Volts wagons guaranteed to create sparks in the city

The electronic car has to date been treated with scepticism and, in truth, it has had its design flaws. But could it find its niche as a metropolitan taxi service? Students at the Royal College of Art think so. Michael Evamy reports

The electric vehicle lobby in the UK probably wishes the Environment Minister, John Gummer, could stick to feeding beefburgers to his daughter. London Innovation, a company that converts Ford Fiestas to battery power, offered Gummer a ride to a major environment conference in one of its cars last year. Setting off late but still arriving at the conference on time, the then Secretary of State was impressed by the demonstration. So why did he get out of the car and tell London Innovation’s founder, within yards of rapt journalists: “Jolly nice, but they’ll never catch on”?

Gummer’s remark reveals this administration’s true allegiances in the road transport environment debate. Intervention – imposing traffic controls on city centres or quotas on car manufacturers – is not this Government’s style. But then it would be nothing short of daft to expect a radical policy from a Government frozen like a rabbit in the headlights of electoral humiliation.

There are electric vehicles (EVs) on the UK’s roads, besides milk floats. London Innovation can convert a Fiesta, replacing the engine with a briefcase-sized Lynch electric motor, for around 4000. But EVs in the UK are really limited to commercial uses and the public sector. Some retailers use electric delivery vans for local trips. Oxford has tried to alleviate its poisonous atmosphere problem by buying four electric buses at great expense.

If EVs are ever to win over significant numbers of consumers, the initial impetus will have to come from local government. Restrictions on certain classes of car in heavily-polluted urban areas and incentives to owners of EVs or gas-powered vehicles will encourage some consumers to switch. Westminster City Council, for example, offers free parking to electric vehicles. But that’s about as radical as it gets in the UK. The absence of an infrastructure for the maintenance of EVs, and the ridiculous insurance premiums attached to their use, are powerful disincentives for their adoption by consumers.

In the US, federal clean air standards have required states to get serious about reducing fossil-fuel emissions. The California Air Resources Board went furthest in demanding that, by 2003, 10 per cent of all cars sold in the state should be “zero-polluting”. The demand rises sharply to 70 per cent by 2010. Car manufacturers have had to respond, albeit slowly. After 10 years of development, GM unveiled its EV1 on January 5 and claimed it as the first purpose-designed, mass-produceable electric vehicle. Peugeot beat GM in getting an EV off the production line, but the French car is simply a conversion of the existing Peugeot 106, and therefore not purpose-designed.

The EV1 is quite an ugly car. It purports to be a sporty two-seater roadster, but its heavily-skirted shape is more closely related to the end of a vacuum cleaner than a fiendishly sexy little Mazda.

GM calls it a “teardrop” shape. Wind tunnel enthusiasts will acknowledge that its drag coefficient of 0.19 makes the EV1 one of the most aerodynamic cars. The trouble is it looks like the result of a fight between the aerodynamicists and the stylists, with the former being given the back of the car to play with while the latter had the front.

The car is driven by 26 12v lead-acid batteries which account for 40 per cent of the car’s weight. On flat terrain, in hot weather and with things like lights, CD player and wipers turned off, a fully-charged EV1 can cover 90 miles. Fine for commuting and local trips, but no one is going to be getting their kicks on Route 66 in an EV1. It also takes 15 hours to recharge from a conventional 110v US mains socket. Battery-makers advise a cycle of running a lead-acid battery pack down completely, recharging it fully and running it down again, as the best way to prolong its life. Let us assume a Californian has a one hour journey to and from work, and fully recharges the batteries overnight, every night. This would leave a maximum of a seven-hour working day. It explains why battery-makers are working round the clock to develop sodium-sulphur and lithium batteries which are lighter and more powerful.

The EV1 will initially be available in Los Angeles, San Diego, Tucson and Phoenix – hot, dry places where the lead-acid batteries perform best. The UK’s mild, damp weather is one reason why the EV1 is unlikely ever to be sold here. The colder the climate, the quicker the range of the car drops.

European thinking about the EV has centred around its use as a practical, compact city car rather than as a sleek, mean Green substitute for the traditional sports car. Vehicle design students at the Royal College of Art, for example, were asked to consider the shape of an appropriate taxi of the future for London.

The snail’s pace of central London traffic makes the taxi a perfect candidate for electrification, says Ken Greenley, head of the RCA transportation design department. “A London taxicab, during an average eight-hour shift, does less than 60 miles. A lot of the time it is stationary and 60 miles is well within the capability of even a less than high-tech charging unit,” he explains.

“We made a full-scale model and named it the European Rickshaw. But it was a fully-enclosed vehicle. About 88 per cent of London taxis, at any one time, have just one passenger in them. We thought a taxi that could take two people with some luggage and a driver was about the most sensible size of vehicle. So we ended up with a radically small vehicle,” says Greenley.

The RCA cab, however, does not allow for the ancient Hackney Carriage Act, which requires taxis to have enough room for four passengers and a bale of hay.The act also prohibits cabbies from refusing a fare. So what happens when the driver of an electric taxi receives the one in a million request to go to Edinburgh? Fortunately, this antiquated legislation only applies to London.

Whatever the problems that would beset electric taxis in the capital, EVs remain best-suited to the task of moving people in ones and twos around a crowded city.

Greenley expects European designers to invest in electric cars with qualities quite different to GM’s EV1. Excitement and the joy of motoring would not be high on the agenda, he argues. “There shouldn’t be anything exciting about driving a car in a metropolitan area. It should be all about safety and good sense.

“When we do seminars here on electricity and how you represent it in a design language, the thing everyone feels about it is that it’s bloody dangerous. We’re used to products that run on electricity where we’re isolated from the power source, whereas in the old culture of cars, the engine was glorified. The wheels, the exhaust pipes, the air intakes, all the attributes of the thrill of motoring were glorified.

“If you were using a sensible electric product, you probably wouldn’t want that sort of thing; you’d want stability and safety and functionality. None of us think of taking a video recorder to bits, or the fridge. I think electric cars of the future should be that way,” Greenley concludes.

By the time the EV appears, John Gummer may well have had to eat his words.

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