Driving Down the Cost of Electric Cars

Forbes recently published an interesting article on the comeback of electric cars. Author Althea Chang predicts that “electric cars will become fairly commonplace in the not-too-distant future,” but only if the industry manages to overcome two major obstacles – cost and the availability of electric car charging stations nationwide.

While the latter turns out to be quite easy to overcome—as many major cities and energy providers are heavily investing in infrastructure, and charging stations are strongly incentivized—the price tag on the electric car remains a huge drawback.

So why are premiums so high on electric cars? One reason is that electric cars on the road today are typically “converted” conventional cars in which the internal combustion engine power train has been replaced by an electric unit. Because of traditional conversion designs, potential cost efficiencies of the electric car—like less wasted space, reduced number of components, and purpose design for small production—go unrealized. Put in simple words, conventional cars turned into electric vehicles equal higher cost for the consumer.

Here is where a new initiative started by several institutes of the German RWTH University of Aachen merits some attention. Leveraging a network of specialized companies from automotive, electric and green industries, the engineers are building a purpose designed electric vehicle named StreetScooter that is planned to be introduced in the market by 2013 at a price point of $6,500.

Starting from a clean sheet of paper, the engineers are designing their car from scratch to meet the basic requirements of safety, reliability, comfort, economy and autonomy. While the front hood has been maintained as a conventional element for reasons of passenger safety, under the surface, and even on the surface itself, it is quite different. Rather than using the ubiquitous pressed steel chassis, a tubular space frame chassis is adopted. The chassis is covered with plastic panels that are produced using the latest advances of textile technology.

The electric motor itself is being optimized by the researchers along with the electronic motor management to meet the specific requirements of automotive applications. Other fields of research are battery technology, kinetic energy recovery—a technology that is currently being experimented in Formula 1 racing—and thermal management, which represents a critical factor for the autonomy.

And finally, to enable adaptation of the design to specific purposes, such as a two-seat compact car, a four-seat saloon, a utility vehicle and even a fun sports car, the vehicle architecture has been defined in a way that reflects the latest advances in modular product architecture to ensure a maximum of commonality effects and hence economy.

All in all, the StreetScooter represents a highly interesting innovation platform, bringing a number of breakthroughs that will not only help to meet the price point, but lead the way into a cleaner future. The first prototypes are already running and pre-production is scheduled to start in early 2012.

For more about StreetScooter’s approach to product development, visit the PLM Resource Center

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