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Australia's World-Class Electric Car comes from Armidale

Words by Richard Robertson & Photography by Thomas Wiekecki

've driven the future. It's quiet, fast and pollution free. And it's fun

Armidale seems an unlikely place to find a potentially world-beating electric car. The picturesque town is more usually associated with university education, autumn leaves and grand buildings than world-changing technology. But appearances can be deceiving.

Take Dr Phil Coop for example. A local farmer of organic cattle and former Armidale University academic, Dr Phil has an easy-going intensity that belies the huge personal investment made to date In what many would consider a crackpot scheme.

Phil began his unlikely journey to possible electric car superstardom a few years back when the price of fuel spiked. Heartily sick of being at the mercy of oil companies he decided to do something about It. I mean, really do something about it.

Like all journeys farewelled by the Mother of Invention, Phil's has been a difficult one at times but at least the family cattle interests have helped provide the wherewithal to see It through. Nearly $3rn of wherewithal, to be precise. Several world tours to research and source the very best components, along with the dedicated help of friends and associates with 'the right stuff' has led to the production of the cute-but-unassuming EvMe electric car They also make the MAXev electric delivery van based on the Volkswagen Caddy.

Electric Dreams

"Hybrid cars are the worst of both worlds," Phil says. "They're heavy and complex and offer only limited savings, whereas a pure electric car Is simpler, lighter and has real environmental and operational benefits."

The car I tested is the original prototype, now owned by Howard Eastwood, a retired businessman from nearby Glenn Innes. It has 10,000km on the clock and returns to the factory from time to time for software upgrades and 'tweaking1, which means it's still something of a prototype. For all intents and purposes it's a Mazda 2 with the 76kW/137Nm engine and fuel system removed. In their place sits a modular electric engine system rated at 89kW and 220Nm (which bolts directly to the engine mounts) and a pack with 96 lithium-polymer batteries where the fuel tank used to be.

The EvMe 'starts' like most other cars: by simply turning the key. Of course there's no engine sound, just a distant whirr of electrical things doing what they do, and the gear lever has just three positions: park, drive and reverse. Slipping the car into drive and releasing the handbrake seems to do nothing, but put your foot down and the car glides quietly away. There's no golf buggy-like whirr, the only noise is the increasing sound of tyres, suspension and wind, plus any Interior creaks and rattles no longer masked by engine noise. It's smooth too. Totally. There's no vibration through the steering wheel, seat or pedals; just quiet, smooth progress.

Above: The refuelling point seems strangely familiar.

Electric motors generate maximum torque from the word go but using all that power can seriously drain the batteries. So the EvMe's off-the-mark acceleration has been limited slightly in the quest for driving range. Phil claims a 0-100 km/h time of "about 10 seconds", which Is still quite healthy. Phil also claims a real-world driving range of 200km and says the average Australian commuter drives 40 kilometres per day. Recharging is a simple as plugging in at home, overnight, or finding a friendly motel if you're travelling. Eventually, fast-charge stations dotted around the country will cut the recharge time down to that of a nice lunch.

Above: Modular electric drive system looks like a factory installation. Note 12V battery for usual car electrics.

We drove north from Armidale along the New England Highway and the little EvMe was a revelation. From about 50 km/h road and wind noise makes the car sound quite normal but put your foot down and it's anything but. With no engine noise or gears there's no crescendo of revs to mark your progress, just a rapid Increase in pace as the speedo arcs higher. And rapid it is. Think Commodore or Falcon quick. Maybe quicker.

The EvMe is limited to 120 km/h but could do 150, so I'm told, and judging by the way it goes I have no doubts at all. I was certainly surprised by how drivable, smooth, quiet and fast the little green car was as we flashed past semi-trailers in the overtaking lane and sat effortlessly on the open road speed limit. If this is the future, I can't wait.

Above & Below: From below the neatness of the installation shows. Note protection for electrical leads between the battery pack and motor.

"The electric motor is good for about five million kilometres so the car will fall apart before It does," says Phil "And the batteries will last about 10 years, by which time they'll be down to 80% capacity. That's still good for around 160km range, but the old lithium batteries are sought after by the medical Industry, so disposing of them will be no problem, anyway."

What started out as an exercise In sticking it to the oil companies Is growing into a truly global enterprise. And all based in Armldale. Which proves dreams really can come true, even if they are electric. Hi

Good News and Bad News

So that's the good news. The bad news is this little car will set you back $70,000. And cost Phil $120,000 to make, so the economics don't quite stack up. Yet.

But by the time you read this Phil's company, Energetlque, should have stitched up deals In China and Europe to license the hardware and software necessary to manufacture modular turn-key electric car systems. They're moving away from Mazda and concentrating on Ford's Fiesta, Focus and possibly Mondeo, as well as looking at other manufacturers.

The plan Is that Ford In Europe will be able to take one of these cars off the production line and simply bolt in a modular electric drive system, then return it to the line for finishing. That removes the R&D costs and hassles from Ford but gives them instant, multi-platform electric car capability. And that's just Europe.

In China they've already had an order for 15,000 taxis but had to pass it by as It exceeded their battery supplier's annual production capability. Eventually, when licensed manufacturing brings about the right economies of scale, Phil expects a bolt-In system to add about $10,000 to the cost of a

But Wait, There's More

Electric cars are an important part of power companies' future strategies. Using Smart Grid technology you'll be able to sell power back into the grid at peak times. It's called V2G -Vehicle to Grid - and not only is It the way of the future, It's basically ready to go.

Using your ¬°Phone you'll be able to programme your car to charge up overnight on off-peak electricity, then sell back the excess you don't need for your next day's commute in the peak demand period, or when the price reaches a pre-set level. Phil says a fully-charged car holds enough electricity to power the average house for two to three days, so we're not talking pennies.

Think of them as 'dams' of electricity dotted all around the country that power companies can call upon when the load demands. Solar doesn't produce much during the peak periods, but if you have a home solar power system you can produce during the day to off-set what you buy back at night.

Once you get your head around the concept it's very exciting. Energetlque is currently building an EvMe Ford Fiesta for the CEO of Ergon Energy In Queensland, with whom it's working on V2G Integration. And of course, Energetlque will use its experience and technology to provide stand-alone, computer-controlled battery-packs to help store surplus energy for re-supply at times of peak demand.

Above: An emergency cut-off switch allows instant disconnection of the electrical system.

Above: Hi-Res display shows driving range, battery charge, etc but will be replaced by a touch-screen LCD mounted in the centre console.

Below: Dr Phil holds one of the 96 wafer-thin lithium-polymer batteries.

Above: Hi-Res display shows driving range, battery charge, etc but will be replaced by a touch-screen LCD mounted in the centre console.

Below: Dr Phil holds one of the 96 wafer-thin lithium-polymer batteries.


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