Feature Story

BUSINESS: ELECTRIC CARS

by Bob Hagin

September 6, 1996

After an hiatus of nearly a 60 years, it will soon be possible to buy a fully modern electric powered family car. Not since the days of the Baker and the Detroit Electric has an American buyer been able to stroll into an auto dealer's showroom and drive out in a noiseless auto.

Actually, that statement isn't quite accurate either. Shortly after the fuel crisis of the '70s, there was a spate of electrics pushed onto the market but they were either refugees for a golf cart factory or factory-alterations done on existing gas-powered sedans or sports cars. Some were good and some were not so good, but they all has their 15 minutes of glory and then passed from the front page to the annals of automotive history.

And purchase may not quite be the right word either. Two major manufacturers are going on the market with electric cars in the spring of '97 but they will be available for lease only, according to the information I've gotten from their recent press releases. Honda and Saturn have both announced that selected dealers will have modern electric four seaters on their showroom floors in a few months.

At this point, it looks like purchasers are going to have to be Westerners, too. While a company spokesman told me that the Honda EV will be available at dealership up and down the entire Golden State, the Saturn offering will be leased through special Saturn dealerships in Southern California and in the Arizona sun belt. "These areas demonstrate the topographical and climatic conditions most favorable to electric vehicle operation," is the exact wording from the Saturn information packet. I assume that means that snow chains won't be a necessary option on Saturn's GM EV1.

Over the past couple of days, I've done a non-scientific, strictly subjective survey of a couple of dozen people who are car owners but not enthusiasts. Most use a fairly small, late model car to commute to work and I asked them for their opinions on acquiring an electric vehicle. I asked if they would consider buying one based on the information they now have on electric vehicles. Only a few flatly said "no" although many of them had to think twice before they answered. When I asked if a positive effect on the environment was instrumental in their affirmative answers, they all answered "yes" without hesitation. I then asked if they would still consider buying an electric car if the cost of the machine was 20 percent higher that a similarly sized and equipped gas buggy. To this I got more "..I'd have to think about that one.." responses than anything else. All answered in the affirmative when I asked if they'd be willing to try one for a week.

Without exception everyone I queried said that his or her greatest fear in driving an electric vehicle would be that the batteries would run flat and leave them stranded. To answer that fear, both the Honda EV and Saturn's GM EV1 have built-in battery charging systems to be plugged in on arrival home. Saturn also has an external stand alone 220-volt Magne-Charge(tm) quick-charger that has to be hard wired into the garage or car port. According to Saturn's press release on the subject, it has entered into an agreement with Honda to share this induction charging technology.

The two companies use different battery types to get their electric motors going. According to Saturn's information kit, the GE EV1 uses 24 lead-acid batteries similar, I guess, to the one that gets your present set of wheels started while the Honda opted for a more high-tech nickel-hydride units. On a full charge, both cars claim a range of about 125 miles.

Both the cars are state-of-the-art designs that evolved from a clean drafting board. The GM EV1 is the more futuristic-looking of the two with an aerodynamic design that has a drag coefficient of only .19. The Honda EV is more box-like in design and obviously created as a city vehicle. They both rely on space age plastics technology to keep weight down which increases vehicle range.

There's a small group of motorists who will get a chuckle out of this "startling" information and I expect to get a large amount of mail from them. They are those motorists who have been driving electric- powered cars for up to 30 years. Most have done the conversions themselves although some have had their vehicles converted by one of professional shops dedicated to the industry. In my own area, the Electric Auto Association (EAA) has been in operation since the late '60s and has a strong membership. It has been crusading for the broad use of the electric car since then and I imagine that the membership has a terse comment for Honda and General Motors.

The first will be "Welcome on board.." while under their breath they may add "...but what kept you so long."

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