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Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Inexpensive Electric Car

At some point one of the major car manufacturers is going to wake up to the fact that there is a huge market out there for a simple, no bells and whistles, robust, easily repaired, distinctive but not particularly stylish electric car. This will cause them great problems but will also bring them huge benefits. First the problems.

Such an electric car will cut deeply into the sales of their other models. It will greatly reduce their sales of spare parts such as filters, engine parts, brake pads (most of the braking in electric cars is regenerative) and so forth. In addition if they make this car so that parts from one model fit other models both across the models and across the years, they will eventually pretty well saturate the market. From then on they will have steady but much smaller sales volumes. So why should they bother. Here comes the good part.

They will have an enormous market and the first company that realizes this will cut deeply into the sales of all other car companies. Fortunately, unlike when America dominated the car market, we have lots of other countries making cars. One can picture Tata of India or Renault of France or BYD of China joining the dots and deciding to produce this car.

And just think what it would mean for the environment and our chance of surviving not only as a species, but in a fairly comfortable sort of life style such as we have now. Never mind the reduced use of fossil fuels as you charge this car with wind, hydro or solar power but such a car would reduce the mining of metals, garbage to land fills, degradation of our roads due to leaking fuel and oil, use of lubricants, pollution of our water ways and on and on.

So lets see what sort of car this would be.

First, like those iconic cars, the Model T Ford, Volks Wagen, Deux Cheveaux, and Mini, it would look distinctive (not attractive) and would not change over the years. But this would be more than skin deep. After the initial shake down process to get the bugs out, the inner workings of the car would not change. The same door handles and window winders, the same instruments (how many do you need in an electric car), interior lights, head light bulbs and so forth would fit the first car built and one built 10 years later. Sure there will likely be advances in, for instance, the efficiency of head light bulbs and these will be incorporated but the new bulbs will fit in the socket of any car in the series. And for that matter, if new more efficient electric motors or better batteries are developed, they will likewise fit in any car of any age.

The car will be designed to be very easily fixed by a mechanic of modest ability with a basic set of tools and the excellent manual that will be produced by Time Life books or Readers Digest. These manuals will set an industry standard for beauty and clearness. They will be tested by the tea lady, secretaries and wives of the executives of the car company and if they can't do any necessary repair on the car, back to the drawing board. Either the manual or the car or both will have to be changed. (no fair changing the tea lady)

There will be no warranty on the car. None whatsoever. At first this will be a negative selling point but as people gain confidence in the incredible reliability and robustness of the car, it will become one of the main selling points. Of course the savings from not having a warranty will be passed on in full to the customer. People will then take care of their car from the beginning and not thrash it during the warranty period. Anyone who doesn't want to get his hands dirty will easily find a garage to do any necessary work.

Just as radical, there will be no advertising. Advertising costs money and is built into the price of goods. Fortunately today there is another solution. If you have a really desired, unique product, with the internet, it goes "viral". Initially, the workers in the factory will be sold the first cars. As they drive them around, they will be noticed. People will start to enquire about them. An added benefit of a slow start up is that if there are any bugs that need sorting out, it can be done without the need for huge recalls. Initially, the car will only be sold in New Zealand but with our tourism, as the number of cars visible on our roads grows, we will start to get orders from overseas. By the time the big boys wake up to the fact that there is a new kid on the block, we will have magazines and radio hosts clamoring for interviews and the car will be well and truly launched.

The bumpers around the car will be high tech. Perhaps pneumatic with a pop out valve that absorbs energy by the squeezing of air out of the vent; sort of an all car airbag. The car would be able to take, say, a 10kph bump from any side without damage to the body of the car. Parts damaged by slightly faster collisions will be repairable by bolt on bolt off parts. Crush zones as in all modern cars would help to protect the passengers in more serious crashes.

The battery in this car will be made up of modules of a size agreed to with as many other car manufacturers as can be brought on board. Say a 20 by 30 by 50 mm unit that could be combined in series and parallel to achieve whatever voltage is required and configured to fit any available space(s). The car will be designed around this battery module just as rifles are designed around existing ammunition. And don't forget recycling. The battery must be designed so that it is very easily recycled to get back the minerals in it. An alternate solution would be to adopt the battery of Project Better Place as they have already designed the battery exchange stations.

As soon as technically feasible, solar panels will be incorporated into the body of the car. Technology is being developed so that panels which are not co-linear can all contribute whatever amount of power they are producing to the total without the lower output panels interfering with the higher output panels. Prius has come out with a panel that fits on the roof, between the front and back window which is reputed to give an extra 10 to 15km per day in the sun. A fully clad car might give 30km extra. There is also technology developing which allow windows to produce power from the sun.

A Skunk works philosophy will be adapted in designing the car. The Skunk works is the aircraft design unit that brought us the U2, the Blackbird and the Stealth fighter bomber. Their philosophy is to take as much as they can off the shelf and only innovate where necessary to achieve the desired characteristics in the plane they are developing. In the case of the simple electric car the manufacturer will use the best paint package already developed for long lasting rust proofing, a tire rim size that is most common in the market, a standard socket for head lights, an existing bumper if a suitable one is available, well proven rack and pinion (not powered) steering gear and so forth. Through all the design, durability, range, cost, and ease of repair will be the major considerations. Actually it can all be boiled down to cost except here we are talking about cost in the long term; cost over the life of the car.

I wonder which car company will be the one to break ranks and give us the car we want. If it is an American company, the world is their market. If it is a Kiwi company, America and the world is our market.


Anonymous said...

You've got some good ideas here and they remind me of my own (admittedly very rough and general) ideas for an inexpensive plug-in series hybrid car. What the OLPC XO demonstrates is that it's possible to introduce some very innovative technology in a low cost device and what I'd like to see is the same kind of approach attempted (and hopefully succeed) in a car. I don't know that much about cars and how this might work out in price (more on that later), but I'm thinking some of the (basic) requirements would be:

An ultracapacitor working in conjunction with the batteries and electrical system

A small flex fuel or compact bio/diesel engine for driving a generator

Wheel motors

Plug-in possible in all configurations (Even if not particularly useful in some.)

The cars would have a basic design that would invite upgrades. The primary difference between the lowest-end and highest-end versions of these cars would simply be the addition of more...uh...stuff. With the exception of some very big upgrades (such as going from two wheel drive to four), most minor additions to the vehicle could be made by the user as they bought more components. Like a PC with expansion bays and slots, there would be space for additional batteries (and ultracapacitors), and the engine, generator, and fuel tank, etc. could be swapped out and upgraded, or even taken out altogether to make more room for more batteries, ultracapacitors, or exotic options like a fuel cell & H2 or Methanol tank, a compressed air storage and engine system, GNG, Propane, or H2 engine, or a turbine engine. Though one could keep it as is for the lifetime of the vehicle, this would be a potential kit car that would invite adding or changing its original configuration as needed.

As for the basic configuration, two wheel motors would provide propulsion and I'm not sure if they should be in the back or the front, or if possible, the car could be designed to run fine with them in either position. A small ultracapacitor would assist the battery and electric drive. The basic battery would be small enough to be inexpensive while not being so low in capacity as to be useless. I'm guessing a 5-10km battery only range would be acceptable for the low end.

Though of course space is limited, one could quadruple the ultracapacitors and add as many batteries as one wished, though the addition of too many would take away from storage and possibly even the back seats (if there are back seats). There would be the above options of a variety of fuel propulsion systems, and if wanted, larger fuel tanks (Gasoline/E85, Bio/Diesel, H2, Methanol, CNG/Propane, compressed air) could be put in place of the storage area, though no matter what the source of the energy is, this would be an electric wheel motor vehicle.

I'm not certain what the best physical design should be. For four passengers, I'd say something like an elongated version of the ZENN or TH!NK City would work. For two passengers, both those (non elongated) designs or maybe the Buddy, MyCar, Smart Fortwo, and iQ styles look good, as would a wider version of the Tango. But any design that does the trick, looks good (and not so bizarre as to prevent anyone from purchasing) would be acceptable.

The car would have a top speed of, say, 90-120mph with acceptable acceleration and hopefully something like this could be made for under $15,000, though if under $10,000 or even $5,000 were possible it'd be great. (Once again, just look at the OLPC XO and Tata Nano to see how good technology can be made very cheaply.) If one wanted to top the car out with options like four wheel drive, as many batteries as possible, and an exotic power source, one could take the price up well into the tens of thousands, though, like a PC, the basic car would be a shell that one could configure as one desired.

andrew said...

It would be great to be able to build an electric car just as you can build computers these days. Choose you chassis, choose your wheel motors and battery pack. Add on additional accessories like gps, touchscreen, stereo etc and either put it together yourself or get a pro to do it. I can also see a massive second market in parts developing just as it has for computers. It would become easy to put together a good car entirely from second had parts that matched your requirements perfectly. All this would require is the development of the equivalent of computer 'Form Factors' for cars.