Driving the X Prize winners

  • Li-Ion Motors EVI WAVE II
  • Edison2 Very Light Car Picture by Brent Clark
Date:27 January 2011 Tags:,

Three weeks after the Progressive Insurance Automotive X Prize handed out $10 million to three winners, PM took the Edison2 Very Light Car and the Li-Ion Motors Wave II for exclusive test drives.

Even the door of the Edison2 Very Light Car reminds you of its otherworldliness; it’s like a huge carbon-fibre potato chip.

That portal illustrates what we’ve long known – light weight translates into good fuel economy. The Edison2 won the mainstream class, the toughest of the three Automotive X Prize categories. That means room for four and a 320-kilometre range. It also had to meet or beat current emissions requirements and have a chance at passing crash tests. Running on E85, the VLC returned the equivalent of 2,3 litres/100 km.

Start the engine and the gauges on the steering wheel come to life. The 30-kilowatt 250-cm3 Yamaha single whirs audibly from its mounts at the rear of the car. There’s no sound deadening or even a decent radio to muffle the racket. It’s hot inside, too, owing to the absence of usable air conditioning or even rolldown windows. But those features add weight – as do batteries, which is why the VLC isn’t electric – and the Edison2 tips the scales at just 377 kilograms, a quarter the heft of most cars. There’s barely 2 centimetres between my shoulder and my passenger, a consequence of the car’s minuscule body width, which combines with the slippery shape for an astonishing 0,16 coefficient of drag. The car requires just a few kilowatts to cruise at 100 km/h, less than a third of what your neighbour’s Honda Accord needs to travel at the same speed.

The VLC was designed by race engineers, a fact that’s immediately evident on the road. The unassisted steering is light and direct, and the shifter positively engages each gear of the sequential five-speed manual. Acceleration is acceptable, if not exactly brisk. In terms of feel, it mimics a small-bore open-wheel race car – responsive, eager to change direction and actually kind of fun. The Edison2 team invented a new suspension system that fits entirely inside the car’s outrigger wheels. These mount on extruded aluminium beams that run transversely across the width of the car at the front and the back. In the event of a crash, they’re designed to peel off, dissipating energy while the steel-tube chassis deflects away from the impact – a novel idea that has yet to be tested. But it’s a bumpy ride, owing to the maximum of 100 mm of suspension that could be fitted into the 15-inch wheels. Brad Jaeger, Edison2’s R&D director, said that a design using 18-inch wheels and 175 mm of travel is in the works.

While Edison2 is currently looking for a manufacturer to produce and sell a version of the VLC, Li-Ion Motors is already taking orders for its winner, the Wave II. The company says the all-electric car will cost R265 000 in the USA, and should be available by next year. In the side-by-side alternative class, the Wave II proved astonishingly efficient, returning the equivalent of 1,26 litres/100 km and beating the slick Aptera 2e, thanks in part to proprietary battery technology. It also appears to have an effective method for quickly recharging those batteries, claiming that it can fast-charge the pack while maintaining the temperature to within a few degrees, lengthening its life. The company would not go into specifics, so it’s fair to say that the batteries and charging system – as well as the Wave II’s crash-worthiness – await further testing.

Like the Edison car, the Wave II makes sacrifices in the name of miserly energy use. The electric motor smartly whips the car up to speed, but the power trails off dramatically once it reaches highway cruising velocity. Without an internal combustion engine, there’s just a whir from the driveline, but it isn’t quiet inside. The chassis groans and the springs creak as this future ride crashes over bumps. The body covering the steel-tube chassis makes for a slippery 0,16 drag coefficient, but it lacks a rear window, and the video cameras used for rearward vision aren’t terribly helpful.

According to Ron Cerven, the Li-Ion Motors team leader, many of those issues are the result of the car being optimised for the contest. Production models will have a 30 per cent larger battery pack, a more powerful motor and refinements that aim to shed the car’s kit-car feel. All those features, however, will negatively affect its efficiency.

It’s hard to imagine even small-volume niche vehicles existing without convenience features. Li-Ion’s struggle will be to civilise its car so it’s a viable alternative to Nissan’s all-electric Leaf. The struggle for all of us as we face a future using less carbon-based fuel will be to realise that we may not be able to have it all. That lesson could be the X Prize’s most important legacy.

Edison2 Very Light Car
Type: 4-passenger with petrol engine
Length: 424 cm
Weight: 377 kg
Power: 30 kW
Economy: 2,3 litres/100 km

Li-Ion Motors EVI WAVE II
Type: 2-passenger EV
Length: 386 cm
Weight: 976 kg
Power: 43 kW
Economy: 1,26 litres/100 km

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