Speech to the 1994 NorthCon I.E.E.E. Convention Seattle Washington by: Mark Edward Murphy
Electric vehicles are said to be one gas crisis from the showrooms, but for them to be successful products they will have to achieve two things:
They must function as instruments of social change
The vehicles we are to drive tommorrow must be designed in context with the profound changes in society we are seeing today. They must be part of a paradigm shift as social products, designed to be an integral part of our daily lives, and at the same time be compatible with our needs, both personally as a part of our society and of course be a positive contribution to our environment. The second thing EV's must achieve is more basic:
They must have a competitive advantage
The opportunities for Electric vehicles do not lie in head-to-head competition with the conventional automobile. The cost to do so is staggering and frankly, no one is interested in fighting the battle. As a result, we continue to see a lot of stalling, excuse making, and the resulting government mandates required to force the issue. However, rules and research dollars alone will not put vehicles on the road. They have to have a competitive advantage in the marketplace, and the advantages are not in direct competition with the car, but instead at the ends of the transportation spectrum from where they can effectively diminish the reliance on the automobile by creating viable alternative options.
LESS IS MORE
Just over 100 years ago, the first automobiles began to roam
the earth. They were simple things: they were slow, they had limited range, and most of them were electric. Today,
our expectations for automobiles have changed but our perceptions of electric cars have not: they are still slow
and they still have limited range. We are throwing tremendous amounts of money and technology at these problems
and we shall overcome them someday (given enough research grants.) But are we spending these millions to find a
cure for which there is no disease? The automakers are not convinced there is a market for an electric car; GM
is hedging its bet on the two-seat "Impact". In some respects we appear to be on a technological holy
war in an effort to create the perfect electric car. We are pushing the envelope instead of solving the problem.
THE FUTURE ISN'T WHAT IT USED TO BE
We have far too little diversity in transportation. This
is not good in nature or society. The problem is that the automobile car has become the only option. It is the
dominant species. There are still more bicycles than cars in this country, but only a few of us will ride them
to work. Some of us use public transit, but everyone else is in a car, and it dominates the architecture of our
cities. Over a third of our urban landscape is devoted to the automobile; our society has evolved around it.
THE MODEL T FOR THE 21ST CENTURY
The Neighborhood Electric Vehicle is quite simply a new species
of vehicle. It has the potential to develop into a global form of personal transportation much like the bicycle.
It represents lightweight, all-weather personal mobility within the local community where low speed and limited
range are not liabilities. The NEV positions itself somewhere between pedestrian and Plymouth; cheaper than a car
and it beats walking. At this point in time the NEV concept is still in gestation. It is still being defined by
transportation designers and planners studying this missing link in the transportation evolutionary chain. But
the general idea is that of a "companion vehicle," an understandable, user-friendly, unintimidating pet
These vehicles are known as City Cars or Station Cars. Many different types are running around Europe and Japan, where tiny cars have been putting around for years, but now new state-of-the-art examples are being developed as EVs from the ground up. In Europe, the major automakers from Mercedes to Volkswagen are developing NEVs. In fact Mercedes has a joint venture with Swatch to manufacture 200,000 vehicles a year in a new half billion dollar facility in France, and yes they plan to import them to the USA. Mercedes and Swatch: if they can get together, it must be serious... Many innovative new companies are attempting to enter the marketplace as well. These types of vehicles will be quick but not fast. That is, they will accelerate with a lot of torque, but have a relatively low top speed for safety. They will provide many of the basic creature comforts and security of a car, while replacing many of our needs for a car. MicroCars will inevitably be compared to the full size automobiles, and will have to demonstrate that their limitations will be offset by advantages. They will not be cheap, over $13,000.00 but they will probably have some tax incentives and of course eco status. They may well be the predominant form of electric vehicle in the next century. Most have a range of 40 miles or so, weigh between 1,200-2,000 lbs, and will probably be limited to speeds under 65 miles per hour and restricted on some freeways.
A second category of NEVs, Cyclecars, are lightweight, true neighborhood-only vehicles. They will also be popular forms of transportation for the young and old alike. These are simple single-passenger three wheeled vehicles: A lightweight shell for protection from the wind and rain and designed to carry only a few bags of groceries on short errands and commutes. The Cyclecar could be licensed as a motorscooter and travel at comparable speeds; 25 to 40 MPH, and capable of climbing hills and accelerating with traffic without the effort a bicycle requires. One can envision colorful fleets of these things gliding around town and along the streets of planned communities we will all come to know and love. Simple and inexpensive, they will be popular on school campuses and business parks. About the price of a motorcycle at $6,000.00 or so, they will weigh about 600 lbs., go about 25 miles on a charge and recharge like a cordless appliance using any ordinary 110 volt outlet.
The third category of NEV is the Electric Bicycle. These have been around before, but should grow in acceptance as more people find out about them. Some are motorpacks for bicycles for use as helper motors for hills and headwinds. There are also some new electric scooters coming out that will be popular with students and sightseers, but without the two-stroke noise and smoke typical of the last generation of Vespas and Suzukis. Motorpacks are about $600.00 and the scooters cost about $2,500.00.
Together these NEVs will change the way we think about our
personal transportation needs and priorities. They are the machines of the ECO generation, the bottom rung of the
motorized food chain but with tremendous potential appeal. Rather than owning two or three cars, a family might
use their minivan just for outings and trips, and rely instead on two or three NEV's for individual daily transportation.
The NEV is a part of a socio-economic shift from an industrial to a technological society. Just as older automobiles
are replaced by cleaner state-of-the-art vehicles, we will see an increase in special purpose vehicles such as
the NEVs that offer new options and appeal to specific demographic niches. They will benefit as well from technology
transfer and trickle-down applications from research.
Mark Edward Murphy
Mark Murphy has a Bachelor of Science degree in Behavioral
Science from Westminster College and is a graduate of the Art Center College of Design in Industrial Design.