Zero-Emission Vehicles

The History of Zero-Emission Vehicles

The History of Zero-Emission Vehicles

As we move towards a world of sustainable green energy, zero-emission vehicles (ZEV) will lead the way to a cleaner environment for us all. But what exactly is a zero-emission vehicle? Basically, a ZEV is any mode of transportation that never emits harmful exhaust into the atmosphere. They are also sometimes called carbon negative vehicles and they either don’t have a tailpipe, such as in battery electric vehicles (BEV) and solar-powered vehicles, or the only thing that comes out of their tailpipe is harmless water vapor as in Hydrogen Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles (FCEV).

As a way to curb dangerous air pollution in Los Angeles, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) invented the term “zero-emission vehicles” in 1990 which refers to “motor vehicle emissions from an onboard power source.” As such, CARB’s definition for a ZEV does not include how the power requirements for the vehicles is met. In other words, CARB is interested in eliminating harmful vehicle emissions but does not take the leap to assure the electricity used to recharge an electric car comes from green energy such as hydro-electric, solar or wind energy.

The Paris Agreement is an international treaty on climate change that was adopted in 2015 with a goal to limit global warming. Working with this accord, automakers worldwide are in a mad dash to provide more electric vehicles to eager buyers. The goal is to reduce air pollution in densely populated areas by lowering greenhouse gas emissions from cars. To date, 17 countries have announced 100% zero-emission vehicle targets and the phase-out of internal combustion engine vehicles by 2050.

The European Union’s Sustainable Development Scenario is compatible with the Paris Agreement and incorporates a target of having a 30% market share for electric vehicles by 2030. While this switch for gas-powered to electric-powered cars is the focus of automakers, another hopeful environmental solution on the horizon involves hydrogen fuel-cell electric vehicles. FCEVs convert hydrogen gas into electricity to power them and the hydrogen fuel can be produced by water electrolysis through wind, solar, or grid electricity.

According to the Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy, fuel cells are similar to batteries in that they produce electricity without combustion or emissions. But unlike batteries, fuel cells do not run down or need to recharge, as long as there is a constant source of fuel and oxygen. Fuel cell vehicles can reduce carbon dioxide by up to 90% if the hydrogen is produced by renewable energy such as wind or solar. Plus, there is no “range anxiety” when it comes to hydrogen cars because they have a minimum driving range of more than 300 miles on a tank of fuel.

The First ZEVs

Electric cars actually predate gasoline-powered cars. The first electric motorized carriage was built by Robert Anderson in Scotland in the 1830s. But it wasn’t very practical as the battery couldn’t be recharged. Rechargeable batteries appeared in 1859 and in 1884, an inventor named Thomas Parker built a prototype EV. Meanwhile, in Des Moines, Iowa, William Morrison built and patented his electric car in 1887.

Isaac L. Rice incorporated the Electric Vehicle Company in New Jersey around 1900 and soon had over 600 electric cabs patrolling New York. His answer to recharging was to swap out the batteries for a fresh set when needed. The Columbia bicycle company started building EVs as well and reached 1,000 EVs produced, years before Henry Ford created the Model T.

Actually, the automotive spectrum ran from steam-powered, then to electric vehicles before the market settled on buying gasoline-powered conveyances. Early EV players included Ransom Eli Olds (of Oldsmobile). Another company, Detroit Electric, started in 1907 and its 1923 model had a range of 80 miles. But by then, gasoline became the technology winner and EVs began to disappear.

No less a player than General Motors has continually experimented with electric cars and came out with an electric Corvair called the Electrovair in 1964. Another GM prototype was the 1977 Chevrolet Chevette called the Electrovette. The batteries took the place of the back seat and could go 50 miles before recharging. GM followed this with the futuristic-looking EV1 in 1996 which actually went into production. You could say it was the grandfather to the Chevy Bolt.

Tesla Motors appeared on the scene in 2008 with its two-seater Roadster. It was the first EV to use lithium-ion batteries in a production car and had a 200-mile range. The Nissan Leaf came to market in 2011 featuring a 24kWh battery pack under the back seats. It became the best-selling all-electric vehicle in history. Over 500,000 have been sold worldwide to date.

Solar Cars

General Motors employee William G. Cobb invented a 15-inch long Sunmobile in 1955 and showed it at the Chicago Powerama Convention. It was made from 12 photovoltaic cells and a tiny electric motor. The idea of powering a vehicle by solar panels grew and many universities began creating prototype cars for such races as the World Solar Challenge and American Solar Challenge.

Last year, former engineers from Tesla and Ferrari created a car with solar panels lining the hood and roof and call it Lightyear One. While solar energy helps to recharge its batteries, the vehicle also charges just like any other modern electric car. The company plans to offer a limited production of the Lightyear One this year. Another upstart called Aptera Motors is planning a solar car with a 1,000-mile range, for sale by the end of this year.

The Future of Travel

While gasoline/electric hybrid, plug-in hybrid and all-electric vehicles are the current (no pun intended) rage, automakers such as Honda, Hyundai and Toyota are placing their bets on mass-produced hydrogen fuel cell cars as the next big thing in the ZEV race. Toyota unveiled its Mirai FCEV at the World Hydrogen Technologies Convention in 2015. In the same year, Hyundai showed off its hydrogen-powered ix35, a family SUV.

Actually, hydrogen cars have been around since 1807 when Swiss inventor Francois Isaac de Rivaz prototyped a vehicle with hydrogen stored in a balloon. In 1941 mechanic Boris Shelishch converted a gas-powered truck to run on hydrogen to beat the gasoline shortage during World War II.

Today’s FCEVs efficiently convert hydrogen gas into electricity to power their motors and the only emissions from their tailpipes is clean water vapor. You get the benefits of having an electric car without having to wait for it to recharge.

Honda Clarity and More

The most famous hydrogen fuel cell production vehicle today is the Honda Clarity. First produced in 2008, the Clarity is available as a plug-in hybrid or hydrogen fuel cell vehicle. The 2021 Clarity functions as a mid-size family sedan and its plug-in hybrid variant offers 48 miles of all-electric driving. If you live in California, Honda will lease you the hydrogen version along with a credit for up to $15,000 worth of fuel and its hydrogen range is 360 miles per tankful. The FCEV has a 174-horsepower electric motor that will take you from zero to 60 mph in eight seconds. MSRP on the Clarity Fuel Cell car is $58,490 while the plug-in hybrid version goes for just $33,400.

Other hydrogen fuel cell cars on the market today include the Hyundai Nexo and Toyota Mirai. With an MSRP of $60,120, the Nexo is your only choice for a fuel cell SUV. Driving range is 380 miles but the only state that currently offers hydrogen fueling stations is California. However, Hyundai offers three years of free fuel with the Nexo that is a $13,000 value.

The Toyota Mirai comes in at $50,495 and is a great-looking four-door sedan. This second-generation FCEV features a range of 402 miles on a tank of hydrogen. Like the other two hydrogen cars listed here, the Mirai is only available in California at present. Toyota gives Mirai drivers $15,000 in fuel credit as well as 21 days of complimentary vehicle rentals if driving needs takes them away from California’s hydrogen fueling stations.