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Electric Cars: Their past, present and future

Sarah K. White | Aug. 3, 2015
Electric and hybrid cars are making more appearances among the gas-reliant sedans and SUVs on the road, but what makes an electric car different from a gas-powered car -- other than just plugging it in?

DC motors are also cheaper, but they suffer from limitations, such as inadequate acceleration and overheating -- sometimes to the point of self-destruction -- when in overdrive. AC motors are easier to implement into cars, and use regenerative braking, which can deliver power back to the battery when you hit the brakes.

Why aren't we all in electric cars yet?
A lot of the limitations that put electric cars out of favor in the early 1900s still exist today; batteries are too heavy, they take too long to charge, they're too expensive and you can't go very far without stopping to find a place to charge.

If you prefer the conspiracy route, we already have the technology to build affordable and efficient electric cars, but the car companies want us to remain dependent on gasoline. That conspiracy theory goes back as far as the L.A. electric subway system, which was allegedly squashed by General Motors in the early 1900s as an attempt to get more people into their vehicles. Whether you want to believe it or not, at the very least, it makes for an interesting alternative background to the history of electric vehicles.

The biggest challenge the electric car industry is up against is battery power. According to How Stuff Works, there are six major flaws in lead-acid batteries, the batteries found in electric cars. These flaws include weight, bulk, capacity, charge, lifespan and price. Heavy batteries mean heavier cars, which lowers efficiency and performance, making their high cost and short life span unattractive to car buyers.

You will find that plenty of vehicles use a nickel-metal hydride (NiHM) battery, which lives longer than lead-acid batteries, but also has a less efficient charging and discharging method. Another battery option is the Zebra, or sodium, battery; it uses molten chloroaluminate sodium (NaAlCl4). Zebra batteries are nontoxic and can withstand a few thousand charge cycles, but they aren't great in terms of power density and storing power for long-term use.

Finally, some electric cars run on a lithium-ion battery, which you might be familiar because they are in most electronics. Now, they're popping up in electric cars, but like the other batteries listed, they have some limitations including a short life cycle, they are somewhat toxic and have a tendency to significantly degrade over time.

Tesla Motors
Founded in 2003, this Silicon Valley company has been making headlines as it sets out to prove electric cars have the potential to be better than gasoline-powered cars. The company is named after Nikola Tesla as a nod to his 1888 patent for the AC induction motor, which Tesla Motors used to design its first powertrain for a sports car. That car went on to become the Tesla Roadster, which was released in 2008 and changed the way the public viewed electric cars.


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