Charge of the e-car

11 Nov 2010

With electric vehicles vying to govern 20pc or more of the automotive market by 2020, SHANE HULGRAINE asks if the technology fuelling these vehicles can finally live up to expectations.

The electric car (e-car) has never been so relevant. From its humble beginnings in 1902 – that’s right, more than 100 years ago – when electric vehicles (e-vehicles) had a range of 18 miles and a top speed of 14mph, technology has advanced to such an extent to give us electric sports vehicles that can muster 0-60 in five seconds.

However, the road leading to this evolution has been bumpy. Indeed, until recently, rumours of the e-vehicle’s demise had been greatly exaggerated. This was exemplified in the 2006 documentary Who Killed The Electric Car?, which held the position that automobile manufacturers, the oil industry, governments and consumers were responsible for limiting the development of the e-vehicle.

Technology surrounding efficiency in those days was generally unpopular and e-cars resembled freakish cross breeds rather than the speedy, torque-embodied revolutionary vehicles people were hoping for.

The e-car evolves

How a few years have changed that … The e-vehicle is now suddenly cool, sexy and driven by innovative technology. It is on the tip of every car manufacturer’s tongue, as they bide for business in the already-thriving e-vehicle market. Terms like “electric drivetrain” and “lithium ion battery” go hand in hand with sleek, suave and speedy, as e-vehicles and concepts dominate the industry psyche.

“It can be very sexy technology,” says Audi Ireland’s managing director, Fintan Knight.

“At its core, an electric motor is more efficient than a combustion engine. There is thermal loss from a combustion engine – taking a pure fuel and exploding it. The engine turns many revolutions a minute so you lose heat. Electric engines give you a binary performance, like a light switch that you can switch on and off. The technology is exciting.”

Knight is referring to the electric drivetrain technology (EDT) that Audi is using in its new e-tron fleet that incorporates a combination of front wheel electric motors and petrol rear-wheel drives. He believes that around 20pc of Audi’s market in 2020 (in time to meet EU carbon protocols) will be driven by city car concepts. The technology has many advantages.

“Applying electricity to a car will change the nature of the car. There are some things about the EDT that mean there are a lot of advantages to re-engineering the car completely. Some brands are dressing up golf carts with car structures. We are looking for a sustainable technology. That will take longer to come to fruition,” says Knight.

While Audi’s patient approach is certain to set pulses racing in the future, especially if the e-tron Spyder sports model is anything to go by, another car company has managed to completely avoid disguising a golf buggy by melding technologically advanced design, functionality and sex appeal.

Enter the Tesla Roadster

The Tesla Roadster, a lithium ion battery e-vehicle sports car, produced in Silicon Valley by Tesla, has single handedly changed the global perception of the e-car. It brings e-technology to the next level; providing a seamless driving experience that need not weigh heavily on the conscience.

“A lot of customers will buy this car because it’s so fast and can clock 0-60 in four seconds – which is great fun,” believes Rachel Konrad, head of communications at Tesla Motors Europe.

Tesla will soon roll out a sedan model in Ireland – the Model S, which boasts a 45-minute quick-charge lithium ion battery.

Konrad believes the technology exists for auto makers to provide e-vehicles that match public expectations with convenience, something traditional combustion engines have always lacked.

“The goal is to advance the adoption of the e-vehicle. The bigger issue is from a service and maintenance perspective. There is no need for routine oil changes, no exhaust system, spark plugs, pistons, catalytic converter. It requires a lot less car than a traditional car.

“They can be fuelled by any kind of energy – wind energy, geothermal energy, solar … It’s a really practical, sustainable and renewable solution,” she says.

The rechargeable lithium ion battery (otherwise known as energy storage system [EES]) that features in Tesla models is the same cell technology that mobile phone operators like Nokia use to power mobile phones. It has been adapted and developed to the stage where it is a beyond-viable power source for e-vehicles.

Hybrid vehicles

While Tesla believes the future rests exclusively with e-technology, Tobias Hahn of BMW is certain it will host different hybrids to cater for individual customer needs.

“We will see different types of hybrids – full hybrids, plug-in and purely electrical vehicles – with range extenders and without. There will be a host of different powertrain choices.”

BMW is currently conducting field trials under scientific surveillance for the ‘MINI E project’ (an all-electric MINI which, unfortunately, will never grace a showroom) as a prelude to the 2013 rollout of its Megacity Vehicle – also an electric drivetrain.

“We wanted to get electric vehicles into customers’ hands quickly to get feedback from them, how they get along with this new kind of driving, the limited range of an electric vehicle, how they get along with the charging,” says Hahn.

“For an e-vehicle to be a good proposition, it has to be purpose-built and designed for an electric drivetrain. It’s no use taking an existing vehicle and simply replacing the internal combustion engine with an electric powertrain because it simply cannot work.”

E-vehicle technology has made definite advances in a relatively short time frame. The market is now awash with new innovations. Take Volvo, which is”12 months away from serious production” on hybrid and electric vehicles, according to Volvo Cars Ireland’s managing director David Baddelly.

Meanwhile, the Nissan LEAF e-vehicle will be readily available in Ireland in February 2011, while internet giant Google recently announced it is currently developing a self-driven car.

The technology that fuels e-vehicles and hybrids drives innovation and seems to be firmly parked in place next to a renewed carbon conscience that has overtaken modern society. However, most vehicles are not readily available for the time being. The hunger is there. The interest in the technology is certainly present. The only thing holding us back from the future of automotive technology would appear to be the wait.