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Electric vehicles don’t have to be slow

Fuel-cell electric Ford Fusion sets speed record at Bonneville salt flats

Published: February 29, 2012, 5:00 PM

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It’s common knowledge that electric vehicles are slow. But common knowledge is often anything but fact.

While electric vehicles (EVs) may have been on the slow side, historically, they don’t have to be. The forthcoming high-performance Tesla Roadster is proof enough of that fact.

The reason EVs have traditionally been labeled as slow is that they were usually burdened by excessive battery weight, to provide them with acceptable range, or because they were intended only for slow-speed city operation.

Recent advances in battery technology and the near-term potential of onboard electricity generation via fuel cells have permitted EVs to shatter the slow image, once and for all.

The potential of electric power was amply demonstrated on Utah's Bonneville Salt Flats, last summer. Ford, working in conjunction with Ohio State University, Ballard Power Systems of Vancouver and Roush Engineering, set a land speed record of 333.6 km/h (202.3 mph) for production-based, fuel cell-powered vehicles, with a modified Ford Fusion.

The Ford Fusion Hydrogen 999, as the record-setting car was called, was designed by Ford engineers and built by Roush.

The 999 in the car's name is a tribute to Henry Ford's original racer, with which he attracted sufficient attention to finance his automotive business.

Ohio State students provided the design of the 770 hp electric motor, while Ballard supplied the hydrogen fuel cells. Ford retiree Rick Byrnes, a veteran Bonneville racer, piloted the car on its record run.

"What we've accomplished is nothing short of an industry first," said Gerhard Schmidt, Ford's vice-president of research .

"No other auto maker in the world has come close. We established this project to advance fuel cell-powered vehicles and to do what has never been done before; and we did it."

Schmidt added that the Bonneville run will help to further expand Ford technological horizons.

"The use of hydrogen as a fuel could someday play a key role in meeting the energy needs of the transportation sector," he said.

Ford's fuel-cell research team also helped Ohio State University engineering students in their attempt to set a land speed record for fuel-cell vehicles in the unlimited class

The Buckeye Bullet 2, which looks like a wheeled rocket, is powered by two fuel cells originally designed to power buses and donated by Ballard. It was designed from the ground up by the students, whose goal is to reach 563 km/h (350 mph).

In 2004, Ohio State students set the unlimited land speed record for electric vehicles by running 507 km/h (315 mph) in the first Buckeye Bullet, which was powered by batteries.

That car had gone faster on its first run, but slowed down on its mandatory second attempt because the batteries were already partially discharged – a problem with conventional EVs.

"We could have invested $100,000 (U.S.) in a completely new set of batteries and then just changed the batteries at the end of the run," said Ohio State student participant David Cooke.

"But we would have been spending a whole lot of money to get a few miles per hour."

By adopting a fuel cell instead, they could create the electricity on board so they were only limited by the fuel they could carry. With an electric motor capable of more than 700 hp, they calculated that Buckeye Bullet 2 had the potential to hit their speed target.

But anything can go wrong in racing and usually does. Teething problems prevented the student team from breaking its previous record.

That disappointment was tempered by the Ford Fusion Hydrogen 999's success, which proved again that electric does not necessarily mean slow.