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Spaceship noises and electric Jags

It’s not easy to get the average person excited about electric cars, but the buzz at LCV2010 (the low carbon vehicle show) yesterday was palpable.

Millbrook Proving Ground in Bedfordshire was full of major manufacturers, famous designers, bold entrepreneurs and some of the cream of UK engineering talent. Despite all the challenges low-carbon vehicles still face, seeing so much enthusiasm and so many ideas all generated within our small island made you think that an electrified future may not that far off.

Perhaps the main reason that LCV made electric cars seem a more believable proposition was the amount of work being done to integrate them into our existing routines and expectations. Among the usual display of G-Wizs were electric BMWs, fuel cell taxis, hybrid Transits and a zero-emissions police car ­- a Mitsubishi iMiEV variant identical to the one currently being trialled by the West Midlands force.

The car grabbing the most attention (or at least with the most proactive press team) was Jaguar’s Limo Green, an extended-range vehicle that can do around 600 miles on a tank of petrol. Some of the stats aren’t quite as impressive: it can only maintain speeds above 80mph for a matter of minutes before the battery is drained, a constraint most Jaguar drivers probably aren’t used to. But the very presence of mainstream premium vehicles at the show demonstrates how far the industry has come in ten years.

The government certainly seemed to like the Limo Green, announcing £11m of funding through the TSB for Jaguar, Lotus, Nissan and several other companies to develop the range-extending technology further. While some might question whether taxpayer money should be used to help build cars for rich businessmen, the move is a welcome investment in British-based manufacturing as cuts loom menacingly in every other direction.

Among the hundred-odd other companies at the show were firms improving every aspect of electric vehicles, with increasing moves to make them more like our existing cars. The two-speed transmission boasted by the likes of the Limo Green was already a step forward. Now Warwick-based Antonov Automotive Technologies has gone one better with a three-speed gearbox, hoping to improve efficiency in a way that hadn’t been previously considered.

Of course drivers still won’t be changing gear, and are unlikely to hear a difference in the engine, but Lotus are hoping their licensed technology will make driving an electric car a more familiar and enjoyable experience to petrolheads - with synthesised engine sounds.

Europe, the US and Japan are all pursuing legislation to establish a minimum noise level for EVs and hybrids. And after nearly being run down by a virtually silent electric bus I could see why. However, as well as projecting sound outside the car to warn pedestrians, Lotus’s technology pipes engine noise around the interior.

Offering a number of settings mimicking different-sized models, the technology uses the road speed to simulate gear changes and give drivers a better idea of what the engine is doing, as well as providing a feeling of greater control. Though some of the sounds were tinny and computergame-esque, others really could have you forgetting you were in anything but a normal car.

Plus the system can be personalised. ’We can make a mundane engine sound like a snarling sports car,’ the Lotus engineer told me, before revealing the ultimate geek toy - the spaceship sound mode.

However good the simulation, EVs will always have requirements that conventional cars don’t, charging being the obvious one. Still, a wealth of British firms are working on making that process faster, easier and cheaper. London-based Pod Point, for example, has introduced the first super-fast charger for the home. Fitted by a regular electrician, it claims to offer full battery repletion typically within three hours. And its sleek circular design fits neatly on the wall of the garage between the fuse box and the hosepipe rack.

Even better is the New Zealand firm that plans to launch a wireless charging system, removing the hazards and hassle of plugging in. And though it’s not a British innovation, it’s a good example of the UK’s strength in the field. When I asked the CEO why he had come here to roll out the product he said it was an obvious choice: Britain had become a hub of activity and expertise for the electric vehicles industry. Looking around LCV, it was hard to disagree with him.

Readers' comments (25)

  • Custom engine noises to download - ideal for the facebook generation. Clarkson et al will have successors.
    but "Wireless Charging"? how does that work? Not sure I'd want to get anywhere near a wireless signal carrying that amount of power . . . .

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  • Look out for forthcoming features on wireless inductive charging.

  • As a Jaguar driver I resent the implication that I am not used to driving at sustained speeds of less than 80 MPH. Has Mr Harris driven on the M25 recently?


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  • Development of the EV will still depend on the batteries. Unitl they have many times more power and retention these cars will be a city runabout. It is a shame that all of the investment in EV's seem to be on body work build and power train development. If most of this investment or spare cash was collectively poured into battery development a breakthrough in this field would happen quicker and would reflect in new body designs and a more reliable and useful mode of transport would be developed. It is good to see the big companies spending time and resources in the current aim of producing an EV but this is nearly the cart before the horse syndrome.

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  • Selling the concept to a majority of "joe public" - and "jane" of course - is probably the biggest challenge to the industry. While this event may attract businessmen as well as "Electric petrol-heads" The man in the street is very sceptical - until you explain the logic of "most users lifestyle suits electrics more than cars". e.g. charging while we sleep or work - driving for less than a couple of hours a day, etc. I haven't seen a real sales pitch yet... who will try it first?

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  • Surely the power station to consumer transmission chain is lossy enough without introducing yet another loss mechanism with wireless charging?

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  • I thought the fuel cell taxi was the most interesting vehicle present, but what a contrast between developments for city-based vehicles (electric, fuel cell, etc.) and for the commercials. There was a bus with what appeared to be a rather inadequate electric hybrid drive, and some other big trucks able to run on bio-diesel or CNG. So the advances seem to be passing by the commercial sector. Range and payload were the reasons as far as I could gather, but we should be able to do better !

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  • Er, this palpable wouldn't have anything to do with the local electricity sub-station working overtime to supply all those battery chargers?

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  • I still can't quite understand why all electric vehicle groups can't have a standard battery pack for which a replacement can be swapped in a couple of minutes, a bit like pulling into a service station and filling up the petrol tank! Bigger packs for big vehicles, small packs for small vehicles - modular standard component parts and common connections making interchangeability between vehicle makes a doddle.
    It can't be that simple though can it?

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  • Not sure how the superfast charger works either. I'm only guessing but to charge a vehicle traction battery in 3hrs sounds likely to be a load of at least 20kW i.e. about 80amps on a standard 230V supply. All it needs is the 9kW shower and the cooker to be turned on as well and the main fuse which is likely to be 80 or 100amps will blow!

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  • Electric cars are widely billed as being 'pollution free', when, in my view they should be billed as 'even more pollution somewhere else'.

    Aside from the technical challenges of developing electric cars, and the limitations of the electricity distribution network, the inefficiently of power generation and supply lines must mean that electric will create significantly more pollution than vehicles equipped with modern internal combustion engines.

    Electric vehicles may well improve air quality in our city centres, but until the capacity of nuclear and renewable sources is improved this will be at the cost of even greater carbon emissions overall.

    One again, this is a case of pollution becoming too clean. If we were still burning fossil fuels using 1920's technology there would be no risk of global warming, as we would all choke on the smoke and fumes well before CO2 became an issue!


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