Staffordshire-based Zytek Automotive understood the potential of electric vehicles earlier than some carmakers. The company’s engineers have been working on electric powertrains since the mid-1990s, and you could see the fruits of their labours at a ride and drive day for journalists at the company’s headquarters last week.
EVs on display were notably diverse. So there’s a dinky new Smart vehicle with a 30kW lithium-ion system; an electric Mercedes taxi designed for London with a 120km range; a 5.5 tonne Modec delivery truck destined to be produced in the States by Navistar; and even a 1998-vintage Lotus Elise powered by electricity.
But despite the progress, engineers at Zytek are aware of the challenges facing the nascent EV industry. They acknowledge there will need to be technological advances and improved economics if the sector is to be mass market instead of niche. The cost of vehicles will have to come down and incentives for consumers would do no harm.
Therefore, EV makers must hope that the new government maintains plans to introduce subsidies – Labour intended up to £5,000 for motorists buying electric cars, from next year.
Engineers, meanwhile, will have to work to improve the range of EVs and the cost of components: big improvements in battery power, expense and the weight and size of battery packs. Neil Cheeseman, engineering programme manager at Zytek, says, however: “We can’t just sit back and wait for improvements to batteries to happen and then think the world is going to be sunshine and roses: we’ve got to attack this on all fronts.”
So automotive suppliers must make attempts to improve the efficiency, cost and weight of electric powertrains and look at ways of improving vehicle range by reducing drag. That last might be thought to be outside the responsibilities of a supplier such as Zytek but introducing a much smaller radiator to an electric powertrain – electric systems create less heat than their ICE fellows – could make it possible to have a much smaller air intake at the front, significantly reducing drag. “We can envisage a car of the future that doesn’t have a hole at the front of it,” Cheeseman explains.
There are other areas of concern: the regulatory requirements for EVs are not well established. The first thing you notice when driving in one is lack of noise: but some OEMs believe this pleasant characteristic could mean a legal requirement to make the cars noisier to safeguard visually-impaired pedestrians. Work needs to be done to develop an adequate charging infrastructure too. Councils around the country including pioneers such as Birmingham and Milton Keynes are working on this, with the promise of free electricity to incentivise consumers. There is also work to be done on driver education: for instance, prudent use of regenerative braking can extend the range of your average EV in a way that slamming on the brakes cannot.
What we are unlikely to ever have, says Cheeseman, is a scenario where EVs completely replace their ICE-powered counterparts. “EVs will never come to be a complete like-for-like replacement for the internal combustion engine. We’ve been spoiled by what we’ve got now: a car that does perhaps 600 miles and takes five minutes to refuel.
“We are not going to get that with electric vehicles. But what we can do is try and focus on reducing the gap between electric vehicles and conventional ICE-powered cars.”