• Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.


Assault on battery

A recent post on Gristmill spoke to Volkswagen's increasing investment in hybrid cars, and the industry trend towards less internal combustion, higher reliance on electrical propulsion.

July 3, 2008

A recent post on Gristmill spoke to Volkswagen's increasing investment in hybrid cars, and the industry trend towards less internal combustion, higher reliance on electrical propulsion. Meanwhile, a Q&A on the Green Schools list (GRNSCH-L@listserv.brown.edu) asked about green campus maintenance vehicles and highlighted the 100% electric (and, by appearances, 100% functional) e-ride EXV2 pickup substitute.

All of which points out the direction in which vehicle design is evolving. However, a couple of the comments posted on Gristmill also point out one of those obsolescing-thought-pattern problems which slow market acceptance. Folks see hybrids as more complex and likely more expensive to maintain than traditional cars and trucks. Of course they are -- they have two interconnected propulsion systems. Functional redundancy adds complexity, both in the second system and in the control/coordination mechanism which is required. People extend this impression to full electric vehicles.

But hybrid vehicles (think of them as mules) are just one useful step in the evolutionary process. Propulsion by internal combustion may be a suboptimal solution, but it's one we (on a technical level) understand well. Electrical propulsion isn't nearly as mature, particularly in terms of battery technology. Hybrids, besides saving gas, offer a platform on which the design details of electric vehicles can be refined and improved, while allowing the current, limited-capacity, battery system to be recharged during the drive. Full electric vehicles will require batteries of larger and longer storage capacity, as they won't be able to recharge while in motion.

So, concerns about maintenance costs, particularly about the cost of replacing batteries, are legitimate when it comes to hybrids. But what people fail to understand is that full electric vehicles are no more technically complex than a washing machine. (OK, maybe that's a bad example. If you recently bought a front-loading washing machine and experienced leakage at the door seal, just remember that electric vehicles will be designed to keep water out, not in!) Regardless of advances in battery technology, whatever batteries are used will -- eventually -- need to get replaced. But, for totally electric vehicles, battery replacement becomes virtually the only maintenance required, and that quite infrequently. Electrical systems are simple and light-weight. Electrical components are reliable and easy to replace/repair/rebuild. Compared to the vehicle maintenance schedules we're all used to, full electric vehicles should be almost trouble-free.

Indeed, that's one of the reasons which has been suggested as to why American car companies have been slow to move toward full electrics. Since the days of Henry Ford, their business model has been based on minimal (sometimes negative) profit on the initial sale, but lots of profit on service and replacement parts. Full electric vehicles will virtually eliminate that parts-and-service income stream.

Bad for car companies, but good for consumers. And, in these early days of full electric vehicles, higher ed campuses are perfect application sites. Our maintenance vehicles don't go 50 miles in a day, and they're never far from the garage or the recharging station. Sounds like a fit, a good demonstration of new/responsible technology, and an easy way to create a learning experience for our students (and their parents, and the community).


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