Electric vehicles (EVs) continue to be a curiosity. Not from the point of view of the vehicle-makers, who between them have invested considerable amounts in developing cars that capture the interest of their environmentally conscious customers; or not, as the case may be. Put simply, there is a lack of trust in this method of powering the consumer’s primary means of transport.
A major concern is ‘range anxiety’; how far will it travel, what happens if the battery runs flat, etc. Couple this with purchase costs (coming down, but still relatively high for a vehicle with limited use), scare stories about battery life and cost of replacement, plus stories of EVs catching fire being gleefully presented by the wider media; and it’s not hard to see why sales have yet to take off.
This has put OEMs in a catch-22 situation. On the one hand, stringent emissions regulations, rising fuel costs and the need to reinvent their brands as environmentally friendly, require the development and manufacture of EVs. However, volume sales are needed to make these vehicles economically viable, and in one – perhaps unique – area, the OEMs’ drive for sales is being foiled by something largely out of their control: a broad, accessible charging infrastructure. The situation is akin to trying to sell cars before the roads are built.
The solution (in the short term) would seem to be hybrids. Clearly these are not the pure EVs everyone envisions, but they are a viable option – as Toyota has proven with the Prius. But hybrids have been something of a mixed bag, with few built specifically for this type of powertrain and others that are existing platforms adapted for the purpose. Environmentalists cry foul, but this type of vehicle has come into being at a time when vehicle-makers have been developing and building just the right type of downsized, compact, efficient internal combustion engines.
The materials, engineering and manufacturing capability are already well established, and smaller two-cylinder engines have been developed and built specifically for a range extender role. Plus, in this guise petrol engines can be run at optimum efficiency. A good indicator of the likely popularity of these EVs with a range extender will be how many of this type of BMW's i3 are sold (compared with the pure EV version).
From a manufacturing perspective, the pursuit of lighter, stronger vehicle structures and the use of smaller ICE units and electric motors opens up new options for alternative vehicle architectures. And this is seeing different materials and production processes being brought into mainstream, high-volume manufacturing – which makes life very interesting for both the vehicle-makers and us here at AMS.