Economical Electric Vehicles

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An electric vehicle is ideal for in-town commuting and running errands.
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Illeya Stewart plugs an EV into a charging station outside her ceramic studio in Willits, California.
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Chart: Comparing gas and electric cars.
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Michael Hackleman points out the motor, controller and battery packs under the hood of his converted 1992 Honda Civic "VX".
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The Panasonic-E-hybrid bicycle.
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The EVSkeeter recumbent bicycle.
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Mel Bankoff uses his Gizmo electric vehicle to commute to work.
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For non-polluting, scootin' style try the Voloci electric motorbike.
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Switch to economical electric vehicles, an eco-friendly way to save the planet and save money.
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Fly down the highway in the Sparrow electric car, which can maintain speeds of 70 mph.
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NEVs are being used in the Clean Cities program that encourages use of alternative fuel vehicles.
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Toyota's RAV4 electric vehicle can travel 126 miles on one charge.
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For non-polluting, scootin' style try the Zappy folding e-scooter.

Learn about the cost savings and environmental benefits of owning economical electric vehicles.

For cruising or commuting, an electric car or bike is the most energy-efficient, economical, reliable and fun transportation option. Electric vehicles (EVs) also are the cleanest vehicles on the road today: No smog-producing pollution pours from their tailpipes, qualifying them for zero-emission status.

Large auto and oil companies say this claim is just smoke and mirrors, that EVs are just “emission-elsewhere” vehicles, and that pollution from the electric power plants that charge EVs offsets any gain in local air quality. But that’s simply not true, say the California Air Quality Management Districts and the California Energy Commission. Their studies find coal-fired electric power plants operate at efficiencies three times that of cars with gasoline engines. Transportation via internal combustion engines that use gas and oil is responsible for more than 17 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions on the planet. In industrialized countries, cars spew 75 percent of carbon monoxide emissions, 48 percent of nitrogen oxide (smog) and 40 percent of hydrocarbon pollutants into the atmosphere. Mile for mile, electric vehicles travel with one-half the resource depletion and one-fifteenth the air pollution.

EVs are easily three to four times more efficient than internal combustion engines. While the major automotive and oil industries point out the limited amount of energy a battery pack contains relative to a tank of gasoline, they fail to address an ugly truth about internal combustion engine technology: The engine itself wastes an average of 60 percent of any fuel’s energy, whether it’s gasoline, diesel, alcohol, methane, compressed natural gas, propane, bio-fuel or hydrogen. Engines waste this energy as heat, vibration and exhaust. The silence of an electric vehicle is a mute testament to its efficiency.

Electric Vehicle Nuts and Bolts

EVs use electric motors instead of engines for propulsion, and use electricity from batteries instead of getting power from fossil fuels. Look under the hood of an EV and you’ll find an electric motor about the size of a 5-gallon water bottle bolted to a standard transmission. The vehicle’s accelerator pedal is linked to an electronic controller, and pressing the accelerator smoothly delivers power to the electric motor in proportion to the degree the pedal is pressed, the same as with a gas engine.

Instead of a fuel tank, batteries store the energy that powers the car. Drivers of cars with internal combustion engines choose what oil company they want to dole their dollars to, but electric vehicle drivers determine the source of their energy: Some choose utility-supplied electricity, while others tap into homescale power plants, such as wind machines, solar-electric arrays or small hydroelectric systems. The EV then becomes not only a zero-emission, but a zero pollution vehicle when renewable energy systems are used for power.

Operating an EV is virtually identical to driving a car with an engine. There are some differences in the dash controls, meters and other hardware, but no more than someone might discover in the features of any other new car model. The most important controls, such as the steering, brakes, accelerator pedal and gears (if any), are identical to those found in a car with an engine.

Why Drive Electric Cars?

Virtually maintenance-free. With only three moving parts in the electric motor (one armature and two bearings), electric propulsion systems are designed to last for two decades or more. Few moving parts means few things to repair, unlike gasoline-powered vehicles. The only maintenance required for an electric propulsion system consists of checking the battery pack every six months. And after two to five years of use, the battery pack will need to be replaced. (See Banking on Electric Car Batteries.)

It’s cheaper. Even with the need to recycle the vehicle’s battery bank every few years, the cost to operate an EV is lower than driving a car with an internal combustion engine (see “Comparing Gas and Electric,” ). The average full-size EV has a 15 kilowatt-hour (kwh) battery pack, which at 8 cents/kwh costs $1.20 to fully recharge for a range of 45 miles. Mile for mile, EV drivers pay less.

Under the Qualified Electric Vehicle Credit (Internal Revenue Service Form 8834;, current federal tax incentives offer up to a 10 percent credit based on the cost of an EV, up to $4,000 for each vehicle. Hybrid-electric vehicles, which are not powered primarily by electric motors, do not qualify, but pan of the cost of these vehicles may be eligible for a clean-fuel-vehicle deduction up to $2,000. IRS Publication 535 details the criteria for taking a credit on hybrid-electric vehicles. Your state may also offer tax incentives: Visit the Clean Cities Alternative Fuel Vehicle website at and click on the “Incentives and Laws” link. California recently enacted a tax credit of up to $9,000 for new electric vehicles, the most proactive state measure to date.

It’s better for the environment. Containing air pollution from a single power plant’s smokestack is far easier than controlling the tailpipe emissions from millions of cars. Engines are even more inefficient and pollute more heavily until they reach operating temperature. And pollution from the off-gassing of oil-soaked engines continues long after the car’s hot engine is turned off. The difference is so great between internal combustion engines and electric motors that, in California, a singly occupied EV qualifies to use the car pool lane.

Silent operation. A blessing of electric propulsion is that there’s no motor vibration. The lack of this constant vibration adds to the feeling of the smooth, elegant ride found only in luxury cars and most EVs.

Although an EV’s motor or controller may sing a bit at high speeds, under heavy loads or when climbing steep grades, an EV is so quiet that its driver must exercise caution in parking lots. Unaware of the EV’s presence, pedestrians may step out in front of the vehicle.

Performance. Most EVs are fully capable of quick acceleration, fast hill climbing and maintaining highway speeds. However, any of these practices will reduce the effective range of a fully charged battery pack.

Just as jackrabbit starts and high speeds waste electricity, they also waste fuel. Most cars with engines have no meters — except the singular path of the fuel gauge’s needle from full to empty — to help the driver understand which habits are the most wasteful. An EV’s monitoring system reveals the high cost of a lead-foot on the pedal, and helps the operator learn how to drive more efficiently.

Range. Current battery technology sets limits on the vehicle’s maximum range. But the average commute in the United States is only 25 miles, and virtually every EV has twice this range in a standard driving cycle. Conservative driving can stretch the range to almost 75 miles. (See Banking on Electric Car Batteries.) Where a commute may stretch 50 to 70 miles one way, it is usually a simple matter to plug the vehicle into a charging outlet at work. At the end of the workday, a fully charged EV is ready to make the trek homeward.

Regenerative braking. In an engine-powered car, when the driver first accelerates to speed and then must brake hard to stop, all of the energy expended is wasted as heat in the vehicle’s brakes. Regenerative braking, a feature found only in EVs and hybrid-electric cars, captures about 30 percent of this energy and recycles it to recharge the battery pack. Circuitry in the controller makes the electric motor act temporarily like a generator, producing electricity that is routed to the batteries.

Regenerative braking, which occurs whenever the driver lets up on the accelerator or applies the brakes steadily, handles 80 percent of all vehicle braking situations, minimizing the need for using the vehicle’s hydraulic brakes. This lessens the wear on brake drums, rotors and pads.

Electric Cars for Groceries or Great Getaways

Whether you need transportation for running errands, for commuting to the neighborhood office, for highway travel or distance driving, there’s an EV to meet your need.

Neighborhood electric vehicles (NEVs) are light-duty EVs designed primarily for streets, not highways. NEVs are fairly inexpensive vehicles, convenient to use, park and maintain, and are perfect as a family’s second car. Most will travel speeds of 25 mph, and have room for two people and storage for groceries.

The NEV is usually classified as a low-speed vehicle, and is federally approved to be driven on community streets with posted speed limits of 35 mph or less. Thirty-five states recognize this low-speed vehicle classification of EVs.

“People who don’t know how to use an NEV think it’s not for them,” says Global Electric Motorcars President Ken Montler. “Yet once they ride in one, they can’t stop thinking about how it can be used.”

The GEM (Global Electric Motorcar, owned by DaimlerChrysler Co.) is a four-passenger, front-wheel drive, street-legal NEV. It has a 25 mph top speed, a range of 30 to 40 miles, stands as tall as a minivan and has an optional weather enclosure to protect against rain, wind and sun. It comes with a 5-horsepower direct-current motor, a 48- or 72-volt flooded-cell, lead-acid battery pack, and an onboard 110-volt overnight charger. Expect to pay about $8,350 for a GEM [].

Ford Motor Company’s Th!nk Neighbor, intended for short neighborhood commutes, has both two- and four-passenger options, with a payload up to 900 pounds. It can travel about 30 miles on one charge, with a top speed of 25 mph. The Neighbor starts at about $6,495 for the two-seater model [].

Eugene, Oregon-based Neighborhood Electric Vehicle Company makes the Gizmo, a one-seat, fully enclosed commuter vehicle that can travel up to 45 miles on a single charge, and cruise at speeds up to 40 mph. You can pick up a Gizmo for about $8,650 [].

With a combination of pedal power and electric power, Kronosport’s little electric vehicles can carry a driver and more than 350 pounds of extra cargo. Using the electric motor only, they have a top speed of 12 mph, and a range of 24 to 36 miles per charge. Combining pedal power with the electric motor more than doubles the range. Ed Kron, the founder and president of Kronosport, uses his Truck to help out with homesteading chores, and Kronosport Vans, Bikes and Taxis are currently planned for use by the Philadelphia police department, airport, parks and recreation department, and zoo. Price range from $5,800 for the Truk to $6,500 for the Taxi or Van [].

Electric Vehicles as Commuting Cars

Although most privately owned EVs in the United States (estimated at 5,000) are conversions of cars initially manufactured with gasoline engines (see Converting a Gas Engine Car to an Electric Powered Car), in California. Toyota currently offers the RAV4 EV, a battery- only, five-passenger, four-door sport utility vehicle that can travel 126 miles on a single charge. Toyota says more than 1,000 fleet-tested RAV4 EVs have demonstrated high reliability and low service requirements. The RAV4 EV has a top speed of 78 mph. Expect to pay around $42,510 for this EV (

The Corbin Sparrow is a one-person, three-wheel, freeway legal EV with a range of 30 to 50 miles. The Sparrow sports an all weather composite shell, contains an LED dashboard display, and registers, insures and parks as a motorcycle in most states. It has a curbside door, heater and defroster, radio and compact disc player, two power ports for a phone and laptop computer, and 6 cubic feet of luggage space. It retails for about $14,900 [].

Ford’s Th!nk City is a two-passenger commuter vehicle constructed with an aluminum safety frame and a driver’s side air bag. It can travel speeds up to 56 mph, and has a range of almost 50 miles. The City, which will make its debut during the summer of 2003, will cost about $20,000.

Head for the Hills With Hybrid-Electric Vehicles

Hybrid EVs (HEVs) pair a gasoline engine with an electric motor, significantly extending vehicle travel range. Around town. most HEVs use their electric motors and engage the engine only during highway driving, combining low emissions in populated areas with excellent fuel economy on the highways.

The hybrid EVs currently on the market are “parallel” types, meaning the engine and electric motor separately drive the wheels. Batteries in these HEVs are not recharged by plugging them in to utility electricity, but by the HEV’s own gasoline engine.

The Honda Insight is a sleek two-door hatchback. At 61 miles per gallon in the city and 68 mpg on highway, the Insight boasts the highest fuel economy of the vehicles available in the HEV class. Range on one tank of gas averages 620 miles. Maximum load, including passengers, is 365 pounds. The Insight sells for about $19,000.

In spring 2002, Honda released its hybrid Civic model, a four-door compact car with seating capacity for five passengers, and ample trunk space. Hybrid Civics claim city and highway mileage of 46 and 51 mpg. The price for a base model is about $20,010 [] and [].

Toyota’s Prius is a four-door vehicle that was tested by Consumer Reports at 30 mpg in the city and 49 mpg on the highway, averaging 41 mpg overall. The range on one tank of gas averages 545 miles.

The Prius can fit up to five adults, and can carry a maximum load of 800 pounds. A base model sells for about $21,000 [].

HEVs to be released in the next two years include sport utility vehicles, like the Ford Escape HEV and DaimlerChrysler’s Dodge Durango HEV, and the Dodge RAM HEV Contractor Special, a full-size pickup.

Electric Cars for Fun, Fitness and Function

One of the more efficient and inexpensive hybrid EV designs blends human power and electric propulsion. Adding a small motor and battery pack to a bicycle lends the energy of a second person without the weight penalty, and works well for cycling over level terrain, climbing grades and reaching higher vehicle speeds than pedal-only operation provides.

Electric-assist bicycles use four methods to integrate the motor with the vehicle’s chain-works: tire drive, chain drive, torque-sensing and hub motor.

The ZAP system is an add-on, tiredrive system that mounts the motor to the front or rear bicycle forks. A thumb switch near the right handlebar engages the motor to press a roller on the motor shaft, which helps spin the tire. This design wears the outside of the tire rather quickly, and necessitates more frequent tire replacement. A sealed 12-volt, 15-amp-hour battery rests in a canvas boot under the top rail. Tiredrive systems include the Zeta II (front drive, $149), single-motor ($359) and dual-motor ($449). The motor kit is integrated in the Powerbike ($599) [].

The Currie motor uses a separate chain drive and sprocket mounted at the rear of the bicycle to power the rear wheel. Currie offers the E-Police bike, E-Tryke and E-Cruiser, E-folder and a U.S. ProDrive motor system for adapting an existing bicycle ($450). The bikes will travel speeds of 13 to 20 mph (depending on model), with a 12- to 15-mile range with pedal-assist [].

The Panasonic E-hybrid bike powers the same chain used by the pedals to drive the rear wheel, using a torque-sensing feature to amplify the pedal input. The 12volt, 4.5-amp-hour battery pack will take a rider 20 miles on a single charge. A push-button control box within range of a rider’s thumb lets the operator select both the electrics (on or off) and degree of electric assistance (high or low). The box also contains a three-LED display of the battery’s state of charge during operation. The 4.5 pound battery is easily removed for charging, and the lightweight charger has both a quick (two-hour) and overnight (eight-hour) charging rate. The torque-sensing feature demands pedal input to work, so there’s simply no way to drain the battery pack too quickly. The Panasonic provides intuitive and smooth operation, predictable range and enough of a workout to truly qualify as an electric assist bicycle. It sells for $1,395.

The newest way to add electric-assist to a bicycle is to use a motor built into the hub of the rear bicycle wheel. The hub motor’s shaft is stationary and the outer casing spins, turning the rim and tire to which it is spoked. The EVSkeeter, a recumbent bike design by Mike Saari (pictured at right), uses an 800-watt Heinzmann hub motor, a 40-pound, 24-volt sealed lead-acid battery pack, and Heinzmann’s specialized cruise-control system. A thumb switch activates the motor, aiding or entirely replacing pedal input from the rider. The EVSkeeter has a 25 mph top speed, a range of 30 miles, brisk acceleration, and is classified as a motorized bicycle, bypassing the need for a driver’s license, vehicle registration and insurance in most states.

The hub motor is quiet and simple, has few parts, and avoids interfering with the stock chainworks, making it easier to maintain and service. Heinzmann retrofit motor kits are priced from $1,100. [Both the Panasonic E-hybrid and Heinzmann hub motor kits are available from Electric Bikes Northwest;]

Electrified recumbent bicycles, like the EVSkeeter Model 20 ($2,995), combine a comfortable chair seat with the speed and range to create a practical substitute for most car trips. Because the bike is lower to the ground, which greatly reduces wind-drag, a rider of an electric recumbent bike covers the same ground in about three-quarters of the time that it takes a standard-bike rider. [The EVSkeeter is currently only available in California. For more information, visit]

Widely used in Europe, scooters and mopeds are ideal for zipping around town. Electric scooter and mopeds avoid the pollution, noise and reliability problems of most gasoline-engine mopeds.

Scooters range from the Zappy Turbo, a folding electric scooter with a range of 5 miles and top speed of 18 mph [$399;], to the mid-size EGo, which will cover more than 20 miles at a speed of 16 to 21 mph [$1,599;]. For commuters who have farther to travel, the Voloci can travel 50 miles at speeds up to 30 mph [$2,000 to $2,500;].

Electric motorcycles offer distinct advantages over their gas-powered relatives. The Viento A5 wraps stylish plastic body parts around a strong sheet-metal frame, fully enclosing its 6-horsepower Briggs E-Tec electric motor and 12-volt, 70-amp-hour battery pack. Licensed as a moped, the Viento A5 is speed-limited to 30 mph and has a range of 30 to 50 miles [$3,500;].

Charging up an EV Battery

Recharging NEVs and longer-range EV cars is more time-consuming than simply refilling a fuel tank; a bulk charge rate (up to 75 percent battery capacity) takes four hours, and a complete battery recharge takes eight to 10 hours, at 10 to 15 cents per hour. (Recharging bike and scooter batteries takes less time.) At work, a few solar-electric panels in the parking lot would be all you need to recharge your EV’s batteries for the evening commute home. Most EVs plug into a standard 110-volt wall socket for overnight charging. Larger EVs or ones with high-voltage battery packs may require a 220-volt outlet.

Savvy EV owners add a time-of-use (TOU) meter to their home utility meter to lower the rate for EV recharging. A TOU meter records power usage within two distinct time periods: peak (between 11 a.m. and 7 p.m.) and off-peak (from 7 p.m to 11 a.m.). Most homes pay a flat rate for electricity for a 24-hour period, but a home with a TOU meter pays two rates: a higher one for peak use and lower one for off-peak use.

Since most EVs are recharged overnight, TOU metering is an ideal arrangement that significantly reduces the cost of recharging daily. In the United States, says Paul MacCready of Aerovironment, a company specializing in electric and hybrid vehicle systems. 6 million EVs could be recharged from utility electricity overnight without the construction of a single new power plant.

The cost of installing a TOU meter ($150 to $200) pays for itself in about a year’s time. Many states now also offer significant rebates to offset the cost of installing grid-tied renewable energy systems. The Database of State Incentives for Renewable Energy [] lists programs by state. Homeowners can take advantage of these savings and use the clean electricity produced from the sun or wind to recharge their electric vehicle.

EV charging stations are popping up throughout the country to assist with opportunity charging. A dedicated parking space designated with a sign, with a charging box mounted on a pole serves this function. Both 110- and 220-volt sockets are available. The electricity consumed is so miniscule, most charging stations offer the service for free. In Switzerland, EVs may pull into a streetside parking spot, plug into the meter at the curb, and deposit coins for parking and electricity. In California, the Sacramento Municipal Utility District shades its parking lot with solar-electric panels, which provide power for its mixed fleet of EVs.

Learn About Electric Vehicles

Wise Driving Tips for Electric Vehicles
Banking on Electric Car Batteries
Converting a Gas Engine Car to an Electric
Powered Car

Originally published as “Energy and Environment” October/November 2002 MOTHER EARTH NEWS.

EV advocate and author Michael Hackleman has built 20 EVs, half conversions and half prototypes. He is now working on electric propulsion systems for ultralight rail vehicles and airships.