 20th century there were a half-dozen manufacturers, including the Edison Company and Studebaker.
But then, as now, the cars were limited by their driving range and the lack of infrastructure to charge batteries. As better highways were built travelers demanded cars with greater range. Mass production lowered the cost and improved the quality of gasoline-powered vehicles. By the 1930s, electric cars were all but extinct.
The typical battery used in those early cars was the lead-acid battery, the type we still use today for starting engines of gasoline-fueled cars. When the battery is in discharge mode—which provides electricity to a device—the following reaction occurs: