March 30, 2010 | 22
Ford 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 Electric. Scientific 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.
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.