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Blade does a runner

Zapped: Company founder Ross Blade with the Hyundai Getz-based Electron, which will be discontinued in 18 months time.

ESC laws force local electric vehicle producer to switch from cars to commercials

11 Nov 2011

NEW laws requiring cars to have electronic stability control and an inability by the local parts industry to supply an ESC system has forced one of Australia’s makers of electric cars, Blade Electric Vehicles, to abandon passenger cars and switch to light commercial vehicles.

But the company plans to leave the passenger car space with a flourish over the next 18 months, ramping up production of its Hyundai Getz-based Electron to an annual rate of 250 a year before dropping cars altogether.

This expansion is possible following the granting of an unlimited production license by the Government in 2010 that, in turn, followed a successful crash test.

The company will then apply its own technology – including the capacity to recharge a battery pack in just 12 minutes – to imported Chinese white vans, company founder Ross Blade said at this week’s ‘Plug in 4 Power’ electric vehicle forum at Swinburne University of Technology.

He said BEV has already formed a joint venture with a Chinese manufacturer under which the Victorian-based company will assemble and install its own battery packs and its unique battery cooling system into imported Chinese vans.

First, however, BEV will introduce two new Electron models based on ex-fleet and ex-rental Getz hatchbacks – the Electron DG five-door four-seater (priced at $47,000 plus on-road costs) and the Electron DGL three-door two-seater ($52,000).

“The DG stands for deep green because we are taking ex-fleet and ex-rental cars and for the next 18 months we will remanufacture them as all-electric-drive vehicles,” said Mr Blade.

“When electric vehicle manufacturers talk about having recycled plastics in their seats, well, we have an entire recycled car.” He points out that refurbishing a car instead of making a whole new one saves a lot of carbon emissions, quite apart from not burning petrol.

But the DG and DGL versions of the Blade Electron will also introduce a new Blade drivetrain offering more power and, for the DGL, a claimed 300km driving range around town.

“There has been a big jump in technology,” said Mr Blade.

“The original car came out in February 2008, and the technology was roughly 10 years old at that time.

“Now, with the new drive system, instead of 90Nm, we have 170Nm of torque. And instead of 40kW peak power, we now have 80kW of peak power, which is for 10 seconds.

“Instead of a 16kWh battery pack, it is now 21kWh for the Electron DG and 38kWh for the DGL, so we have a longer range.”

The two-seater DGL is designed to appeal to the “one or two per cent” of rural drivers interested in an EV who want to travel from a regional area to the city.

“It’s the perfect car for that scenario: a range of 200 kilometres at highway speeds and big bootspace in the back. There’s a niche we can occupy.

“We have to have a niche for ourselves, that’s extremely important. We are not here to compete against Nissan or Mitsubishi, that would be a loser’s game and we would be the losers.

“So we look for niches. For example, the iMiEV and Leaf have a range of approximately 100km in Australian driving conditions, so we have produced a prototype – the DGL – with a range of 300km in urban driving and 200km on the highway.”

Mr Blade said the Electrons had good range because all Blades made since the company started production – around 50 cars in three years – have been fitted with a gearbox (the Hyundai unit) and a computer-controlled manual gearchange activated by a switch on the top of the gear stick.

“In the DG series, because they have 170Nm instead of 90Nm, second becomes your primary gear. You can cruise around up to 80km/h very comfortably.

“You can actually do 100km/h in 2nd, but the noise starts to build up and you are asking the batteries to do more work, so you just change the gears.”

Mr Blade said BEV’s use of a gearbox was laughed at back in 2008, but there is now a growing interest among EV manufacturers in using multiple ratios.

“While electric motors can spin freely to enormous revs, that doesn’t make best use of the battery charge,” he said.

“We keep the tacho in the car and, with the DG, your peak efficiency is between 4000 and 4500rpm [which is not the actual speed of the electric motor]. When you hit 4000 on the tacho, go to second. Hit 4000 again, go to third. Hit 4000rpm again, go to fourth.

“You need to change the speed of the electric motor because they do have a sweet spot.”

Mr Blade said increasing torque to 170Nm meant he had to re-map the electric motor’s control unit to more closely match the profile of the internal combustion engine originally installed, “otherwise we’d be ripping out the engine mounts”.

He said he tried for two years to buy Australian-made bodies from Holden, Ford and Toyota, but formed the impression they are not interested.

He explored developing an ESC system suitable for a remanufactured i20 Hyundai, but could not find a supplier in Australia, prompting the move from cars to Chinese-based commercial vehicles.

According to Mr Blade, the big attraction for the Chinese manufacturer was that BEV has developed a unique way to weld together the hundreds of cells needed to assemble a battery pack, and also a proprietary method of assembling the battery packs that gives superior cooling effect and, therefore, faster recharge times.

As with the Electrons, the commercial vehicle will be able to take a faster charge than other EVs because it has a more powerful onboard recharger, which enables it to use the maximum capacity of the J1772 (Level 2) recharging systems that will be used in public recharging points.

“Our cars have a 6kWh onboard recharger, compared to 3kWh for others, which means our standard DG car can be recharged in two hours on the public charge network, which will have the J1772 recharge plugs. They deliver 32amps, which is roughly 6kWs, so you can recharge a standard DG Electron in 2 hours.

“It could be as much as six hours for a Leaf or four hours for an i-MiEV, assuming Nissan and Mitsubishi fully utilize the J1772 standard.”

And Mr Blade has a plan for recharging the Chinese commercial vehicles in just 12 minutes, using a second battery pack that remains in the garage, charged up from the electricity grid using off-peak trickle charge.

Mr Blade said there is a faster standard for recharging, called CHAdeMO – as in CHArge de MOve or “charge for moving” – which can handle 200 amps, “but you don’t pull that off the grid without blacking out the whole block”.

“So our solution is, we use a battery pack from the car, put it up on the wall, and it can be topped-up with solar panels. It can be an off-grid solution.

“The great thing about it is a battery on the wall allows us to do what’s called an ultra-fast charge.”

A second battery pack will cost more money, of course, but he points out that one BEV pack costs less than $10,000 to make compared with prices of around $15,000 for other EVs.

“But this is a commercial vehicle, so there are all sorts of tax advantages, plus the one on the wall uses off-peak power, so you acquire that energy at a lower price.

“So, when you do your sums and look at depreciation, tax deductions, cheaper power, it actually works out. In three to five years it pays for itself.”

Under the deal with the Chinese manufacturer, BEV will handle sales, distribution and marketing, while the Chinese company will provide the vans and do all the necessary certification work in Canberra.

The Chinese company will also be able to make BEV battery packs in China under license for the Chinese and US markets.

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