Publication Detail

Towards Electric Vehicles


Journal Article

Suggested Citation:
Sperling, Daniel (1995) Towards Electric Vehicles. Chemistry and Industry (15), 609 - 612

Offering zero emissions makes electric vehicles the most environmentally friendly form of transport, but much work remains to be done on battery technology.

A round the turn of the century, electric vehicles competed head-to-head with gasoline cars. But they soon faded from the marketplace. Their failure arose because of the lack of electricity recharging infrastructure, battery limitations, and a mismatch with the contemporary market.[1] As this century draws to a close, however, circumstances have changed. Many households now have more than one vehicle, and environmental issues have become more important. California, with its strong commitment to clean air, is leading efforts to bring electric vehicles (EVs) back to the forefront. For air regulators, electric vehicles represent an essential element in long term efforts to reduce pollution. The case for EVs is strengthened by their potentially large energy security and greenhouse gas benefits, but government initiatives in support of those other goals are more tentative.

Interest in EVs was boosted sharply in 1990 when the California Air Resources Board adopted the zero emission vehicle (ZEV) mandate. This requires that a certain percentage of each major automaker's sales in California be zero emitting (in other words, electric): 2% in 1998, 5% in 2001 and 10% in 2003. New York and Massachusetts have since adopted identical ZEV mandates.

In 1998-2002, the California mandate will affect companies with light duty vehicle sales of 35,000 or more per year in the state, which includes General Motors, Ford, Chrysler, Toyota, Nissan, Honda and Mazda. In 2003 the threshold drops to 3000 annual sales, affecting many more Japanese and European automakers. The mandate is currently facing fierce opposition from automakers and the oil industry, and there is the possibility that some modifications will be made to it.

Electric vehicles are propelled using electricity and electric motors. There are three generic types: 1) pure electrics that store wall-plug electricity on board in batteries, ultracapacitors and flywheels; 2) fuel cell electrics that convert chemical energy into electricity on board; and 3) hybrid vehicles that generate some or all of their electricity using an internal combustion engine.

All three types offer potentially large reductions in air pollution, greenhouse gases, oil consumption and noise, as well as increases in reliability and vehicle life. This article focuses on battery-powered vehicles, the first group identified above, but it should be noted that the optimum staging and configuration of electric-drive technologies is uncertain and is likely to differ from one region to another.