The EV Performance Factor

Feb 23, 2012

There are still a lot of gaps in the road to making electric vehicle (EV) technology the mainstream of the auto industry. That is, again.

Ironically, starting in the 1830s and continuing through the early 20th century, car development centered on electric motors until petroleum and the internal combustion engine took over the market.

But for now, what you can say in a general way is that electric vehicles are improving. Which is nice, but that doesn’t mean that if your customers are hot-rodders with rigid ideas about what performance means-or sounds like-that they will rush over to embrace the newest EV breakthrough.

But it does mean that a new and sizable market niche is emerging of people who are willing to spend money on high-tech gadgetry. And some of that gadgetry has wheels attached to it.

The Sound & the Fury

I spoke with a guy a few weeks ago who owns a sign company and has a classic 1965 Mustang that he’s restored and likes to play around with. We were talking and the topic of these electric cars came up.

I told him I’d recently seen a ’65 Mustang replica that was outfitted with an all-electric motor. “Sacrilege!” said he. “You’ve got to be able to hear it!”

I mentioned a Ford Ranger pickup that had been similarly retrofitted with an electric motor and was being used as a work truck. I told him I’d test-driven it around the block a couple times and it felt like driving any other Ranger.

He paused. “I use a Ranger as my work truck,” he said. “I can’t hear the motor. I can only hear the stereo.”

And with that, there seemed to be a light that came on.

After all, what is “performance” really? And what’s the connection between “performance” and the roar of eight cylinders outfitted with the newest and best headers?

If a 400-hp motor goes zero to 60 in three or four seconds, does it really matter if those horses are powered directly by fossil fuels, hydrogen, lithium-ion, hay or di-lithium crystals?

Does it really matter if you can only hear U2 on the stereo rather than the ghost of John D. Rockefeller belching and turning in his grave?

Home on the Range

It’s likely that electric cars will become more hip and have a bigger presence on the roads in the years ahead. All the car manufacturers are behind it; it seems not so much a question of if it will happen, but a question of when.

And although “when” may not be this week, it’s a good bet “when” will be sooner than later because an army of engineers and technicians are constantly working at improving every component.

Longer range, lower costs and shorter charge times are at the top of the list of concerns the world has about electric cars. Battery capacity and charging infrastructure is key.

Today, a small number of EVs on the road means demand for charging stations is low. Limited available charging stations causes “range anxiety” and that translates to lower demand for EVs.

But that’s today.

The electric motor won’t replace the internal combustion engine right away, but that has everything to do with when and how a battery pack replaces a gas tank and delivers a comparable range.

In the meantime, EV progression will create new divisions within auto manufacturers’ business models that will concentrate on the development and improvement of electric motors and batteries.

There is and will continue to be a parade of EVs coming from familiar manufacturers: the Nissan Leaf, the Chevy Volt, the Ford Focus eV, the Fisker Karma, the Tesla Roadster, the Think City. Other familiar manufacturers-Mitsubishi, Toyota, Fiat, BMW, Volkswagen, Chrysler, Mercedes and Honda-and not-so-familiar manufacturers-Li-on EV, Myers Motors, Smith Electric Vehicles, Dynasty Electric-and a host of others emerging in the shops and garages of independent high-tech enthusiasts will change the street scene of the 21st century as much as Henry Ford changed it in the 20th century.

What does that mean for the performance market?

Easy Rider

The EV market as it is today has three major segments-all of which will contribute to its future evolution.

The first is the aforementioned mass-production manufacturing segment. Next is the EV enthusiast who builds project cars in the garage at home. And finally, performance shops that specialize in custom-built cars and trucks.

One “enthusiast” is Noah Podolefsky, a University of Colorado at Boulder physics professor. Like the bikers who chopped up Harleys and Indians back in the ’50s and ’60s and built their own rides, Podolefsky recently completed a garage project in which he transformed a “basket case” 1994 Suzuki GSX-R 1100 that he found on eBay into an electric motorcycle. (The build is documented on his website: www.gsx-e.com).

His experience is indicative of the many nuances of electric vehicles that require making adjustments in the thinking process in order to transfer the power of an electric motor to the wheels of a practical motorcycle. Along the way, several suppliers emerged with ready-to-use components that Podolefsky connected right up to the build.

A host of others emerged with ready-to-adapt components, which for this project meant a lot of time in the machine shop making brackets, mounts and other parts and a lot of time testing various systems in order to find the most efficient setup.

The lesson from Podolefsky’s project is that the materials and knowledge to build electric vehicles are out there, but an infrastructure that supports it is not. That means EVs are expensive, at least on the front end compared to gasoline-driven vehicles.

For now, that is.

Looming on the sidelines are the game-changers: improvements in battery technology along with every other component of EV technology, increasingly expensive and rare fossil fuels and a pressing need to reduce the pollution that comes with burning fossil fuels.

Charge of the Light Brigade

On the business end of EV performance, Westminster, Colo.-based Duke’s Garage is forging ahead, carving its own market for custom-built cars featuring the latest advances in EV technology that satisfy a mounting demand for eco-friendly, dependable and affordable performance.

Dave Altschuler heads the electric conversions section at Duke’s Garage, a small but growing part of the business.

Duke’s Garage has become a dealer for Bremen, Ind.-based Special Edition Inc. and has completed several electric conversions of the Beck Speedster and Spyder classic Porsche replicas.

He says Porsche replicas are a really good candidate for an electric conversion because they’re fiberglass, which means they’re extremely light. They’re also newly made, so to build one doesn’t require removing a lot of dirty components and doing a lot of other restoration work.

“The key to building and retrofitting electric vehicles in an affordable way is to start with a smaller, lighter-weight vehicle with a good drive system,” Altschuler says. “That way, you can get away with smaller batteries and a less powerful controller and with the weight of the vehicle you’re still going to have good performance because you’re going to have a lot wider torque range in different rpms.”

So far, Duke’s has built several electric conversion vehicles including Beck classic replicas, Volkswagen conversions (including one for a customer who bought a Beetle brand-new in 1964 and recently switched over to an electric motor), a 1965 Mustang and a couple of Ford Ranger pickup trucks.

Duke’s also sells a line of NEVs (neighborhood electric vehicles) that resemble a cross between a golf cart and a military vehicle and are designed for speeds up to 30 mph on city and neighborhood streets.

Altschuler believes the market potential will be slightly greater in a year, but in five years expects to see a significant increase in interest and usage of EVs.

“It’s hard to say what it would be like in 10 years,” he says. “There are strong arguments that it could go both ways. It’s inevitably going to be a necessity at some point, as fuel prices rise and availability of oil decreases. Right now, the early adopters are what is fueling this market. There is a big monetary risk factor involved for anyone-from a large OEM to someone in their garage-to create an electric vehicle, but these people are making it happen. I don’t think Nissan is going to see much financial gain with the Leaf for a while. Once people see that this is possible and that the benefits are greater than the cost, this will start to catch on.”

Owners of tomorrow’s EVs will likely develop love-hate relationships with their cars, trucks and bikes just like owners of the gasoline versions of yesterday and today have. Instead of running out of gas, they will run out of charge. Instead of needing new spark plugs, they may need new battery cables.

The EV Aftermarket

In terms of demand for aftermarket performance upgrades, EVs will likely resemble gasoline vehicles in many ways.

Altschuler believes wheels, tires, suspension, steering and brakes will remain staples for aftermarket use in electric vehicles. Under-the-hood EV aftermarket upgrades will most likely include a cast of characters heretofore not present in the performance business and could be considerably more expensive.

“Upgrades could include batteries capable of higher discharge rates and more capacity (preferably in smaller and lighter packages), performance transmission and differential gearing, motors and controllers capable of higher horsepower and torque,” says Altschuler.

Additionally, more advanced user interfacing could provide a driver with EV-specific vehicle information while driving.

Other systems may be borrowed and/or adapted from gasoline engines such as liquid cooling of motors and controllers, and heating systems for cold weather battery performance.

Improving battery performance is still on top of the EV to-do list. While lithium-ion is still the recipe of choice, research and development continues on other battery cocktails with ingredients like Aluminum-Celmet, fluoride-ion, magnesium and other exotic concoctions that will either extend the capacity of lithium-ion or surpass it with something lighter and less costly.

The real beauty of electric cars is efficiency, because the power from the motor goes directly to the wheel.

“To a motorhead, the beauty of electric is having maximum torque instantly off the line,” says Podolefsky. “The reason the Tesla Roadster doesn’t have a transmission is because the motor kept breaking them. Not that in needs one-it goes 0-60 in four seconds with one gear.”

Even hardcore motorheads seem to soften as soon as they sit in something like a Tesla or one of Duke’s conversions and feel the G-force when they step on the gas-¦ er, accelerator.

My friend may not be ready to give up his ’65 Mustang with its souped-up 289, but I’m betting someday he’ll witness firsthand what an electric drivetrain can do in terms of acceleration and torque.

And that’s what the excitement is all about.

Racing with Amps

Racing electric vehicles is a thrill for the drivers and a proving ground for the engineers-just like racing anything else is.

Drag strips and racetracks are becoming hotbeds of the EV racing phenomenon, featuring sensations like the “Killa Cycle” and the “White Zombie” that continue to set speed records.

“EV Racing was basically where the EV conversion industry began,” says Altschuler. “Guys would take DC motors from aircraft and forklifts, put them in cars, hook-up batteries and have drag races. Some of these guys started making motors or controllers specifically for on-road vehicles, and they started improving from there. The torque available immediately makes them great for drag racing or accelerating out of the pits during a regular race.”

One highly anticipated event, the EVCUP, was to have taken place in the UK and California during 2011, but was postponed due to “delays in final production of the electric cars to be used for the pioneering race series,” according to Sylvain Filippi, managing director for the EVCUP, which was created in 2009.

Filippi says the purpose behind the EV Cup was to take the newest in EV technology back to the roots of motorsports racing.

“Racing as a whole has been struggling to remain relevant to both the public as well as to the automotive industry,” he says. “We thought for electric vehicles, the relevance was there and it was the perfect time to do it.”

But despite the cancellation of the EVCUP, EV racing is poised to move forward and improve. Tracks like the Palm Beach International Raceway, Virginia Motorsports Park, Toronto Motorsports Park and several others have numerous plans to host East Coast Electric Drag Racing Series events during 2012. Other EV races are popping up in other parts of the U.S., Europe, Asia and Australia.