Electric cars: plug and drive

by Listener Archive / 27 November, 2012
Despite some clever advances, electric cars are taking time to catch on.
Electric cars - plug and drive

Reefton seemed an entirely appropriate setting to make a pit stop in an electric car. The tiny West Coast town was the first in the Southern Hemisphere to receive electric power in 1888. The electricity didn’t come from a coal-fired generator, as I had expected. Instead, water from the Inangahua River was fed through a tunnel to a turbine at the Reefton Power Station, providing power to electric lights around the town. But as I rolled silently into a railway yard in Reefton last week in the Holden Volt, the town provided a stark reminder of the reality this new generation of electric cars is here to face. Huge piles of black coal, en route from a West Coast mine to a furnace somewhere, sat awaiting removal.

The motor vehicle industry is trying to reinvent itself with technology that reduces our reliance on fossil fuels. By 2019, the US Government will have spent US$7.5 billion on tax breaks and incentives to encourage its recently bailed-out car makers to ramp up electric vehicle production. The poster child for the green motoring revolution, the boxy Toyota Prius, a hybrid electric and petrol vehicle, is finally turning a profit for Toyota. But the only Prius cars I have sat in are taxis.

Electric cars are still an unusual presence on our roads. That’s despite New Zealand being well suited to electric car technology. Over 70% of our electricity comes from renewable sources, mainly hydro, and many New Zealand homes have a garage, which makes plugging a car into the mains convenient. What we don’t have is scale. The technology is coming along in leaps and bounds. The Prius forged the way with the hybrid. Last year saw the debut here of the Nissan Leaf and the Mitsubishi i-MiEV, fully plug-in electric-only cars with a range of around 150km.

The Holden Volt is a slightly different prospect. It has an electric motor powered by a large T-shaped lithiumion battery pack that sits under the back seat and gives you 87km of driving. It also has a petrol-powered generator that kicks in to recharge the battery and power the wheels. The advantage over the electriconly cars on the market is that the Volt avoids the “range anxiety” that comes with a car that can travel only 150km on a charge.

As I made my way down the South Island last week, after borrowing a power point at the hotel reception to charge the Volt overnight, I began to appreciate the difference efficient driving makes to power and fuel consumption. My heavy foot meant I didn’t get the 87km of range from the fully charged battery – more like 65km. The dynamic efficiency gauge – a green orb on the Volt’s display in front of me – reminded me of how inefficiently I was driving.

Gradually, I learnt how to get the most from the fuel on board, accelerating smoothly and coasting where possible. The Volt has regenerative braking, which captures some of the energy lost when you hit the brakes and feeds it back into the battery – a virtuous cycle if ever there was one. The Volt is a pleasure to drive and comes loaded with technology – satnav, DVD player, lane departure warning system and rear-view camera. But it is almost as though Holden has loaded up on the gadgets to help justify the $85,000 price tag. The i-MiEV and Leaf sell for around $60,000 each. The Volt, however, is no shopping basket, more understated sports car.

Holden’s aims are modest – it hopes to sell 20-30 Volts in New Zealand in the next year to kick-start something bigger. GM, Holden’s US parent, is still losing money on the Volt, which debuted in the States in 2010. But it wants to build as many as 500,000 cars with electrification technologies a year by 2017. Analysts question the economics of Detroit’s heavily subsidised electric car push. It seems there’ll be much more red ink spilt before we can affordably go green.
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