5 key developments in the electric car world

The Electric Vehicle Symposium showcased new technology and trends

Published: May 20, 2015 12:00 PM

The 28th Electric Vehicle Symposium—EVS28—was held this year in Goyang, South Korea, where the annual international conference hosted a variety of presentations, exhibits, vehicles, and state-of-the-art new technology. Set up in a vast complex, EVS28 brought together academia, research, utility companies, auto manufacturers, and suppliers. 

Consumer Reports was on hand to learn about the latest technology and trends, and even present a paper on how we test electric cars.

The five notable developments covered below reveal that the ongoing electric-car revolution promises to expand its appeal to an increasingly mainstream buyer.

Check out our guides to alternative-fuel vehicles and fuel economy.

Gabe Shenhar

Long-range battery

Chevrolet Bolt

LG Chem, a Korean chemical engineering company, announced its intention to be a supplier of larger batteries to car manufacturers who are interested in longer range EVs. LG Chem is targeting a 200-300 mile range battery pack. The company contends that currently most EVs with their 75-90 mile range have a limited appeal and that hinders the potential for market growth. Currently, only the Tesla Model S possesses a truly long-range battery pack. To that end, LG Chem says it would begin to offer large capacity lithium-ion batteries that hold between 80 and 120 kWh. LG Chem is already a supplier for the Chevrolet Volt. For those who remember, GM announced this past January that the Bolt, a new pure EV that will go into production in 2016, will have a 200-mile range. It's easy to connect the dots—the Bolt might be the early bird to incorporate such a long-range battery. Such long-range EVs have the potential to dramatically shake up the electric-car landscape and appeal to a larger audience.

Driving the Soul EV

Kial Soul EV

We also got to drive an all-electric Kia Soul. We really like the quirky-looking regular Soul. The beauty of this EV version is that since its relatively large, 27-kWh battery doesn't rob a lot of cargo space or compromise access, the car gets to preserve its practicality and purpose. Kia claims the Soul EV will go 93 miles on a full charge and that it takes between 4 and 5 hours to fully recharge. It also has a port for DC charging, which is a lot faster.

On the road, the Soul EV accelerates with authority, thanks to its 109-horsepower electric motor. Unlike with some electric cars, though, lifting off the accelerator pedal eases you gently into regenerative-braking mode. Non-EV drivers will probably appreciate that smooth transition, but old-hand EV drivers might not. They often like to feel the regen to kick in like a sea anchor, as it does with the BMW i3. Even in the Soul's Eco mode and when the gear lever is set to B (braking), the regenerative-braking function is never abrupt.

The Soul is priced similarly to the Volkswagen eGolf, $33,700 before a $7,500 tax break, and both are positioned between the $29,010 Nissan Leaf and $41,350 BMW i3. Unfortunately the Soul doesn't ride as comfortably as the Golf, largely retaining the stiff ride of its conventional version.

While the Soul EV is already available in the U.S., it's offered only in select markets such as California, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, and Oregon. Five more states will be added later this year.

Nissan Leaf owners switch priorities

Nissan Leaf on a Qualcomm charge mat

According to Nissan, initially, the primary reason people fell for a Nissan Leaf was its zero-emissions status. However, more recent customer feedback points to low running costs as the primary reason for buying.

That demonstrates that many early EV adopters were driven by altruism while the more recent purchasers are guided more by pragmatism, figuring that an EV works for them economically.

One striking difference between American and Japanese Leaf owners is the use of DC "fast" charging. In Japan, over 40 percent of owners take advantage of a quick charging opportunity, but the recharge behavior is different in the U.S. due to customers' preference to charge at home and the scarcity of public DC chargers (those that can replenish 80 percent of the battery in 30 minutes). Still, 91 percent of American Leaf owners, according to Nissan, would buy it again.

When electric cars are too quiet

Chevrolet Cruze

Pure EVs and even some hybrid cars are very quiet when driven slowly, to the point that they're sometimes unnoticed by pedestrians. At speeds below 12 mph even the tires make little noise. The stealthiness can pose a problem, risking someone wandering into the path of a car because they didn't hear it coming. One research paper presented at EVS28 provided sound measurements for roughly equivalent vehicles such as the Chevy Volt against the Cruze and Nissan Leaf compared to the Versa. Lo and behold, the Cruze was actually quieter than the Volt. The paper urges regulators to make a decision from a position of knowledge.

It's been suggested that EVs should make a clearly audible noise of some kind to alert pedestrians, especially the blind, as well as cyclists, that a car is coming. Congress passed the Pedestrian Safety Act of 2012 to address the issue. An actual solution has been a long time coming. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has pushed off the deadline for automakers to implement a solution until 2018. Nissan voluntarily equips the Leaf with an audible notification, but for now, it's the only carmaker that does.

Wireless charging

Qualcomm wireless charge mat

How convenient would it be not to have to fuss with electric cables and plugging your EV in to charge the battery every night? With a wireless-charging setup, like that shown by California-based Qualcomm, an EV driver only needs to park the car above a pad lying down in a garage floor. That pad then communicates with the car and creates an electromagnetic field using induction coils to transfer energy to the car's battery. Wireless charging has long been a wish of EV designers. The big challenge is that it's been less efficient than using a direct wired connection. But even if the car charges a little longer as you sleep, the convenience of minimal hassle makes the system appealing.

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