By Bob Weed, Copper Development Association Vice President, OEM
Although electric and hybrid vehicles are receiving a lot of attention, they really aren’t “new.” Trolleys and electric buses use electricity from overhead wires. Most of the locomotives we see pulling trains are diesel-electric hybrids. Large excavating shovels and the giant mining trucks they load are often diesel-electric hybrids. Most hybrid vehicles on the road right now in North America are gasoline-electric hybrids. Bob Weed, Copper Development Association vice president of original equipment manufacturing, says copper will play an important role as more Americans find value in buying and driving hybrid vehicles. At some point consumers will consider pure electric vehicles, but they probably won’t be widely used in the near future because of cost and convenience.
Although the internal combustion engine has served us well for more than 80 years and can still be improved a great deal, we will undoubtedly see more alternative power vehicles, such as hybrids and pure electrics. It makes sense from an automotive design standpoint since there are a huge number of features being built into cars that all require electricity. Alternators and batteries are getting bigger in order to handle this additional electrical load. But the consumer is also interested in better fuel economy and fewer emissions in addition to demanding more functionality and convenience. Today, we’re generally driving the power steering, power brakes, water pump, cooling fan, air conditioning and to a certain extent, the automatic transmission, off the forces being generated by the internal combustion engine. Every time you use a belt-driven system for some of these things, you’re going to have a power loss and reduce the miles per gallon. Plus parasitic losses occur even when you’re not using the brakes or air conditioning.
So if you can switch over and use electricity for air conditioning, power steering and power brakes, your losses as far as miles per gallon will be less because electrical energy, only used “on demand,” is more efficient than mechanical energy in constant use.
However, the electricity needs to be generated and stored on board. That’s why hybrids or plug-in hybrids make more sense before getting into a pure electric. Most of us will drive 25-30 miles to work. When electrical vehicles first came out, they said the range was only 60 miles, and that was fine if you wanted to go just to and from work. But the typical American doesn’t want to be limited to a certain number of miles. Many of us run errands during the day or take the kids to athletic practice or after school lessons. No one wants to worry about whether their car will run out of power before they get home.
We want the capability to get in our vehicles and drive for eight hours without stopping to recharge. Hybrids can give us the freedom we need to drive longer distances without recharging. The thing none of us seems to have enough of these days is time. We want things to adapt to our lifestyles, be convenient and enable us to accomplish the things we want to do. And a lot of people are already enthusiastic supporters of electric and hybrid vehicles.
With either a plug-in hybrid or a pure electric vehicle, you’ll need a place to plug in your car or truck to recharge, whether it’s a house, condo or apartment building. With the pure electrics, we’ll need charging stations around us like gas stations – at malls, at our place of employment and at airport parking structures, for example. But that’s all in the future.
It may take a while for the new hybrid and electric vehicles to gain significant market share because Americans keep their vehicles longer. Today isn’t like in the 1960s & 1970s, when Americans bought a new vehicle every two years or so. People now will drive their vehicles for 100,000 miles or more because the quality and durability is very good. But within the next five- to six years, we could see a million hybrid vehicles on the road because starting in 2010, automakers will begin to aggressively market them to the American public. Also, the government is talking about incentive programs.