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Standards, please! The third coming of electric vehicles

Electric vehicles (EVs) are not new. But recent developments could give them something of a boost in the eyes of the buying public. If so, it wouldn’t be the first time. By the turn of the 20th century…

Volvo’s V60 Plug-in Hybrid – one of many attempts to make electric vehicles more seductive. Overlaet, Wikimedia Commons

Electric vehicles (EVs) are not new. But recent developments could give them something of a boost in the eyes of the buying public. If so, it wouldn’t be the first time.

By the turn of the 20th century, EVs were so popular in America that they outsold all other types of cars.

The Baker Motor Vehicle Company of Cleveland, Ohio lead the EV industry by offering 15 different models, with production reaching 400 cars in 1905 (increasing to 800 in 1906) and selling for approximately US$850 each – about US$22,400 in modern money.

Famous owners of the Baker EV included Thomas Edison, the King of Siam and the famous American financier and philanthropist “Diamond” Jim Brady.

1912 Argo Brougham, made by the Argo Electric Vehicle Company W. Zablosky, Wikimedia Commons

There was a perception by the 1900s that EVs had many advantages over their gasoline-powered rivals: they were silent, free from vibration, easy to start and produced less emissions.

But, as with today, buyers had similar concerns about their short driving range (a condition known as range anxiety) and high initial price.

In time their popularity waned.

Second coming

EVs attained prominence again at the beginning of the 1970s due to the oil crisis, when the members of Organisation of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries, or the OAPEC (consisting of the Arab members of OPEC, plus Egypt, Syria and Tunisia) proclaimed an oil embargo on other nations. When this crisis passed and oil prices began to fall, the interest in EVs once again waned.

But despite the public’s seemingly unbreakable love affair with the combustion engine over much of the past century, the EV as a viable transport alternative is experiencing a minor resurgence.

1912 Argo Brougham, made by the Argo Electric Vehicle Company Wikimedia Commons

Once again, the flames are being fanned by factors external to the industry: our focus on climate change, renewable energy and global resource shortages.

The big difference, when compared with previous affairs, is the considerable advancement in battery technologies, in part due to mass production in other sectors.

Third time lucky?

One big, and not-often-thought-about problem that must be resolved before EVs can begin to be sold in larger numbers is the issue of “standardisation” – simply, the process of developing and implementing agreed-upon technical standards that become the established norm across the EV industry.

Interested parties look over the ESB Sundancer, an experimental electric car in the 1970s. Wikimedia Commons

Last month, the peak non-government standards body in Australia, Standards Australia, announced the technical committee responsible for developing new Australian EV standards had issued guidance on key definitions for the EV industry.

“Range anxiety” has been a constant with electric vehicles. Frank Lodge, Wikimedia Commons

Such terminology, said the body’s chief executive officer Colin Blair, was a welcome step towards developing a suite of electric vehicle standards that would underpin EV industry growth in Australia.

For sure, the new documentation will provide a valuable guide for component and system developers.

The announcement by Standards Australia follows an extensive scoping study by the same body into EV standards, released in May 2009, and a further report detailing a “standards workplan” for the development of EV standards in Australia in 2010. Both of these were commissioned by Victoria’s Department of Innovation, Industry and Regional Development.

Standards, IP and EVs

A standard-setting development process can involve complex negotiations, not only over the most appropriate standard to adopt, but also regarding the underlying intellectual property (IP) rights and licensing terms of contributors to that standard – through patents, for instance.

Maranello 4 Cycle, 2008. Mahlum, Wikimedia Commons

Such a process can generate anti-competitive as well as pro-competitive effects. Significantly, anti-competitive behaviour may arise where one or a group of producers participating in the development of a formal standard set out individually or collaboratively to implement standards that incorporate technologies to which they hold exclusive IP rights, creating a patent “hold-up”.

As already mentioned, the public has traditionally faced two main hurdles to buying EVs: the initial cost of ownership and their shorter driving abilities.

A 2009 report prepared for the NSW Department of Environment and Climate Change, highlighted that such concerns are “expected to converge over time as technology improves and production increases”.

The Fisker Karma plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV) is powered by A123’s advanced lithium ion batteries. A123Systems

In any case, contributors to the development of EV standards and standard-setting organisations (SSOs) have an opportunity to transform the EV landscape by driving innovation in the automotive industry.

If the respective governments and EV stakeholders don’t seize this opportunity and learn from history, we will see yet another missed opportunity and yet another loss of optimism that can be traced back through the “automotive century”.

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12 Comments sorted by

  1. Michael Brown

    Professional & academic

    A grand total of 47 electric vehicles were sold in Australia in 2011, and in the US, they have 0.02% of the market.
    As well as "the initial cost of ownership and their shorter driving abilities", the other main issues are the long recharging time or logistics of battery swapping, and the realisation of many people that electric cars just move emissions from the engine back to the electricity generation site. These cars are almost certainly never going to be accepted in rural and regional areas for these practical reasons.
    Hybrid owners in the US, and probably in Australia, almost never buy another one, so overall the outlook is not promising.

    1. Graham Mantle

      Would be if I could be (but retired)

      In reply to Michael Brown

      From 47 EVs sold in Australia in 2011, the only way is UP.
      Initial cost is a matter for manufacturers and distributors to overcome.
      Many people (myself included) only use their cars for short distances.
      Recharge time is only a problem if you don't factor it in to your plans.
      Renewable generation sources and energy storage are the answers.
      The hybrids are still improving.
      I live in regional Australia. Gophers are on the increase and there is a big hole in the market between them and the petrol powered car.
      Finally, forget the US market. Watch China, India and Europe.

    2. Fred Pribac

      logged in via email

      In reply to Michael Brown

      I wonder how many people made their own by modification of a normal car? I know of two and one in progress.

    3. R_Chirgwin

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Michael Brown

      One reason so few electrics have sold in Australia is that only a few have been homologated for sale in Australia. The manufacturers are naturally focussing their investment on bigger markets first.

      While I agree that electric cars just "move the emissions", I don't see that as a problem. If the generating capacity becomes "greener", then all of the electric vehicles will become greener in their power-plant at the same time.

    4. Jeff Haddrick

      field manager

      In reply to Michael Brown

      I'm in a rural area. I'd say that if town was within 30k and you only went there every couple of days or so, and big town was 100k away and only visited every couple of weeks or so. And you could recharge it with renewables at home.
      It would get consideration in rural areas, particularly if rego costs were discounted. Rural people pay close attention to running costs, they do a lot of running.

    5. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Michael Brown

      Gday Michael,

      You're correct about emissions shifting. There's the issue of energy efficiency to consider - I understand that in terms of power delivered to the wheels, that internal combustion - transmission systems are about 20% efficient, whereas coal-fired power recharging batteries driving wheels is 30-50%.

      If we then consider efficiency in terms of person-kms travelled, then the figures look even better - a Mitsubishi MiEV typically conveys as many people as a Toorak tractor, for example.

      Finally, if the power used to recharge the vehicle is solar power, the emissions are lower again. The way to do this might be to have a relatively large residential solar PV array charging a bank of deep-cycle batteries, which are grid-connected. The battery bank would have to be large enough to recharge the EV batteries overnight, and it could also supply DC power for LED lighting and for personal electronic device recharging.

    6. fabian sweeney

      retired agricultural scientist

      In reply to R_Chirgwin

      What has happened to the Asian Century and the Tata Nano at 1 lakh Indian (AUD 2,000) or even the Tata EmO c.f. Detroit, March 2012 @ USD 20,000 - which has been over engineered for regular crashes?

  2. John Harland

    bicycle technician

    Several hybrids are in use as taxis in Australia. It will be interesting to see if their operators buy another.

    The amount of extra embodied resources in a hybrid car is probably not warranted by the amount of fuel that may be saved in private use.

    However the picture may be very different in commercial vehicles in the urban setting. Hydraulic-hybrid rubbish trucks, for instance, offer serious advantages not only in fuel usage but in reduction of noise and exhaust emissions (on quiet suburban…

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  3. Stan Baker


    Plug-n Hybrid EVs (PHEVs) are the obvious choice for the immediate future. They use a lot less petrol for shorter distances and default back to petrol power as the batteries deplete. They are ideal for city and country driving when the batteries can be charged overnight, preferably using off-peak green electricity.

    I drive a 2004 Toyota Prius that I converted four years ago to be a PHEV by adding a swag of Lithium Iron Phosphate batteries. I can drive up to 40Kms using electric plus petrol and usually get around 2.3litres/100Kms (100 mpg).
    I will definitely buy another hybrid when my one finally becomes frail. So far I have covered 170,000 Kms and the petrol engine is still in great condition since it only works around 25% of the time. My brake pads are still at 80% thanks to regenerative braking.

    I can't recommend HEVs and PHEVs highly enough.

  4. Daryl Deal


    In other news, the US Navy is funding a project, to require 50% of all the carbon pollution fuels used by themselves, to be replaced by that which has been created from renewable sources by 2020.

    The German Government, and the European Union will be both introducing a new tax, in order to discourage the use of existing internal combustion fossil toxic carbon pollution powered vehicles clogging the arteries of major cities. It is just one small part of a major large scale long term project, in…

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  5. Johannes Hartzenberg

    logged in via Twitter

    The debate should not be about it's prospective uptake in the current market. There is no doubt of the continuous evolution of the international automotive market as a result of environmental factors. This market will look very different in 5 years, with or without Electric Vehicles.

    The question is what Electric Vehicles can offer as an alternative option to some consumers. The current offerings are limited, but exciting brands and models are exhibited by most of the existing manufacturers and…

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  6. John Merory


    This article illustrates the illusion of a “green” car. Diesel competes with hybrid electric and fully electric. Journalists and NGOs extol the greenness of one motor system or another.

    They all miss the point: the greenest car is NO CAR (apologies to the popular game show No Deal).

    All cars have a large amount of embodied energy even before they hit the road. This includes all the energy expended for the materials, manufacture, transport, etc. from the raw materials in the ground to the…

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