Guest commentary: Are we there yet?

June 08, 2011 // By Greg Zimmer, Linear Technology
While electric driving has been around for decades, it still has to resolve issues before it will become the technology of choice for the masses. The crucial point is the battery - but its chemistry is no longer the sole the decisive factor: electronic monitoring and control chips help to stretch the driving range and stabilize the energy flow.

When I was growing up, mail was delivered in a Grumman Kurbwatt electric van. Today, the Kurbwatt is gone and mail is delivered by foot. Perhaps this is a rare example of bipartisanship, as both the green believers and non-believers can count this as a success. Nevertheless, the Kurbwatt reminds us that electric vehicles have always been around, even if not noticed.

In fact, references to the electric car can be found all the way back to the early 1800s. The first electric cars used non-rechargeable batteries, and with each improvement in the battery came a more practical version. In fact, more than a hundred years ago, the Belgian-built electric racing car "La Jamais Contente" set a world record for land speed at 68 mph. Electric cars were popular in the early 1900s for the advantages they offered over gasoline cars ; no vibration, smell or noise from the internal combustion engine (ICE), and no hand cranking or a gear shifting required.

Unfortunately for the EV, battery technology could not evolve fast enough to match the combustion engine, with its use of cheap and abundant gasoline. Battery technology was then and now the most critical element of the electric vehicle's success. Without the market drivers, it's no surprise that development of the electric vehicle battery system slowed to a crawl for most of the 20th century.

The time has now come when the cost of petroleum (in terms of dollars and environment) is forcing the world to diversify its energy usage. Electricity is the key to make this happen and the electric vehicle must play a role in this paradigm. Electricity can be generated from virtually any available energy source (nuclear, solar, wind, geo-thermal, coal, gas, diesel, ethanol, hydrogen, buffalo chips, etc). Electricity is, in some sense, a Lingua Franca. Global standardization on electric vehicles could simultaneously enable economies of scale, and eliminate the massive infrastructure supporting localized fuel