Page last updated at 01:31 GMT, Friday, 5 December 2008

Mini points to electric car future

By Jorn Madslien
Business reporter, BBC News, Munich


Mini E designer Patrick Fuller demonstrates the car that engineers say can travel 150 miles before its battery needs to be recharged.

Pedal to the metal and the silence is deafening, but the acceleration is nevertheless shocking. Ever so quietly, another race towards the age of electric motoring begins.

This time, the leader of the pack turns out to be the new all-electric Mini, which is certainly no "Noddy-car", its acceleration easily on a par with that of its sporty sister, the Cooper S.

But although the car is impressive, it is still hard to shake the recollection of previous industry visions of the electric future.

Promises have been voiced time and again over the last couple of decades.

During the 1990s, they came from mainstream carmakers such as Renault or Ford - more recently, from oft-admired but still unproven manufacturers, such as Californian upstart Tesla or Italian design house Pininfarina.

The folks at Mini acknowledge that there have been a few flops in the past, but insist that this time it is for real.

"This is the first small, serious car in the world with lithium-ion batteries," says Friederich Eichiner, chief finance officer of Mini's parent firm BMW.

"Most of the mobility of the future will take place in big cities, in commuting to get in and out. We need new solutions for those needs."

Long range

The Mini E's power is derived from a huge 250kg battery that replaces the back seats.

Mini E
A two-hour charge delivers up to 150 miles of motoring

As such, it may be impractical, though it has little bearing on the car's driving characteristics.

The E handles like an ordinary Mini, only smoother, as the electric motor delivers consistent torque that creates a steady pull all the way from standstill to its top speed of 95mph (152km/h).

Except, that is, when slowing down. Take the foot off the pedal and the car slows sharply. The energy built up during acceleration is captured as the car decelerates, only to be injected back into the battery.

But the main point about this car is its range. After two hours plugged in to a special 48-amp charging point, the lithium-ion battery is ready to deliver up to 150 miles of motoring.

Quick evolution

Such a range, unheard of just a few years ago, has come about thanks to "a real step-change in battery technology" that has taken the automotive industry by storm, explains Alex Molinaroli, president of Johnson Controls Power Solutions, which recently opened its first lithium-ion battery factory in France.

We're seeing carmakers getting interested in installing the technology in production vehicles
Alex Molinaroli, president of Johnson Controls Power Solutions

Current generation lithium-ion batteries are three times better than old-fashioned nickel-based batteries in terms of energy density, so the same size lithium-ion battery can deliver up to three times as much energy and power, Mr Molinaroli explains.

"I think the evolution is going to be pretty quick. We're seeing carmakers getting interested in installing the technology in production vehicles."

Viable alternative

Hence, the Mini E is not gunning for the market currently occupied by low-range quadricycles.

Nice Car Company quadricycle
Quadricycle sales have fallen sharply

Sales of such vehicles have fallen 58% so far this year, leading Richard Bremner, editor of Cleangreencars, to query whether "quirky electric vehicles like the Mega City and G-Wiz have had their day".

"Buyers could be holding off for cars from mainstream manufacturers," he says.

The Mini E is one such car: a fully type-approved vehicle that has gone through all the necessary crash and safety tests and has a battery designed to last for 100,000 miles.

As such, the Mini could already offer a viable alternative to cars powered by traditional combustion engines. But it won't.

Early E models will be leased to 500 drivers in the US for $850 (580) a month, as part of the company's research programme.

Others "may still have years to wait before mass production is a reality", predicts Mr Bremner.

Volkswagen boss Martin Winterkorn with a Passat Variant Blue Motion
Micro-hybrid solutions are helping VW and BMW cut emissions from all cars

BMW insists an electric car will eventually be mass-produced, perhaps before 2015, amid quiet whispers that it might revive the Isetta bubble car as the badge of choice for its all-electric cars.

But first, certain questions must be answered, explains Mr Eichiner.

"The basic question is, will we find the right battery technology to deliver longer ranges, and can we bring the weight down in car concepts for the future," he says.

Other challenges ahead include a global scarcity of lithium, and issues linked to producing sufficient energy from clean sources to power ever more electric cars. If coal power stations provide the energy, the benefits will be vastly reduced.

Moreover, governments will need to find new ways of taxing motoring - such as pay-as-you-drive schemes, or different prices for petrol delivered through high-voltage charging points - if there is a significant shift from petrol and diesel towards electric power.

Micro-hybrid solutions

With all these issues to sort out, it is fortunate that there are parallel developments where electrification of motoring is taking place already.

Petrol-electric hybrids have been around for years, with more manufacturers - notably BMW and Mercedes - getting in on the act with more efficient lithium-ion batteries.

Plug-in hybrids with lithium-ion batteries are also being pioneered by, for instance, Toyota and General Motors.

And, crucially, so-called micro-hybrid solutions are already being employed across entire model ranges by BMW and Volkswagen, explains Mr Molinaroli.

The basic idea behind this development is to capture energy while braking and store it in small lead acid batteries. Such solutions make the cars only marginally more expensive than conventional models.

"It is low investment from the consumer standpoint, it is low investment from the manufacturer's standpoint," observes Mr Molinaroli.

This year, there will be some 300,000 such cars on the road, rising to 800,000 next year and to between 10 and 15 million in the next decade, Mr Molinaroli predicts.

"They're hybridising their entire fleet," he says, pointing to how this has already helped slash fuel consumption by 10-15%.

Such "hidden" electrification of motoring is set to continue to cut fuel consumption, percentage point by percentage point, predicts Alexander Pregl, chassis developer at BMW. For instance, a switch from hydraulic to electric steering can reduce fuel consumption by 0.2%, he explains.

In the short term at least, such incremental gains across entire fleets are likely to have a greater impact on carbon dioxide emissions from cars than a few zero-emission vehicles.

Waiting for the silver-bullet all-electric car may be futile.

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