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Commodore EV-maker looks to plug-in hybrid

Electric feel: Could Holden's VF Commodore cop a range-extender hybrid drivetrain?

EV Engineering adds range-extending hybrid Commodore to project wishlist

23 Jul 2013

THE driving force behind Australia’s first fleet of electrified Holden Commodores says it wants to build a Volt-like plug-in hybrid version paired with a range-extending petrol engine.

EV Engineering chief executive Ian McCleave has told GoAuto that a ‘series hybrid’ version of the once strong-selling large car is part of the Melbourne-based electric car conversion company’s long-term plans.

“With the appropriate backing, it is something we’d like to look at,” Mr McCleave said in an interview marking the halfway point of a two-year trial looking at the viability of converting large, fuel-thirsty cars to battery power.

“And I think that given the trend at the moment seems to be moving from solid transmission to pure electric, so using powertrain architectures like series hybrid as a transition phase would suggest that that is not a bad way to go.” The plug-in hybrid Commodore would have a similar set-up to the Holden Volt, with a small petrol engine extending the range – and reducing driver anxiety – beyond pure-electric propulsion.

However, rather than provide power to the wheels, a series hybrid Commodore’s engine would instead run a generator to feed electricity back into the bank of batteries.

Mr McCleave said the Commodore’s layout, with the battery pack hidden away where the conventional drivetrain had been housed, suited the series hybrid layout.

“Well, you might put it (the engine) under the bonnet or you might put it in the rear of the car as some other brands have proposed,” Mr McCleave said.

“So there’s a number of opportunities for a series hybrid arrangement – you have a few choices there.” A year into its trial of seven Commodores converted to run on electricity rather than petrol or LPG, EV Engineering’s landscape is looking very different to when the company was formed in early 2011.

It has also since lost a major financial backer – the Australian arm of Better Place, which slowed down considerably in Australia after its Israel-based parent company burnt through almost $1 billion in funding and declared bankruptcy earlier this year.

“As you know we scaled back our activities after we finished the Commodores,” Mr McCleave said.

“You probably realise at the time we were looking to do an extension of that project. Of course that was dependent on a few factors.

“The easy one was to demonstrate the performance of the car and the capability of it, and I think we did that pretty successfully, so I think that was a positive.

“But it was also dependent, of course, on ongoing support from Better Place. They were a significant funder of the project and we were a significant contributor to their marketing efforts. I think that has now gone pretty quiet.

“Better Place Australia is still operating and it is still on our members list. But globally they are in receivership so … I believe in fact they have found a buyer for the Israeli operation, which is good, so the Israel recharging infrastructure will continue to be supported, which is encouraging.

“I think a lot of people still feel there is technical merit in the Better Place vision.” Also lost is a battery-powered version of the Ford Territory SUV, developed with Better Place money by automotive technology and motorsport group Prodrive Australia.

The electric Territory was built before EV Engineering started work on its cars, and was used as a promotional tool to encourage businesses to invest in Better Place’s vision of an Australia-wide network of recharging and battery-swap stations.

Mr McCleave said the Territory EV has since been stripped of its components, including its aftermarket battery pack, and scrapped.

However, the same fate will not befall the electric Commodores at the end of their trials, with Mr McCleave keen to preserve one as an example of Commodore-based Australian ingenuity alongside the ECOmmodore, a hybrid version of the large car built by Holden and the CSIRO in 2000.

While it has lost a major backer, EV Engineering is also potentially losing the source of its inspiration – the Holden Commodore large car – after the car-maker started making noises that the future of the big-engined, rear-wheel-drive platform was limited.

“We would have had to move to another platform (beyond the current Commodore), and get support to do that, which would have been technically possible,” Mr McCleave said. “But again, it needs financial support and backers and so on.” Also working against it is what appeared to be a worldwide falling-out with pure electric vehicles, he said.

“I think it is fair to say that globally they’re (the major car-makers are) scaling back some of the activities in that area, which probably reflects other factors – the global financial crisis, for example – has become more of an issue at all levels.

“So in terms of the merits of putting a lot of money into rapid deployment of electric cars, I think there’s other factors have stepped in and taken priority.” Mr McCleave said the fleet of seven electric Commodores – each one has a specially made rear suspension system that places the 145kW electric motor in between the rear wheels – has clocked up a combined 100,000 kilometres of driving, returning valuable data.

“They’re getting good use, and we’re getting good feedback from them,” he said. “We are still happy with the performance of the car, and the people who drive them love them.” Would EV Engineering have had a longer life if it had backed the locally made Cruze small car? Mr McCleave was not so sure.

“It’s a $64,000 question. But there would have been merit in doing that if Holden were able to support us with that platform,” he said.

“It was certainly discussed, there was no argument about that.

“But in many ways the Commodore was an ideal vehicle in terms of being able to seize the opportunity at the time and being able to move very quickly on it, because it was a relatively easy vehicle to convert from a technical viewpoint, and Holden were able to support it fairly quickly.

“So we were able to get going on it in a matter of months rather than perhaps negotiating for a much longer period.

“In terms of seizing opportunity when it was available, Commodore was the right choice.” Since forming its alliance 20 months ago, project partners Bosch, Continental and GE have all ended their relationship with EV Engineering, leaving Futuris Automotive and Air International as founding partners.

However, one new name has joined the electric revolution – Axiflux. The Melbourne-based company has developed a new electric motor that is much smaller than conventional units.

It is holding trails with EV Engineering in the hope that the motor can one day develop into a commercial product with more applications than just cars.

“There’s a lot of stationary applications for a motor with better efficiency and power density,” Mr McCleave said.

“There’s a demand for this all over the mining industry. Think of the price of shipping in diesel (to mining sites) to run a fan when you can run that fan 20 per cent more efficiently.” While diversifying the market for the Axiflux motor is a key to EV Engineering’ s long-term future, Mr McCleave said the company would keep taking with car-makers in China, Thailand and Malaysia in the hope that one day they would be interested in the technology.

“We’re letting the business plan for EV Engineering evolve a bit,” he said.

“What we’re doing now is putting all our efforts into working with Axiflux to show the potential of their motor and not letting ourselves get distracted with other opportunities.”

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