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Chrysler and Electric Cars and Minivans: TEVan, EPIC, ENVI, and more

TEVanChrysler’s furthest roots were in electric cars, namely, the first Electrobat (1894) of Henry G. Morris and Pedro G. Salom. They founded the Electric Carriage & Wagon Company, which made electric cabs, and was purchased by Electric Boat’s founder, Isaac Rice. Through several other consolidations and sales, the company ended up as Electric Vehicle (1901-09), and renamed itself Columbia Motor Car, before joining with Maxwell and others (1910) to form the company rescued and (in essence) renamed by Walter P. Chrysler. (Details)

Chrysler’s electric minivans, 1990s

In 1991, Chrysler started a program with the Electric Power Research Institute to develop an electric-powered minivan. They produced the first TEVan concept in 1992; the T is from the T-115 code name for the minivan, and E is for Electric. It used a nickel-iron battery pack (weighing 1,800 pounds) and DC motor, with a 120 mile range.

inside1993, the world’s first electric minivan, the TEVan, was introduced for fleet buyers. Not many were built — some sources claim 56 were made, while 1994 Chrysler press materials claim 80 were sold in 1993.

James Wolfe wrote that the electric minivan used a 180 volt battery pack (either nickel-iron or nickel-cadmium batteries) weighing 1,800 pounds, and that the TEVan was sold mainly to electric utilities. According to James, the van was purpose-built by Chrysler (rather than being converted as many alternative-power vehicles are) on the same Windsor assembly line as the gas versions. Standard equipment included air conditioning, power steering, power brakes, and seating for five along with cargo space.

The batteries were built to last for 100,000 miles or 20 years; the battery water was replenished automatically. The battery charger was built in, and used a standard receptacle with 220V single phase power. When we last heard from him in 2006, James was driving his 42 miles a day, charging it at night, providing 185 miles of use for under $2.40 (the economic equivalent of around 220 mpg).

The TEVan, according to Chrysler, had a 54 kilowatt direct current motor, with solid state microprocessors developed by Pentastar Electronics; it reached a top speed of 65 mph, using a two speed automatic transmission, power steering and brakes, and air conditioning. Peak power was 70 hp; continuous power was 35 hp; the range was estimated at 80 miles. These TEVans were fully certified and met the 1998 California  zero emission vehicle (ZEV) requirement. Numerous changes were made in 1994 based on owner input; they were joined by CNG-powered minivans in that year, too.

batteries from TEVan

After the electric minivans were used, they could be sold or scrapped; James Wolfe bought one at a public auction. He wrote that there are about a dozen TEVans in private hands, four or five of which are still in use.

TEVan motor

Jerry McIntire wrote: “I own one of the working Dodge TEVans. It has NiCad batteries and still works well, range is over 50 miles per charge on the original 1993 batteries. Regarding the EPIC, it was available with lead acid batteries at first, and later with nickel-metal hydride batteries. It's a van to die for! The AC drive is more efficient and much more powerful with the battery pack's increased voltage.”

battery disconnect

After the TEVan was in production, Chrysler built a 1992 concept minivan, called EPIC, or Electric Power Inter-urban Commuter. The production Dodge and Plymouth EPIC was introduced in July 1997, and was leased to government and utility fleets. It used a 324 volt advanced lead-acid battery pack, with nearly twice the voltage of the TEVan. EPICs were all made in Windsor, Ontario.

Dodge Epic concept electric minivanPowered by nickel-iron batteries with a range of around 120 miles, the EPIC used the TEVan powertrain assembly, in a newer different package; the windshield was raked more aggressively but the A-pillar was modified to change perceptions of the distance from the door to the cowl. The exterior had sliding doors on each side, presaging the next generation of minivans, and the rear hatch followed a track that hugged the minivan more closely to make cargo loading and unloading easier. The stow-n-go rear seat folded completely into the floor when not used, another feature that would eventually show up in gas-powered minivans (albeit taking longer). [The photo above is almost certainly the 1992 concept van, not the real EPIC.]

In 2000, Chrysler's EPIC won two categories in the five-day Tour de Sol - the minivan category and Customer Acceptability. About 200 EPICs were being used around the country at the time.

Dodge 50 Electric Commercial Trucks

The 1981 Dodge 50 electric truck was a joint project between Dodge Trucks and Chloride, and used a 50 kW compound-wound DC electric motor, powered by lead-acid batteries with an automatic refill system. Top speed was 40 mph, with a claimed range of 45-55 miles between charges and what could best be described as snail-like acceleration. The company claimed that 75% of all urban delivery vehicles travelled less than that.

dodge 50 electric truck

1970s-1980s electric cars: the Jet and ETV

Dr. Jonathan D. Safren wrote, “In late 1977 Chrysler announced a 4-passenger electric city car and published details and photos. I saw a shipment of these cars at a Cincinnati Chrysler-Plymouth dealer. About a year later, Ben-Gurion University purchased two of these cars for research purposes, proving that they were still available.”

Bob Sheaves wrote: “Jet did the conversion for Chrysler. See www.austinev.org/evalbum/010.html for a picture of 1980 TC3 conversion, and 055.html for another.” Jet also bought vehicles from Subaru and Ford. (Jet bought incomplete vehicles and then converted them. )

The Chrysler ETV-1 was built in 1979; the powertrain was developed by General Electric, and featured regenerative braking and a computer controlled motor driving the front wheels. The range was 100 miles (at a steady 45, with two passengers), acceleration was slow, and power was supplied by slow-charging lead-acid batteries. The car was given to the American Museum of Science and Energy, according to Autoblog, and was sold by them in 2005 to a private seller who put it up for sale on eBay in 2014 — with just 3,422 miles on the clock, and a new Siemens motor (but not running).

Early 1990s: Neon Destiny

A former employee wrote, “The Destinys were part of the program definition phase for the Neon — a small 4 door electric-only, a diesel, and 2 gasoline engines (two stroke and 4 stroke engines), before the final styling was done—mules built from first generation Neons with various powertrains and suspension ideas to decide the final direction of the program. Small Car Platform PPED did the work on design.” No photos are available but Chrysler did, at the time, allude to these plans.

Chrysler’s 2008 and newer electric minivans

ENVI electric minivan

New electric car concepts

Starting in 2008, Chrysler started to show new electric vehicles based partly on GEM technologies. These included the Lotus-bodied Dodge Circuit, an electric minivan and Jeep, and others. All shared a basic motor and battery configuration, using lithium ion cells, designed to be engineered once and built up or reshaped to meet the needs of existing vehicles. Because engineering costs are a large proportion of the costs of a vehicle, especially vehicles with short sales runs, using a common electric technology and architecture with existing vehicles can have a dramatic impact on the pricing of the vehicles, when compared to the approach taking by GM with the Volt, of optimizing a single new vehicle. The tradeoff is selling price versus range and performance or consumption.

USPS electric minivan interior

On April 22, 2009, Chrysler showed four Chrysler Town & Country minivan concepts built with input from the U.S. Postal Service (USPS), all running without range extenders (pure electric). Chrysler said it would apply to the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DoE) Transportation Electrification stimulus program to support a demonstration fleet of 250 zero-emission electric minivans for mail delivery. Duke, ConEd and DTE have each signed a letter of intent to equip post offices in selected regions with a charging infrastructure.

They concluded that a stable fuel/energy price, which for the tested EV architectures, yields significant fuel savings over the current LLVs, though the conversion costs are high.

The power industry has endorsed electric vehicles for many years; since the charging cycle (charging at night) is complementary to peak power usage, greater use of electric vehicles would make power usage more uniform and increase utilization of expensive power plants. With greater off-peak power use, utilities could justify the creation of additional plants, and reduce the need for relatively expensive and inefficient peaking plants.

In 2011, Chrysler sold its GEM mini electric car division to Polaris, the ATV and snowmobile makers, while stating that it intended to build its own full size electric cars and SUVs.

See other alternative-fuel vehicles | New electric car concepts

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