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Aussie electric!

Local power: Aussie electric vehicle pioneers Ross Blade (left) and Phillip Coop.

Local car-makers beat big business to deliver Australia’s first homegrown EVs

14 Apr 2009

AUSTRALIAN companies are filling the gap left open by car-makers and their slow-moving introduction of electric vehicles.

While Mitsubishi is aiming to bring its all-electric i-MiEV to Australia as early as next year, it is yet to confirm the move.

And although Nissan has committed to bringing an electric-only model to Australia, it won’t arrive before 2012 – the same year Holden has committed to importing the plug-in Volt hybrid.

Meanwhile, a wide range of small operations across Australia are taking up the electric vehicle slack and offering to convert existing petrol or diesel cars into green electric models. Right now, you can drive a new Mazda2 or Hyundai Getz with electric drive, or even have an existing used vehicle switched over.

This drive for electric cars is happening at the same time as a boom in electric scooters and bicycles with electric motors as city commuters look for green and cheap transport.

When it comes to the electric car industry, some organiations trying their hand at the new technology are backyard outfits doing the odd conversion, while a handful of operations are planning serious production levels.

Two electric vehicle operations stand out – Energetique in Armidale, New South Wales, and Blade Electric Vehicles in Castlemaine, Victoria.

They are at different stages of development with Energetique just delivering its first vehicle, while Blade has sold 18 cars, including exports to New Zealand. Both take existing donor vehicles and convert them to run on electric drive.

Given the nature of the emerging technology and the fact that so much time must be spent on the electrification of each vehicle, the finished cars are significantly more expensive than the donor models.

80 center imageTop: Ross Blade and the Blade electric vehicle. Below: The Energetique evMe and Energetique workshop.

The Energetique evMe, which is based on the Mazda2, costs $70,000, and the Hyundai Getz-based Blade costs $42,000.

The cars use different technology, which helps explain the price difference, but neither is cheap.

Both companies are confident that the price can be reduced as the technology matures and volumes increase, but what happens when the big brands arrive with factory-backed electric vehicles? Energetique CEO Dr Phillip Coop doesn’t believe major car-makers will be selling electric vehicles in Australia for some time.

When GoAuto mentioned the plans of manufacturers to introduce vehicles here as early as next year, he expressed his doubts.

“I have heard that for a long time,” he said. “I think it will be five to 10 years before we see production EVs in Australia.” Ross Blade, the man behind Blade Electric Vehicles, believes his operation can survive direct competition with the big car-makers because his vehicle will be more affordable.

He said that despite media speculation, cars such as the Mitsubishi i-MiEV would likely cost around $50,000.

Mr Blade says his company is committed to reducing the price of its cars to $32,000, at which point it would have mass-market appeal.

“There is an on-going market, but what we have to do is get the price down from $42,000 to $32,000 and we are absolutely determined to do that,” he said. “At $32,000 the market is considerable.” When asked how he would achieve that goal, Mr Blade laughed and then provided an answer that gave away no secrets.

“The fact that we have got it down to $42,000 is a miracle as it is,” he said.

Mr Blade also believes his Hyundai Getz-based vehicle will be able to compete with the new breed of electric cars from large manufacturers because of its size.

“They will all be micros, far smaller than the Hyundai Getz and they will mostly all be two-seaters,” he said.

He says electric vehicle production is a completely different business model to traditional combustion engine powered vehicles and even the increasing range of petrol-electric hybrids which provide a significant income for servicing franchises given the maintenance needs of a combustion engine.

Of course, electric vehicles will still need to be serviced, but Mr Blade says the electric motor and battery pack rarely requires any work.

BEV is already looking beyond Australia’s borders and exported three electric vehicles to New Zealand. It plans to outsource the assembly process to a New Zealand-based company, which will be able to handle production of a large number of vehicles.

“We will build the first 20 or so year and then, we will then be licensing it out to a large manufacturing firm,” Mr Blade said.

“We do small range production, but large scale production gets licensed out.” Dr Coop said Energetique initially planned to build 100 evMe cars and has already had more than 100 expressions of interest.

“We have complete faith in the technology. It is a lovely vehicle and has great performance and a range of more than 200km,” he said.

He said Energetique would use real-time data collection to find out how the cars were being used in order to better match it to consumer needs.

“What we need is to get a lot more data out of it. What are the driving habits of people with electric cars? These are questions that have never been answered,” he said.

This information would also help Energetique find out whether it has over-engineered the vehicle and whether there is a chance of reducing the price of the componentry.

“That would help us work out whether we are over-doing it with the battery pack, can we get away with one that is half the size? (which would be considerably cheaper).

Dr Coop believes advanced electric vehicles are being held back because of a technology bottleneck as the leading organisations are not set-up for large scale production.

“The technology we are using is still being hand-built,” he said.

“We asked the company for a quote on 1000 vehicles and they said they had never thought of producing that many,” he said.

“What has got to happen is someone like Ford has to pick this up and do the production themselves. The companies producing this technology are very small it hasn’t moved into the area of large-scale manufacturing yet.” As is the case with most emerging technology, there are various types of battery technology with no clear indication of which type will be the most popular.

The Blade electric car uses a lithium ion phosphate battery pack from China, while the evMe uses lithium polymer battery pack from South Korea.

Both are generally seen as a better bet than lead-acid, nickel cadmium and nickel-metal-hydride batteries used in many hybrids, which can be bulky and also contain hazardous materials.

Dr Coop says lithium polymer batteries used in the evMe are non-toxic, more energy dense, take up less space and have a greater range than other batteries.

They can also be hooked up to possible future Smart Grid technology being discussed by energy companies such as Better Place. The idea is that the electric car would not only be able to draw energy from the grid, but the grid would be able to draw energy from it as well.

South Korean carmaker Hyundai and its sub-brand Kia also see lithium polymer batteries as the best bet, with Hyundai planning to introduce a hybrid Elantra with the technology in its local market this July.

A Kia Forte (known as the Cerato in Australia) will also be launched in South Korea using the same hybrid system a month later.

Interestingly, Hyundai says its Elantra will be the first car in the world using lithium polymer batteries, overlooking the Australian evMe. It certainly will be the first large-scale production vehicle with lithium polymer technology.

Mr Blade says the lithium ion phosphate batteries used in the Blade vehicle are durable, have a wider heat tolerance and are highly fire resistant.

There have been cases where this kind of battery technology fails if the batteries are discharged below 33 per cent level too early, so Blade recommends a running in program of 20 recharges without dipping below that level.

The lithium polymer batteries used in the evMe are more flexible in this regard, but do have a 1-in-10,000 failure rate, according to Energetique.

Blade says its batteries are expected to last eight years, while Energetique says the evMe batteries will last between eight to 10 years.

The range of a fully charged battery pack is around 120km in the case of the Blade, while the evMe can manage more than 200km.

Fully charging the battery packs using a standard 10-amp household plug can take up to 14 hours for the evMe and nine hours for the Blade, but both times can be dramatically reduced by using an outlet with a higher ampage rate, which are often installed to power items such as hot water systems and air-conditioning units. Both vehicles have a top speed of more than 120km/h.

Blade and Energetique take the donor vehicle and remove the petrol engine. The gearbox stays, but only one (evMe) or two (Blade) gears are used when an electric motor takes the place of the petrol engine.

A new vehicle control unit takes over from the original vehicle’s control system, which allows for all the lights, indicators, radio and other systems to be controlled as usual.

Running costs depend on how much you pay for your electricity, but it can be as low as $1 a 100km using off-peak green power.

While both Energetique and Blade have different views on which battery type is right, both companies agree that exciting new energy storage technology is being developed promise faster charging, greater energy density and lighter weight.

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