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  Mechanical Feature

Electric Cars: Ready or Not, They're Here

Posted 8/12/2010
By Craig Van Batenburg, AAM

What you need to know to service these vehicles.

Craig Van Batenburg is all smiles after a road test in the Tesla.
Craig Van Batenburg is all smiles after a road test in the Tesla.

The Tesla, an all-electric sports car, has been sold in America for almost three years. More than 1,000 are on the road and Mini is in the electric car business as well - on a small scale - with the Mini E. Both of these cars are fast and are more than capable of highway speeds. I have driven them and they are the real deal.

There are numerous "city cars" that are low-speed electric vehicles (EV). Maybe because of their low speed (usually 30 mph), these vehicles have never caught on for mainstream buyers.

But more highway-capable EVs are on the way this year.

My grandfather, Ed Finacom, was born in 1892 in Washington, D.C. I was lucky to get to know him and hear him tell stories of growing up, getting his first job when he was 10 years old at a repair shop. I learned about electric cars from him. The cars he was talking about had names like Anthony Electric, Baker, Columbia and Anderson. Grandpa Ed had a team of horses that he would hitch to the EV carriage and, using about two "horsepower," young Edward brought them back to the garage for a recharge. A lot has happened in the last 100-odd years, and we are heading back from whence we came.

Ford Motor Co. will sell this EV in the United States within the next two years.
Ford Motor Co. will sell this EV in the United States within the next two years.
Nissan has decided its charging plug. The Nissan Leaf is on display.
Nissan has decided its charging plug. The Nissan Leaf is on display.

If you have a good understanding of hybrid gas/electric cars, then the foundation for pure electric cars has been laid. You will need to add to that electric heat and off-board battery charging, but most of the modern hybrid technology you see today will be used on EVs in the near term. In the '90s, to help the top six original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) meet a California rule that demanded non-polluting cars be added to the mix, General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co., Chrysler Group LLC, Toyota Motor Corp., Honda Motor Co. Ltd. and Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. introduced EVs. GM had built a unique and well-known car named the EV1.

If you have ever seen the documentary, "Who Killed the Electric Car?," you know something about that decade of change. The movie was very one-sided and lacked an industry perspective, as GM was cast in a very poor light. But nonetheless, the '90s ushered in the new era of EVs - but not for long. By 2002, that era of electric car production had come to a halt by the major car companies. But now, less than a decade later, they are back. Why now? The answer is simple: 35.5 miles per gallon average by 2016. Will they make it this time? Yes, but it may take a while. How long is a while? It all depends on factors no one can predict with certainty.

Ten years ago I wrote an editorial for AutoInc., and the editor sent a photographer to my repair shop to get a shot of our 2000 Honda Insight. It graced the cover of AutoInc. in July 2000. The editorial was a simple, one-page wake-up call about hybrids. Almost 2 million hybrids later, that editorial is still on target. Well, here we go again, so pay attention this time!

Nissan is leading the charge (in more ways than one). We will look at the major players that are in the business now or will be in the business by the end of this year. More importantly, we will examine what you need to do so you are prepared when you see them in your shop.

Web Sites for Further Study
Electric Car Companies

In my opinion, the major players will be Nissan, Chevrolet, Mitsubishi, Tesla, Fisker and maybe BYD by 2011. As the field is wide open, there may be more players than the ones listed here. A couple years later (2013), add in Toyota and Ford, and by 2016 almost everyone will have EVs for sale.

Nissan is the leader today because of its leadership in charging stations. The Society of Automotive Engineers has settled on a standard for charging station plugs called J1772. Oregon may be a leading area because of its statewide rules that concern installing a high-voltage charger in your home garage. Many cities have signed on - with a nudge from Nissan - to take existing parking spaces in urban areas, install a charger, and designate them for EVs only. These are being installed as you read this because there is money to be made.

Unlike the '90s, when EVs were mandated by California, the new wave of EVs ready to go on sale this year are market-driven to some degree. Granted, the $7,500 tax break if you buy one helps, but Nissan is betting on 100,000 buyers lining up and so far it looks like it may be correct. In April of this year, you could pre-order a Nissan Leaf (the name of Nissan's pure electric car). A few hours after the site went live, it was hit with so many requests that it bogged down to a crawl. When the numbers were reported by Nissan a few days later, 25,000 people had put down a $95 deposit to get in line. Not bad for a car no one has driven. My company was one of the 25,000 and we are making plans now to expand into EV training next year.

The drive motor requires only gear reduction, not a transmission.
The drive motor requires only gear reduction, not a transmission.

What will a 30K- or 60K-mile inspection look like? EVs have tires and brakes so alignments are still in, as are tire rotation and balance. Brake fluid still exists, but at 30K it will just be inspection. Coolant will be onboard to cool down the high voltage inverters, DC-DC converter and drive motor(s), but that antifreeze mixture will last much longer than in an internal combustion engine (ICE). Wiper blades will still streak and washer solvent will run dry. Lights need to be checked, but most will be LED so as not to drain the high-voltage (HV) battery pack. The transmission is gone, as is the internal combustion engine (ICE), but a gearbox of sorts will exist to gear the electric drive motor to the differential and that will need a fluid change somewhere in its service life.

For now, "wheel hub motors" are not used so one brushless electric motor driving either the front or rear wheels will be the norm. The coolant used to take heat away from the high-voltage parts will not be hot enough to heat the cabin because this drive system will be very efficient - so this EV will need a heater grid to act as a heater core. No service required there. The A/C system is much like a hybrid car with an electric compressor so A/C work stays the same. In fact, if you are in the A/C business, the good news is the A/C system must work to keep the air cool and electronics happy in the summer heat.

These two Minis run on electricity only.
These two Minis run on electricity only.

There will still be a 16-pin data link connector for your scan tool so data gathering will look the same. As the electric car ages, struts and tires will wear, and so will other suspension parts. Small items will need fixing, and the occasional power electronics device will malfunction. Accidents will happen and body shops will be doing similar work. Will there be less work than an internal combustion car? Yes, by as much as 50 percent less or more. You will need twice as many customers as you see now, but of course, this transition will be slow. You will have plenty of time to get ready - but not if you do nothing.

So if this EV revolution is really going to happen, what about the ICE? As you know, great improvements have been made in reducing carbon monoxide (CO), hydrocarbons (HC) and nitrates of oxide (NOx) over the last 40 years, so cars are now almost at 0 emissions after they warm up, but for short trips the ICE is totally inefficient. Conventional cars can refuel in less than 10 minutes and go hundreds of miles before it is time to top off the gas tank. The EV can't.

The EV - hot or cold motor - can go to the store, the bank, drop off the kids and get you to work with 0 emissions all the time. But, in reality, you can brag about 0 emissions only if your electricity is made with a 0 emissions generating plant.

Acronyms for Electric Vehicles
EV - Electric vehicle
HEV - Hybrid electric vehicle
BEV - Battery electric vehicle (same as EV)
PHEV - Plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (the grid can charge a larger battery)
EREV - Extended range electric vehicle (EV for 10-40 miles, then ICE powers the electric motor)
FCEV - Fuel cell electric vehicle
NEV - Neighborhood electric vehicle (short commute car limited to 30 mph)

Luckily for the Van Batenburg family, our electricity is green. But the big barrier to the ICE car is climate change (and here is where I may lose you). As I travel the world and learn more about other cultures, it is climate change (in this case the CO2 part) that is driving most of the OEMs to develop EV technology and get it to market.

In America, we are still debating the effects of CO2 from tailpipes. But the vast majority of the world is past that point; they just want everyone who contributes to CO2 to slow it down and reverse the amount that is produced.

When I was 22 years old and working for a Honda dealership, I was sent to Honda school when the first Civic came here. That was in the fall of 1972 and at that time we were trying to clean up HC, CO and NOx. Now most of those three toxic substances are turned into CO2. But CO2 is blamed for part of the climate change that we are seeing everyday around the globe and CO2 is directly related to fuel economy. So back to better miles-per-gallon or, better yet, no petroleum at all.

What does your future look like? Starting now, lithium-ion battery plants are being built in the United States and some EVs are being road tested in fleets right here. They are the Chevy Volt and the Mitsubishi iMiEV (pronounced eye-meeve). Both will compete with the Nissan Leaf EV. The iMiEV and Leaf are in the same class (pure electric), with the Volt being a range-extended EV. Keep watching this unfold so you are not taken by surprise. Over 10 years ago my funny-looking Honda Insight was one of 23 hybrids in America when I took delivery (I still drive it daily). Now we are approaching 2 million hybrids on U.S. roads. If you haven't geared up for hybrids yet, do so soon - because EVs are coming, ready or not!

Craig Van Batenburg, AAM [an error occurred while processing this directive]


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