Simanaitis Says

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“SUDDENLY, AFTER a lapse of nearly 50 years, we’re hearing a lot about electric cars. Back in the fledgling days of animal-less conveyances, electric cars were more popular than gasoline-powered ones for a time…. …soon the noisy, smelly and intractable gasoline engine with its superior power and range forced the electric car into retirement…. The one reason for the new interest in them is simple: Air pollution.”

This most illuminating analysis comes from Ron Wakefield, Engineering Editor, R&T—in the January 1967 issue.

By the way, Ron is alive and well; Wife Dottie and I lunch with him occasionally. His “Electric Cars” article is an enlightening one that’s held up well over a half-century. Here are tidbits from it.

A touch of 1967 whimsy: International Rectifier Corp., El Segundo, California, fitted a solar cell panel atop a 1912 Baker Electric. This and the following images from R&T, January 1967.

“If there’s one clear superiority of an electric motor over an IC [Internal Combustion] engine, it’s that the electric doesn’t spew pollutants into the air. Fifty years ago nobody worried about that, for the atmosphere was regarded as an infinite wastebasket. Now, however, some scientists are convinced that the atmosphere is being filled up with gaseous waste products!”

Fifty years later, 2017, replace “some” with “most” scientists. But also expand the analysis to recognize that EVs are actually REVs, remote electric vehicles replacing mobile pollution with the electric utilities’ stationary contribution. Today’s conundrum: On a well-to-wheel basis, an advanced IC car may pollute less than an EV that gets its electricity from a coal-fueled utility.

Packaging tradeoffs of conventional versus electric sedans. Note the hypothetical concept of wheel-mounted motors for the EV.

Ron discussed packaging tradeoffs of EVs versus conventional vehicles. Citing “Energy Requirements for Electric Automobile,” by George A. Hoffman, Ron wrote that an average IC engine contributed 14.5 percent of the weight of a mid-1960s full-size American car; an EV’s motor, only 4 percent. The IC automatic transmission contributed 5 percent; an EV required no such device to achieve its continuous delivery of propulsion. An IC car’s exhaust system and radiator added 2.8 percent; an EV required neither.

Source: “Energy Requirements for Electric Automobiles,” by George A. Hoffman, Institute of Government and Public Affairs, University of California, Los Angeles. Paper presented at the Inter-Society Energy Conversion Conference, the American Institute of Aviation and Astronautics, September 1966.

Not that the EV was a theoretical lightweight: Its batteries contributed 49 percent of the total weight; an IC’s full gasoline tank, about 4.3 percent.

In 1967, like today, advanced battery technology was a hot topic. Ron cited Ford’s experimental sodium-sulfur battery as an alternative to traditional lead-acid technology. Sodium-sulfur chemistry offered three times the energy of the best conventional batteries of the era. The technology was considered for a Ford of England city car and a Falcon compact-car application in the U.S. Neither came to fruition.

A single cell of Ford’s sodium-sulfur battery.

To its disadvantage, sodium-sulfur technology calls for an operating temperature of 480 to 570 degrees Fahrenheit. What’s more, sodium sulfide is toxic and pure sodium burns spontaneously in contact with air and moisture.

Sodium-sulfur battery research continues today, in both the U.S. and Japan. However, its primary use is seen in stationary energy storage, not in mobile applications.

Ron also wrote that “many observers say that fuel cells are the real answer to providing electric power for vehicles…. The cell that seems to be getting the most attention from researchers for electric cars uses hydrogen for its fuel.”

GM’s lithium-chlorine fuel cell was conceptually similar to today’s hydrogen fuel cells: An electrochemical process converts energy in its fuel into electricity, with the fuel requiring periodic replenishment. In today’s fuel cells, hydrogen gas combines with oxygen in the air to form water, the hydrogen ions creating electricity.

A 1967 alternative to today’s hydrogen fuel cell: GM’s lithium-chlorine cell.

In the lithium-chlorine cell, chlorine gas combines with lithium to form lithium chloride, the lithium ions creating electricity. One disadvantage of the GM technology was its high operating temperature, around 1150 degrees Fahrenheit. Another was the highly corrosive nature of the process. In retrospect, hydrogen fuel cells have evolved as the preferred technology.

A sidebar to Wakefield’s article described the Electrovar II, a Chevrolet Corvair converted to EV operation. Silver-zinc batteries filled the front compartment and part of the rear, the complete powertrain weighing 1300 lb. versus the air-cooled Corvair’s 500 lb. GM engineers noted that conventional lead-acid batteries would have weighed 2600 lb.

GM’s Electrovar II weighed 800 lb. more than a corresponding gasoline-powered Corvair, had comparable acceleration and a range of 40 to 80 miles (akin to a 1912 Baker Electric’s).

“Still more questions than answers,” Wakefield wrote back in 1967. Today, more than 50 years later, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. The more it changes, the more it’s the same thing. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2017

2 comments on “ELECTRIC CARS

  1. Bill Urban
    July 18, 2017

    The most obvious superiority of electric is less pollution. But another noteworthy seat-of-the-pants benefit is max torque at zero rpm. Not an issue for a Tesla, but for most of us waiting for the light to change, this goes a long way toward making electric or hybrids palatable.
    And a curiosity related to the search, 50 years ago, for an “alternative to traditional lead-acid technology”: After Edison’s nickel battery preference 100+ years ago, a nickel-hydride battery helped propel my ’07 Prius 150K+, undiminished. I don’t know, perhaps the “nickel” reference in 1912 and in 2007 are unrelated.

  2. jlalbrecht64
    July 19, 2017

    Another good reason to get rid of coal fired power plants.

    Although the market is much more limited, home solar systems to charge an electric vehicle remove both the emissions and and nearly all the transmission losses of using a public power source to charge. Plus if normal travel is within the range of the vehicle, the time to “fill up” is virtually eliminated.

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