Jumpstarting the electric car

Electric wagons powered by heavy batteries quietly zipped through the streets of Baltimore, carrying beer, milk, fruit and other goods from wholesalers to shops and homes. Some delivery companies installed their own charging stations or used a downtown garage maintained by the local utility to charge their wagons overnight.

This experimental period in transportation wasn't during the gasoline price shocks of the early 1970s. Try 1911.

Electric vehicles would grow to account for about one-quarter of the automobiles in the United States by the 1920s, historians estimate. But the internal-combustion engine would soon outrun electric motors, steam and even horses. As gasoline-fueled cars improved, electric vehicles would be all but forgotten.

Now Baltimore and the nation may again stand at the beginning of a new era in electric vehicles.

A new generation of electric cars is hitting the streets, including the Chevrolet Volt, the Nissan Leaf and the Ford Focus Electric, which debuts later this year. And over the next few years, 25 vehicle models that can be charged by plugging into a regular electrical outlet are expected to be on the market, according to the Electric Drive Transportation Association, a trade group.

The federal government is pumping more than $4 billion into supporting the electric vehicle industry, from the construction of factories for batteries and high-tech motors, including in Baltimore County, to the rollout of charging stations across the country. And Baltimore Gas & Electric Co., whose predecessor operated an electric wagon sales franchise at the turn of the last century, is drawing up plans to prep the electrical grid for car charging.

"We haven't seen anything like this in 100 years," said Bradley Berman, founder and editor of and, which track developments in the electric vehicle industry. "There's a real challenge to the internal-combustion gasoline engine."

Despite great technological strides and research dollars spent on electric as well as hydrogen fuel cell, hybrid and natural gas vehicles, none of them has come close to toppling the hegemony of the gasoline-powered engine. Some critics question the feasibility of the alternative-fuel vehicles, citing their high costs and dependence on energy sources that have their own negative environmental tradeoffs.

And auto manufacturers have modest goals for the electric cars going on the market, with sales targets in the tens of thousands of cars per year. Even with the success of the Toyota Prius, hybrids — whose electric motors and batteries are recharged and complemented by gasoline motors — represent less than 3 percent of the market.

Said Berman: "We're at the beginning of all this."

In the early 1900s, electric vehicles were on the streets of New York, Chicago, Boston and Baltimore, and they were, for a time, favored because they were cleaner and easier to operate than the gasoline engines of the time. The Baltimore region's electricity grid was still in its infancy.

The first electric wagon debuted in Baltimore in 1900 and was built by the Schaum Automobile and Manufacturing Co. at its works in the city on Park Avenue. The wagon came with a 4.5-horsepower electric motor and an 80-volt battery, and could carry 1,200 pounds.

"The new wagon has been tested on cobblestones, Belgian blocks and asphalt and, it is stated, can move up any hill in the city faster than a horse-drawn vehicle. The speed on a level is 12 miles an hour," according to a Baltimore Sun article at the time.

The demise of those early electric vehicles began when Cadillac introduced the electric starter for gasoline-powered cars in 1912, automotive history experts say.

In subsequent years, the electric starter would eliminate the need for drivers to hand-crank their gasoline engines to life — a tedious and strenuous process. And gasoline motors soon outperformed electric motors in speed and distance.

It wasn't until the 1960s and 1970s — with the rise of the environmental movement and the first significant gasoline price hikes — that researchers began experimenting with electric vehicle technology again in any meaningful way. But the batteries were still heavy, large and unreliable, and the cars were still too expensive for automakers to produce.

That has changed in recent years, with heavy investment from the federal and state governments as well as auto companies. At the same time, battery life has vastly improved and can be more efficiently managed using onboard computer systems. And consumers can charge their electric vehicles at home.

In the mid-1990s, General Motors produced an electric car, the EV1, whose lead acid battery weighed 1,000 pounds. (The Chevrolet Volt uses a lithium ion battery weighing 400 pounds.) But the EV1 was pulled off the market because it was too costly to produce — to the dismay of passionate users who had leased the vehicle.

Now GM, which for decades produced gasoline-powered vehicles at its Broening Highway plant, plans to make electric motors at a White Marsh plant to be built with federal backing. And Maryland is one of the first retail launch markets for the Chevy Volt.

With current lithium ion battery technology, the Volt can travel about 40 miles before gasoline is needed to power the electric motor. The vehicle can be charged for about $1.50 a day or less. By comparison, the Nissan Leaf won't use any gasoline, and the Japanese automaker says it can go 100 miles on a single charge.

But for many consumers, electric vehicles are still too pricey. The Volt is selling for $41,000, but federal and state tax credits in Maryland knock off about $10,000. The Nissan Leaf retails for about $33,000 before the same tax credits.

And some have questioned the extent of the environmental benefits of electric vehicles. In its annual rankings of "green" vehicles, the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy rated the Volt 13th in environmental impact because it is heavy and incorporates a gasoline motor. A natural gas-powered Honda Civic and the all-electric Nissan Leaf came in first and second, respectively. Hybrids and highly efficient gasoline-powered cars rounded out the list.

In the future, auto manufacturers are likely to offer different electric vehicle options and combinations. Consumers can expect a broader range of cars and trucks that feature plug-in electricity options, fuel cells and hybrids that use variations of combustion engine, battery and electric technology.

And prices are expected to drop as manufacturing supply increases to meet consumer demand. Battery costs alone are expected to plummet 70 percent in two to three years. There had been only two manufacturers that produced electric vehicle batteries in the United States, but now the federal government is subsidizing up to 30 companies to make batteries.

"There has been robust investment in a whole range of technologies that are now converging," said Brian Wynne, president of the Electric Drive Transportation Association. "The question is: How rapidly can we stand up a supply chain and put electric vehicles on the market?"

The next big step involves outfitting cities, suburbs and even parking garages with convenient electricity stations for vehicle battery charging.

"The backbone is a solid, stable grid," said Larry Nitz, executive director of hybrid and electric power-train engineering at General Motors. "Getting electricity into people's garages is relatively easy."

The U.S. Department of Energy has made millions of dollars in subsidies available to electric-charger manufacturers and companies that want to install charging stations and distribute high-speed chargers across the country for consumers to use with electric vehicles.

So far only a handful exist in Maryland, and the District of Columbia has about a dozen public charging stations. As the infrastructure is built out, industry experts say, energy costs for powering the vehicles will drop.

BGE is starting to roll out "smart meter" technology, which will enable homeowners and BGE to better use technology to track and calibrate electricity usage at people's homes — and company officials say those meters could help customers track electric-vehicle energy needs as well. Officials also are considering special rates for charging cars.

The company has its own electric and hybrid vehicles that it is testing for fleet use and to better understand how the cars use electricity. BGE officials also say they have been coordinating with electric-charger manufacturers.

John Murach, BGE's director of electric vehicle planning, said the company expects consumers to adopt electric vehicles quickly in the coming years, and company officials believe the utility has the capacity in its electric grid to support the increased demand.

"There is significant capacity in the off-peak hours that would support full deployment of electric vehicles," Murach said.

Maryland ranks 10th among states with the highest deployment of gasoline-electric hybrids among consumers, according to the Center for Automotive Research. More than 20,000 hybrid vehicles were on the road in Maryland at the end of 2009, according to the center's most recent data.

By next year, the center estimates, nearly 2,000 electric vehicles will be on the road in Maryland. And by 2015, that number could grow to 12,000 — out of millions of vehicles on the road nationwide. Like a century ago, however, some industry observers believe the first widespread adoption of electric vehicles will take root among commercial — not consumer — markets.

Bryan Hansel, chief executive of Smith Electric Vehicles in Kansas City, Mo., said he opened a U.S. branch of the United Kingdom-based company two years ago and this year acquired its European assets. Hundreds of its zero-emission electric trucks are on the road. One of its biggest customers is Frito-Lay, which uses the Smith trucks to deliver chips and other food products.

Hansel figures that the medium-duty electric trucks his company makes in the United States could grow to account for half of that truck market in 10 years. His company won a $32 million grant last year from the Department of Energy to build a 510-vehicle demonstration fleet for commercial customers.

"We really feel that the market is at a tipping point," Hansel said.

GM's new plant to be built in White Marsh, next to its Allison Transmission plant, will produce electric motors for models that have yet to be unveiled, Nitz said. The plant will add about 100 jobs, a modest turnaround for GM's presence in the Baltimore area after years of contractions.

Thanks to significant advances in computing technology for automobiles over just the past decade, the automaker is able to use electric and gasoline motors together — and more efficiently. That feature is expected to appeal to consumers long accustomed to putting gas in the tank.

"Each one has its pros and cons," Nitz said. "But together, it's really a winning combination."

Baltimore Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.