Plug-in power

Electric cars offer poor range and performance at an expensive price if they are available at all. So runs the usual complaints. But the critics’ claims that they are unviable are questionable. Statistics show that 70% of all cars driven in urban areas cover an average of about 40km a day, at an average of […]

Electric cars offer poor range and performance at an expensive price if they are available at all. So runs the usual complaints.

But the critics’ claims that they are unviable are questionable. Statistics show that 70% of all cars driven in urban areas cover an average of about 40km a day, at an average of 24km/h, and are occupied by just one or two people all comfortably within an electric car’s capabilities. Add the growing pressure to reduce vehicle emissions and the electric vehicle (EV) begins to look a more attractive option.

In Norway, not known for its automotive expertise, one company has high ambitions for its new two-seater electric vehicle.

‘Our goal is sustainable mobility,’ says Egil Mollestad, Pivco’s technical director.

Called Think, Pivco’s battery-powered car will be on show in Brussels at this month’s annual Electric Vehicle Association exhibition.

From its name through to driving performance, Pivco hopes that the car will win over motorists. ‘We’re asking the driver to think about what he needs the car for, which resources are most appropriate and what will be the environmental impact,’ says Mollestad.

‘Traditional challenges have been safety, comfort, performance and cost. Future challenges will be cutting emissions, reducing energy consumption and recycling.’

Think has gone a long way to meeting those future goals, he says. ‘In city driving, Think is at least 50% more energy efficient than cars with an internal combustion engine,’ says Mollestad. As with any other EV, it only uses energy when moving, unlike the internal combustion engine which burns fuel even when the car is stationery.

Its nickel-cadmium batteries are not at the cutting edge of battery technology, but Pivco claims Think has been designed to take various battery types as well as new power technologies such as fuel cells.

Think produces no local emissions. How environmentally friendly it is overall, though, is crucially dependent on how the electricity used to charge its batteries is generated.

Norway is in the unusual situation of generating its electricity entirely by hydroelectric power. So in generating electricity for the car, none of its power stations will be producing carbon dioxide, any other gases implicated in the greenhouse effect or acid rain, or nuclear waste.

Electricity is cheaper in Norway than in other European countries; running the Think costs 1p per mile.

With its sharp styling, Think has cast off the milk-float image, but there is more to its design than looks. The body and subframe have some innovative features and are recyclable.

The body is built of thermoplastic developed by the father of Pivco’s founder, Jan Otto Ringdal. He used it about 20 years ago to build a dinghy that proved a best-seller in Norway. The plastic has a matt, textured, hard-wearing finish. It can be recycled by being ground down or burnt. In the latter case, the only emissions are carbon dioxide and water.

‘The body is ideal for city use,’ says chief engineer Jonathan Etherington, who joined Pivco last year from Rolls-Royce. ‘You can scratch it or hit it with a hammer and make no damage that would need repairing.’ This means lower body-shop costs and possibly cheaper insurance.

For the manufacturer, tooling and assembly costs less than for a conventional car. The body consists of just seven separate panels, which fit together into the upper frame and lower chassis. They are self-coloured, eliminating the need for a highly expensive paint shop.

The frame and chassis combine the advantages of steel and aluminium, keeping weight and cost down. The total weight including the heavy batteries, normally the bane of electric cars is 930kg, compared with a typical small car’s 1,000kg.

The upper frame is extruded aluminium while the lower is 90% high-strength steel. This takes all the crash energy and suspension loads. The car’s safety performance meets, and in some cases exceeds, all EU crash-test standards.

Think performs well in city driving. On the route to Oslo’s Fornebu airport, it went as fast and as well as any other small car, although its top speed of 90km/h is much lower.

The interior fittings are a bit basic but the instrumentation is clear and gives the driver a series of warnings when energy levels run low.

Think’s range is about 100km in city driving and the battery can be charged by plugging into a standard mains socket. An 80% charge takes about four hours. A fast charge is also available which takes about 30 minutes and the car can be fully charged overnight.

High production target

Pivco aims to produce about 5,000 cars a year by 2003, high by EV standards. This will start with 1,500 in Norway next year. Pivco has its own assembly plant at Aurskog, 50km east of Oslo, and production for other markets will be carried out either with a local partner or through a joint venture with a Norwegian industrial partner with global distribution or manufacturing operations.

The marketing strategy is niche-based. ‘We will initially target fleet users, large public and private companies, concentrating only latterly on private owners,’ says marketing manager Kristi Hegna Svendsen.

Even when it approaches private owners, Pivco will focus on the second-car market, to try to increase sales through leasing agreements.

But Think will be sold through dealerships as well, for about £11,000 in Norway, excluding the battery, which can add another £3,500.

In Norway, which will be the first market for the car, Pivco has won custom from the national postal service, which is using the cars for deliveries in Oslo already. Norwegian cities have many potential battery-charging stations, because of the network of electricity outlets used by motorists to pre-heat their cars in winter.

But Think will be most effective as part of an integrated city transport system. The company is in talks with the Norwegian state railway about incorporating a rail/drive programme in its high-speed train link connecting Oslo’s new airport, 50km to the north of the city, with the centre.

Pivco has piloted a similar programme in the San Francisco Bay area over the past two years.

In Norway, there will also be incentives for the public to buy the car an exemption from road tax and tolls around the city, and free parking and charging bays in Oslo and other main cities.

With cars expensive in Norway, where there is no indigenous car industry, Pivco hopes Think will be seen as cheap and easy to run.

Since 1991 about £12m has been invested in car’s development, with the Norwegian government, a partner in Pivco, supplying 25%. The state is also providing half a further £11m investment over the next year.

While Think has a lot going for it in Norway, it is not likely to have the same supportive conditions elsewhere. However, Pivco has made some inroads in marketing the car in Sweden and Denmark and is talking to a Chinese car manufacturer about possible commercial co-operation.

Car ownership in China has grown 350% over the past seven years; potential for a small car is huge. Power generation there is not so pollution-free as in Norway, however. Future markets are likely to include the US and the rest of Asia but this will depend on the company’s ability to find partners.

Ultimately, factors such as local electricity costs, availability of incentives and the strength of the green lobby could prove as vital to Think’s wider commercial success as its motoring appeal.