This article reviews the battery-powered electric vehicles that are forming a symbiotic relationship with commuter rail. Priced at around $6000, the electric vehicles make little sense for someone who has to get somewhere, when a full-fledged automobile can be had for twice that without any inherent restrictions on use, safety, and range. Perhaps retirees, with eyesight failing and reactions slowing, might be safer in such severely throttled cars. Think City drivers will have to bring their cars to the dealer about every 3,000 miles to have the equivalent of an oil change performed on the battery. The car’s nicad batteries are unsealed, unlike those powering calculators and electric drills, and so they need periodic watering. The average commuter probably is not ready to trade in the well-worn station car for a fancy golf cart, but the little electric cars may just warrant a second look from at least some of the great mass of bleary-eyed riders.
In 1998, a ruling on the use of golf carts on public roads was handed down by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Responding to legislation passed in California and Florida that permitted the electric vehicles to ride off the turf and onto the blacktop, NHTSA raised the speed ceiling at which these vehicles would be considered passenger cars. In doing so, the agency defined a new class of carriage—the “low-speed vehicle.” Its operation is restricted to roads posted at 35 mph or less. It can’t drive over 25. Whether or not LSVs are permitted on local roads remains the call of individual states.
A number of manufacturers now sell these vehicles under the moniker “neighborhood electric vehicles.” Among them are Ford Think, Global Electric Motorcars (a DaimlerChrysler company), and Lido Motors (associated with Lee Iacocca). More than golf carts and less than automobiles, in their various incarnations they resemble meter-maid wagons or miniature cars. By law, they are fitted with seat belts and headlamps, with turn signals and rearview mirrors, with windshields, wipers, and brake lamps. Doors for driver and passenger may be available as standard features or sold as options. Lead-acid is the battery of choice.
What started it all was a trend in retirement communities to use the golf cart for more than recreation. Carts offered an economical way to Visit neighbors. In some cases, a short drive down a public lane could bring a marketplace within range that getting to otherwise would require more of a hike and less of a walk.
Priced at around $6,000, these electric vehicles make little sense for someone who has to get somewhere, when a full-fledged automobile can be had for twice that, without any inherent restrictions on use, safety, and range. Perhaps retirees, with eyesight failing and reactions slowing, might be safer in such severely throttled cars. Average drivers are going to want to move faster than 25 mph on any roads that are posted at 35 mph. Otherwise, they’re going to be at the heads of some very long and very frustrated lines.
Still, for all their lack of accoutrements, these all-electric carts are zero-emission vehicles. And, unlike results from endeavors such as the costly Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles, these little cars are actually available and priced to move. While the little electric vehicles may lack the 100-mile range and zip of a GM EV-1, they don’t have its $40,000 price tag as well.
The old-timers may be on to something.
Add more speed, better range, and a few creature comforts, and the little electric vehicle fits a niche far less restrictive than a scattering of retirement communities in the Southwest and Florida.
That seems to be the thinking at the New York Power Authority, anyway. Together with the Long Island Power Authority, the Metro-North Railroad, and the Long Island Rail Road, NYPA is putting a plan in place for leasing 100 Ford Think City cars to commuters who come into town via any of eight train stations in the New York suburbs. Think City is neither a golf cart nor an LSV. It is an electric automobile.
The plan calls for applicants accepted into the program to lease the battery electric vehicles from Ford dealers at $199 a month for 34 months. Rechargers set up at the stations will top up the batteries with free electricity as the participants work, while guaranteeing the availability of front row parking every day. The railroads kick back to the commuter 21 bucks toward a monthly ticket.
The plan is a novel, if costly, way of getting commuters off the gas habit. If it’s true that the average auto is at its polluting worst in the first few minutes after starting, the little electric cars could go a long way toward restoring air quality.
Still, commuters are already paying between $103 and $211 for discounted monthly train passes, depending on whether they ride the LIRR 8.8 miles from Kew Gardens in Queens to Penn Station in Manhattan, or Metro-North on a longer leg from the Brewster North station in Putnam County to Grand Central Terminal. These two stations represent the extremes of distance in the eight communities selected for the program.
Add to that cost the parking fees for whatever available space there is and the expenses of commuting mount quickly. If two people in the family commute, just about every cost doubles.
Yet almost 150,000 LIRR passengers head to work in Manhattan daily, along with another herd 120,000 strong from points served by Metro-North. Nearly 50,000 people come to Penn Station on New Jersey Transit trains each day as well. Then there are the many who enter Manhattan by way of the Path tubes beneath the Hudson, though their actual numbers have fluctuated since the loss of the station beneath the World Trade Center towers.
Once in the city, that mass of humanity disperses through the island by some combination of subway, bus, taxi, elevator, and shoe leather. It’s the trip to the local train station that causes a commuter to stumble.
Seth Leitman, program manager for the NYPA/Think Clean Commute—as the demonstration is formally known—said the Think City cars are aimed at replacing the dirtiest car in the typical commuter’s 2.3-car fleet. That’s the one he called the “junker” car, the one kept specifically for morning drives to the station and evening drives back home. When you’re already making close to a car payment for your commuter ticket, who wants to shell out cash for a fancy station wagon when any halfway reliable heap will do? Keep the fancy car parked at home for longer trips and errands around town.
Dirty Car Says ‘Wash Me’
Indeed, internal combustion engines suffer from cold-start effects, said Jonathan Richards, Think Mobility’s manager of international sales. In the first 30 seconds or so after the engine starts, the catalytic converter has yet to heat up to operating temperature. Even in the newest cars, the operation of the catalytic converter lags behind the start of the engine.
Electric vehicles aren’t victims of the same phenomenon, according to David Fabricheore, service manager for the Think City Power program. “There are no gains in efficiency by letting an EV warm up,” he said. “It’s ready to go.” Internal combustion engines, on the other hand, hate to run for five minutes and then shut down. EVs routinely shut down at stop lights.
For that reason, the best “fuel” economy of an electric vehicle exactly reverses that of one powered through internal combustion. Electric vehicles excel at stop-and-go conditions—just the kind of driving that a rail commuter might encounter en route to the train station.
Although approved throughout Europe, the Think City cars have yet to receive the blessing of the U.S. regulating bodies. That’s expected soon, Richards said, but in the meantime, the imported NYPA/Think demonstration vehicles will be operating under special approval by the U.S. Department of Transportation. Ford plans to have the vehicles available for at least some part of the general public by the summer or fall of this year.
Before then, Ford engineers are making an effort to get some of the cost out of the car, which is now manufactured in Norway by Think Nordic AS. According to Richards, the car today would sell in New York for about $30,000, making it the lowèst-priced electric vehicle yet offered in the United States, but still too pricey even for niche markets. So, Ford engineers are busy with a “major cost reduction redesign,” in addition to adding things like passenger-side airbags and modifying wipers and headlight patterns to meet U.S. standards.
When the price does come down, substantial tax credits from both the federal government and New York State will help sweeten any deals. If, for instance, the manufacturer’s suggested retail price dropped to $20,000, the price of the vehicle would effectively be $13,000— based on a federal credit of 10 percent of the list price and a state tax credit of $5,000. But just what price the Think City will sell for, Richards didn’t disclose.
Actually, whether to sell or lease the car remains a question, too, he said. Ford leased the Electric Ranger, Richards said, in part because it was advanced technology, but also because its lead-acid batteries needed replacement after three years. Battery packs are expensive, so a three-year lease relieved the customer of that burden.
Unlike the Electric Ranger, the Think City will use nickel-cadmium batteries. Nicad cells fall somewhere between lead-acid and nickel-metal hydride batteries in terms of cost and energy density, Fabricheore said. Where lead-acid units are comparatively inexpensive, they lead shorter lives and deliver fewer amps per pound than the more sophisticated designs. Their power diminishes along with their charge, and they tend to suffer from cold.
Nickel-metal hydride, or NiMh, cells, although they offer high energy density, are expensive and have trouble with high temperatures.
The nicad cells used in the City—nineteen 6-volt batteries that together produce 114 volts—last longer than lead acid but shorter than NiMh. The City batteries should go six to eight years, thanks to both battery management and liquid cooling, Fabricheore said.
More Than Zero Maintenance
Think City drivers will have to bring their cars to the dealer about every 3,000 miles to have the equivalent of an oil change performed on the battery. The car’s nicad batteries are unsealed, unlike those powering calculators and electric drills, and so they need periodic watering. Also, the infamous “memory effect” that has long plagued nicads must be whisked away through a special recharging algorithm. Drawing down the cells completely between charging, as is recommended for nicad appliances, isn’t practical for EVs, Fabricheore said. But periodic maintenance at the dealer is.
A battery manager governs everyday maintenance from aboard the vehicle. This critical component keeps tabs on energy going to and coming from the battery pack. A heat exchanger loop cools the battery and motor.
Battery power levels remain fairly constant over the range of the vehicle—about 50 miles, depending on how it’s driven. The vehicle now is capable of 55 mph; the U.S. version will make 65, Fabricheore said. Driveline equipment includes a three-phase ac induction motor, a traction inverter module, and a single-speed gearbox set for a certain torque ratio. A computer controls propulsion.
Eventually, even nicad batteries require replacement, however. After six or eight years, owners of the City might have to shell out $4,000 to $6,000 to replace the pack, Richards said.
That brings up the question of recyclability. Tim Cim-perman, a sales representative for Inmetco of Ellwood City, Pa., said his company has had in place a nickelcadmium recovery program since 1995. The process recovers cadmium that is 99.99 percent pure for reuse in more nicad cells. The company uses the nickel for its main product, a nickel-chrome-iron alloy.
Although the company is not waiting around for a windfall of first-generation batteries to arrive from the EV revolution that never was, it processes many nicads out of electronics and appliances, Cimperman said. While the packaging is different, the fundamental recovery processes are the same.
If the City EV and others of its kind catch on, Cimperman expects that there will be an enhanced market for cadmium by makers of new EV batteries. He suspects sufficient demand for nickel, as well, as an alloying material.
Just how soon a battery pack needs replacing will depend somewhat on how the batteries are used, Fabricheore said. “Batteries are similar to bodies in that the more you use them, the healthier they remain,” he explained. But as long as they operate a couple of miles a day, nicad batteries are fine. Perhaps every two weeks, it’s a good idea to use up the whole charge, he added.
The balance of the propulsion system uses many fewer components than an internal combustion system—on the order of500 versus 2,000 parts, Richards said. That should spell reliability. Electric motors are quite durable, too.
Industry runs electric motors “for thousands and thousands of hours” before they require any maintenance, Fabricheore added.
Unplug and Play
According to NYPA’s Leitman, participants in the program will be able to charge both at stations and at home. Electricity at the station will be free; at home, it will be billed at prevailing rates, coming to about 2 cents a mile. Users will need a 208-volt outlet, but the program sponsors will provide and install the home chargers at no cost to the participants. The chargers normally run about $800, he said.
“We want people to use the cars at night and on weekends, in addition to using them for daily commuting,” Leitman said. Since the two utilities involved will supply free electricity during the day, commuters can recharge vehicles even without incurring a penalty for peakrate power. With their retractable cables, the station chargers resemble gas pumps, he said.
The chargers have been used by other municipalities in their station and shared car programs. Indeed, the Think City has served in other similar programs across the country. In that respect, there’s nothing particularly new about the NYPA clean commute program.
In fact, NYPA ran a reverse commute program between 1995 and 1999, according to Brian Warner, a senior policy specialist there. Several residents of New York City rode Metro-North to White Plains, where they picked up EVs to make the rest of the trip to their jobs at IBM. Many station car programs are similarly set up for vehicle availability at the end of a worker’s inbound commute, to get a commuter from station to job.
On its Web site, the National Station Car Association lists quite a few such pilot and demonstration programs that are either in operation or starting soon. In many cities, daytime mobility is a problem for public transit riders. Riding buses or trains to work leaves many commuters unable to run errands during the day because nothing else is close by.
New York City must be an exception. Its vast public transportation network and dense, vertical architecture ensures access to all points by transit or on foot.
Indeed, the last thing New York needs is more riders on its commuter rail lines. Many trains are stuffed full at rush hour and many parking lots close out early.
“Our peak-hour ridership on the commuter railroads is pretty much at capacity,” said Doug Sussman, deputy director of government and community relations with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, parent corporation of the Long Island and Metro-North railroads. “I’m a Metro-North commuter myself, and there are standees on most of the rush hour trains coming into Manhattan.”
Stemming from the overwhelming popularity of the commuter trains, many lots cannot accept any more vehicles by 8 a.m. But by taking less room than a full-size auto, the little cars could free up real estate.
Since the program is limited to 100 participants who already drive to MTA stations, train crowding won’t increase from the experiment, Sussman said. But, if it catches on, the railroads will have to consider strategies for accommodating more riders, something they’re no doubt up to already.
“If the parking lots are jammed, realistically you can always jam a couple more people on your train,” said Think’s Richards.
To a point, yes. Commuter rail can saturate to the level where the railroad loses more money than usual. A recent New York Times article called it “the paradox faced by all of the country’s subsidized railroads.” More riders mean bigger losses, not only because conductors can’t collect tickets on crowded trains, but also because wear increases along with equipment demand and salaries, the article said.
People need to get to work, however. In a city where driving to the job is not a serious option for most folks, they come and go by trains or buses or ferries. They have to get to and from terminals near their homes. Some can walk, but many drive cars.
Touted by NYPA as a clean commute, there’s certainly no reason why the program couldn’t extend out to pick up commuters on the unelectrified portions of Long Island’s tracks, Sussman agreed. It could be applied to the 200,000 daily passengers arriving at New York’s Port Authority Bus Terminal, as well.
But no one is speculating about how the program will go. NYPA now has about twice as many applicants as it has spots, and promotion has been fairly low key.
The term “robust” is bandied about in the engineering community quite a lot these days. Although the word is clearly a member of the class of invasive vocabulary weeds that choke out other business parlance (only to die off as suddenly), here the term feels like it might truly apply.
For one thing, this program isn’t promising to change the world. It’s looking at a specific problem, addressing it alone. Yes, there is much government funding in place. But the hard-earned dollars of the participants are there, too.
The average commuter probably isn’t ready to trade in the well-worn station car for a fancy golf cart, but the little electric cars may just warrant a second look from at least some of the great mass of bleary-eyed riders.