The BEVs of Bibendum
By Bill Moore
|Given the relatively minor supporting role played by battery electric vehicles [BEV] during the 2003 Michelin Challenge Bibendum, it would be all too easy to assume that they have been eclipsed by gasoline hybrid-electrics, fuel cell vehicles and European diesels.||
Only one major OEM -- Nissan -- took the trouble to bring its EVs to Sonoma's Infineon Raceway (formerly Sears Point) while Toyota, GM and Honda elected to focus on their current stable of production and concept vehicles.
But BEVs were present and accounted for, though one small flock of Sparrows brought in by Ron Huch and Peter Senkowsky would be considered "interlopers" along with a lone Th!nk city driven in by EV World reader, Nick Carter.
It would take a crowd-drawing test drive by actor-turned-science-host Alan Alda in AC Propulsion's tzero to remind everyone it is possible to build a fast, fun and far-ranging battery electric car using today's technology; even if you do have to hand assemble 6,800 tiny lithium-ion batteries into a suitable battery pack to do it. [See EV World's interview with Tom Gage on the tzero's impressive new performance].
Just for the record, there were four Nissan Hyperminis present and three Corbin Sparrows. ZAP brought in a single LUV and a new Chinese-made EV by Heibao, both currently classified as NEVs or neighborhood electric vehicles.
French fashion designer Coqueline Courreges debuted her egg-shaped, plexiglass-bubbled battery electric car, which is road-capable but definitely unconventional in appearance.
Napa County School District brought the biggest battery EV -- a big, yellow school bus whose original, but problem-prone electric drive system and batteries has since been replaced with a trouble-free system from Siemens, along with the powerful Swiss-made ZEBRA battery pack that now gives the heavy bus more than 100 miles range on a charge.
While not strictly a battery EV, we also should include AC Propulsion's other Challenge Bibendum entrant, a grid-chargeable VW Jetta. This vehicle has a gasoline hybrid-electric drive system, but can operate in electric-only mode for 30-40 miles on its lead-acid batteries, which can be recharged in as little as one hour. It is the Jetta's ability to also shunt power back to the grid either from its battery pack or running on natural gas in a generator mode that promises to turn a depreciating family asset into a potential capital investment from which the local utility may someday buy power.
But to be perfectly honest, it's not been a good year for battery EVs. 2003 will see the last of the GM EV1s taken out of consumer hands. Most of them will be crushed. A similar fate awaits many 1998 model Toyota RAV4 EVs, though the company says it will try to recycle as much of these vehicle as possible.
The fate of the Corbin Sparrow remains in doubt though Ron Huch, who took receivership of some 70 unfinished vehicles, hopes to resume production.
Meanwhile, development of the ZENN NEV in Canada appears temporarily stalled. The Th!nk EV program was sold off by Ford to Swiss-based Kamkorp and while demand for the car is high, development and certification for both the European and North American markets is a painfully slow process. Development of the SAM two-passenger EV in Switzerland has been indefinitely postponed for lack of funds. Then pioneering electric bus maker AVS closed its doors this month. And during the Challenge Bibendum the Segway was being recalled for a software fix.
With the exception of the handful of Honda EV Pluses, EV1s and RAV4 EVs that remain in consumer hands, the outlook for road-capable battery electric cars seems bleak at the moment. Nissan long ago announced it would build no more Hyperminis, as did Toyota with its E-com.
When GM mothballed its EV1 assembly line several years ago, it sealed the fate of that program. And while battery electric cars continue to be built in France, there is little prospect of their seeing export out of Europe.
Even the Th!nk Nordic EV program will be concentrating its efforts initially in Europe, though it has expressed interest in eventually re-introducing the new version of the car into North America. Of course, there are many small and usually under-funded development programs -- the Spokane, Washington-based Tango being one such example -- going on all over the world, all hoping to someday crack the consumer market, while acknowledging that cheap oil prices make sales in the United States a daunting effort.
Perhaps the most successful battery electric car venture still going -- outside of the DaimlerChrysler GEM program -- is Reva in India. But even here the company has built and sold only a few hundred vehicles, which is statistically insignificant compared to the tens of millions of conventional cars and trucks that are build every year. The fact that it is looking to expand sales into Europe suggests the market in India isn't all that strong despite serious air pollution problems in its major cities.
And yet, the fact that the Michelin Challenge Bibendum paid its respect to battery BEVs by placing two of them -- the Courreges and the Hypermini -- in the center of the opening night ceremony and by letting them lead the way during the two-stage, road rally portion of the competition strongly suggests that in the minds of the event organizers, at least, BEVs still have a role to play in the future of sustainable transportation, if only symbolic for the moment.
Of course, it might also suggest a certain Francophile bias since Courreges is a well-known French fashion firm and Nissan is controlled by Renault, a French auto company. But in this case, we say, Viva la France!
The current industry and media preoccupation with hydrogen and fuel cells has, we believe, only temporarily shifted the spotlight from the critical role BEVs will someday play in bringing sustainable mobility to billions of people. It could well be that the little, two-place Heibao could only be the first trickle in what may turn out to be a veritable flood of inexpensive Asian-built battery electric vehicles that will someday pour out of China and into an increasingly oil-starved world, one that could someday discover that hydrogen turned out to be a technological and/or economic dead-end.
As if to underscore the possibility that China may someday play an important role in EV development, the 2004 Michelin Challenge Bibendum will be held at a brand new auto manufacturing, auto sales and auto racing complex being built on the outskirts of Shanghai. Could it be that American carmakers may again someday find themselves re-badging foreign-made electric vehicles at the expense of American manufacturing jobs, technological prowess and balance of trade? Only time and technology will tell.
Perhaps someday in the future inexpensive, direct-methanol fuel cells will solve many of the problems shared by both fuel cells and batteries, but as the title of a best selling book on business astutely puts it, "Hope is Not A Strategy."
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