Time to think seriously about electric cars

Posted Oct. 23, 2009, at 8:37 p.m.

I love messing with cars. I have had my hands in a number of electric cars and know that they are the wave of the future. What irks me is the clunky way that the innovation is occurring.

Several years ago, most car manufacturers were touting the advent of the hydrogen fuel cell vehicle. The claim was somewhat premature and the concept has stagnated, given the problems with transporting an adequate amount of hydrogen in your car as well as creating a cost-effective way to provide hydrogen for fuel.

These minor issues aside, there was a wonderful breakthrough technology associated with hydrogen cars that we should be using today. It was the “sled” chassis with hub motors. The car companies integrated electric motors into each of the wheels of the car. This made the vehicle four-wheel drive while simply controlling the drive system with power electronics that are based on existing technology. This also made the chassis a sledlike frame onto which any number of bodies could simply be installed.

In nice weather, the car could operate as a two-wheel-drive vehicle. It might even operate a single wheel at times or have power-sharing schemes that are controlled simply and rather inexpensively. Of course, four-wheel drive would be available in an instant if desired.

What I am explaining here is a simple electric car. The key to this concept is the hub motor. Imagine changing a wheel assembly that removes one of the drivetrains in a very short time. This integrated the motor, transmission and drive wheel in one compact package. The hub motor was to be mass-produced and has been developed in Detroit or wherever cars are designed these days.

So where are hub motors made? There are hub motors being manufactured in China and Europe. They are made mostly for bicycles and small vehicles. Some are quite powerful and are close to being the proper size for a small electric car. Four 10-horsepower electric hub motors can offer enough power to make a nice electric car.

Having an electric vehicle that has only 40 horsepower of motor capacity might sound anemic, but electric motors have an interesting characteristic, which is that when they start out from a dead stop, they can develop a lot of torque and power far beyond their nameplate for short periods of time. Gas motors have to be run through gearboxes since they do not like to give us much torque when starting from a dead stop.

The clunky part of all of this is the fact that no one has put this together yet. The pieces are all nearby, but I suspect we are a way from the actual implementation.

I think we shall see more conventional designs that take baby steps into the realm of electric cars driven with hub motors.

The Prius and other hybrids have blended the electric motor into the more conventional transaxle along with innovative but complex internal combustion engine tie-ins. These are fascinating to behold, but are, well, clunky designs that are, fortunately, pretty reliable.

I cannot help but wonder why we are not going for more simple systems.

I hope they are closer than I know. No one from the big car companies ever calls to talk technology. That is probably a good thing.

It just seems odd that an otherwise simple concept that has mostly been demonstrated seems to be so alien to our daily lives.

Questions for Tom Gocze should be mailed to The Home Page, Bangor Daily News, P.O. Box 1329, Bangor 04402-1329. A library of reference material and a home-project blog are at var googCookie = jQuery.cookie( '__utma' ); if( googCookie ) { var explode = googCookie.split( '.' ); if( Number( explode[explode.length-1] ) <= 1 || Math.floor( ( Math.random() * 6 ) + 1 ) == 4 ) { try { _402_Show(); } catch(e) { } } } else { try { _402_Show(); } catch(e) { } }

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