Golf Cart. The derogatory term aimed at many an electric car. This summer I went on vacation to a beach where the transportation vehicle of choice was a golf cart. The streets were filled with them, which was a real annoyance to anyone who drove a car as most golf carts couldn’t go above 15 mph. During our week-and-a-half stay there, we motored all over the island in a little two-seat British Racing Green-ish E-Z Go with tan upholstery. This particular model didn’t have too many options besides the clamp on side view mirror, but hey, golf carts are only ridiculously expensive for what they are, so I understand the frugality. I got plenty of seat time, as I am the newest driver in my family and there were errands to be run. Which I didn’t mind. I loved the quick acceleration provided by the electric motor and its relatively silent operation. It was always disappointing when the golf cart hit its maximum speed so quickly, though. 15 mph never feels fast or exciting. It was hard not to draw comparisons between our little golf cart and electric cars. We had range anxiety, and we had to plan our day around what we thought the golf cart could accomplish.
Eventually, I began to wonder; could our entire society scoot around in little electric vehicles? If not, to what extent should our cars have electric powertrains? EV’s, Hybrids, or somewhere in between? As a future car buyer, only a few electric ideas appeal to me.
First off, I can’t see myself driving an EV. My time with the golf cart taught me that. Yes, I realize that electric cars are way more sophisticated, faster, and have a longer range than golf carts, but the problems are still there. They are just scaled up or down accordingly. An EV’s range is far larger than a golf cart’s, but so are the areas that it travels. I have to imagine that after a busy day of running errands on the other side of town and coming back home a few times, the car wouldn’t have enough juice to do much else. Range is also affected by temperature, humidity, and other environmental factors more than other cars. And no matter what flash charging system the manufacturer comes up with, it will probably never be faster than filling up at the pump (which also happens every couple hundred miles or so, rather than 80 for most EVs). Cars like the BMW i3 and the Nissan Leaf also seem too expensive for me to consider as a second car, and for their price one could easily buy a used Porsche or a new Subaru BRZ, along with many other interesting and exciting cars.
Plug in hybrids seek to eliminate most of the problems of EVs by using a small engine to power the wheels or recharge the batteries when they run out. The Chevy Volt was hailed as the future of the electric car when it was released, even though it could drive its wheels with its tiny engine if need be. The plug in hybrid segment also has some very cool cars, namely the McLaren P1 and the (Ferrari) LaFerrari. But still, you have to plug it in at night if you want maximum fuel efficiency or performance. And that really brings me to the biggest problem I have with hybrids: They still have batteries.
Batteries as a means of storing energy for propulsion just seems like a silly idea to me. They weigh a whole lot more than a conventional fuel tank (or a fuel tank for CNG or Hydrogen). They also can’t store as much energy as densely as gasoline, hence the huge battery packs. They have to be charged more often than you would refuel a conventional car. There really should be a better way to get maximum efficiency.
That is why Volvo’s KERS (Kinetic Energy Retrieval System) makes so much sense. According to Volvo, it can increase fuel consumption by 25%, and it doesn’t use batteries. It stores energy from braking in a 6 pound flywheel that spins ridiculously fast. When the car begins accelerating again, the energy from the flywheel is used to power the rear wheels through a tiny CVT. This whole system is not much bigger than a manual transmission and is significantly lighter than any battery pack. If something like this becomes standard equipment in the future, would we need electric cars? Maybe the best form of electrification is no electrification.