The electric vehicle, that slow, silent transporter which faded years ago from the automotive scene almost as quietly as it ran, is making an equally quiet comeback as utility and government fleets experiment with the mode's potential as an alternative in these energy-conscious times.

Perhaps the most-publicized of these projects is the Electric and Hybrid Vehicle Demonstration Program funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, involving such entities as the Long Island Light Co. (LILCO), Pacific Telephone and Telegraph, and General Telephone.

According to the Lead Industries Association (LIA), the Long Island, New York utility company program involves 12 lead-acid battery-powered cars and vans used in LILCO's fleet. The utility supplies electricity and gas to millions of homeowners and thousands of both large and small industries on the island. The EVs are performing regular service functions and at the same time, they are giving the utility's customers and the general public a close-up look at electric vehicles in operation.

LILCO's EV program predates the federally-funded demonstration project and it was the existence of the program that lead to LILCO's selection as a demonstrator site operator under the Electric and Hybrid Vehicle Program. Passed by Congress in 1976, the program calls for approximately 10,000 electric and hybrid vehicles to be placed in commercial service to demonstrate the effectiveness of such vehicles to perform the same tasks as internal combustion units.

The utility's EV fleet includes seven lightweight vans, each powered by 16 six-volt lead-acid batteries and the vans replace conventional cars used for meter reading service. Four two-passenger cars, each powered by eight lead-acid batteries, are performing on-site security patrol, while a heavy-duty commercial van, also classified as a light-duty vehicle because it weighs less than 10,000 pounds, transports personnel and equipment for a team of experts that detects gas pipeline leaks.

With a day duty cycle, the vehicles are recharged at night during non-peak demand periods and proponents of EVs report that increased electric vehicle use can help to balance the load of electrical power-output of utility generating stations.

Meanwhile, on the West Coast, Pacific Telephone is also participating in the demonstration program and is currently operating about 20 vehicles out of its Culver City, California (Los Angeles area) facility. The Pacific Telephone program is a joint venture between the utility, the DOE and General Motors, whose GMC Truck and Coach Division produced the vans involved in the project. The GMC vans are virtually identical in appearance to the conventionally-powered GMC vans used by Pacific Telephone for installation and maintenance functions.

The battery pack on the vans consists of 36 Delco maintenance free lead-acid batteries mounted beneath the floor of the unit. Weighing 2,500 pounds, the batteries provide 216 volts of power and the vehicle can carry a payload of 1,500 pounds. The drive train includes a 50-horse-power DC series motor with chain drive gear reduction and solid state continuous electronic speed control.

GMC reports that the vehicle has a top speed of 50 miles per hour and a range of 40 miles. Acceleration is listed as 0-30 in 12 seconds. The braking system is vacuum assist hydraulic unit and the vehicle is capable of electric regeneration on braking and deceleration although a company official noted that the capability has not been used yet in the demonstration program. An extra Delco 12-volt battery is used to power electric accessories and the van is equipped with a gas heater for driver confort. A limiting factor in the use of these vehicles for the current program is that the vans cannot be used in areas with greater than a 20-percent grade. Recharging of the units takes approximately seven hours.

General Telephone & Electronics (GTE) has three telephone companies participating in the DOE program and each will operate a fleet of 25 electric vehicles under regular working conditions for three years. The companies are located in Florida, California and Hawaii and the entire program will be coordinated by GTE's Energy Conservation organization at company headquarters in Stamford, Connecticut.

"GTE's battery-powered vehicles, to be prominently marked with the words 'Electric Powered,' will help the U.S. government stimulate greater public interest in using electric auto-mobiles as a petroleum-saving alternative to the traditionally gasoline-consuming cars," said William C. Rowland, executive vice president telephone operating group. "The field demonstration also will assist the Department of Energy in its program to evaluate the technical and operational characteristics of electric vehicles to determine how well they can meet the needs of commercial organizations such as GTE as well as private users."

General Telephone of Florida will operate 25 mini-vans in Tampa. General Telephone of California will operate 25 quarter-ton pickup trucks in the Los Angeles suburb of Lakewood and Hawaiian Telephone will also operate 20 of the pickups and five two-door coupes in Honolulu. The vehicles will be used primarily in providing maintenance and installation services for business customer's telephone systems. GTE purchased the 75 electric vehicles, the necessary spare parts and test equipment and will maintain detailed operational records, as well as operating and maintaining the vehicles. Under a cost sharing arrangement, the Department of Energy will pay a total of $631,724 to the three telephone companies over a three-year period. The balance of the project, expected to total about $1.7 million will be funded by GTE.

"The government's field demonstration program is designed to identify and test segments of the automobile market where electric vehicles can be employed to the benefit of the users," Rowland said. "The program is expected to involve some 10,000 electric vehicles when completed in 1986. The program began last year when the first 200 took to the roads."

It is estimated that more than 2,000 electric autos are now in service in the U.S., exclusive of those participating in the Department of Energy test. GTE's 16 telephone companies in the U.S., serving about 14.6 million telephones in 7,500 communities in portions of 31 states, operate a fleet of more than 37,000 motor vehicles.


Jet Industries, Inc., a leading producer of electric vehicles, has sold 25 of its Electra Van model to the Tampa telephone company for use as a PBX service vehicle. The Austin, Texas-based electric vehicle manufacturer is also supplying the 25 light pickups to General Telephone of California and an additional 20 units of this type to the Hawaiian operation of GTE. Jet has also built a new four-passenger electric automobile, and five of them will be used by Hawaiian Telephone, as well.

Gasoline engines and associated parts were removed from regular production-line vehicles and replaced by Jet with battery-powered electric motors and other required EV equipment. Each vehicle will have 16 or 20 storage batteries which will be recharged at night to provide a cruising range of at least 50 miles at a speed of 50 miles an hour. The GTE vehicles were chosen from a list of those which meet Energy Department minimum-performance standards covering such aspects as energy consumption, range, battery life, reliability, durability and safety.

The passenger car developed by Jet Industries was introduced last fall and is called the Electrica 007. Using the body of a Dodge Omni 024, the battery-powered vehicle can accelerate from 0 to 30 miles per hour in eight seconds and has a top speed of 60 mph. It has an average range of 50 miles on each eight-hour battery recharge.

The 007 is the latest addition to Jet's line of electric vehicles, which includes three vans and two pickups. The Electra Van 600 is a small van, tailored for fixed routes, such as delivery and utility services. Model 1000 is a multi-purpose utility van, with an expanded cargo area. The 1400 is an eight-passenger window van designed as a people carrier. Model 1000p is a heavy-duty pickup geared for heavy loads and steep inclines and is available with a long or short bed. The 750 is a light-weight pickup.

All the Jet Industries products utilize an integrated propulsion system (motor and controller) developed by the company in conjunction with General Electric. Using assembly-line techniques, the General Electric propulsion system is installed in the vehicles on Jet's production line in Austin, Texas. GE Halogen headlights, which have one-half the weight and one-half the power consumption of conventional headlights, but emit just as much light, are offered as an option.

Among the company's customers are the federal government's General Services Administration, which recently purchased 13 vehicles, the University of Hawaii which purchased 15 vehicles, and several utilities including LILCO, Detroit Edison and Tampa Electric Co. Another customer is the City of Denver, which purchased 10 electric vehicles for use by the police department. Five of the vehicles are Electrica 007's which will be used by education officers in the juvenile division, while the other five are Model 1000P's, to be used by the police maintenance department.

According to the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) Journal, the largest EV program in the country today is being conducted by the U.S. Postal Service. The Journal reports that the service operates about 350 EVs nationwide, although most are being used in California. "With a daily range of only 20 miles and a top speed of 33 mph, these vehicles would hardly meet the needs of the average motorist, but they have done well in filling the more limited and specialized role of postal route vehicles," the Journal said.

The article added that downtime has been significantly reduced with the Postal Service reporting only 0.4 failures per month for EVs as opposed to a 1.5 failures per month for conventional vehicles.

"The first question for a wary consumer eyeing the EV is the obvious one: Will it work? The answer is yes for certain uses." The Journal said, "Even the EV built today can perform quite well in local driving, such as short trips to work, to school, to shopping malls, or to the supermarket. And the U.S. Department of Transportation estimates that 90-percent of the average motorist's driving falls into this short-trip category (20 miles or less)."

The Journal added that "an EV won't take you on your summer vacation. Current models can only go about 20-40 miles before they have to stop for gradual, hours-long recharging. Adding to this range problem is the EV's leisurely pace. Most of them can't go faster than 40-55 miles per hour and if maintained, that top speed will drain the batteries more rapidly than driving at a low, constant speed.

"Poor acceleration is another drawback. Current electric vehicles take 10-20 seconds to struggle from 0 to 30 mph. Because this could be a traffic hazard in high-speed areas, it's best to stay off freeways. And many EVs don't take hills very well either. Finally, cold weather, and battery aging can add to these problems by further depressing battery performance."

A breakthrough in current battery technology can do much to overcome many of the limitations of electric vehicle power. For instance, General Motors last Fall reported that their development work on nickel-zinc oxide batteries had produced a power-pack capable of a 100-mile range, 55 mile-per-hour top speed and a rechargeable cycle life approaching 30,000 miles. In addition, the batteries weigh one-third less than the more common lead-acid type. Other combinations, such as zinc-chlorine, sodium sulfur and lithium-iron sulfide batteries promise even greater range and life, however, they require operating temperatures in excess of 85 degrees Fahrenheit to reach peak efficiency.

EPRI feels that the key to success in electric vehicle use lies in the commercialization of electric power recharging stations for EVs. "The possibilities are varied: a massive network of public recharging outlets, electrified highways, greater emphasis of hybrid vehicles and a whole reassessment of our current system of privately owned automobiles, to name some of the most discussed."

Another barrier to electric vehicle growth is the high initial cost of current battery technology. In announcing its breakthrough in battery technology, General Motors' executives said that although the technology now exists for a commercially mass produced electric commuter vehicle, the costs involved in producing the batteries and current limited battery manufacturing plant facilities, puts the viability of such a project in question. GM has not decided whether it will produce such a vehicle or not and if it did decide to do so, it would be the mid-80s before such a vehicle would be available to the public.


EPRI's Journal agrees with that assessment in noting that "even with mass production of at least 100,000 vehicles a year, an EV would still cost more than a comparable ICV (internal combustion vehicle). The 25-40 percent premium would represent the cost of the battery bank itself because the cost of all other functional parts (the electric component system, for example) would just about balance out. A $6,000 EV, then, would be comparable to a conventional car priced roughly in the $4,500 range (1979 dollars). To be economically competitive, the EV must make up for this higher price tag by offering lower operating and maintenance cost."

However, one of the GM officials at the battery-technology press conference raised an interesting point. If the battery pack has a shorter life span than the vehicle, then the vehicle could be sold to the consumer and the battery pack leased to the individual. By leasing the battery pack, the consumer avoids the large capital outlay for the batteries and when the batteries are depleted, the driver simply leases a new pack.

The greatest advantage the electric vehicle enjoys is in the area of operating costs. According to the Journal, "Electricity is already somewhat cheaper than gasoline as vehicle fuel (perhaps two to four cents versus three to six cents per vehicle mile). It is likely that this gap will widen as gasoline prices increase and/or liquid synthetic fuels made from coal appear on the transport market." However, "Reliable data on comparative EV-ICV operating costs are sparse and available mostly for light commercial vehicles. LILCO reports an operating cost of only 2.4-cents a mile for its electric route vehicles, using off-peak storage rates plus fuel adjustment. In contrast, a standard vehicle averaging 15 mpg at 90 cents a gallon costs about six cents a mile to operate. This comparison does not include the cost of EV battery replacement, however, which could add substantially to the lifetime operating expense of the vehicle," the Journal stated. Routine maintenance is also less of a factor with electric vehicles since there are fewer moving parts, no pollution-control devices, few lubricants, no spark plugs, distributors, carburetors, exhaust systems, fuel pumps, starters, valves or pistons. "With tune-ups abolished and expensive repairs held to a minimum, the EV owner could look forward to substantially lower maintenance costs than the owner of a conventional car," the Journal concluded.

While it appears that electric vehicles are viable in some limited fleet applications, it is clear that the EV has quite a distance to go before it is a viable alternative in most cases to the internal combustion engine. But the work has begun, and fleets provide the most logical and available testing grounds for these vehicles. With programs such as the Department of Energy's EV and Hybrid Vehicle Demonstration Program, the willingness of fleet administrators to experiment with EVs and the imagination of leasing companies and others in the automotive industry, the silent carriers of yesteryear may soon become a major transportation mode of tomorrow.