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Electric Cars: Chronicle of an Announced Resurgence - Part 3/4

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Second resurgence - 1970s

 
Mut the electric car (EV) hasn't completely disappeared. While California's smog is finding its culprit, the thermal car, NUE (National Union Electric), a battery producer, and Eureka Williams, a household appliance company, propose the manufacture of an EV, in response to this nuisance, to the Henney Motor company, which designed its engine on the Renault chassis of the "Dauphine" in 1959.
 
 
The excessive weight of the car's on-board batteries results in poor performance which, combined with its high price, and despite the production of thirty-two vehicles, leads the project to a fiasco.
 
The VE is making a name for itself again, during the first oil shock of 1973 - the Kipur war and the consequent historic increase in the price of a barrel of oil - once again in a period of crisis. In the midst of the euphoria of the combustion engine, car production was then boosted thanks to new marketing initiatives: in addition to the segmentation of the offer by quality and price levels, GM (General Motors) introduced new commercial guidelines as early as 1972: one car model for each type of price, a price differential that was not too great (no limited production that would seem fanciful) but still significant to offer a complete range, no vehicle that would duplicate it.
 
Yet this is the context in which EVs come into play, as public authorities are faced with the eternal problem of energy alternatives in times of crisis in order to make savings. France has opted for nuclear energy, but research on EVs is being carried out, which will, however, lead to very limited commercialization.
 
 
EDF (Electricité de France) is collaborating with Renault on two models, 4L and R5 battery-powered. These two vehicles (4L 1971, R5 1974), which inaugurate the electrified car - a thermal car running on electricity - are being tested on EDF sites for the first one, and a few senior civil servants as a good example for the second one are using them on a regular basis. Here are the words of Jacques Chirac's Minister for the Quality of Life, André Jarrot (1974), who owned an electric R5 when he arrived at the Council of Ministers: "The electric car is to the gasoline-powered car what the glider is to the airplane. () This car is as easy to drive as a bicycle, I'm a happy man.".
 
Not sure that the words of this ardent defender of the electric motor were convincing at the time. In fact, if you compare an electric R5 with a R5 internal combustion engine, for an equivalent body, and therefore a substantially equal design, the range is four times greater for the internal combustion model, the speed is almost twice as fast, but the price is almost half as high. Although a prototype can't be compared to a mass-produced car, we can't really talk about progress in terms of performance or savings in terms of price.
 
Various experiments were tried until the second oil shock in 1977. They will lead to some advances, notably on electronic traction chains and batteries which will bring power and autonomy, but this will be very insufficient to stop a real upheaval.
 
Lunar roving vehicle
 
Finally, a not insignificant symbol, the lunar roving vehicle (RLV), an EV developed by GM for NASA (National Aeronautic and Space Administration) in four specimens for exploration missions on the moon, covers thirty-seven kilometres in seventeen km/h (Apollo XVII) on the solitary star without any problem. But after 1977, research on EVs was virtually on stand-by in favour of conventional production, and the oil shock was finally absorbed economically.
 

Third resurgence - 1990s

However, the 1990s marked the new return of EVs with a different motivation, this time due to a crisis of a different kind, and certainly more salutary than previous resurgences, the fight against air pollution, and the awareness of the more or less long-term depletion of oil reserves. This new motivation for EVs is leading to new resolutions, which are more difficult to circumvent, and new regulations on greenhouse gas emissions. Notably the US Clean Air Act (CAA, 1963) and its 1990 amendment, under the impetus of the G H W Bush administration (1989-1993), which significantly tightened up its anti-pollution legislation with short-term environmental objectives.
Car transport is then identified as the main contributor to air pollution in cities and their agglomerations, accounting for more than 50 % of air pollution, with emissions of gases harmful to public health such as carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and carbon monoxide. In France, the dieselization of the automobile fleet is contributing to a darkening of this picture with an increase in fine particle pollution, which is reputed to be carcinogenic.
 
Among the advances in electric motorization since the beginning of the 1990s, nickel-cadmium batteries are recognized for their reliability, long life, ability to take rapid charges and their resistance. On board passenger cars and light commercial vehicles produced from the 1990s onwards - Peugeot 106 (1991 then marketed in 1996), Partner, Renault (Kangoo), Citroën (Saxo, Berlingo) - they are however withdrawn from sale because of their toxicity (cadmium's harmfulness on the environment and carcinogenicity).
 
Under the European Directive 2002/95/EC on the restriction of the use of certain hazardous substances in electrical and electronic equipment, implemented in July 2006, the marketing of new batteries containing cadmium is prohibited. As of that date, no manufacturer is offering electric cars equipped with nickel-cadmium batteries, a clear brake on the development of EVs, as these batteries have increased the range of EVs to some 80 km for a cruising speed of around eighty km/h and possible peaks of up to one hundred and ten km/h. PSA (Peugeot Société Anonyme) marketed twelve thousand vehicles during this period, a definite progress compared to the second resurgence, but the cost of the batteries increased the purchase price of the EV of that time. It cost three times more than a conventional vehicle.
 
However, other innovations are helping to change the image of electric motorization in the automobile at this time: power electronics, which focuses mainly on power converters for on-board energy management in electric vehicles. The disparity in voltage levels and currents between the different sources (fuel cell, batteries, capacitors) and the car's loads (traction motor and auxiliary mechanisms) make it necessary to use such devices.
The aim is precisely to improve the fuel efficiency of the source-engine assembly in urban mode, when vehicles are subject to irregular cruising phases that greatly impact their range. These innovations, which are initially made on the fringes of manufacturers, will subsequently have a major impact on the technological evolution of the EV and its hybrid cousins (HEV - Hybrid Electric Vehicle).
 
The end of this third period is marked, however, by another event, revealing the interests of a certain economic system that goes beyond the public interest. The American manufacturer GM designed a prototype, the EV1 (Electric Vehicle No. 1), which, presented at the Los Angeles Motor Show shortly before the famous CAA amendment on air pollution and the resulting programme in California of the LEV (Low Emission Vehicle) initiated by the CARB (California Air Research Board) in 1990, will be marketed after six years of research for an investment of one billion dollars.
 
The General Motors EV1
 
"The EV1" is a revolutionary EV in many respects, its aerodynamic shape gives it an unequalled drag coefficient, remarkable speed performance (two hundred and ninety-three km/h), a range of about one hundred and fifty km between the first generation (1996) and the second (1999). It is leased to its customers for an average value of three hundred and seventy-five dollars per month with no possibility of buy-back. Some one thousand one hundred and seventy-seven vehicles are contracted for a waiting list of more than four thousand people.
But suddenly, in 2003, GM recalls its vehicles and destroys them on the pretext of the low battery life and its production cost, which is out of all proportion to its SUVs (Sport Utility Vehicles) with very good profit margins. The same year, this decision corresponds to the suspension of the legal constraints of the LEV programme, under pressure from car manufacturers, oil lobbies and also the federal authorities. Finally, we should add the low price of oil at that time and the boost provided by the G W Bush administration (2001-2009) with the withdrawal of the Kyoto Protocol (2005) and the extensive relaxation of the CAA.
 
In order to comply with the new environmental directives, the main car manufacturers are developing suitable technologies for controlling vehicle emissions. The injection combustion engine guarantees reduced hydrocarbon consumption and the catalytic converter reduces toxic emissions through chemical conversion.
 
These technical innovations rehabilitate the internal combustion vehicle, as evidenced by the intense production of large 4×4s during this period. Despite all these new efforts in terms of motorisation (clear technical progress across the whole of the EV), marketing (incentive solutions for financing with state aid), the development of the EV is not very successful and, compared to the internal combustion vehicle, it remains a poorly performing car.
Moreover, the charging infrastructure is derisory for a substantial market. As a result, several manufacturers filed for bankruptcy after a promising outlook. Combined with the progress made in depollution control of internal combustion engines, these various problems accelerated the further decline of EVs, their fourth since the beginning of their history.
 
Frank Pecquet, Lecturer: Digital Art - Researcher: Aesthetics/Creation and Sound Design - University of Paris I Panthéon Sorbonne
 

 

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