Pragmatic Electric Strategies the Rage in Geneva

Pragmatism continued Tuesday on day two of the Geneva Motor Show, as automakers more displayed creative means of developing electric vehicles (EVs) in spite of an industry-wide cash crunch. Monday it was PSA Peugeot Citroën unveiling a nascent partnership with Mitsubishi to craft a Peugeot version of the i-MiEV, the battery-powered micro-car that Mitsubishi is preparing to launch in Japan this summer. Yesterday it was Ford Motor and India’s Tata Motors showing EVs they can push to market quick by literally swapping the engine and fuel tank out of petroleum-powered vehicles and popping in batteries and electric motors.

ratan-tata-presents-the-indica-vista-ev-at-geneva1

Ford displays an especially low-budget, low-risk approach with its BEV (battery EV) Tourneo Connect concept vehicle, a 5-8 passenger van with a 160-kilometer range. The BEV Tourneo Connect rolled off a Ford assembly line in Turkey as a conventional truck and was then re-engineered in the U.K. by electric truck producer Smith Electric Vehicles. Smith was happy to do it, because transforming Ford trucks is a key part of their business plan.

Smith dates to the 1920s, making it the world’s oldest continuous producer of EVs. For most of that time they produced clunky, limited-range trucks propelled by lead-acid batteries. (“Like a battleship” is how their media relations manager Dan Jenkins put it in Geneva.) Recently Smith has gone upscale, incorporating lithium batteries to boost range and loading them into Ford trucks to produce a vehicle of much higher quality. Ford’s role is simply to sell Smith the truck, and then buy back the engines and other parts that Smith yanks out.

The BEV Tourneo Connect could make the Ford-Smith relationship much more interesting. Ford and Smith announced a partnership last month under which Smith will expand beyond Europe by making a commercial EV version of the Tourneo for sale in the U.S. under the Ford brand. And with the BEV concept vehicle Smith has now completed crucial engineering for a passenger version that Ford hopes to produce.

The engineering challenge was getting the batteries out of the interior of the vehicle. Smith’s first adaptations of Ford trucks carried a suitcase-sized lithium battery module in the truck’s cargo bay. In contrast, the BEV Tourneo Connect breaks its battery into 3-4 modules that can squeeze into the exterior compartment vacated by the fuel tank.

Tata, meanwhile, is presenting a prototype of a battery-powered version of its Indica sedan at Geneva with a 200-km-plus range. Tata ships Indica frames from India to Norway, where its technology partner (and partial subsidiary) Miljøbil Grenland adds lithium batteries co-developed with Canada’s Electrovaya and a motor and controller from TM4 (a subsidiary of Canadian utility Hydro-Quebec). Tata Group chairman Ratan Tata announced yesterday that the Indica Vista EV goes on sale in Norway in September.

Both EVs should sell in the thousands, according to their backers — at least in European countries such as the UK and Norway where EVs benefit from high gas prices, generous government incentives, and relatively high environmental consciousness.

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This post was created for the Technology Review Potential Energy blog

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