Designers compete for electric car prize

5 min read

As a competition is launched to inspire super-efficient vehicles, designers are finding that the development of electric cars is becoming a lot more feasible. Jon Excell reports

When the traffic wardens start circling it’s usually time to move on. But this one came in peace, his eye for an automotive curiosity temporarily tripping the penalty notice instinct. ‘Is it electric?’ he asked, gesturing toward the illegally parked bright-red Mini. ‘Yes,’ we replied ‘it’s a prototype,’ and after a bemused peek beneath the bonnet, our impressed-looking warden headed off in search of more conventional prey.

It’s a reaction that clearly delights the car’s developer, James Westcott of London technology firm Synergy Innovations. Westcott explained that one of the main reasons for developing the car, dubbed the E-drive, was to persuade people that electric vehicles don’t have to look and feel any different to conventional cars. ‘Cars such as the G-Wiz have perpetuated the idea of electric car as milk float,’ he said. ‘Electric cars don’t have to be dinky little roller skates and they don’t have to be super cars. This is an everyman’s car that people on the street can relate to. It’s not a one-off racer or a solar car or a freaky carbon fibre thing, it’s just a Mini, and it drives, looks and feels like a Mini.’ He added that the project is not associated with BMW, which is currently working on its own electric version of the car, called the Mini-E.

Synergy’s vehicle is one of three UK entries to the $10m automotive X-prize, an earthly follow-up to the 2004 competition that saw US aerospace engineer Burt Rutan pilot the world’s first privately funded space mission. The aim of the latest initiative — which will consist of a series of races held next summer — is to inspire the development of a new generation of super-efficient, production-capable vehicles. According to the X-prize foundation, the winners will be capable of the equivalent of 100 miles per gallon and have a range of 200 miles.

More than 100 vehicles have already been entered into the competition. Roughly one-third of them are electric and one-third hybrid electric. Among the most unusual entries is the LincVolt, a 1959 Lincoln Continental with a hybrid powertrain developed by musician and green-car enthusiast Neil Young (who recently released a concept album about eco-cars). Along with the E-drive, the other two UK entries — one from Tata Motors European Technical centre and the other from Delta Motorsport — are also electric.

Since last month, when the UK government unveiled plans to subsidise electric cars, the vehicles have had plenty of coverage. Much of this has cast doubt on the their feasibility, questioning the limited range offered by today’s batteries, the absence of charging infrastructure, and the debatable environmental benefits of charging a car with electricity from fossil fuel generation.

All valid points, agreed Westcott, and ones that need addressing. But this doesn’t mean that EVs can’t impress.

Take the E-drive. Powered by 78 lithium polymer cells, the car has a top speed of 95mph, a range of 70-90 miles, and takes four to six hours to charge. It’s also rather nice to drive. It’s quiet (you can actually hear the rumble of the tyres on the road) and it’s nippy, the constant torque from its wheel-mounted electric motors enabling it to outperform most other road users from a standing start. Particularly compelling is a neat meter on the dashboard that shows how much energy you’re using and how much you’re recovering through the regenerative braking system.

Although currently in discussions with a Dutch manufacturer over a small production run, Synergy has limited plans to commercialise the vehicle and hopes instead to license some of the technology it has developed along the way. Nevertheless, Westcott welcomed the government’s plans, which he sees as part of a wider groundswell that’s pushing the electric car forward as never before. ‘There have been little snowballs of momentum before with electric cars but I think this time it’s for real — some serious people are putting in some serious money. There’s a lot going on: consumers are pulling for it and the government’s pushing for it,’ he said.

Against this backdrop it may seem remarkable that a tiny R&D outfit with a miniscule budget should beat BMW to the ‘production-ready’ stage with an entirely plausible electric version of one of its own vehicles.

But the auto industry is highly conservative. And while many of the big car companies are developing EVs, they typically prefer to learn from the low-profile mistakes of small fish rather than create headlines with their own. ‘A lot of innovation happens in small companies such as ourselves,’ added Westcott. ‘In [a big company] your hands are tied by existing engineering mindsets, machines and production lines. You’re like a big ship with a huge rudder. Small companies can come up with an idea and be very free to develop it.’

Indeed, one of the only large automakers to enter the competition is actually one of the other UK entries. Based in Coventry, the Tata Motors European Technical Centre (The Engineer 20 April) is entering two vehicles: a hybrid version of its Indica family hatchback and an electric Nano.

But while Synergy and Tata are both modifying existing vehicles and fitting them with batteries, the UK’s other entrant, Delta Motorsport, is taking a different approach and developing an entirely new car. ‘Designing from scratch is absolutely critical to achieving the range,’ claimed Delta’s technical director Nick Carpenter. ‘You can’t just take a standard road car, pile it full of batteries and expect to achieve 200 miles cost effectively.’

Although the snappily named ULEnV (Ultra Low Energy Vehicle) won’t be finished until later this year, Carpenter said that by starting with a clean slate, Delta has come up with a design that simulations suggest will be capable of more than 200 miles on a full charge.

While one of the keys to this anticipated performance is a battery pack made of 5,000 small cylindrical cells, the wider vehicle architecture is also critical explained Carpenter. ‘We’ve been careful about the layout of the vehicle and optimised the architecture based on the fact that we don’t have an IC engine. For instance, we don’t need the same level of cooling that you have on a normal road car so we can do some clever bits with the underside of the vehicle to reduce drag and generate a little bit of down-force…’

Creating a special battery compartment under the floor is also expected to confer some significant benefits. As well as enabling easy access to the battery pack, this will also lead to a reduction in the centre of gravity height. ‘The centre of gravity height is 325mm off the ground, which considering a 130mm ride height is pretty impressive,’ said Carpenter. ‘I haven’t designed many race cars with a centre of gravity height lower than that — it’s going to handle like nothing else on the road.’

Like Synergy’s Westcott, Carpenter believes that technology has finally reached the point where an electric car begins to look feasible.

‘If you’re sufficiently careful with the architecture of the vehicle than you can achieve a reasonably sensible EV. However, there are compromises — you end up with a rather substantial and heavy battery pack. What we’ve tried to do is step in to this arena at the point where it’s just about viable financially, and what we can pretty much guarantee is that it’s only going to get better from here: motors are getting lighter and have more torque, batteries are getting more power dense and cheaper — we’re on the cusp of some big, big changes — it has tipped from the point where you couldn’t build a viable EV to the point where you can.’

What happens next will depend on whether consumers are prepared to pay the premium for a technology that, despite its green credentials, may never equal the performance of the internal combustion engine. ‘What you’re backing against the whole time with an EV is the problem of energy density,’ added Carpenter, ‘and the ratio between energy density of gasoline and batteries is 100:1’

Westcott added that ultimately, drivers may have to accept that whatever ends up replacing diesel and petrol engines simply won’t be as good. ‘Petrol and diesel are hard acts to follow but unfortunately the honeymoon is almost over — if there was lots of petrol around, no politics and no global warming, then we wouldn’t bother developing EVs — I think people’s expectations are that engineers and scientists will come up with something as good as fossil fuels and I can’t see where this will happen.’