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Hear that? All is quiet as Ford’s Transit Connect Electric hits New York City’s streets

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Ford, Transit Connect, electricFord Motor Co. was in New York City on Tuesday (in anticipation of the upcoming International Auto Show that starts later this week) to show off its first attempt to go gas-free—the Transit Connect ElectricScientific American went for a spin in the all-electric compact van (about the size of a minivan but with much more headroom) on the rain-slicked streets of New York to get some idea of what the vehicle looks, sounds and feels like.

When Scott Staley, one of the Transit Connect Electric’s chief engineers, turned the key, the first thing SciAm noticed was the silence. (Staley drove because SciAm already gets enough city driving in on its own.) Most of today’s cars are already pretty quiet, but Ford’s new electric vehicle makes practically no sound at all. In fact, the dashboard dials coming to life are the only indication that it’s running. This is a reminder that the car runs on a 300-volt Siemens AC induction electric motor and not a fuel-fired internal combustion engine.

Another reminder that this is an all-electric car is that much of the space under the Transit Connect’s hood is taken up not by an engine but rather by the vehicle’s inverter, a large rectangular box that converts direct current (DC) voltage to alternating current (AC). In addition, the vehicle’s 272-kilogram, liquid-cooled 28-kilowatt-hour lithium ion battery pack, stashed beneath the cargo bay, cuts Transit Connect’s payload from about 726 kilograms to about 454 kilograms. This might be end up being a significant factor, given that Ford is marketing the Transit Connect Electric exclusively to businesses, which might use it as a service or delivery vehicle.Ford,Transit Connect, electric

The Transit Connect Electric has just a single-speed automatic transmission, so in addition to not hearing the hum of an engine, there’s no shifting between gears, much like the continuously variable transmissions that have been introduced in a number of cars over the past decade. The Transit Connect has a parallel regenerative braking system, which means that it uses both electricity (converted from the car’s kinetic energy as it travels) and friction at the same time to slow the vehicle. The all-electric Focus that Ford plans to put on the market a year after the Transit Connect debuts will feature a series regenerative braking system, which would first use electricity to slow the car and resort to friction only when necessary, Staley says.

The Transit Connect Electric’s success depends on a number of factors, many of which won’t become entirely clear until the vehicle is put to use. It takes six to eight hours to fully charge the battery pack using a 220-volt connection, and much longer than that using 110-volt. Each fully charged battery takes the vehicle about 130 kilometers before it needs to be recharged. This will drop if air conditioning and other electric features are used excessively en route—exactly how much is unknown at this point, Staley says. Whether businesses can work within this range depends upon how they use the vehicle.

Cost might also be a factor. Ford hasn’t announced pricing, but it is expected to far exceed the $21,000 for a gas-powered Transit Connect. Staley says Ford is hoping the government will step up with incentives—tax breaks, subsidies or something similar—that would encourage businesses to invest in Ford’s initial electric vehicle offering. Another option is to sell customers on cheaper fuel costs moving forward, given that the annual average fuel cost for a gas-powered Transit Connect is about $1,500, compared with an estimated $300 for the electric version, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Given that Detroit has been churning out model after model of gas-powered cars for more than a century, it’s not surprising that the shift to hybrid and electric vehicles has taken a while to get out of first gear. Ford, General Motors and the rest of the auto industry stepped on the clutch. Whether their efforts to move to second gear stall or succeed remains to be seen. Still, as anyone who’s learned to drive a stick shift will tell you, getting past first gear is always the hardest.

Images courtesy of Sam VarnHagen/Ford Motor Co.

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  1. 1. JamesDavis 8:01 am 03/31/2010

    Ford, you just don’t get it. Either get on board or you are going to be left behind again. Why is it that American fossil fuel auto makers think that they can keep screwing things up and keep lieing to the people and still think that the people are as stupid as the big three are and will bail them out with from their stupid, expensive, and backward bumbling pieces of garbage autos.

    Telsa motor’s all electric cars can get 450 miles percharge and can be recharged in 45 minutes from a 110 outlet. Ford, are you so stupid to think that the people in this country is nave to what you and the other two are doing? We are not going to believe that this piece of junk is the best you can do…we know better and we are not going to bail you, or the other two’s stupid ass out again.

    Doesn’t it embarassed to show this piece of trash to the people and try to make them think this is the best America can do?

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  2. 2. apex107 8:32 am 03/31/2010

    JamesDavis is in a fantasy world. Tesla Motors makes no such claims: They boast of a single instance of someone reaching 313 miles on one charge, with estimated real world mixed driving ranges in the 240 mile neighborhood. 110 volt charging requires as much as 30+ hours, with 220 volt charging times of around 4 hours or less, from empty batteries to full charge.

    Please, limit the nonsense. This is SCIENTIFIC American. We are all entitled to our own opinions, but not to our own facts.

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  3. 3. furiouscow 8:55 am 03/31/2010

    JamesDavis, please do at least minimal fact checking. On Tesla’s own website they state their roadster will go 236 miles on a charge and can be recharged in 3.5 hours using 240 volts. Also, the Transit Connect Electric is the size of a minivan, of course will have a shorter range than a tiny vehicle like the Tesla Roadster.

    Finally, Ford has not been bailed out by the government and has actually been doing a pretty good job of adapting to the changing car market. If you haven’t noticed, they have been gaining market share which hardly says they are screwing things up.

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  4. 4. JamesDavis 9:53 am 03/31/2010

    apex107: You are the one living in a fantasy world. What do you do work for one of these fossil fuel auto manufacturers, or was a Bush administrator? I read every one of SciAm’s articles on electric cars, the battery systems, charging systems, watched all of the History channels shows on alternative fuel vehicles, watched the Science channel’s shows on the future of electric cars and the new battery delivery systems, and I read all of Telsa Motor’s web site that listed the spects of their electric cars and that is what I based by fantasy on. What did you base your fantasy on…wait!, let me guess…the Republican Bush administration’s agenda on the great benefits of oil and coal and its future in auto manufacturing.

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  5. 5. dbtinc 10:08 am 03/31/2010

    suggest you learn the wonders of "spell check"

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  6. 6. peanutbutter 11:06 am 03/31/2010

    Listen. Tesla cost more than most cars combined, because they cannot mass market it. they cannot assembly-line it.It’s expensive to build and expensive to own. Ford motors was the only one that did not need or want a bail out. They make the best selling truck on the planet, the famous F-150 and the newer models like the Focus have outsold all but Toyota, which unfortunately relies on the ignorance of the American public to get filthy rich. The reason we aren’t all ready jetting around in Jetson cars is because the oil companies won’t let anyone build anything other than fossil-fuel autos. They won’t go under, but they will lose alot of money if people start driving electric or hydrogen vehicles. Of course, the fact that American builders of electric vehicles are trying to get rich off one sale is also another problem. The cost of building them is minimal…Americans don’t want to save money or the planet… they just want to go fast. They don’t care about mileage or quality or safety. they only want to go fast.

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  7. 7. dskan 11:51 am 03/31/2010

    And yet, somehow, you still don’t supply your source of information.

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  8. 8. DocBadwrench 2:04 pm 03/31/2010

    Awesome retort. Accusing people who disagree with your take of being tools of the Bush administration. I suggest you learn some critical reasoning techniques. For all your apparent disdain of the right, you are certainly employing the same methodologies.

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  9. 9. jack.123 4:19 pm 03/31/2010

    By putting the generator-motor in the wheels ,you don’t need a transmission,and drive train reducing weight and upkeep costs, if a motor goes you just change it like having a flat.All other components could just be plug and pull,Then anybody can repair the car,but that would be to easy wouldn’t it?

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  10. 10. Oemissions 5:31 pm 03/31/2010

    We really should be having Class Action suits against these companies for the enormous social costs and problems that the automobiles have created and perpetuated.
    Here again, lack of foresight and regulation for a product that kills and injures more people than a war does.
    These are our WMDs.
    Atleast with electric we won’t have all the noise and foul air and streets will be cleaner.

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  11. 11. jerryd 7:58 pm 03/31/2010

    I build EV’s and drive them every day and Davis is an idiot.

    Ford is doing better than all but Nissan in EV’s, PHEV’s and coming out with 6 of them in the next 2 yrs.

    Most people and businesses drive less than 60 miles/day so EV’s with 80-100 mile range are perfect for them. As battery prices drop, range will go up but few will ever go above 150 mile range because it is just not needed for most transport so why waste the money.

    There is no transmission, automatic or not which is a major savings in EV’s, just like in trains as EV motor have plenty of torque.

    Another thing is AC, heat is a minor drain compared to propulsion needs so barely drops range at all, less than 10% so not a factor.

    I’d like to see these as taxi’s and airport, commuter limo service taking 7 people to work, home at a time saving far more gas/oil. Go Ford!!

    Wheel motors are too heavy for unsprung weight and you need 4x’s the power a a single geared motor does.

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  12. 12. apex107 8:56 pm 03/31/2010

    JamesDavis: I read the Tesla site last night. I quoted their claims about range, charging time etc. It’s simple. Go back and check the website again. Your numbers sounded way off from what I recalled reading on the Tesla site in the past so I checked and I was correct. What the world does not need is ranting and raving from either the stupid "right" or the stupid "left". Check your data…that’s all that matters.

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  13. 13. apex107 9:09 pm 03/31/2010

    furiouscow: No bail out for Ford! Yes Ford did luck out, having (coincidentally) secured a huge line of credit not long before the rest of the economy went in the toilet. As well they had begun implementing plans to make some truly "global" cars, in particular getting the newest (3rd generation) Focus into the US, instead of having us continue on with a warmed over 1st generation model. The Fiesta looks to be a winner in the small car market as well. EcoBoost direct injection/turbocharging is nothing to sneeze at either, considering the American desire for way too much power. I would prefer the great Euro-market turbodiesels be available in those two lil cars, Too bad. That said, the fact the Transit (gas or otherwise) was brought here is significant. In my area I am seeing lots of these little utility wagons running around. Hopefully GM and the new "Chrysler/FIAT" will also make available some of the more practical and economical designs they sell elsewhere in the world. Cross your fingers…!

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  14. 14. Spiff 4:25 pm 04/1/2010

    Just two thoughts – one, where is this battery recharging environment friendly energy coming from? We have black-outs now, if a lot of folks plug their cars in for a recharge, what do think will happen? And, secondly, it’s Bush’s fault!

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  15. 15. analyst1 5:36 pm 04/1/2010

    Did anybody of you watched the movie " Who Killed the Electric Car"?

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  16. 16. analyst1 5:42 pm 04/1/2010

    Did anybody of you watched the movie, " Who Killed the Electric Car? Learn from it. It was President Ronald Reagan who ordered the assembly plant closed and the electric cars dumped somewhere. We should have advanced the electric car
    engineering if the oil companies and the big car companies embraced it.

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  17. 17. bertwindon 3:08 am 04/2/2010

    "Doesn’t it embarassed to show this piece of trash.." writing ?
    probably not.

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  18. 18. bertwindon 3:12 am 04/2/2010

    " I based by fantasy on" – that’s right kid. Your fantasy – with a bad cold in the head ?

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  19. 19. bertwindon 3:14 am 04/2/2010

    No-one twisted anyone’s arm to buy the things. Why not get nasty with Arms makers ?

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  20. 20. bertwindon 3:16 am 04/2/2010

    Well said Apex107 !!

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  21. 21. bertwindon 3:18 am 04/2/2010

    Do you have a "car-wheel motor" ? If not why not ? you could sell loads !

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  22. 22. rufusgwarren 5:56 pm 04/2/2010

    This would not be bad as a commuter vehicle but the planned target does not make common sense. These types of vehicles are busy all day and would need to spend most of their time charging. So why would Ford choose this as their target?

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