I just finished reading an article about the new Nissan leaf, which Nissan tout as the “first real world Electric Car”, but have we been here before I wonder, and is an electric car a truly viable alternative to the internal combustion engine (ICE). Given the time required to recharge the batteries between journeys, I still can’t see how this could be accepted as a viable alternative by most users. Nissan claim the Leaf has a range of approximately 100 miles on a full charge, but even as early as 1911 the Detroit Electric from the Anderson Carriage Company had a range of 80 miles (all be it at a top speed of 20 miles per hour). Has so little change in battery technology in all this time that we still find it difficult to produce a practical battery powered car with compelling range? Even though the lithium-ion cells used in the Leaf can be fast charged to 80% capacity in 30mins, a full overnight charge still takes around 8 hours.


This started me wondering, where are we with viable alternatives? I recall seeing an item on the UKs Top Gear program presented by James May about a Honda Fuel cell car somewhere in California, and set off to do some web investigation. What I discovered was very interesting. Honda have for some years, been leasing (in what I might term experimental quantities) their FCX Clarity, to a select group of customers there. Not to be out done, Mercedes Benz has recently announced the introduction of their B Class F-Cell for 2010. The initial production run will be limited to just 200 cars, so I assume this is much more about information gathering than a practical real world product. Capable of developing 136hp from the electric motor and a range of 250miles with a performance to match its 2.0 litre petrol counterpart, the future of Hydrogen fuel cell cars looks to be on the horizon.


Today’s practical solution however is clearly the HEV (Hybrid Electric Vehicle). The HEV at present is synonymous with the Toyota Prius, but an ever increasing number of suppliers are offering or planning to offer HEVs including Honda, Lexus, Nissan, Ford, Mercury and Saturn. The great benefit with the HEV of course is the fact that if you don’t get stuck if you battery goes flat, because the ICE is still the primary drive. The electric motor assists the ICE during acceleration, and doubles up as a generator under braking to recharge the batteries. In addition to the regenerative breaking power management is also a big feature of the HEV, to improve overall efficiency, emissions and MPG.


Having said all this, even HEV sales currently represent less than 1% of global unit sales, but is predicted to have strong growth in the coming years to an estimated four and half million units by around 2013 (The Freedonia Group).


All of this is I think great news for electronics engineers. The growth of the markets for these technologies will drive the electronics content of vehicles ever skyward with intelligent drives to propel the vehicles and, power management to maximise fuel efficiency as we integrate systems, such as adaptive cruise control, collision mitigation, blind-spot detection, collision warning systems, lane departure warning systems, rear-view cameras, Digital Instrument Clusters, infotainment, navigation and communication systems. The need for the oily bits experts looks to be diminishing and the future brighter for the electronics design engineers, is this the real start of the automotive electric revolution?


(You can find a good overview and links to useful information on battery technology and charging here http://www.element-14.com/community/docs/DOC-13354).