An electric car is powered by an electric motor instead of a gasoline engine. The electric motor gets energy from a controller, which regulates the amount of power—based on the driver’s use of an accelerator pedal. The electric car (also known as electric vehicle or EV) uses energy stored in its rechargeable batteries, which are recharged by common household electricity.
Unlike a hybrid car—which is fueled by gasoline and uses a battery and motor to improve efficiency—an electric car is powered exclusively by electricity. Historically, EVs have not been widely adopted because of limited driving range before needing to be recharged, long recharging times, and a lack of commitment by automakers to produce and market electric cars that have all the creature comforts of gas-powered cars. That’s changing. As battery technology improves—simultaneously increasing energy storage and reducing cost—major automakers are expected to begin introducing a new generation of electric cars.
Electric cars produce no tailpipe emissions, reduce our dependency on oil, and are cheaper to operate. Of course, the process of producing the electricity moves the emissions further upstream to the utility company’s smokestack—but even dirty electricity used in electric cars usually reduces our collective carbon footprint.
Another factor is convenience: In one trip to the gas station, you can pump 330 kilowatt-hours of energy into a 10-gallon tank. It would take about 9 days to get the same amount of energy from household electric current. Fortunately, it takes hours and not days to recharge an electric car, because it's much more efficient. Speaking of convenience, let's not forget two important points: charging up at home means never going to a gas station—and electric cars require almost none of the maintenance, like oil changes and emissions checks, that internal combustion cars require.
Electric motors develop their highest torque from zero rpms—meaning fast (and silent) zero-to-60 acceleration times.
Note: In the illustration, we show the relative features of electric cars and gas-powered cars. However, it doesn't have to be an "either-or" situation. Plug-in hybrids offer many of the benefits of electric cars while mitigating most of the drawbacks, such as limited driving range.
1New and Upcoming Electric Cars
Just as the major car companies were crushing their electric car programs in 2004 and 2005, the perfect storm was brewing on the horizon: Hurricane Katrina, growing acceptance of global warming, runaway Prius sales, oil price spikes, green marketing galore…The major auto companies went right back to the drawing board and emerged with big plans for electric cars.
The following companies have announced intentions to produce electric vehicles, but have not discussed specific vehicle details: Volkswagen and Peugeot Citroën.
2Limited Run Electric Cars
Not content to follow the slow timelines from the major car companies, a number of entrepreneurs have taken the bold step of building mainstream highway-capable all-electric vehicles. The payoff could be big—but the logistical hurdles, such as federal highway crash testing, are daunting and very expensive. Those costs will get passed on to customers—those that are willing to wait for months or years for innovative companies to roll out models even in small quantities.
The poster child of the independent electric car movement has been Tesla Motors. When the company launched, it promised to reinvent the auto industry in the mold of a Silicon Valley start-up—and leave Detroit in its dust. After hitting a number of potholes—product delays, boardroom discord, and major operating losses—the company emerged looking good. An investment from Daimler, a $465 million government loan, and a potential IPO, add up to cash and momentum for the electric car start-up.
Within the Limited Run category, a number of companies are converting existing gas-engine models into electric vehicles:
Also, limited runs of the following all-electric sports car are extremely limited: the UEV Spyder, Mullen L1x-75, UK's Lightning and the Venturi Fetish, selling for about $75,000, $125,000, $200,000 and $300,000 respectively.
3Low-Speed and Three-Wheel Electric Cars
The arduous road to delivering a new highway-speed electric vehicle to the market can be bypassed in two primary ways: limiting the electric vehicle to three wheels (so it can be legally classified as a motorcycle) or limiting the vehicles legal top speed to 25 miles per hour (so it can avoid highway crash testing). Those strategies lower the “barrier to entry,” opening the gates to scores of fledgling companies offering some mighty funky machines. It’s a long list, so we’ll keep our descriptions to a minimum. We’ve also eliminated companies that do not provide a base-level of information about products and prices—and products not directly selling in North America.
4Discontinued and Rare Electric Cars
The most promising recent period for electric vehicles was the 1990s—at least it seemed so at the time. In September 1990, the California Air Resources Board mandated that 2 percent of all new cars sold by major automakers in California would be “zero emission” vehicles by 1998—growing to 10 percent by 2003. That sent automakers scrambling to produce electric vehicles for the mass market. Obviously, things didn’t work out as planned. (See “Who Killed the Electric Car” for details.) Very few units were ever produced, and nearly all of them were destroyed. The remaining units are extremely hard to find and very expensive.