Sustainability made sexy

Green vehicles don’t have to be small and boring. Emma Germain checks out some top-end sports cars with environmental credentials

Next month’s British International Motor Show at Excel in London will have its own ‘village’ dedicated to electric cars, where it will be showcasing designs such as Nice Megas and Teslas. However, last week’s Motorexpo show at London’s Canary Wharf had no dedicated Green car area, despite having one in 2007. A show spokesman says the feedback from manufacturers was that sustainability is a major issue for them all and should be applied to the whole show.

Some of the most memorable cars ever designed arguably include Steve McQueen’s Ford Mustang GT Fastback from the film Bullitt, Batman’s Batmobile and Starsky & Hutch’s red-and-white striped Ford Gran Torino. These cars were created for chase scenes, to look good when hitting high speeds and get hearts racing. Now, however, designers working with cars are being encouraged by rising oil prices, users’ increasingly ecological mindsets and regulations such as the London Congestion Charge being applied to bigger petrol cars while electric cars are exempt to create automotive ideals which are about making vehicles sustainable.

Analysts say that the gasoline engine will be phased out in 20 years and replaced by ‘plug in’ hybrids, clean diesel engines and electric cars. However, the design of a car is not limited by the notion of getting users from A to B – cars are aspirational objects which consumers want to be able to fantasise about, lust after and love. Design plays a major role in popularising Greener alternatives, says David Godber, deputy chief executive of the Design Council, former commercial director of both Lotus and Audi and former director of Nissan Design Europe. ‘Designers make cars sexy,’ he says. The gauntlet thrown down to designers is to encourage those with money to pass up opportunities to own Lamborghinis, or Bugattis, and to head to the showrooms of environmentally friendly makes.

One electric car whose design is receiving rave reviews from critics and car enthusiasts is the Tesla Roadster. Launched in March 2008, the current poster car for the electric market appears stylish. The aim of its sports car design, says a Tesla spokesman, is ‘to show that electric cars do not have to be small, ugly and slow’. It can reach 100km/h in four seconds and travel 360km before it needs recharging. According to the company’s spokesman, ‘Design is key to Tesla’s development.’ The head of its design sector is currently looking to expand his team in its California headquarters. The company employs 250 people with design led by product architect for Tesla Elon Musk and Tesla director of body engineering Barrie Dickinson. Twelve of the cars, which cost £56 000 each, have been distributed. The company is building them at a rate of ten a week, with plans to be building 40 a week by 2009. At Tesla, work is also being conducted to develop the design of a family-style sedan car able to carry five passengers.

While the Tesla model is currently for a niche set of consumers, Godber believes that demand for electric cars will boom by 2012. He says that the leading manufacturers will be those which ‘leapfrog their current portfolios’ and invest heavily in bringing forward the future. Publishing its ninth annual sustainability report last week, car company Ford’s group vice-president for sustainability and safety engineering Sue Cischke says, ‘One thing is certain; the future will not look like the present, and we need to respond to certain changing conditions.’ Ford is intending to reduce its CO2 emissions by 30 per cent by 2030 and is planning research into fuel-saving technologies.

However, consumers’ desire for Green cars appears limited at present. According to the car manufacturers’ trade body The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, last year only 397 pure electric cars, such as G-Wiz and Nice Mega, were sold in the UK – less than 0.02 per cent of the total. Remarkably, each of the three finalists for New York’s Auto Show 2008’s World Green Car of the Year were powered by diesel. BMW’s 118d scooped the prize, beating runners-up the Smart ForTwo CDi and Volkswagen Passat 1.9 TDI. Launching at last week’s Motorexpo show, Breckland Technology’s Breckland Beira has the Green credentials of being designed to run for 1100km without needing to refill its tank, which contains petrol and liquefied petroleum gas. Its technical director Mark Eastern says, ‘The environmentally friendly aspect of the car was the priority of its design brief.’

For designers, the opportunities presented by electric cars are endless – being powered by electricity they do not need engines, only simpler motors which comprise of one moving part as opposed to hundreds.

According to a spokesman for the Nice Car Company, which produces electrically powered 65km-range city cars, Nice Megas, this opens up a ‘great swathe of design possibilities’. Head of Fiat style Roberto Giolito says, ‘With electric cars the designer has more opportunity to reinvent new concepts of shape and cockpit solutions.’

Electric layouts will offer new possibilities where the composition of the drive-train is conceived horizontally rather than longitudinally, and electric motors can be placed on to wheel hubs or packaged in a wafer-style platform, freeing the upper area of the vehicles from parts and mechanics.

The vehicles of the future

Green cars fall into three categories:

  • Electric vehicles such as the G-Wiz, Nice Mega and Tesla Roadster
  • Hybrids, which combine electric power with another source. Examples include the Toyota Prius, which has a top speed of  170km/h and hits 100km/h in 10.9 seconds. Toyota, alongside Lexus, a division of Toyota Motor Corporation, has 12 models of hybrid cars on the market, including the RX 400h, GS450h and LS 600h
  • Hydro-electric cars, which are fuelled by hydrogen

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