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Under the Hood: Why are electric cars so complex?

By Brad Bergholdt, McClatchy-Tribune News Service –

QUESTION: Since we have solar panels on our house and produce more electricity than we use, I am looking for an all-electric car. Under consideration: Nissan Leaf or electric Ford Focus. I don’t really want to pay for the initial price and additional upkeep on a gasoline engine and an electric engine, as they are redundant systems, so I am not in the market for a hybrid.

It seems like the car companies that are making electric cars are loading them up with technical features that increase the cars’ selling price. I don’t need a computer in my car and have no use for GPS. Also, it seems to me that electric windows and electric door locks add to the electric system load and help to run down the battery. All-electric cars have fewer moving parts and would seem to be pretty simple to maintain and fix during the life of the car. No gas and oil to maintain, no transmission fluid, clutches or trannies to wear out.

Also, how much by percentage do the electric feedback braking systems add to the battery charge life on an electric car battery? Is it worth the added cost?

I am in my 60s and still do my own oil changes and brake pad changes, alternator change-outs, etc. I really despise the trend to make vehicles less accessible to the home garage or hobby mechanic. In your opinion, can I expect to see an all electric car marketed soon that I can buy without all the add-on “junk”? That stuff should be optional.

—Mike Moore

ANSWER: Mike, I published your letter not so much because I have answers, but because your thoughts might do well if heard. I agree there’s an alarming trend to load up hybrid and electric vehicles with expensive accessories, which I believe is because they play well with techie people and are highly profitable.

A bare-bones electric vehicle, similar in concept to the Volkswagen Beetle of the 1960s, might find wide appeal among a broad audience and jump-start the electric vehicle movement beyond its single-digit percentage market penetration. Perhaps the battery pack could be modular. Then owners could purchase the needed range, with the option to upgrade later if desired. Could Subaru, or another green, innovative mid-size car company, do this in numbers large enough to get production costs down, and make profits on high sales volume rather than a lesser quantity of loaded vehicles?

You’ll still need computers to efficiently manage the electric-drive system and required safety systems, as well as the less accessorized electrical system, which saves cost and weight. Regenerative braking, which converts vehicle motion to electricity, is cheap to incorporate and provides measurable benefits. The numbers vary widely depending on vehicle speed, road slope, the degree of braking and the algorithm employed, providing approximately a 10 percent to 30 percent range dividend.

Another option you might consider is to build your own electric vehicle. Check out the Electric Auto Association at http:/// for ideas and information. Specific electric conversion kit information can be found at

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