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Archive for March, 2010

With all of the fuss about electric cars lately, one could be forgiven for reaching two apparently obvious conclusions: first, that they’re a new phenomenon, and second, that they’re a panacea for the world’s purported environmental issues.

In reality, though, neither conclusion would be correct: electric cars actually were pre-eminent in the late 19th century, many years before the internal combustion engine was perfected (witness Camille Jenatzy‘s breaking of the 100 km/h barrier in an electric car in 1899), and the notion that they are carbon neutral is laughable, given that the energy with which they’re powered has to be produced by some means – usually involving the burning of fossil fuels at power stations.

The latter point, together with the issue of range and ease of recharging, doesn’t seem to be troubling some of the world’s largest car manufacturers, though.  Green sells – or so their marketing departments believe – and, despite its shortcomings the electric car seems to be the perfect vehicle through which companies can tap into this lucrative new market.

It is tempting, then, as some commentators have done, to witness the widespread development of the electric car, and the improvements made over the last few years to battery life and vehicle performance, and assume that in twenty years time we’ll all be silently whirring our way through cities and the countryside; the noisy, agricultural roar of the internal combustion engine a thing of the past in all but the poorest countries.

I don’t believe, though, that things will work out quite like this, for a number of reasons. First, the infrastructure to enable rapid charging of electric vehicles at the roadside (in other words, the equivalent of fuel stations) would be hugely costly to introduce on a national basis, outside of major cities. Second, the drain on the national grid of a wholesale move to electric power would require the building of an inordinate number of traditional power stations (thereby eliminating any environmental gain), and/or the construction of large-scale renewable energy generators (politically sensitive and expensive). Third, the widespread acceptance of electric vehicles will take longer than a couple of decades to achieve, mainly due to consumer concerns over the necessary infrastructure being sufficient for their needs.

This is not to say that the electric car will be the damp squib it has been in previous decades; major cities, where the infrastructure can be made available in a cost-effective manner, and where emissions levels are of primary importance, may stipulate that all vehicles within their bounds are electric-powered, or may provide powerful disincentives to those who wish to drive their petrol or diesel-powered vehicles within the city. The upshot of this could be a two-tiered system of car ownership – electric cars for major city dwellers and more traditional vehicles for those in rural areas.

It is likely, then, that the type of car used for the majority of long journeys, and trips beyond the city limits, will bear some similarities to the popular cars of today. The internal combustion engine will still be present, but will have such features as direct injection, infinitely variable valve timing and will be supplemented by highly efficient hybrid systems (think Williams F1 flywheel high power KERS, rather than heavy, low power, batteries, Prius). All of these technologies are currently available – they just require combining and mass producing in a cost-effective way.

The upshot would be, for example, a mid-sized hatch with a one litre turbocharged engine, producing 100 BHP, supplemented by an 80 BHP hybrid flywheel KERS system. With twenty years worth of R&D, fuel economy could easily reach 150+ MPG combined in such a car. The small size of the engine would also make packaging easier, and would help to achieve a low kerb weight, thereby aiding efficiency.

The trend towards making bigger heavier cars with each model’s iteration will, I think, be reversed over the next few years. NCAP test results may have become foremost in many consumers’ minds over the past decade, but with green issues taking over from safety as the cause du jour (or should that be décennie?) car manufacturers should are likely to become more willing to promote the virtues of light weight (something that Lotus, of course, has been doing since the middle of the last century).

Expect to see the widespread use of bonded aluminium chassis (à la Elise, Evora and Jag XF/XK/XJ), at least on premium brands, and the average weight of a mid-sized hatchback to dip back to sub-ton levels within the next ten years.

And that can only be a good thing!

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