Mobility

Powering up electric transport

Electricity drives mass transit systems efficiently and cleanly, but going electric on the roads is a huge leap of faith for manufacturers and motorists alike.
An electric vehicle parked at a recharging bay in central London. / Credits: Reuters

Overhead wires and ‘third rails’ have powered public train, tram, and bus networks for decades. Electric vehicles are more efficient and cleaner than their diesel counterparts and they can also use their brakes to generate kinetic energy that is recycled back into the power network.

Electrified public transport makes sense in densely populated countries where mass transit networks are the norm. India has electrified over a quarter of its vast rail network. High-speed rail services throughout Europe are electrified. But building and maintaining the electricity infrastructure over long distances is challenging. In the United States, only large cities and the busy northeast corridor have extensive networks of electrified trains.

When it comes to private transport, electric batteries help power hybrid cars like Toyota’s Prius, combining with a gasoline engine. Second generation ‘plug-in’ hybrids enable charging via an ordinary electrical socket, allowing drivers to make short journeys without burning any gasoline.

The great leap of faith for motorists and manufacturers, of course, is ditching the gas engine and going fully electric. An Indian company, Reva Electric Car Company, first took the plunge in 2001 with the Reva, which it exported to Europe and sold in the UK as the G-Wiz.
 

Made of lightweight steel and plastic, and boasting a top speed of 65 kilometers (km) per hour and a range of 80 km, 1,000 of these tiny vehicles now roam the streets of London, possibly searching for the 40 charging points in the vast city. Not surprisingly, electric cars are restricted to short, urban journeys. The possibility of getting stranded still makes the all-electric option a hard sell.

This is the key chicken-and-egg dilemma facing electric vehicles: without a network of charging points, nobody will build or buy the cars. But who is going to build that network of without first having a mass market of electric cars?

The electricity companies perhaps. Electricite de France (EDF in the UK) is setting up charging points in France and the UK in conjunction with Toyota to test the latest plug-in version of the Prius. Meanwhile, Daimler plans to launch 500 charging points in Berlin, Germany by the end of 2009 together with local utility, RWE.

But assuming you find a recharging point, what about the several hours it takes to charge up your car? From next year, Japanese drivers will be able to charge up new all-electric cars from Mitsubishi and Subaru at hundreds of “quick recharge” points in supermarkets, car parks, and other public places provided by a Japanese company that claims its technology can provide enough power in five minutes to drive an electric car for 40 kilometers.

Electric vehicles do create pollution. The electricity has to be generated somewhere. However, if it is a nuclear power station, such as that which supplies the Eurostar train service, or a renewable energy source, then the electricity will be cleaner than that generated from a fossil fuel-burning power plant.

The rise of plug-ins will also have future implications for the electricity industry itself. Imagine the surging pressure on the national grid if a large number of commuters arriving home plugged in their cars more or less simultaneously.


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