Despite the Hype, Electric Cars Don't Yet Meet Our Needs - and Progress is Slow
A 1,200bhp electric/jet-turbine hybrid sports car, a battery-electric vehicle platform and the unveiling of model plans for a new electric car maker were big news stories out of this week’s Cenex low-carbon event at Millbrook in Bedfordshire.
But in the week where the threat of nuclear, Brexit, or hurricane-borne Armageddon has dominated the news, the fact that this modest environmental show has survived a decade of the fuel-price vicissitudes, climate change, Government policy switcharoos and dieselgate should perhaps be a cause for celebration itself.
While Governments now engage in an arm wrestle on which one can usher in a petrol and diesel ban faster, the public might be forgiven for wondering what the alternatives are, where they will come from and who will pay for them. With no appearance by ‘the minister’ at Cenex to explain the inexplicable, Cenex could only provide pointers about the first question, but what answers they were.
The Ariel Hipercar might be what amounts to a rolling chassis at the moment, but as Simon Saunders Ariel boss proudly says: “this is a properly fast motorcar.”
We’ve dealt with the technicalities of this amazing car elsewhere, but Saunders sees its significance as much for what it says about small automotive firms, as its extraordinary performance, which is part of the reason the project has received £30,000 backing from the Niche Vehicle Network part of the Government’s Innovate UK agency.
“The technology is moving so fast now and small firms are sometimes best able to keep up,” he says. “There’s a tendency to think that battery - electric cars are simple, but the truth is that they are so very complicated, which is why you can see so many independent cooling systems.”
Apparently one of the biggest problems is us motoring journalists who insist on testing cars on race tracks.
“It’s your fault,” says Saunders, who explains that although they have a software program called ‘Driving Like A Twit On The Road’, the cooling requirements of doing the same on the track are tenfold. He hopes the 160mph Hipercar will go on sale in 2020 in two and four-wheel drive forms.
Williams Grand Prix Engineering might be struggling to find F1 podiums these days, but it’s advanced engineering arm isn't short of ideas, including this, a one-tonne 4x4 battery-electric chassis platform. Those with long memories will recall General Motors’ 2002 AUTOnomy fuel-cell skateboard concept. Introduced by the general’s advanced-research dream team under professor Larry Burns, AUTOnomy was brilliant, pioneering, and about as advanced as you’d dare to dream. In other words, despite the bombastic PR, it’s been done before, although Paul McNamara the company’s technical director (formerly of Shanghai Automotive and Ricardo) is refreshingly down to earth about the Williams concept's aims and qualities.
“The skateboard has been widely out there," he admits, "but we're trying to address the challenges of it; no one has really addressed the business of really making it light."
At 955kg including serious looking all-wishbone suspension, motors, X-trac transmission, steering and a 350kg 80kWh lithium-ion battery pack, McNamara's bright-as-buttons staff have beaten it with the lightweight stick.
Like Tesla and many other concepts, Williams has put the batteries in flat-bottom chassis, but the company's experience providing battery packs for Formula E racers has lead to it creating a super-stiff honeycomb structure in which the cells sit in a set of interlocking carbon-fibre shoe boxes capable of being simply folded up into shape for mass production. McNamara says that the individual location, isolation and securing of each cell is a crucial part of the cell's longevity.
“Every year we've done [battery] pack upgrades [in Formula E]," he says, "and half of those are in the manufacturing facility."
Another ingenious piece of thinking garnered from racing experience is the side cooling ducts for the battery cells, which provide not just lightweight and efficient battery cooling, but also a side-impact structure. McNamara says that the chassis is a stiff enough basis for a coupé, saloon or even a cabriolet, it's scalable across the current C, D and C/D sizes (think BMW 1-, 3- and 5-series) and while it's aimed at selling complete to small manufacturers, its ideas and concepts are also of interest to larger car makers and it's also the first step in a car that will run. "It's been designed as a working thing," he says, though he refuses to be drawn on whether Williams would ever build its own motor car.
Detroit Electric, the 110-year-old electric-car maker (though it did have a 70-year lacuna between its first and second electric models), announced plans for a three-model product line up consisting of a British-built luxury sports car to be unveiled next year, with Chinese-built crossover and saloon models to be unveiled respectively in 2019 and 2020. Up to now, the company, which had been headed by former Lotus chief executive, Albert Lam, had only shown the SP:01, a battery electric sports coupé based on a Lotus Elise chassis.
A recent cash injection of $1.8 billion from the China Smarter Energy Group means the almost dormant start up has to get cracking on its promises to built up to 1,000 sports cars a year to start (ironically that's slightly fewer electric models per annum than was produced by the original Detroit Electric).
"We're here to recruit," said a spokesman. "We need to hire between 180 and 200 engineers in the next four to five months."
If the alternative-fuel/low-carbon world seems a bit confused right now, Tom Buck of the Electricity Supply Equipment Association gave some sobering figures on the electric car market which is being hyped up by everyone else. With the average transaction price of new battery-electric cars at around £30,000, "you might think you could afford an electric car," he said, before revealing that the average second hand price for a BEV was... £6,000. Can you afford to lose that much in depreciation?
As ever, Ford, Britain's favourite car maker provided some sanity. "There is a lot of misinformation out there," agreed Graham Hoare, Ford's director of Vehicle Evaluation and Verification. "It's not necessarily intentional, but comes from a lack of understanding. There are so many vested interests, from car makers, Governments, lobbyists and city authorities. And Dieselgate hasn't helped with the credibility of those who were previously trusted."
With Ford showing its plug-in hybrid Transit Custom, which will go on test in the forthcoming Clean Air for London trial, Hoare remains bullish about diesels - although August diesel sales figures were over 21 per cent down year on year.
"We wouldn't be spending the amount on diesels that we are if we didn't think it was a solution," he says. "We will meet all the emissions requirements under all conditions."
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