Forget the hybrid drive vehicles that Toyota, Lexus and Honda are pushing. As an intermediate stage they’re fine but with the speed at which the technology is advancing it may be no more than a token gesture. Reducing emissions is important, and concentrating on the mass market will have the biggest impact but none of the models released so far can truly be considered mass market can they?
And so I can’t help but wonder if the major players have maybe been wasting their time? Kicking their heels and tinkering with hybrid vehicles that were never truly intended for the mass market, little more than expensive PR stunts. It is only now that the major players are truly putting their efforts into proper alternative fuel vehicles with hydrogen fuel cells or mains rechargeable lithium ion cells.
The Chevrolet Volt is one of the first full electric drive vehicles intended to go mass market with a range of 40 miles on battery but also including a 1.0 litre flex fuel engine intended to recharge the cells on the move. There is still the unfortunate reliance on oil however. Having said that, zero emission electric drive vehicles still have an impact on the environment. The electricity stored in their cells has to come from somewhere and this is most likely to be from coal or nuclear powered plants, both of which have a devastating impact on our environment.
The likes of Chevrolet’s Volt may be a step in the right direction, but there are some small companies out there producing working electric vehicles now. Companies like Tesla based in Silicon Valley with their Roadster and the UK based Lightning Car Company with its self named Lightning GT (Lightning have also already produced an electric motorcycle concept based on a Yamaha R1). Then there is the relative newcomer to the field, RUF, with their E-Ruf concept.
Not only are these companies developing electric vehicles, but they’re doing it in style by producing electric sports cars! Lets start with the old guard: Tesla.
Tesla Motors, incorporated in 2003 by engineers Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning have designed and are currently producing the Tesla Roadster with the first deliveries expected in 2009.
The Roadster is the Tesla’s first production vehicle, doing 0 to 60mph in less than 4 seconds with an artificially limited top speed of 125mph. Priced at $100,000 the Roadster has a range of 221 miles (certified by the EPA in the US) and is estimated to cost just $0.02 per mile. I expect that price does not include the cost of servicing, general wear and tear or replacement batteries which only have a lifespan of 5 years or 100,000 miles.
Driven by a 375 volt AC induction air-cooled electric motor and a single speed fixed gear drive train, the Roadster produces a peak power output of 248bhp (185kW) and 276 ft/lbs of torque (375nm) delivered through the rear wheels. In contrast to an internal combustion engine the torque from the electric motor is delivered uniformly and available immediately from 0rpm all the way to the redline at 14,000rpm!
Tesla claim the microprocessor-controlled lithium-ion battery can be fully charged in 3.5 hours using their special high-power connector.
The eponymous Lightning GT will be available in 2009 and differs from the Tesla Roadster slightly in that it employs four separate 120 kW wheel-motors which will provide an electric all wheel drive system with regenerative breaking. The benefits of mounting a motor at each wheel are a reduced mechanical complexity with no need for any differentials, axels or drive-shafts. The GT will go from 0-60mph in under 4 seconds and have a limited top speed of 130mph. Lightning claim the electric motors will produce over 700bhp and have an expected range of 188 miles on a full charge.
The 36 kWh NanoSafe Lithium-titanate battery pack can be fully charged in a couple of hours from a regular 3-phase power supply or just 10 minutes using a special quick charge system. However, no details are provided on this quick charge system or what the power requirements are. The NanoSafe batteries are claimed to have a life expectancy of 15 years and still retain 80% of its capacity after 15,000 charges.
The Lightning GT is expected to cost £120,000 and the Lightning Car Company are taking deposits now.
RUF E-Ruf Concept Model A
The E-Ruf is an electric sports car concept currently being developed by RUF in Germany and is based on the Porsche 997. As the E-Ruf no longer needs to cool a petrol engine RUF have filled and smoothed all the air scoops on the 997 to improve the aerodynamics. Similar to the Tesla Roadster the E-Ruf uses a single electric motor which is located in place of the original flat-6 boxer engine. The rear seats have also been removed to allow RUF to pack in the batteries that power the motor.
The 300 volt motor peaks at 5000rpm and generates 200bhp (150 kW) and 479 ft/lbs of torque. RUF expect the car to do 0-60 in less then 7 seconds and have a top speed of 160mph. Being a prototype the electric motor is currently mated to the original 997 six speed gearbox and clutch, the car however is still drivable with roadandtrack.com already having had a sneak preview.
The on-board battery pack will currently lasts between 155 and 200 miles with regenerative breaking and depending on driving conditions and a full charge takes 10 hours with a life expectancy of 3000 charges.
Whilst not quite in the same final stages of development as the Tesla and Lightning I’ve highlighted above, it is obvious that its not just the companies with multi-million dollar backing such as Tesla that are breaking into electric vehicle development.
Whilst none of these can claim to be the first electrically driven cars on the market (the REVA G-Wiz, NICE MEGA City and Elettrica are just a few of the city cars available to buy now), the fact that these companies have designed cars with the motoring enthusiast in mind and have overcome a lot of the problems plaguing other manufacturers is inspiring. Sure, the likes of Ford or GM could never dream of turning around a fully functional mass market electric car in the same timeframe as Tesla. They’re aiming at a different market, your average customer may not have the facilities to charge an electric car at their home, and without a nation-wide refuelling infrastructure it would be pretty pointless for them to release one. As well as the market, the price is also a factor. The Tesla Roadster markets at $100,000 in the US, the price would likely be £100,000 in the UK as well. Tesla, Lightning and RUF are pricing there cars up there with the likes of the Lamborghini Gallardo, and as such are targeting the same customers.
Still, at this level of progression I think the future looks good. We may mourn the loss of the old internal combustion engine, whether it be inline four, boxer, straight six, V8 or more. At some point we’ll have to move on and reduce our dependency on oil.