Could 2009 be a watershed year for electric drive?
Oil prices may have stabilised after a stomach-churning rollercoaster ride in 2008, but there’s no discernible drop-off in the quest for alternative energy sources. Major manufacturers are churning out hybrids, and alternative fuels such as hydrogen and methanol are very much in the picture. Chevy’s Volt and Toyota’s Prius are still flavour of the month. The dark horse in all of this is fully electric vehicles.
Why the dark horse? Fact is, for all the hype, the world is still waiting for the EV that matches fossil-fuel vehicles on a cost vs. perfomance basis. Yet battery technologies seem to be at a tipping point that hints at a role for electric power far beyond the milk float.
South Africa’s own Joule (see “Power Play”, November 2008) is an ambitious bid for real-world transport that runs on electricity. Success for the Joule and similar vehicles could be the springboard for further developments: electric sedans, sport-utilities and even sports cars. Tackling things from the opposite end are companies such as Tesla, whose highperformance roadster is expected to spawn a sedan with more widespread appeal (and lower cost).
Monaco-based Venturi has followed a similar path to Tesla’s, and has been doing so since long before our recent oil experiences. In fact, Venturi was already building sports cars 20 years ago. Then, in the early 2000s, the company launched what it called the world’s first electric sports car, the Ftish, at the 2004 Paris Motor Show. Steadily updated since, it’s now available with a 220 kW engine and a price to match the principality that it comes from – at current exchange rates, about R4 million.
Besides acting as Venturi’s flagship, the Ftish has been used as a mobile testbed for innovative technologies that are now being used in other Venturi models. A more practical proposition is the little three-seater 15 000 (R180 000) Eclectic.
Ultimate plug-in supercar
The jewel in the Venturi crown, though, is the Volage. Launched at this year’s Paris show. They call it the ultimate electric GT.
Its carbon-fibre chassis and body, shared with the Ftish, has been designed from the outset for an electric car – specifically, to carry a large volume of batteries within its structure. The chassis is designed to protect occupants and batteries during impact, as well as shielding passengers from electromagnetic emissions.
Where the Volage diverges radically is in its drive system. In a collaboration with Michelin, the “ultimate electric GT” uses individual motors to power each of its four wheels. Its Michelin Active Wheel technology uses two electric motors per wheel (one each for the active suspension and one for drive). All the components – from motors to gear reduction units and suspensions – are miniaturised and built into the wheels.
The active electric shock absorber system adapts to the type of road surface and driving style. Combining Michelin’s experience in the area of tyres and suspensions with Venturi’s chassis expertise, the Volage represents a benchmark in automotive technology. According to Venturi, the innovative chassis and body design provides both the Ftish and the Volage with an unequalled level of safety, for both the cars’ passengers and the batteries they carry. Weight distribution – 45 per cent at the front, 55 at the rear – is well suited to sharp handling, and its excellent power to weight ratio (the car weighs just 1 075 kg) enable it to reach 100 km/h in under 5 seconds.
Thanks to a dashboard touch screen, the driver can configure the vehicle’s output according to his requirements. The arrangement marks significant progress in terms of management, particularly of the energy stored in the car’s batteries, says Venturi. The driver can, for example, decide to give preference in certain cases to range rather than power, comfort rather than speed. That’s quite a departure for an electric car.
Designer Sacha Lakic says that he envisaged the “void” as an integral part of the car’s style. “It has been designed by subtraction.” The active suspensions and motors incorporated into the wheels, the flat bottom and the aerodynamic tunnels forming part of the design provided him with the opportunity to take a new approach.
“These choices and technological advances have enabled me to ‘design the void’ usually occupied by the engine and suspensions, and thus explore audacious new paths in terms of styling,” says Lakic. Although the Venturi family relationship is clear, he adds, he’s incorporated, in some of the Volage’s details, a few subtle tributes to certain icons among French cars of the pre-war era – “the most elegant, the ones that were way before their time”.
Like the Ftish, the Volage will be assembled by hand in Monaco. Limited production is scheduled to start in 2012.