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Rechargeable Car Battery Development: From Buggies to Hybrids and Electric Cars

By • Mar 12th, 2009 • Category: Battery Technology for Hybrid and Electric Cars

Electric cars with an electric motor and rechargeable batteries developed quite early. However, the first person that experienced a dead battery before returning to the charging port realized that battery capacity and vehicle running range could be a problem. 

Army NEV, Sound Transit Light rail, EnerDel batteryTop: U.S. Army Neighborhood Electric Vehicle (NEV) courtesy; Center: Light rail photo courtesy Sound Transit; Bottom: EnerDel Lithium-Ion Battery courtesy

The Rechargeable Car Battery

So, the gasoline powered “buggy” was much more accepted and the historical development of rechargeable car batteries satisfied the need for having a way to start the engine without having to rely on a “gorilla” companion to turn the engine crank. Thus, was born the battery, the starter motor, and the generator to recharge the battery. 

Batteries were designed for rapid discharge (turning the starter motor) and slow charge from an engine driven generator. Once someone discovered that on-board electric power was available, they added electric accessories such as lights, radio, dashboard gauges and windshield wipers. Except for the accidental occurrence of someone leaving on an accessory (like headlights or vacuum tube radios) without the engine running, batteries were not slowly discharged during normal use. 

Deep Discharge Batteries

Pushed by boats and RVs, eventually the lead electrode plates in lead-acid batteries were designed to be more tolerant of slow discharge deep cycle operation.  These relatively cheap deep discharge batteries became the choice for electric cars and experimental hybrid-electric cars in the 1980s and early 1990s. The cost of electric energy compared to gasoline was starting to look more attractive, but battery range and replacement cost was still an issue.

Electric Golf Carts

The most successful relatively low power electric vehicles developed and still in operation today are electric golf carts. Golf carts worked very well for what they were designed to do, but they wrongly gave newly developed, road-going electric cars a reputation for being sluggish and slow. The number of miles a cart could be driven around a golf course on a single daily charge was not a problem. On the other hand, charge/discharge cycle life and replacement cost became the primary concerns.

Electric Street and Rail Cars

The very successful non-battery electric vehicles developed and still in use today are the self-powered electric street car and light rail cars with overhead electric power lines. The electric rail cars were efficient, but quite heavy and needed high power levels that could only be supplied by overhead high-voltage heavy-duty wires. 

Neither the electric rail cars nor the battery electric cars addressed the capture of braking energy during deceleration because it was not yet realistic or deemed of any importance. With more attention given to fuel efficiency and obtaining higher miles per gallon of fuel, capturing of previously wasted braking energy now becomes much more important. It is in fact one of he major factors allowing modern hybrid and electric cars to increase their mileage performance.

Batteries for Electric Cars

This leads us to the modern electric cars and how they are shaping the development of batteries chemistries and battery packs. The challenge is and will continue to be designing hybrid and electric cars to function just like the fossil fuel-powered vehicles they replace, but with better fuel economy, lower emissions, and at affordable price points. Progress in battery development continues toward recharging a battery in the same time it takes to fill up a car, but can the infrastructure handle it?

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is an industry veteran with 30 years of experience in general business, marketing, project and product management, and engineering research and development. Mr. Bartley provided executive management support including technical and business oversight to heavy-duty hybrid-electric prototype projects as they evolved into production. He developed cost models for energy storage and fuel savings, and power models for ultracapacitor packs. Mr. Bartley is well known throughout the industry of heavy-duty hybrid-electric buses and trucks, having delivered many papers and presentations since 2003. Mr. Bartley maintains a blog at Follow
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