In the last 10 years electric and hybrid cars have slowly become more and more popular and become more everyday on the roads. Stelvio Automotive takes a look at today's offerings and what to expect in the near future of transportation.
By Sean Smith
While at University, my favourite past time when not studying was RC Car racing. The electric 1:10 scale “touring” cars controlled via remote by operators on a stage racing each other at over 20mph (indoors) trying to go as fast as possible in 4 minute races was truly fun. I won 30 races and came 3rd in the championship in my second and final years.
RC race cars are not toys, they have fully operational suspension, e-brakes, differentials, high grip tyres, they use lightweight materials like carbon fibre and graphite, they require fine balancing in weight distribution to make them turn corners and respond properly to the inputs of the user even with the heavy battery and drivetrain. They are in almost every way comparable to a full size vehicle. This brings us to the topic of the article, the future of automotive transport and the electric technology that will be driving it.
When I was first getting into cars about 11 years ago electric cars were considered a joke, the only real example was the still early hybrid tech in the Toyota Prius, a car I’ve only liked since the new one was released along with a GT-300 race variant last year. There were no Teslas in the world, no Formula E (above), even in car entertainment like we see today didn’t really exist over a CD player and a Bluetooth telephone. The most electric part of a car was the battery to start it in the morning and that was it.
Today there is an army of electric cars. There are the hybrids we all know of which are by all accounts normal cars with large battery packs attached to them which help the car move in the start stop traffic of towns and cities when the engine is under the most strain and using the most fuel. Added to them there are now pure electric cars, range extenders, performance hybrids and hydrogen cars all on the market and their share of that market is growing yearly as petrol prices fluctuate and diesel receives ever worsening press coverage. There is no doubt that in the next 10-20 years electric cars will become the norm in one or more of these forms.
Let’s start with the pure electrics. These cars are entirely dependent on battery technology just like the RC cars I raced at Uni. They are a fast developing becoming more powerful, longer lasting and cleaner in their lifecycle. EV’s are nearly silent, a true advantage over the internal combustion counterparts and they are also class leading when it comes to drag coefficient due to their relative limitations on the batteries. By reducing drag from the car’s body and the tyres on the road it reduces strain and energy use on the motors which allows the battery to go further per charge helping these cars become more useable every day for most journeys.
As batteries get more powerful and lighter EVs will get closer and closer to the IC rivals, once the range anxiety and prices come down to match they will be easily superior in the consumer's eye. Cars like the upcoming Nissan Leaf will show the next generation of this technology and will surely become a consumer hit as it improves on the range of its predecessor.
The mid step between IC and EV cars are range extenders. These cars are my personal preference of the current Alternative fuel options available to buy today as they have all the advantages of pure EV’s but with the safety net of having a tiny engine to top up the charge when the batteries get low, allowing you those extra miles to get to your destination or a charging point.
The best example on the market today is the BMW i3. Those who watched the recent Grand Tour episode would have seen that James May owns one, and although it was portrayed negatively on the show, the car itself is an incredible feat of technology. When driven smoothly and when given a fair chance to be topped up either by its small engine or a charging point it really can be a go anywhere car. In the major cities like London where you’ll see the car in the most abundance you can really see why it appeals. It costs nothing in road tax, it’s a small car which is easy to park, there are plenty of charge points in the city environment and realistically there is no reason to choose an IC over it. BMW too gives the Alt. fuels segment a known name and prestige which it has often been lacking.
The i3’s big brother though is the i8. This car is a performance hybrid like the new Honda NSX and Ferrari La Ferrari which uses the electric power of the battery and motor to enhance and improve the performance of the vehicle. The i8 is a supercar with a tiny 1.5ltr 3 cylinder turbo engine, something unimaginable in a car like this before it was released to the world. It has a 0-60 of 4.4 seconds and a capped top speed of 155mph and has an official figure or 134.5mpg and only produces 49g/km of Co2 making it free to tax.
Because it’s a super car and has a high enough price tag of around £100,000 it gets the top tier of electric tech. The car can do 37km on battery power alone if the owner wishes, but its main use is to propel the car with the instant torque the motor will bring making the i8 living proof that the heavy, cumbersome image of battery cars is becoming a thing of the past. BMW are racing with electric power in Formula E with Amlin Andretti and are also believed to be evaluating a future Le Mans 24hrs assault with hydrogen fuel cells.
Which brings me to the final Alt. fuel on the list. Hydrogen fuel cells have been in the public eye since Honda released the FCX Clarity back in 2008 as part of a trial programme the ran in California. The car never gained mass production simply due to the fact the Hydrogen fuelling has almost no infrastructure. Governments invest instead into the cheaper and easier to produce battery technology and charge points, but Hydrogen is what I believe is the true future of all automotive technology. This has taken a big step closer with the new Toyota Mirai (above), the first mass produced Hydrogen car. Co-developed with Honda, the Toyota uses electric motors just like all EVs but instead of a battery or an engine which uses rare materials or is harmful to the environment it uses a fuel cell of liquid hydrogen. Hydrogen cars simply have one by-product in water making them completely clean.
The Mirai will require a huge investment from Toyota, Honda and their partners to get hydrogen to true mass market availability and will require governments to help them, but if and hopefully when this happens the Electric revolution will be unstoppable. I don’t know when it will happen but one thing is for sure, the image of EVs being a joke is gone. These cars are here to stay and they are only going to get better.