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Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Electric Vehicle redux 

A lot of things, including the recent release of Who Killed the Electric Car? [danger: mendacious revisionism, flash], the more constructive presentation of the Tesla Roadster (coming to a dealer not very near you in 2007, prices starting at US$80,000 for a machine that crosses a Lotus Elise with a lot of lithium-ion batteries), and this interesting article suggesting a way to make EVs practical for occasional long-range use.

If it's not already obvious, I'm both very interested in EVs and very skeptical. It doesn't take a conspiracy theory to explain the failure of the EV1: GM's excuses are here, and they sound reasonable to me. Note when pages like this Wikipedia entry talk about ranges of "120 to 240 km" it's almost always safe to assume that the shorter range will be closer to the truth. That these cars were probably costing GM about $40k each above their sale prices is just a sort of delicious frosting for this conspiracy cake.

To take my own driving as an example, I could usually get away with a 120 km car, but that would mean no round trips to Cultus Lake, no driving to Victoria via the ferry, et cetera. The real trouble with EVs comes when you run out of gas, because their refuelling times are measured in hours, and that's if you can find a place to recharge.

I think EVs will get there. The best bet is that Li-ion technology, which is probably already good enough, will become cheap enough. $80k for a Tesla seems like a not bad deal in the boutique high-performance sports-toy car niche; as a marketing and development strategy, I think the cleverest thing about the Tesla is aiming at a bunch of car buyers who already expect a deeply compromised (minimal storage, no back seat) vehicle.

But here in BC, I think there's some small opportunity, given local laws, to create two different, and very special types of EVs, both bicycles of a sort.

The first would be a bicycle, but a recumbent with a full fairing and an electric motor. This would be a bit of a cheater bike: the biggest flaw of electric bikes is that they're pretty slow: restricted to 32 km/h on level ground by the local regulations (though I can't tell from my reading of the law if that means it can go faster with electric assist as long as the rider is adding power on top of the electric power...) The biggest problems with fully faired recumbent bicycles (aka "human powered vehicles" (HPVs)) are their poor performance on hills and, relative to conventional bicycles, their clumsy low-speed maneuverability.

Assuming we just suck it up and live with the low-speed problem, an electric-assist HPV could be the best of both worlds: quick acceleration from the EV assist. Top speeds in excess of 50 km/h on level ground with a moderately fit rider (I'm thinking Supafamous-fit, not me-fit). Hill-climbing at 32 km/h up most hills. All of a sudden you have a vehicle that is pretty quick and capable on open roads. Not perfect for everything: downtown, I'd still take a straight bicycle, and it would be too slow for highways. But everything in between would be its oyster.

The second vehicle would be the same machine, but with all pretenses to human power thrown overboard. Then we're dealing with an aerodynamic, light, and efficient motorcycle. Maybe even a scooter, performance-wise.

You could probably push to highway speeds in a pinch, you might be able to ride it with only a class 5 license if you could qualify it as a scooter, and the power and range should be acceptable considering the modest weight and high aero; it wouldn't push battery technology to its limits. Compared to a scooter, it would probably be heavier, but vastly more aerodynamic.

Would I buy either vehicle? Probably not. My good-enough machine is a bicycle. I bought my current commute-to-work machine at a garage sale. $20 is a pretty hard price to beat. But I would very much like to try building the first of my two light electric toys. Anyone got an electric bike they want to donate to science?

Oh, while I'm throwing out irrational ideas like sparky sparks, how about a carbon fibre monocoque HPV for the road?

Back in the real world, this Stokemonkey thing seems like an especially clever variation on the cargo bicycle. The blog is worth reading, too.

Oh. And before I finished this post, Todd from Cleverchimp answered my idle email, and said one of his customers had used a Stokemonkey to implement pretty much my crazy idea. The thing is even a monocoque. Thanks, Todd!

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