Total electric cars have been available for decades, but it took a totaled automobile to inspire a Brigham Young University professor to build a unique new electric car high in practicality and low on cost.
Engineering professor Robert H. Todd says he has long been intrigued with the idea of building an electric car with "off the shelf," or readily available items. His is a low-tech approach where components designed for other purposes are converted into parts for an electric vehicle.He wanted his car to extend beyond the realm of golf cart or a very short-distance vehicle. Yet he also wanted to avoid the $40,000 to $60,000 price tag associated with electric vehicle prototypes from major automobile manufacturers who are scrambling to comply with a California law. After 1998 California will require any company selling more than 35,000 vehicles a year to have two percent of them be zero emission vehicles. Electric cars are the only known zero emission motorcar existing today.
"Their researchers are going along the high-tech highway, but the costs are so expensive, the cars in development are beyond the affordability and interest of the average American driver," Todd says.
"I take my motivation from Henry Ford and his Model T and Model A cars. Ford thrived on a foundation of simple parts put together well. Ford also had a strong ethic of giving people what they wanted and could afford, something I firmly believe is a key to manufacturing success."
After one of his sons had an accident in the smaller of Todd's two family cars, the engineer - who worked his way through school as a mechanic - decided to test his hypothesis that he could build a sensible, desirable car that would cost less than $10,000 and be inexpensive to operate.
"I wanted a car I could drive back and forth to work every day," he explains. "I bought a 1993 Ford Festiva, took everything apart and donated the engine and all the engine components to BYU. I listed the features and functions I wanted for the car and brain-stormed different ways to get those results."
He obtained his motor from a company in New York, batteries from California and other components from suppliers in Salt Lake City and around the country. As he analyzed the functions he needed, he realized he was designing a family's second car, the one driven on errands around town instead of the vehicle used for long trips.
"From the extensive research I did before I started the project, I learned that 85 percent of all American cars are driven fewer than 35 miles a day," he says. "I wanted an affordable car that filled the needs for that kind of use."
Todd's electric motor has only one moving part, compared to the multi-component standard internal combustion engine. It will produce 82 horsepower at 120 volts and go approximately 100 miles at 45 miles per hour on a single charge. Its top speed ranges between 65 and 70 miles per hour.
"I charge it a couple of times a week by plugging it into a normal 110-volt outlet overnight," Todd says. "I estimate electricity costs about a penny a mile, or about 100 miles to the gallon if gasoline costs a dollar a gallon. When gasoline is higher than that, the electric car is even more economical."
Among the advantages of an electric car is the maximum torque, or power from the motor that occurs when the car is started. "You get a sensation of quite a bit of acceleration when you first accelerate the car compared with an internal combustion engine where you have to get the engine revved up to obtain reasonable torque valves. Electric cars are very quiet and simple in their construction, which should allow them to be maintained easily. The horsepower rating is similar to what you find in a regular car."
Happy with his vehicle, but not content that it is a finished product, Todd is working to solve new problems. He is thinking of ways to decrease rolling resistance in tires, so there is less friction. He is working on cooling and heating devices that are not so draining on the batteries, and is experimenting with an element from a 1000-watt hair dryer that could provide heat and warm air and pass through the regular duct system. A fellow faculty member, Carl Sorensen, and a student have also been designing a measure that indicates how much battery charge is left, with the intent of using the existing fuel gauge.
The weakest link in the electric car concept, Todd says, is the battery.
"My car has 850 pounds of batteries and the total car weighs about 500 pounds more than it did originally. This is still within the gross vehicle weight allowed for the vehicle. The future of electric cars is really tied to new battery technology that is inexpensive, recyclable and has more energy density pound per weight."
Todd says he has always enjoyed building things because of what he learns in the process. "This project has been a prime example of that principle."
He has gained support from Ford, who has donated another car as a platform for testing electric car components. California Edison also has expressed an interest in his technology.