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Updated: May 23, 2014 11:00 AM

What if your electric car didn’t have to plug in?



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Today’s electric cars can deliver great performance, a quiet and luxurious driving experience, and decent range, as demonstrated by the impressive Tesla Model S. But electric car advocates are racing to try to find the next breakthrough that could make the car’s more attractive to the average American car buyer.

That was among the topics discussed at the 2014 Electric Drive Transportation Association event in Indianapolis last week, where Consumer Reports engaged with industry and enthusiasts to ponder the car tech of tomorrow.

Visit our guide to alternative fuels and cars.

Discussion highlights:

  • If electric cars are going to be seen as cool, apparently they need to go racing. Not only is the international racing body FIA organizing a 10-city electric car racing tour known as Formula-E, but the drag-racing icon Don “Big Daddy” Garlits is developing a battery powered drag rail that is expected to have at least three times the range of a conventional Top Fuel car and cost less than half as much.
  • New companies that provide lower cost fast-charging installations are multiplying. Fast chargers can refill an electric car’s battery to 80 percent in about a half an hour (and fully in just over an hour). Where early fast chargers operated at 50 kW and above, lower-powered 25 kW versions can now charge almost as fast for as little as one-third the cost. The hope is that lower-cost units will help spread this charging infrastructure for drivers who don’t have access to a home or work outlet, which is almost half of all drivers, according to a survey conducted last year by Consumers Union and the Union of Concerned Scientists.
  • In case fast charging isn’t convenient enough for you, several companies are working on developing a wireless charging infrastructure. Standards to make wireless charging universal and affordable are still a year or more away. But once they’re settled, advocates think that installing a wireless charging pad in your garage, or at a car-sharing parking space, shouldn’t be any more expensive than installing a standard electric-car charger. For now, wireless charging is likely to expand in forklifts in warehouses and in city busses. But the end-game is much bigger, as will be evidenced in the Formula-E racing series, as by putting chargers along roadways (such as where cars are stopped at red lights and interspersed along highways) for opportunity charging, batteries could be made much smaller, lighter, and cheaper.
  • Hyundai, Toyota, and Honda, along with the state of California and the federal Department of Energy, are still committed to building out the hydrogen economy. These three automakers plan to roll out fuel-cell cars in the next two years, California is committed to building $1.2 billion worth of hydrogen stations, and the Dept. of Energy is offering financing support. Fuel cell cars are essentially electric cars that use a fuel cell to generate a steady flow of electricity via a chemical reaction with hydrogen stored onboard. They also use a hybrid-sized battery to provide extra energy for acceleration and to boost efficiency by storing energy from braking and deceleration. Refilling a hydrogen tank takes about as long as refilling a conventional tank with gasoline. (See "Toyota Fuel-Cell Vehicle First Drive.")
  • Fuel cells have always suffered from a “chicken and egg” problem: Consumers won’t buy the cars until there are stations to fuel them, and businesses won’t build the stations without customers to buy the cars. A study by the California Fuel Cell Partnership revealed that of the two, fueling stations have to come first. Yet Hyundai is releasing the fuel-cell Tucson in June. Honda and Toyota will release cars about six months later. So California is racing to build out fueling stations: Nine are already open in the state, 19 are under construction, and about 50 more have been financed. Toyota says it is keeping its options open to introduce fuel-cell cars in other parts of the country.
  • The DOE is studying fuel-cell vehicles that also plug in, using a small fuel cell as a range extender, thereby allowing the cars to use a smaller battery and still have a long range and quick refill times.

In the end, it looks like electric cars are here to stay—and likely to become more convenient and cooler in the coming years.

—Eric Evarts




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