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What’s Next After the Electric Car?

CCA LiveE | Wednesday December 28th, 2011 | 12 Comments

The following post is part of the course work for “Live Exchange” the foundational course on communication for The MBA Design Strategy Program at California College of the Arts. The rest of the posts are presented here.

By Atiim Wiley

I’m what is commonly known as a “car guy” — someone who is really into cars and prefers to have their garage populated with performance cars.  I threw a fit when the Toyota Prius won Motor Trends 2005 “Car of the Year” award – it wasn’t a “sexy car” to me.  However, there is the bigger picture to consider with the Prius winning the award—a car is still a car, no matter how it’s powered.  There is no denying that the norm of the internal combustion engine will be challenged in the next 5-10 years.

It took 10 years for hybrid technology (gasoline & electric) to bridge the gap from gas powered engines to 100% electric vehicles which are starting to emerge on the market—the Nissan Leaf and coming soon, the Ford Focus Electric & Mitsubishi Mi-EV.

If you’re like me and curious about new technologies and innovations, you have to ask what’s next for the automobile? Battery powered cars have zero emissions, but there is no solid resolution on how to deal with the battery replacement and disposal.  There is also the issue of the distance limitations per charge.  Unless you’ve mapped out charging stations in 100 mile increments, with 3-4 hours of time at each stop, it is difficult to drive long distances.

The next link in the chain of automobile evolution is with hydrogen fuel cell technology.  It still needs a few more years of development and infrastructure before it will be ready for the public, but I believe it’s the next best move in producing environmentally friendly vehicles.

Hydrogen fuel cells are used to produce electrical energy, using a chemical process that separates water from oxygen and hydrogen gases to power the battery supply of the electric motor that propels the vehicle.  Once the water is separated, it exits through the tail pipe—it’s like exhaust fumes, minus the guilt.  To date they have twice the range of electric cars traveling up to 200 miles on a single tank.  They can also refuel within minutes, the way we’re already accustomed to, instead of the 3 hrs. it takes to charge the battery.

There are several hurdles facing hydrogen powered cars—mainly functioning in cold temperatures where the water used in the fuel cells can freeze.  The fuel cell must also be reliable and durable enough to last at least 150,000 miles before needing replacement.  Whereas the current fuels being tested can go up to 50,000 miles.

As of now there is only one hydrogen car available.  The Honda Clarity, released in 2008, can be leased, but only to residents in the Los Angeles area.  A small infrastructure of refueling stations were built around the L.A. area to accommodate early adopters and test the development of fuel cell technology with the public.  As a person who likes to look under the hood and tinker with engines, I can only hope that this high tech wonder leaves enough for people like me to still have some fun.


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  • Dan

    I’m not convinced that the hydrogen fuel cell is “next.”  After all, it’s still an electric car, just with a different form of energy storage.  What I really wanted to know is what you as a “car guy” think of driving an electric car.  I have one, and it’s cool and quiet but I do miss the vroom vroom.

    • Atiim

      I’m pretty open to driving an electric car.  But I feel like I need a house with a garage first to accommodate it.  Or maybe a 200 ft. extension cord?

  • Robert

    Hydrogen fuel cells do not use a chemical process to separate water from oxygen and hydrogen gases.  Fuel cells start with hydrogen (either elemental, or in a compound form such as a hydrocarbon or alcohol) and react that with oxygen to produce electrical output with water as a byproduct.  Electrolysis of water can be used to separate it into hydrogen and oxygen, but this consumes electricity, and is not the primary means of producing hydrogen as a product.  For now, the primary source of hydrogen is natural gas, because in most circumstances it is the most economical, (though there are other ways of producing hydrogen.)  I’m not outlining the details here, but the overall system efficiency from energy sourcing to harvest, coupled with the particular overhead costs, advantages, and disadvantages of fuel cell technology make it a very poor bet to become the mainstream transportation energy method anytime in the foreseeable future.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_I5RO35WB33I5OX4VXDKVAB7DDQ s b

    “I can only hope that this high tech wonder leaves enough for people like me to still have some fun”

    That will surely depend on your understanding of electricity and electronics.  Electronic skills are increasing used in dealing with ICE cars but I suspect that the average backyard mechanic will not know what to do.  When there are no tune-ups and no filter changes (cabin filter aside perhaps) there isn’t that much to tinker with.  I would not expect to find much that I can tune under the hood of my electric car.

  • Bernard Fleet

    The logic is simple.  In order to restrain global warming to less than 2 deg C by 2050 it means that 80% of all road vehicles must be zero-emission and the rest may be ultra-high efficiency internal combustion – possibly running on biofuels or synfuels.  As our friend noted earlier, fuel cells dont cut it – the energy requirement from well to wheel is 2 1/2 times that required for a battery driven vehicle.  Right now it looks like lithium – initially as a plug-in hybrid ultimately as a pure battery vehicle is our best bet.
    Bernard Fleet, Toronto

  • Engineer Guy

    The car from Mitsubishi is called the i MiEV or just “i” in the US. You have confused electrolysis and fuel cells. And H2 is not the next thing, there are only 3-4 physical impossibilities that prevent it. The next thing for cars is better EVs. Energy density for batteries is getting better by 6-8% per year. New battery chemistries (Li-Air, Zinc-Air…) that can charge faster, go faster, and go farther are what is next. Here is a video of an EV that has a 0-60 of 1.8 seconds. If you are a car guy, then you will know that is fast, faster than many motorcycles. It is called the White Zombie and there are many videos of it at the track kicking gas. http://youtu.be/_nFwqZth_sY 

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Paul-Scott/1322599804 Paul Scott

    I’m not much of a “car guy”, but I do like quick acceleration, and my LEAF is quite good at that. I’ve been driving EVs for 9 years now (my first was the great Toyota RAV4 EV) and powering them with kWh I generate from sunlight falling on my roof. It’s a great feeling to know you aren’t polluting anyone’s air and I especially like not giving the oil companies any money. 

    BTW, after a total of 100,000 miles of electric driving, the only maintenance I’ve needed was to replace a couple of shocks on the Toyota. These cars require virtually zero maintenance.

  • http://twitter.com/TooomPlahn Thomas Plahn

    Hydrogen fuel cells may never happen.  Here’s why.  Essentially Fuel cell vehicles are electric vehicles that store energy in the form of hydrogen, which is then converted into electricity using the fuel cell.  To make hydrogen you almost certainly will need electricity.  That means you basically are using hydrogen to store electricity instead of a battery.  You will need hydrogen fuel production facilities and hydrogen fueling stations.  Natural gas based fuel cells are a possibility for two reasons 1. you don’t need electric to create the fuel(except extraction from the ground) and 2 there is already a distribution network

    “The Next Thing” is already here.  Electric Vehicles with range extenders, solve the problem of range anxiety, while using electric as their primary fuel source.  Primary, because most people drive less than 40 miles per day.  Some drivers are reporting driving 4,000 miles in their Chevy Volts before buying their first tank of gasoline.  Range extenders may some day use internal combustion engines and natural gas or other fuels.

  • Waywardbus26

    Your complete misunderstanding of how fuel cells function is a big reason why we have wasted time and resources pursuing this technology. Because current hydrogen supplies are derived from fossil fuels, the “hydrogen highway” — if it ever exists — would be  dirty, inefficient and no solution to our transportation, energy and climate problems. Fuel cells do not break down water to make hydrogen as your article incorrectly asserts; they oxidize hydrogen fuel and make water vapor as exhaust. Separating hydrogen from water consumes more energy than it produces, so such a vehicle would be incredibly wasteful. Finally, the cost of building a hydrogen infrastructure would be astronomical. We already have an an electricity infrastructure in place that can power battery electric cars very efficiently. Hydrogen fuel cells would be a step backwards, not forward.

  • http://twitter.com/SSPPjournal Sustainability Jrnl

    have you seen this Blog post from Sustainability: Science, Practice, & Policy?
    Electric Cars and the Road to Sustainability (Review Essay): Part I
    http://ssppjournal.blogspot.com/2011/07/electric-cars-and-road-to.html

    Part II
    http://ssppjournal.blogspot.com/2011/07/electric-cars-and-road-to_12.html

  • Thomas_cosgrove

    Rooftop solar to power the EV or PHEVs will be the next evolution. Which means many EV owners will spend no time or little time at the gas station while essentially producing their own energy.  

    The second iteration will be the battery charge will last for 200-300 miles similar to what the Tesla Roadster gets already.  Just a matter of time and demand from the consumer for EVs/PHEVs to take over as a major player.  

  • allenwoll

    Battery Exchange at automated stations is next (See Israel).  Drive up, push buton, drive off in one-two minutes : Done. . Auto must be special designed for exchange : Charged battery(s) in at front, DIS-Charged battery(s) expelled ar rear : Plenty familiar operation, no wipe required.