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Plugging in to an EV Future

The electric car has had a strange life. Although electricity was one of the first fuels to be used for a horseless carriage, the method soon fell out of favour and ever since, engineers have been furrowing their brows in the attempt to refine the internal combustion engine. But that has not stopped a few small teams of enthusiasts (and eccentrics) trying to resurrect the electric concept over the years with varying degrees of limited success.

Most electric cars have fallen short (literally) due to the problem of range. But recently, improvements in battery technology have helped reduce the impact this flaw and now the general public are in the position of being able to consider electric cars as a possible purchase.

The government are also doing their bit to make the decision of buying an electric car seem less daunting by putting in place some initiatives to subsidise their purchase. The subsidies of up to £5,000 will be offered for both fully electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles and is part of the government’s £250m bid to promote low carbon transport.

Critics have already commented that eligible vehicles will only be commercially available from 2011 and that the infrastructure necessary to run plug-in vehicles is nowhere near ready, but what definitely is ready is the general willingness to accept electric cars. The stigma of previous doomed attempts to introduce electric cars into our lives has been wiped away by a steadily improving stream of prototypes and celebrity-endorsed hybrid models.

But the critics do have a point, and much needs to be done in terms of infrastructure in order to make the experience of driving electric vehicles come close to that of petrol. Most of us will have had that horrible sense of realising we only have a few miles left in the tank while being an indeterminate range from the nearest petrol station. More often than not a petrol station will appear on the horizon just in time and you breathe a sigh of relief, but will plug-in points appear so frequently?

The building of the EV infrastructure could potentially be a boon for electrical product manufacturers and contractors across the country. EPA spoke to Stephen Thackray of plug and socket manufacturer, Marechal, to find out how one electrical product business sees this area developing. Here’s what he had to say…

“An article written by David Bowen in The Independent newspaper on 7th January 1996 concluded:

“But as in the US, in the absence of a technological breakthrough electric cars will make sense only if governments decide they should. La Rochelle in France already has a scheme to rent out plug-in cars. If such initiatives become widespread, the new silent era could indeed arrive. Otherwise the electric car will remain the quaint exception.”

Marechal had by then already designed an innovative connector, based on its butt-contact technology, specially for the Electric Vehicle. The Peugeots and Citroens used in the La Rochelle experiment were all fitted with Marechal EV connectors. Although these cars were available in UK, it was the Berlingo EV Van which became more widespread – again fitted with the Marechal EV connector. Many of these vehicles are still in use today.

The main point made by Bowen was that “electric cars will make sense only if governments decide they should”. We believe that this criteria has now been reached. The government has declared itself for EV cars. The Mayor of London wants 100000 EVs and 25000 charging points in the Capital saying he will put up one third of the £60m required for the infrastructure and expects the government to put up the other two thirds. In stricken times this could well be the type of project to boost employment, excite industrial design of related products and contribute positively to climate issue.

The Sunday papers this year have (almost) every weekend come up with another planned EV – MINI, Citroen – the first four seater, Tesla, G-wiz, Smart Electric Drive, Opel Ampera (someone had to) etc. The Royal Mail are trialling EVs to replace more conventional means of carrying post. Bus companies are designing electric hybrids. EV-delivery vans are available.

It would be interesting to know what the average urban mileage of the typical ‘second car’ in the household covers; the school run, the supermarket, to the Park-and-Ride. It’s likely to be less than 50 miles a day – even with breaks in usage during the day. This would fit the profile of many would-be EV users.

What has held back the EV to date has been the fuel market, political will and the general public view that they can travel short distances before running out of power.

Of these the fuel issue is back in the drivers’ mind. It’s expensive again and the fuel escalator is back. Even LPG had crept up quietly in cost. Governments are looking to EVs as a positive strategy for cleaning up the world and creating jobs and manufacturers are constantly refining the product offer. Battery manufacturers know what the challenge is – smaller, lighter batteries with much more ooumph to make sure Mr & Mrs EV-mobile don’t run out of power on the way back from the supermarket.

Mobile phones lost weight once people decided they were here to stay.

The crucial issues are thus the battery technology and the battery charging system. Research into more efficient batteries is currently widespread. The original La Rochelle vehicle batteries were lead-acid. We all know what happens to a tired one on the first cold morning of Autumn. But this is becoming old technology as companies start to fill the technical void of a battery designed for EV usage, not just starting up a petrol-driven version.

The Lithium Ion polymer battery is one development offering up to 200 miles on one charge. Other types – ultracapacitor hybrid – claim a punch 10 times greater than the lead-acid types but at 50% of the cost. So development continues in parallel with the offering of EV vehicles from both mainstream and niche manufacturers alike. The technology will doubtless have spin-offs into other areas of usage to create economies of scale.

As technology improves batteries become more sophisticated. Safety becomes an issue. As batteries are becoming specifially designed for EV use so must the link between power supply and EV – the connector.

Instead of the previous “ Fill her up, Gov?” (the option being petrol or diesel), the question will be increasingly “slow or quick, mate?” Some EV users will be content with an overnight 230V 13A supply to top up for tomorrow’s school run. Other users will have a more ‘heavy-duty’ day which requires many drops/pick-ups, stop/starts, passengers, pizzas, letters etc. Some users will require a quick fix which in EV terms will mean a three phase or DC charge of much more than the domestic 13A plug. Batteries will need to talk to chargers just as much as charging posts will need to communicate with the energy supplier who sends the bill.

Existing connectors, like the lead-acid battery, will just not fit the bill. Not only will contacts in connectors capable of carrying DC voltages or 3 phase with higher amperages than 13A be required but the user of these connectors must be considered. The typical car user is used to a petrol pump – remove, insert, squeeze trigger, replace. This type of ergonomic EV connector has been in use for over ten years and with the auxiliary contacts for communication between vehicle and charger. This is essential for good housekeeping of batteries and safety of the user.

We feel that the era of the EV has now arrived. Just look at the numbers of EVs planned (not just prototypes), the ever-developing world of EV –specific batteries and the state of political and environmental will.

EV technology is ever closer to the real package and why can’t we have charging points at the local petrol station. They already sell LPG and coal.

If the EV market follows the mobile phone market a new niche could well be established for ‘EV engine tones’! Maybe a V8 TVR in full cry or a Morris Minor? EVs are quick of the mark but lack noise. Perhaps we could get used to that concept as well.”

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