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Wavecrest smart Roadster electric car
DaimlerChrysler smart roadster in front of Wavecrest's Rochester Hills, Michigan research facility. The little two-seater is powered by a pair of 25kW, air-cooled electric hub motors. Powered by nickel metal hydride batteries, the car is currently capable of a top speed of 60 mph and pulse-quickening maneuverability. No... make that heart stopping!

Wavecrest's Electric Pacemaker

EV World test drives one of the world's most advanced hub motor-propelled electric cars.

By Bill Moore

I should have guessed what was in store when Gary Gloceri (pronounced "glossary") asked me to get in the passenger seat so he could drive Wavecrest's lightning blue smart roadster. He wanted to show me how the car performs. Until that moment, I thought I was doing a good job racing up and down the little Rochester Hills industrial park off Crooks Road and Highway 59 north of Detroit. Not knowing how far to push the car or myself, I handled the car... well like a whimp.

Gloceri was about to show me how his car performed in the hands of a professional automotive engineering test driver and amateur sports car racer.

In the Belly of the Beast
I was in Detroit to attend the last FutureTruck competition and visit Wavecrest's recently-opened research lab. The Dulles, Virginia-based company developed the TidalForce series of electric bicycle around its 750 watt hub motor, two of which we planned to give away in a special drawing during my visit . But I was also there to see their hub motor-propelled DaimlerChrysler smart car in action. I'd seen the car on static display at EVS 20 in Long Beach, California. They had showed me a video of it motoring down tree-lined streets resplendent with autumn colors . They promised to let me drive it when I got to Detroit.

Arriving at precisely 9 AM, I was greeted by a sign in the little lobby, "Welcome Bill Moore, EV World." It was a nice touch, as was the attractive young lady behind the receptionist's desk. Heather Buschbacher would later do the honors of pulling the winning names for our Ride the Wave drawing from a specially-purchased glass vase.

She introduced me to Gary Gloceri, who escorted me into the conference room, which boasts video conferencing with its Dulles, Virginia headquarters via a large, flat panel TV screen. He wanted to bring me up to speed on developments in the company since my last visit more than a year ago. From him I learned about management changes that suggest the company is determined to move beyond the recreational bicycle market and into the cut-throat world of the auto industry. As part of that plan, Roy Barbee, who was one of the early consultants to Ballard, assumed the role of CEO, replacing General Wesley Clark, who resigned to run for President of the United States.

In the summer of 2002, Barbee formed the Vehicle Systems Group and opened the Detroit research facility. He also hired Richard Shaum, the former head of DaimlerChrysler's powertrain engineering group to run it. The job of VSG would be to explore ways to integrate their hub motor technology into automobiles, an arena other electric hub motor hopefuls have tried to master, with little success until now, including M4 Technologies in Quebec and even General Motors, who is counting on the technology to make their Autonomy fuel cell car concept practical.

Electric hub motors are a great idea, in principle. You move the "motor" out of the center of the car to the wheels where you have access to a huge amount of recapturable energy. Gloceri estimated there's as much as 150-200 kW of energy that basically goes to waste everytime a car comes to a stop. He explained that the Honda Insight hybrid recaptures only about 25kW, just a little over 10% of what's theoretically available. Four-wheel electric hub motors could capture far more during regenerative braking, though they have to be sized accordingly and mated to a highly efficient energy storage system, most likely ultracapacitors.

At present, the Wavecrest smart demonstration car utilizes two 25 kW, air-cooled motors mounted on the rear axle, replacing the 90kW gasoline engine that comes in the stock model. NiMH battery packs and the controller are cramed into the space formerly occupied by the IC engine. Gloceri wasn't willing to tell me whose batteries are in the car or how many kilowatts they've stuffed into it, but subsequent email suggested the car might have a range of 40 miles, though range is such a subjective thing depending on driver habits, terrain, temperature, state-of-charge, rolling resistance, etc., etc..

He did explain that the company has formed yet a third division, Wavecrest Energy Systems which will be developing its own electric vehicle battery technology at a facility in Florida. The chemistry will be nickel metal hydride and the focus will be on power batteries for hybrid electric cars, rather than energy batteries for EVs. This decision appears to be driven by the realities of the marketplace. With the Zero Emission Vehicle mandate as good as dead in California, the growth opportunities appear to be in hybrids for the moment.

That doesn't mean there won't be a market for their electric hub motors. From their perspective, a thermal engine can just as easily power highly-efficient hub motors as it can integrated motor/generators like those found in the Prius, Honda Civic or Ford Escape, especially if the underlying power architecture is a series configuration. While passenger cars don't lend themselves all that well to this type of design, it makes a lot of sense for delivery vans and transit buses. Series hybrid architecture uses the internal combustion engine (ICE) as the primary power source for an electric generator that keeps the batteries recharged and provides juice for the electric motors. There is no mechanical linkage between the ICE and the drive wheels, unlike parallel hybrids such as the Honda Insight.

During our conversation, Gloceri revealed an interesting aspect of the auto industry. The big carmakers really are automotive assemblers that rely increasingly on tiers of primary, secondary and teritary suppliers, who have carved out niches for themselves; and struggle to constantly expand their share of the automotive parts "pie." It is these suppliers and not the "Big Three" that are expressing initial interest in Wavecrest's hub drives. He explained that brake makers see this technology as a means of edging their way into the driveline segment of the business.

When can we expect to see hub motors integrated into future hybrids? Gloceri suggested that the companies he's been talking to are looking out six to seven years in the future, to the 2011 or 2012 model years. That's a long time to burn cash, a situation Wavecrest management understands, hence their interest in developing early revenue streams from electric bicycles and hybrid-electric car batteries, as well as some other venues Gloceri said he couldn't discuss at the moment.

My briefing completed, Gloceri stood up and said, "let's go for a drive."

Yes! 'bout time.

We walked back into the "lab," which is a series of computer cubicles manned by brake, suspension, and drive train engineers hired from the "Big Three" and their Tier One suppliers. Gloceri himself is a 12 year veteran of Ford Motor Company. He introduced me to one of the lead engineers working on the computer controls that manage motor torque.

It is obvious that the future of transportation is more about bits and bytes than nuts and bolts.

Back in the garage area were test benches, one to test the controls for both two-wheel and four-wheel systems. There were also a half dozen electric motor scooters, which are all destined to be taken apart and analyzed. The company has also bought a pair of smart coupes from the ill-fated eMotion Mobility project that Don Panoz funded for a time. The Solectria drives had been pulled out and were laying forlornly on an oak pallet. Wavecrest plans to use the smarts as additional test mules.

Blue Lightning
Finally, there it was.

The slick, little blue roadster sat parked near the garage door, begging to be driven. We did a walk around as I took digital photos from various angles, then we got down to the serious business of pumping amps. I noticed a TNO sticker on the back of the car. Gloceri explained that Wavecrest initially hired the Dutch research organization to do the original conversion in the Netherlands, until Wavecrest could set up their Detroit facility. The sticker was there to acknowledge their contribution.

I squeezed in under the steering wheel. This is really a young person's car, someone with nimble joints and a trim waistline, like Gloceri. How do these guys stay so slim?

I eased the car out of the garage bay, the tires squealing on the epoxy-coated pavement.

One of the first things Gloceri wanted to point out was the driver-adjustable regeneration. Wavecrest adapted the automatic transmission controls of the original smart, which are on a pair of small paddles on the steering column, to let the driver change from minimal regen -- level 1 -- to car-stopping max regen -- level 6. Tapping the "plus" paddle on the right side of the steering wheel increases the level of regeneration. The "minus" paddle decreases it. It's really a nifty idea, but Gloceri confided that the company still needs to give thought to how the system will work on icy roads, especially if its set to maximum regen. They've not had enough time over a typical Michigan winter to explore the issues here, though given the level of expertise in the 17-person office, I am fairly confident they can solve it.

We were limited to driving the car within the confines of the industrial park, so I couldn't get the car much above 45 before running out of road. Back and forth we drove, doing slow, easy s-turns and zero-to-forty-five acceleration tests. The car performed with aplum and virtually noiselessly. It's an EV anyone would love to own and drive. It's fun, fast and nimble. Best of all, it emits zero pollution and uses the most readily available "fuel" in the world, electricity.

After about 10 minutes, Gloceri suggested I let him drive, so he could show me the real potential of the car's motors and computer controls. Let me assure you, his professional demeanor and casual manner hide a sinister side. This guy is addicted to speed!

He easily slipped into the drivers seat, while I lumbered into the passenger side, a task made a lot easier without having to fight a steering wheel. Gloceri put the car in drive and pulled out onto the empty road, commenting that he wanted to show me how the car handles.

The next fifteen to twenty seconds had to be some of the longest in my life as Gloceri threaded an imaginary set of slalom poles in the middle of the road at nearly 60 mph. I was thrown first to the left, then to the right, then back to the left, as I saw my life flash before my eyes, expecting the car to flip over at any moment.

Okay, Gary... you convinced me. Can we slow down now?

He didn't have to break for the turn, the regen did it for him. He quickly accelerated again, keeping up his engineering patter about force vectors and accelerometer's and torque controls. The road ended in a wide, paved circle, which he proceeded to use as a skid pan in miniature to show me how the computer controls the differential torque to the motors. At something like 35 mph we spun around and around and around, until we both got dizzy, and not once did the rear end break loose or even hint that it was loosing traction.

These folks have done their homework, at least as far as I am concerned. Say what you will about impossibility of controlling wheel torque and "unsprung mass." In this little car, it works. No question about it. The next step is to fit the car with even more powerful, liquid-cooled motors to increase the speed and energy recapture.

But here Wavecrest's engineers may discover that what works at relatively low-power on a small car like the smart, becomes problematic at higher weights and power levels; at least that's the view of a Detroit-based colleague who is knowledgeable in automotive suspensions and electric drives. It's his contention that hub motors will never overcome certain engineering barriers sufficiently to see widespread utilization.

He's thrown down the gauntlet for Wavecrest and other hub motor developers. Time will tell whether its made of steel or silk.

A bit worse for the wear and my thinning hair askew, we drove quietly back to the lab to take some more pictures of the car with the Wavcrest sign in the background. With about ten minutes left before we held the drawing for the two Wavecrest Tidalforce electric bicycles, Gary asked me what I wanted to do.

I smiled and said, "Let's go for a drive."

Times Article Viewed: 35925
Published: 02-Jul-2004

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