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Summary:

After a lengthy red-tape runaround, the Canadian government has finally approved Canadian-made Zenn electric cars. But you still can’t drive them in their home country. Although there’s been a lot of coverage of Tesla and other high-profile electric vehicles, a different class of cars — dubbed […]

zenn1.jpgAfter a lengthy red-tape runaround, the Canadian government has finally approved Canadian-made Zenn electric cars. But you still can’t drive them in their home country.

Although there’s been a lot of coverage of Tesla and other high-profile electric vehicles, a different class of cars — dubbed low-speed vehicles (LSVs) – already popular in Europe, are gaining traction in the U.S. market as well. These cars, which are licensed in a manner similar to scooters, offer yet another viable option for urban commuters.

Despite their growing availability, electric cars face several important challenges:

  • Many use nickel-metal-hydride batteries, which take a long time to charge. Others use lead-acid batteries, which are difficult to dispose of in any kind of sustainable way. And lithium ion batteries (the same ones used in many laptops) have a nasty habit of bursting into flames when pierced, as evidenced by recent laptop battery recalls.
  • The power behind home-charged cars often comes from coal or other unsustainable sources, and the transmission of power over the grid to the home is extremely inefficient. This is one reason Chevrolet’s Volt concept car has an internal combustion engine that’s not attached to the drivetrain — it’s more efficient to produce power from gasoline within the car itself than it is to generate it in a power plant and send it over miles of wires.
  • The replacement cost of all those batteries is prohibitively high. The Tesla Roadster is powered by 6,831 lithium-ion batteries, the total replacement cost of which is around $25,000. And the world’s supply of lithium is limited to the Andes and Tibet (with minor reserves in Nevada and Australia); Meridian International Research speculates that we may simply not have enough raw materials to satisfy an electric vehicle boom.

Despite this, demand for plug-in electric cars is growing.

Plug-ins offer reduced emissions, lower ownership costs and a smaller environmental footprint. Proponents of plug-in vehicles cite a Department of Energy study that estimates hybrid vehicles reduce greenhouse gases by 22 percent, and plug-in hybrids by 36 percent. And if they’re recharged overnight (allowing energy providers to smooth out load) the efficiency of plug-in cars is even greater.

In the hydroelectric-rich Canadian province of Quebec, plug-in cars make even more sense. But until recently, a plug-in LSV made there had still not been approved for sale in the country.

Zenn — whose name is short for short for zero-emissions and no noise — makes an all-electric LSV that can charge from a normal 110V outlet. In recent months, a strong Canadian dollar has hurt exports, making domestic sales even more important. In fact, British Columbia’s Dynasty Electric Car Co, which makes a variety of electric vehicles under the brand name “It,” announced it was shutting down domestic operations.

Canada’s national news channel, the CBC, brought the story of the Zenn to light in an October report, noting that the vehicle is already on the road in the U.S. and Mexico and has even won awards in Europe. Finally, last month, the Canadian Minister of Transport pushed the federal certification through.

But you still can’t drive a Zenn in Canada – the vehicle has to be approved in each of the country’s provinces.

  1. Are you sure that it’s more efficient to produce power from gasoline within the car itself than it is to generate it in a power plant and send it over miles of wires?

    The numbers I have seen put the efficiency of an internal combustion engine at around 20%, whereas a combined cycle power plant is closer to 60%. Electricity loss in powerlines was estimated at 7.2% in the US in 1995. Transferring electricity to batteries probably loses another 10%. But, I think this still comes out ahead of generating the power in the car.

    If you have numbers that conclude otherwise, I would love to see them.

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  2. Well, I think FK is technically correct, “efficiency” if taken literally is a tough argument to win.
    Just a few comments, and maybe a different perspective, though:
    A) A regular car engine is, in fact, about 20-30% efficient (in terms of converting the caloric energy of a volume of fuel into torque) but a lot of this inefficiency is due to the wide range of power output required to drive a car. Most of a car’s life if spend outputting about 15kW. At a moment’s notice, however, drivers may want 175kW. Having an engine that can do anything in between at the drop of a hat is inefficient. If you want to burn more efficiently, any chemist will tell you that you’d have to “tune the reaction” to burn more slowly. So, imagine you could have an ICE (internal combustion engine) producing 20kW at it’s lowest BSFC, (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brake_specific_fuel_consumption) burning fuel as slowly as possible, and with a very lean mixture – you’d have an engine as high as 50% efficient. Alas, connecting the wheels to an engine like that isn’t feasible. You’d need to store energy when the vehicle needed less than that, and boost the output when the vehicle needed more. Sounds like a hybrid? It should. That’s what they are. Think of a slight analogy: Imagine you were a construction worker, and needed to occasionally haul large machinery, so you buy a pickup truck. A heavy vehicle requires more power under the hood – but it’s required for those heavy loads. What about when you’re out for a beer? It’s a lot of wasted vehicle. Wouldn’t it be nicer to have a trailer instead, for those heavy loads, and save all that weight for the rest of the time? So, in effect, a smaller, better tuned engine can be vastly more efficient than the kind of ICE you see in road vehicles today.

    B) If you take a step back, and define it in slightly more practical terms, “efficiency” should also include how hard it would be to increase the wattage available to my home, such that I can charge a battery vehicle overnight. My home has a 100 amp circuit. At 110v, that means at MAX POWER (before my house burns down starting at the electrical panel) I can charge a vehicle at 11kW. The Tesla, for example, stores 353kW of power. (3.7V * 6800 cells, * 1.4 Ah each) So, at 100% efficiency (assuming no loss anywhere) I can turn off everything in my home, including heating etc.. and charge the car in 32 hours.
    This is just to give some perspective on how much power we’re talking about here – how efficient is it to redo entire neighborhoods to handle 10x more power per house than they can currently handle, in order to charge their cars? At some point, you throw in the towel, and admit, for now, it’s more efficient to have a small ICE in your hybrid than it is to jam a large square peg in a small round hole.

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  3. Good point about the high amp requirements. However, that is really a grievous exaggeration of power line losses.

    Also good point about the optimum-operation engines. That’s basically what most diesel locomotives are: mobile power electric power plants where the electricity just powers electric motors on the wheels. And I think that’s what many of the hybrid city buses use too, but I’m not sure.

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  4. Thanks, but is it really that grievous? One of the points I was trying to make was “loss” isn’t just about how many watts are lost over the transmission wires, it’s how much does it cost, in all, factoring in loss-across-wires (7.5%? Ok. I’ll go with that) plus cost of the grid (I have no idea) plus cost to homes to upgrade to have more power, plus cost to the utility companies to really scale the whole grid up?
    Currently, just the cost of cost-per-kW going over the grid is as high as 2.5c / kW – that’s what it costs to produce the power locally, given diesel and a BSFC of about .25 (common). I.E. if it was free to produce the power (fully amortized hydro electricity?) it’s still costing you (in dollars) about the same to SEND that power, than it would cost someone to produce locally. So, basically, I don’t know if it’s really outragious to claim that producing that much power locally can be more efficient. It’s arguable, but not far-fetched.

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  5. Alistair: I’m sorry, but this is sloppy journalism: “…lithium ion batteries (the same ones used in many laptops) have a nasty habit of bursting into flames when pierced, as evidenced by recent laptop battery recalls”

    Please note that the broad class of “lithium ion batteries” includes several different chemistries. It is those batteries with cobalt–the ones commonly used in mobile phones & laptops–that are most susceptible to thermal runaway, a la the flaming-laptop videos.

    Other chemistries, including manganese and iron-phosphate, do not share this problem. The crucial question: If a cell suffers an internal short, is there enough oxygen bound into the chemistry to allow it to self-oxidize (i.e. burn) without external air to feed it?

    It appears that Toyota, with its long-term battery partner Panasonic, initially bet on the wrong Li-ion chemistry, one that included cobalt. GM, on the other hand, is pursuing two different chemistries for its Volt batteries via development contracts with LG Chem and A123 Systems.

    See the longer article on Li-ion batteries for automotive use in the link connected to my name for more detail.

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  6. [...] year EEStor was scheduled to start delivering the battery systems to Canadian electric carmaker ZENN Motors but in September pushed back commercial production dates to late 2008, which the Lockheed press [...]

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  7. [...] of follow the leader when it comes to climate change.  They can begin by tackling the issue of LSV’s or Low Speed Vehicles by allow them on all Canadian roads.  As it stands right now the Canadian Government has recently [...]

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  8. [...] low speeds and aren’t allowed on many roads. But Canadian electric automaker ZENN Motor could finally see its cars being driven on its home turf. The Québec Ministry of Transportation has announced a three-year pilot project allowing [...]

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  9. [...] off the tank at the gas station would make electric vehicles much more practical and attractive. Canadian electric car firm called Zenn has signed a deal with EEStor to replace the current lead-acid batteries in its small urban [...]

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  10. Alastair Carnegie Saturday, August 2, 2008

    The problem with all these electric concept cars, is that they are powered by “Under-Unity” Electric Motors.

    There is absolutely no need for this! “Over-Unity” Drive Units are the SANE! way forward. One such device nearly a decade old (groan! we despair of the intransigency of engineers! Less charitable folk call it ‘blind stupidity’) has recently been presented on YouTube, by a Serbian Inventor of very high standing:- “Veljko Milković – Cart with a pendulum – Vehicles with internal and inertial drive”

    The model illustrated in the video is just a single inclined pendulum demonstration of principle. 24 pendulum stacked disc variations are currently under investigation. The drive impulse is a result of ‘centripetal acceleration’ but essentially the power comes from ‘Gravity’ (Hunt Aviation’s Gravity Powered Flight is another variety) The purpose of having as many as 24 pendulums, is so as to even out the thrust, which with a single pendulum is quite jerky. also it allows for counter-oscillation, which is more balanced. These ‘inclined’ disc pendulums need not just oscilate, they may if desired rotate over the full 360 degrees.

    Of crucial importance, is that very little electrical power is required to ensure the pendulums ‘make the extra inch over the top” so to speak. After that gravity takes you to your destination. These stacked disks are cup-n-cone magnetically suspended at their circumference, eliminating bearing friction. They are driven by efficient three-phase segment motors. with a very short pulse for each oscilation. Regenerative charging is also contemplated. Braking also charges the battery. The vehicles are not expected to achieve any great velocity, but who cares, NO FUEL.

    ‘Gravity’ is NOT nothing, so please don’t quote “ex nihilo nihil fit” (L) From out of nothing, nothing comes. “Vide et crede” instead! (see & believe)

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