A Big Charge For Electric Vehicles?

New batteries from Israel could help make EVs practical

As Thomas Behrens-Boye wheels his bright yellow postal truck into Bremen's bustling midday traffic, something seems amiss. In place of the clatter and acrid smoke of a diesel engine, there is only the gentle whine of an electric motor. Behrens-Boye will use the experimental electric Mercedes-Benz mail truck to haul up to 1 1/2 tons of letters on his daily rounds for the next year. The trial is off to an auspicious start: "I've had it up to 110 kilometers per hour [70 mph]," he says with a grin, as he swings into the left lane to overtake a passenger car.

Behrens-Boye and his electric mail truck are part of a $17 million road test launched this summer by Deutsche Post, the German postal service, and a dozen partners. It involves 50 cars and vans using an experimental zinc-air battery developed by Israel's Electric Fuel Corp. If these electric vehicles (EVs) can match the performance and costs of their diesel-powered rivals, the postal service plans to buy as many as 25,000, creating the world's largest EV fleet by far. Another partner, Deutsche Telekom, might buy as many as 15,000. With that volume, manufacturing costs might drop to the point where EVs could finally compete wheel-to-wheel with gasoline- and diesel-powered vehicles. "We have an 80%-to-90% chance of success," declares Gunter W. Tumm, a Deutsche Post managing director who oversees the project.

LEGAL BOOST. There is one caveat: These EVs are strictly for use in fleets, because their extra-powerful zinc-air batteries cannot easily be recharged. Instead, when they run down, they're taken out of the vehicle, dismantled, and rebuilt from scratch in a factory. Meanwhile, fresh batteries are dropped in.

Without a network of neighborhood battery-swap stations, changing batteries would be a headache for consumers. But it's no problem for a fleet operator. A battery swap takes about 10 minutes, compared with a recharging time of six to eight hours. What's more, the Israeli batteries, which rely on a reaction between zinc and oxygen extracted from the air, deliver unmatched energy. They produce more than 200 watt-hours of energy per kilogram of battery weight. That's more than four times as much as the most advanced lead-acid batteries now used in EVs and nearly twice as much as another advanced battery, nickel-metal hydride.

New environmental laws are giving EVs a boost. Starting this summer, Sweden restricted use of diesel-powered trucks and buses in large parts of Stockholm, Goteborg, and Malmo. German government officials are considering similar rules. In the U.S., federal government fleets must buy some alternative vehicles starting this year--including, besides electrics, vehicles running on natural gas, ethanol, and methanol.

If electric vehicles do catch on with motor fleets, they would present a challenge to auto makers. The internal combustion engine isn't likely to disappear anytime soon, but at least some of the billion-dollar factories that build engines could become extraneous. And carmakers would need to sink billions more into electric-vehicle design and engineering.

POWER IN THE COLD. For now, Electric Fuel Corp. is seizing on the German test as a possible entree to the world market. To recycle batteries, it built an $8 million pilot plant in an unused building of Bremen's electric utility, another partner in the test. In Bremen, Mercedes MB410 trucks equipped with Electric Fuel batteries routinely go more than 155 miles before they're down to a 20% emergency reserve. Smaller Opel Combo vans have gone more than 250 miles in tests. Moreover, at zero degrees Fahrenheit, zinc-air batteries maintain nearly full range and power. Lead-acid batteries lose up to half their power in the cold.

In Europe and Japan, where fuel prices are high, electric vehicles are an easier sell than in the U.S. A study by Deutsche Post's in-house consulting arm estimates life-cycle costs of 99 cents per mile for electric versions of large Mercedes vans, including acquisition, operating expenses, and resale value. That compares with a predicted $1.01 per mile for diesel versions in the year 2000.

The Bremen experiment is designed partly to test those projections. One key piece of the equation will remain guesswork, however. Deutsche Post assumes the used vans can be sold after five years for $21,500, or 40% more than the diesel version. The reasoning is that EVs have fewer moving parts and thus a longer life. But a market for used electric vehicles doesn't exist yet. And it's unclear whether the small businesses that typically buy used vehicles will switch to EVs. Still, if Deutsche Post blazes the trail, that notion seems more plausible.

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