Putting electric vehicles to the test

Lukas Swan studies, consults on and drives electric vehicles

- October 26, 2011

Lukas Swan hooks up a charge to one of his two electric Ford Rangers. (Nick Pearce photo)
Lukas Swan hooks up a charge to one of his two electric Ford Rangers. (Nick Pearce photo)

Electric vehicles: are they for real or just a fad? Can they satisfy the needs of the daily commuter? Can they match the performance we’ve come to expect from their fossil fuel driven counterparts?

With the arrival of the Nissan Leaf and the much-hyped Chevrolet Volt, electric vehicles are back on centre stage after a decade of being relatively silenced. The idea of owning an electric vehicle may seem novel to some, while others may wonder if such a machine could actually meet their day-to-day needs. So, now that they’re arriving in North America, can they?

“Absolutely,” says Mechanical Engineering professor Lukas Swan. “Electric vehicles are smooth, silent, produce no smell or emissions, and are safer.”

Dr. Swan is no stranger to electric vehicles. In addition to focusing on renewable energy in his studies, and now as a professor, he and his father, David Swan, a graduate from TECH, own DHS Engineering which provides consulting services to the electric vehicle and renewable energy sectors.

Older models, still going strong

Dr. Swan and his father have three electric vehicles – two 2000 Ford Ranger EV trucks and a 2002 Toyota Rav4 EV. All three run on nickel-metal hydride batteries, which was the leading technology a decade ago. Despite being 10 years old, he says they outperform their gas counterparts in nearly every way.

“They have electric motors coupled to single-speed transmissions with high torque at low speed and very good power at high speed, which matches well with vehicle requirements,” explains Dr. Swan. “In gas vehicles we’re constantly shifting and that’s complicated. But with electric, the moment you push the pedal you’re already at high efficiency. They accelerate and travel at highway speeds the same as any gas vehicle.”

While their only limitation is range – the Rangers go about 100 kms on charge and the Rav4 goes 170 kms - Dr. Swan says he has no “range anxiety” as he rarely uses a full charge in a day.

He uses a Ranger to get to work and hauls any cargo or trailers he needs to; in fact, the truck pulled the Dalhousie Architecture and Engineering float in the Parade of Lights, winning awards in 2009 and 2010. For longer trips he plans accordingly to stop and recharge, which can be done with most 220-volt appliance outlets in a house. “If you need to get to Montreal over night, you may have to rent a car, but the electric vehicle performs superbly for the majority of your trips,” he says.

Considering the footprint

But isn’t electricity generated from fossil fuels? Do these vehicles really have a smaller footprint that conventional ones?

“Because electric vehicles are so efficient, they are responsible for less greenhouse gas emissions than gas vehicles, even though Nova Scotia electricity is predominantly produced from coal. Furthermore, every day that goes by the electricity in Nova Scotia is less carbon intensive because we’re installing more wind turbines that feed into the grid. So the car’s footprint gets cleaner,” explains Dr. Swan. “In contrast, every day that goes by, extracting oil becomes harder and consequently has more emissions. So if we project in the future, electric vehicles are getting cleaner, while the gas cars are getting dirtier.”

Depending on your province, the footprint may be dramatically smaller says Dr. Swan. “Worldwide, gasoline is the dominant fuel for vehicles so emissions from the cars are similar everywhere. However, as you move to different jurisdictions, electricity is generated by different means. In Nova Scotia, we use coal, natural gas, hydro and increasingly wind. But in Quebec, most of their energy is hydro. So when you drive electric there you are driving completely emission free. In Ontario, their electricity is primarily nuclear, so again limited emissions.”

Also a professional wind developer in Nova Scotia, Dr. Swan knows the benefits that come with renewable energy and their role in our life.

“It was renewable energy that created fossil fuels, but it took millions of years and we happily extract them over a few centuries – there’s something wrong with that. We need to go back to the renewable energy that created fossil fuels in the first place. We need to reduce energy use and transition it to renewable energy, and electric vehicles and wind turbines can help us do that.”

Managing the cost

Dr. Swan acknowledges that electric vehicles cost more than gas cars to purchase but says, like everything, economies of scale mean the price will drop with increasing sales. He cites hybrid cars that were much more expensive when they first arrived than today. “The Toyota Prius is on its fourth generation with increasing efficiency and amenities while the price continues to drop.”

“There’s a pride that comes with driving an electric vehicle as well,” he explains. “It makes you feel good about your transportation. It’s like buying a nice home appliance that is quiet and uses less resources, you quickly forget about the cost and focus on enjoying the product.”

For two car families, Dr. Swan suggests a fully electric model like the Nissan Leaf for commuting and general purposes, stating, “you will be surprised how much you use it and how little you use your gas vehicle.” However, if you are a one-car home and do long-distance traveling, a Chevrolet Volt may be more appealing at this time.

“The transition to electric vehicles is occurring simultaneously with the installation of renewable energy,” says Dr. Swan. “The Nova Scotia Government’s renewable electricity plan has legislated 25% renewable electricity by 2015 and has proposed 40% by 2020. It’s a tremendous opportunity for the province to get these efficient electric vehicles and to clean up our electricity grid, a win-win situation.”


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