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Tackling the electric car doubters

by John Dean 09 Sep 2011
Tackling the electric car doubters

Electric cars are being hailed as a major breakthrough in the battle against greenhouse gas emissions - but reservations remain. One of the major criticism of electric cars is their range between refuelling stops, that they cannot go much more than 100 miles without grinding to a halt.

A number of manufacturers are now addressing this. Among the most innovative is Volkswagen, which has revealed a concept car based on the premise that many drivers actually do not want to go far.

The single-seater NILS vehicle, which is supported by the German Federal Ministry of Transport, Building and Urban Development, only has a range of 65 kilometres (40 miles) and a top speed of 130 km/h (80 mph), which the company says makes it ideal for most of the commuters in Germany.

Why? Because according to the German Bureau of Statistics, 73.9 per cent of all commuters living between Berlin and Munich cover less than 25 kilometres (15.5 miles) on their way to work. VW argues that such a statistic means that it does not matter that its electric vehicle has a short range.

It also explains VW's decision to make NILS a single-seater by pointing to the fact that although 60 per cent of all commuters in Germany travel by car, Federal Bureau of Statistics figures indicate that more than 90 per cent travel alone.

So, unlike many other electric cars, NILS is specifically designed for short-haul, urban travel; only 3.04 metres long, just 0.39 metres wide from wheel to wheel, and 1.2 metres tall, it takes up very little space in traffic.

The NILS also addresses other electric car concerns, including that they are heavy, expensive and take a long time to charge. According to VW, NILS uses a smaller and inexpensive battery that can be charged either via a conventional 230-volt electrical outlet, taking no more than two hours, or at an electric vehicle charging station. In addition, the electric drive system uses lightweight materials, including an electric motor, transmission and battery system which weighs in at 19 kg.

According to Volkswagen, the concept car is shaping a new realism. Dr Ulrich Hackenberg, member of the Board of Management and Head of Development for the Volkswagen Brand, said: "NILS anticipates the future. The goal of the NILS project is to research a technically concrete and economically feasible vehicle concept for micromobility which restructures individual transportation to make it more efficient and environmentally compatible based on electric drive technology."

And car designer Thomas Ingenlath said: "NILS was designed to make a visual statement and transport a vision of the automotive future to the present."

Other vehicle manufactures are also coming the conclusion that low ranges might not necessarily be a bad thing. The Chevrolet Volt, for example, uses a lithium-ion battery that provides pure electric range for between 25 and 50 miles. Using a gasoline engine with it can extend that range by 310 miles by operating the electric drive system until the car can be plugged in and recharged or refuelled.

According to the American company, that distinguishes the Volt from electric-only vehicles which cannot be operated when recharging is not immediately available, such as during long trips.

Despite the criticism of electric cars in some quarters, Chevrolet is convinced that they have a role to play because people instinctively believe in the idea. As Micky Bly, executive director of electric and hybrid vehicles for Chevrolet owner GM, says: "Our customers are making a commitment to technology that will help reduce our dependence on petroleum."

Principle may be a strong a reason to purchase an electric vehicle but price is always going to be another one, and there are suggestions that the cars are more expensive than conventional ones.

Among organisations expressing concern is the British Vehicle Rental and Leasing Association (BVRLA), which claims that the price is putting people off. The association points to data from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders which suggest that just 812 buyers have taken up the Government's £5,000 Plug-In-Car Grant this year, suggesting that electric vehicles are still too expensive for most consumer and fleet buyers.

BVRLA chief executive John Lewis said: "More than a dozen new electric and hybrid vehicles are set to hit the UK market over the next year, but most of them will be decorating showrooms unless manufacturers are more realistic on pricing. Ultra-low carbon transport is a necessity and electric vehicles have a big part to play in getting us there, but these vehicles are simply too expensive for most fleets at the moment."

According to the BVRLA, a car like the Nissan Leaf would cost £5,000 more to run than an equivalent diesel car over the typical three-year, 36,000 mile lifecycle of a company car.

Mr Lewis said: "With existing concerns over range anxiety and residual values, potential customers will need to see some real cost benefits if they are to adopt this exciting new technology in significant numbers.

"With the retail car market in the doldrums, it is the fleet market that is responsible for nearly 60% of new registrations in the UK. Fleet customers don't buy on sentiment - cost is their main criteria."

Another criticism of electric vehicles is that they are not truly green because their power needs to be generated, often from fossil fuel power stations.

Nissan is among those trying to address that problem and last month in Japan it unveiled a system which enables spare electricity from the lithium-ion batteries in its electric car, the LEAF, to be supplied direct to households. The system stores electricity created as the car drives then uses a connector to transfer it to the house. According to Nissan, the batteries can store up to 24kWh of electricity, enough to power an average Japanese household for about two days.

Top Image Credit: NILS vehicle © Volkswagen

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