This is to be the car of the future? When you see a Renault Twizy for the first time, you rub your eyes in amazement. The thing resembles an egg on wheels. Or a toy that is too big. For, say, six-year-olds.
In fact, the most important part of the minicar is under the hood. There is a battery that supplies electricity and powers the Twizy with an electric motor. It therefore does not need gasoline like normal cars today. When the battery is empty, you plug it into a power outlet. Almost like a cell phone. Already it goes on!
At the moment, such electric vehicles are still rare; there are only about 17,000 of them in Germany. But almost all car companies are working flat out on it. Some are developing dwarfs like the Twizy, which are barely bigger than golf course balls. But there are also family cars, like the BMW i3, and bullets like the Tesla S, which accelerates from zero to 100 in 4.4 seconds and makes most sports cars look like snails.
The advantages of electric cars
Why are electric cars so popular? It’s simple: they have a lot of advantages over vehicles with combustion engines that run on gasoline or diesel. For example they do not emit exhaust gases. No toxic carbon monoxide. No carbon dioxide, which warms the earth’s climate. No carcinogenic soot particles. The ride is completely clean. Of course, this is only possible if the electricity is produced cleanly, for example by wind turbines – and not in dirty power plants such as coal-fired power stations.
But that’s not all: owners of electric cars don’t have to worry about rising gas prices and are less likely to bother with repairs – because the cars lack many parts that can break: The electric racers have neither exhaust nor catalytic converter, which filters exhaust gases – because they do not exist. They do not even need a clutch.
What’s more, electric cars glide almost silently over the asphalt. Today, cars hum, roar or howl because fuel is constantly exploding in their engines. The electric motor of the Stromer only hums quietly. For some experts, they are too quiet: They fear the whispering cars might not be heard by pedestrians crossing the street.
The weak point of the cars: their battery
What’s surprising: electric cars are old hat. As early as 1900, they were competing with steam cars and gasoline-powered cars – and were even much faster than them. The world speed record was held by a rocket-shaped electric racer that reached a staggering 105 kilometers per hour in 1899. At the time, gasoline-powered cars couldn’t even manage 60 mph.
Nevertheless, gasoline-powered cars eventually prevailed, and electric cars disappeared for a long time. Only in exceptional cases they still appear. When astronauts used them to bump over the moon, for instance. Or in comics, where Grandma Duck drove around in an electric old-timer.
Why electric cars have not yet made the breakthrough? This is due to a major weakness that the vehicles still have today – their battery. It does not store enough energy. A simple comparison shows that a gasoline-powered vehicle with a 50-liter tank can easily travel 500 kilometers. An electric car with a battery of the same weight might manage 50. The energy storage is also extremely expensive. In the Tesla S, the battery alone costs over 20,000 euros!
How to solve the problem of electric exhausts?
There are four ideas!
- First idea: Saving weight. Because the lighter the car is, the less energy it needs to get around. That’s the tactic with the Renault Twizy. The Mini weighs only about 450 kilograms when empty!
- Second idea: Install lots of batteries to increase range. That’s what the Tesla S does. The runabout is crammed with more than 8,000 small batteries! The whole package weighs over 700 kilograms, almost as much as a small car! At least the car can travel 500 kilometers.
- Third idea: Hybrid cars. They have a gasoline engine in addition to the electric motor. When the power runs out, they just keep on zooming with gasoline.
- Fourth idea: Better batteries. Unfortunately, these have yet to be developed. Researchers are hoping to develop lithium-air batteries that can store ten times as much energy as today’s models. However, no one knows when the super units will be ready for use.
Doesn’t sound so great. So electric cars will remain a luxury for many years to come? It doesn’t have to be that way – claims carmaker Tesla. The company wants to build a huge plant that will produce more batteries in 2020 than all the companies combined today. Then, the promise goes, the price will also drop – by at least a third. Who knows, maybe the runabouts will be affordable by the time you’re thinking about your first car in a few years’ time.