Luxury car manufacturers firmly staked their claim in the green automotive sector yesterday by unveiling a slew of high-end battery and hybrid electric vehicles at the Geneva Motor Show.
BMW, Land Rover and Rolls-Royce all showed off their latest alternative-powertrain concept cars, while Nissan premiered a fully electric sports car that can achieve 0 to 100km/h in less than five seconds.
While none of the cars are scheduled to go on sale yet, their design marks a shift towards the mainstream for electric vehicles. No longer is battery power associated with cramped commuter cans or wildly designed playthings. These are powerful and fast machines that, importantly, look like the high-end cars already on our roads.
And by adapting existing technology (in the case of the Nissan Esflow, which draws on the powertrain system for its ‘Leaf’ electric hatchback) or using current body designs (such as Land Rover’s Range_e that is based on a Range Rover Sport), the engineers have brought these cars much closer to reality.
‘We didn’t want to make just another concept car and that’s why we used the available components coming out of the Leaf,’ said Francois Bancon, general manager of Nissan’s exploratory and advanced product department.
‘We were extremely strict with our design community on this. We wanted something people would believe could happen. We didn’t want something over-designed. We wanted something in continuity with the Nissan heritage’
Rolls-Royce has also played on its legacy by tying the Phantom Experimental Electric (EE) 102EX to one of the company’s most recognised brands. BMW had another reason for modelling the ActiveE on the 1 Series Coupe: production speed.
‘The framework was always to work with an existing car,’ said Bernhard Hofer, BMW’s chief engineer on the ActiveE, which is due to go into a limited trial production run of slightly more than 1,000 cars later this year.
‘To work from scratch would have taken more time than we had. We wanted to start trial production by the middle of 2011 and therefore it would have been otherwise impossible.’
Copying an existing model meant factory production could be adapted from current methods, and the ActiveEs will be built at the 1 Series home in Leipzig. That the company is so keen to rush out a production-ready vehicle shows just how important it sees this market.
But creating electric cars for high-end segments has a major engineering challenge: how to provide the amount of power, speed and range that customers are used to.
‘Somebody who buys a Range Rover isn’t going to expect too much in the way of compromise,’ said Pete Richings, Land Rover’s chief engineer for hybrid technology.
‘They’re looking for improvement in fuel economy and CO2 emissions but they still want it to be a Range Rover that can do all the things they’re used to.’
Nissan used two electric motors above the axis of the rear wheels of the Esflow to provide the handling they thought customers would expect from a sports car. These independently control the left and right wheels to optimise torque, improving stability, as well as the efficiency of power regeneration.
For Land Rover, the answer was to go down the plug-in hybrid route, using diesel to power an electric motor that kicks in when the battery runs down to provide a test-cycle range of 690 miles on one tank of diesel.
Despite the Range_e’s different powertrain, all the cars faced a similar problem in that they needed bigger batteries, which inevitably took up more space.
The Range_e was a larger vehicle and lost a relatively small amount of luggage space. But BMW had chosen to develop a small model in order to minimise weight and had to spread the battery packs out into three different areas of the car.
Nissan, meanwhile, made efforts to match the car’s centre of gravity to the driver and this meant concentrating the battery under the seats. They also made efforts to reduce the weight in other ways, such as fixing the location of the seat and making the steering wheel adjustable.
On top of the propulsion systems came battery cooling and power management, transmission and control systems, each of which had to be adapted and packaged within the vehicles. Then came safety testing, to make sure the larger batteries wouldn’t become a hazard in a crash.
What is remarkable about the latest generation of electric vehicles is, perhaps, the absence of jaw-dropping innovation. The automotive industry has reached a point where these systems, while impressive, are becoming more commonplace and all the market players are falling in line.
‘It’s not really a revolution,’ said Bancon. ‘We learned a lot with the Leaf. Now we can get to the next stage, which is exploring… the benefits of a zero-emissions car beyond the fact that it is zero emissions.’
Of course, when the cars do come to market, the initial price tag is likely to put off the average buyer.
As Richings said: ‘Even with the increased volume of these high-voltage batteries in the industry, we’re not seeing the purchase price coming down dramatically over the next few years. It is going to be expensive but we know it’s technology that we’ve got to develop.’
But when even the makers of gas guzzlers are producing electric vehicles, the idea of emissions-free roads doesn’t seem so far off.
Nissan Esflow Concept