Electric Drive: The Standard for the 21st Century

John Wilson

Global technology, environmental, and transportation trends are moving quickly toward a revolution in vehicles. The revolution can be seen as close as Centennial Olympic Park, the parking decks at Lenox Square, or the streets of Chattanooga. It can also be observed in street signs in Paris and La Rochelle, France, or as a topic of discussion in governments on every continent. It can even be found on the Web, where you can “buy into” this revolution with your credit card.

The revolution is bringing clean, highly efficient, and ultra-quiet electric drives to buses, garbage trucks, pickups, sedans, delivery vehicles, scooters, and bikes. It is at the heart of the transformation of Chattanooga from “the dirtiest city in the U.S.” to an international mecca for sustainable development. It is also the goal of a new nonprofit group organized by the Rockefeller Foundation and headed by the former president of Costa Rica. This revolution is also at the heart of changes being executed at every major auto maker around the globe.

What gives here? Are captains of industry going soft? Have they become tree-hugging environmentalists? Aren’t they motivated by profits and market share? Indeed they are. That is why they are all engaged in a massive, multibillion-dollar race to electric drives.

Not just electric vehicles, but electric drives. The electric drive is the backbone and nerve center of the pure battery-powered electric vehicle, the hybrid-electric vehicle, and the fuel cell vehicle. The electric drive is the combination of electric motors and power electronics that enables an entirely new spectrum of vehicles — cars, trucks, buses, and even scooters — with at least twice the fuel efficiency and half the pollution as traditional mechanical drive systems. The new motors, electronics, and batteries of these vehicles have benefited from the billions invested by auto makers and governments in search of cleaner cars. Other components, including new engines and fuel cells, are coming on quickly.

An electric drive is under the hood of GM’s EV1, the first modern electric car. It is also in Toyota’s new Prius hybrid — a mid-size car selling in Japan for $17,000 that matches a small gasoline-fueled engine with electric drive to achieve 66 miles per gallon and significantly reduced emissions. An electric drive is incorporated in three fuel cell buses operating in Chicago’s transit agency. They are also incorporated into golf carts and industrial utility vehicles, many of which are made in Georgia by the world’s leading manufacturers. All of these vehicles exhibit dramatically quieter operation than conventional vehicles — inside and outside.

Quiet operation and increased power are features shared by most electric drive systems in many countries. Nightly garbage collection in the French coastal town of La Rochelle is made quieter by the use of a hybrid-electric garbage truck. An electric bus in Paris quietly climbs a 20 percent grade during rush hour to carry tourists to the top of Montmartre — a hilltop community featuring a famous church and artist colony. Similar buses are quietly plying the streets in Milan, Chattanooga, Phoenix, and Miami Beach.

Georgia has also taken advantage of electric drive systems. In Atlanta, Georgia Power runs an employee shuttle tied to MARTA with electric buses, and recently announced the country’s largest EV employee lease program. Moreover, the use of both electric and hybrid buses is under consideration for shuttles at Emory, around Buckhead, and at the Atlantic Steel site. Near Athens, a new start-up firm has built a hybrid transit bus for export to Thailand. In Fort Valley, Blue Bird has built over two dozen prototype electric school and shuttle buses for customers from California to New York.

Presently, Georgia fleet buyers can purchase electric S-10 and Ranger pickups from local Chevy and Ford dealers. While the prices are higher than the gasoline versions, state and federal tax credits help close the price gap with gasoline trucks. Over the next couple of years, other auto makers will offer additional electric and hybrid vehicles. In five years, virtually all auto showrooms will have electric drive options available for both fleet and individual customers.

Changes in the makeup of the automobile are coming quickly. Why the rush? Even though cars are dramatically cleaner today than in 1970, many more cars are driven farther each day. Vehicles account for roughly half of the emissions leading to smog in urban areas, and over 32 percent of the emissions targeted for reductions addressing global climate change. Moreover, longer commutes in sport utility vehicles and pickups have actually dropped average fuel economy (even though fuel economy advances were dramatic during the 1980s), growing oil imports to all-time highs.

The challenge for those interested in clean air policy is how best to achieve the results of these new technologies. Few people buy new cars every year, so the natural “turnover” for Atlanta’s vehicle fleet will take several years. California has adopted a program of mandates and incentives to encourage a faster turnover. Georgia has a mandated fleet program ready to be launched and has begun putting incentives in place. Hopefully, these measures will encourage the marketplace to respond as electric vehicles become available from manufacturers.

Auto, bus, and truck makers understand the importance of offering new product lines to the vehicle market that are considered affordable and practical solutions to the above challenges. This market will emerge and grow as a blend of consumer needs, tastes, and desires. Moreover, the policies of governments will change in response to the impacts of transportation, energy, and the environment upon their citizens.

Health impacts, environmental targets, government restrictions on fleets, and threats to economic development and national security — these are all real components of the marketplace demanding immediate attention. There is no doubt that electric drive is coming on strong as both a solution and an advantage. For those of us in Atlanta and other non-attainment areas, the welcome relief cannot come soon enough.

John Wilson is president & CEO of the Southern Coalition for Advanced Transportation, a Georgia-based technology consortium of more than 65 companies, universities and government agencies developing transportation solutions for global markets. The Georgia Public Policy Foundation is an independent, nonpartisan organization dedicated to keeping all Georgians informed about their government and to providing practical ideas on key public policy issues. The Foundation believes in and actively supports private enterprise, limited government and personal responsibility.

Nothing written here is to be construed as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature. © Georgia Public Policy Foundation (April 1, 1999). Permission is hereby given to reprint this article, with appropriate credit given.

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