Monday, July 27, 2009

She's got electric boots, a mohair suit...

... Didn't we all think years back that we'd be dressed like Benny (and the Jets) by 2009?

I settled for test-driving an all-electric car in France instead...

Belt up, there's about to be a revolution on our roads as manufacturers battle to be the first to get their 'green' car to the masses, writes Susan Daly
Monday July 27 2009

If you saw it in the street, you'd stop and stare. After all most of us think that electric cars belong in the realm of science fantasy, but that won't be the case for much longer. Within 10 years nearly a quarter of a million of us will be zipping around in one of them.

That is the hope of Green Party minister Eamon Ryan. The thing is, didn't we all think we would be cruising through town on hovercrafts by now? Electric vehicles (EVs) has been with us since the 19th century: in the 1830s a Scotsman called Robert Anderson invented a crude electric carriage.

But the technology and conditions to make electric cars a viable option for the masses is only now being delivered. Energy Minister Ryan vowed earlier this year to put 10pc of Ireland's motorists behind the wheel of an EV.

That's ambitious -- but then 15 years ago did we think we would all be walking around with a tiny telephone-camera-music player in our pockets?

For a significant number of drivers to be enticed into abandoning the internal combustion engine, several factors must coincide. Electric cars must be practical and affordable and the infrastructure for charging them efficiently must be in place.

To the first end, a number of leading car manufacturers are currently fine-tuning electric models which they hope to have for sale in the next year or so.

I was let loose in the French countryside to test drive the prototype of Renault's Kangoo Be Bop ZE which they hope to bring to the mass market in 2011.

First things first: this was no tin matchbox on wheels. "It's not a golf cart, it's a real car," Renault's Sebastien Albertus, GM of their electric vehicle section, told me. Right then.

The second surprise was the nearly silent engine. "Is it on?" I asked the Renault engineer as I peered doubtfully at the lit-up dashboard. It was indeed -- and it took off like a greyhound out of the traps when I tipped the accelerator.

Electric engines have no moving parts so they don't need a clutch-operated gearbox. The effect of this is to make you feel utterly calm as the car smoothly moves from 0 to 50kmph in seven seconds. Revving inspires aggression -- the linear acceleration on an electric car doesn't. It's a world without road rage.

There are other new habits to learn: when I'm not pressing the accelerator, the car naturally slows down (the resistance also helps recharge the car whenever you're not accelerating) so I don't really need the brake apart from emergencies. And then there is the aforementioned silent engine.

Apart from a barely perceptible whirring, we zip past apple orchards and wheat fields noiselessly. (The car can reach speeds of 130kmph should you so wish.) At one point, I frighten the bejaysus out of two cyclists who don't notice me until I begin to overtake them on a quiet country lane.

This, I imagine, is a safety issue that would need addressing, especially in Ireland where jaywalking is practically mandatory. But just as we got used to bringing reusable bags to the shops, we would get used to looking before crossing the road. It's almost impossible to imagine our cities without the constant dull roar of traffic -- but this could be the noise-free future.

Renault are hoping to improve the distance the car can travel on a full battery from the current 100km to about 160km, but they are confident all this will be in place by the 2011 launch.

So sure are the major manufacturers that all-electric cars will take off (sadly, not literally as flying cars) that they believe it is only a case of who gets their models to the masses first.

Developments like the lithium-ion battery -- more compact, reliable, recyclable and safer than the old nickel-cadmium batteries -- make the new electric cars more efficient in every way. Some concerns have been raised about the finite supplies of lithium, however, and it is worth noting that half the world's lithium is located in Bolivia; hardly the most politically stable of countries.

But what most of us really want to know is: Where will we plug in our car to recharge, and will it blow an obscene hole in our electricity bill?

This year, the ESB, the Government (probably freaking out about their CO2 emissions), Nissan and Renault have signed a collaboration to improve the infrastructure needed in Ireland for electric cars to be viable.

Homeowners will be encouraged to provide ESB-metered charging points at parking spaces. While it takes a car like the Renault Kangoo between six and eight hours to recharge via household mains, a faster charge (80pc of the battery recharged in 30 minutes) is being developed. Charging the vehicle at off-peak nighttime should only cost a euro or two. As for longer journeys, the plan is to set up recharging stations along routes across the country.

Traditional filling stations might also become quick-drop stations, where an electric car can 'swap' its run-down battery for a fully charged one in three minutes.

And you'll have a little thingey -- that's my scientific term for it -- on the dash to tell you how much power you have left and the location of the nearest charging station.

Some 26 governments in Europe and beyond are offering grants to make up the price between a regular car and the currently costlier electric car. Ireland hasn't announced exactly what incentive it is going to offer buyers, but England is offering a £5,000 handout.

Of course, if you're worried about your carbon footprint, the cars are only as 'green' as the method through which the electricity used to power them is generated in the first place. And it takes as much CO2 to produce an electric car in the first place, as it does an ICE model. But the air pollution emitted by an electric car in motion is absolutely zero.

Quiet, fume-free roads filled with peaceful motorists -- can we get electric buses too?


It's human nature to imagine what the future will look like. At the 1964 New York World Fair visitors stood slack-jawed in front of a miniaturised replica of an American city in the 21st century, called Futurama, which featured moving pavements and computer-guided cars.

Travelators and sat-nav systems -- and now electric cars -- are a reality. Have any of our other space-age dreams come true?


Forty years on from the first human landing on the moon, we presumed we would by now be eating ice-cream cones at zero gravity, and viewing infinity from our deckchairs.

While there have been some commercial space flights -- for the very few and very wealthy -- only 12 humans have ever walked on the moon. So much for spending two weeks just staring into space.


Scientists have teleported a photon but unlike -- say, an atom -- that has no moving parts. Ben Buchler, who works on the Australian National University's teleportation project, says: "If you consider it as a voyage, transporting a human is like a journey from one side of the universe to the other -- and we've come less than a millimetre." So no chance then of uttering the immortal words, "Beam me up, Scotty"?


Aldous Huxley's Brave New World envisaged a world where test-tube babies and a contraceptive pill were realities.

Of course, Huxley's new world was homogenous and amoral -- a dystopia sometimes referenced in the current heated debates on cloning or genetic engineering.


Every kid who has ever strung two tin cans together to create a phone line has dreamed of instant communication. Once the technology was developed to the point where it was made accessible and affordable, mobiles took over from landlines within a few years.

Science fiction writer Arthur C Clarke saw it coming in his writings about satellite communications. But 2001: A Space Odyssey didn't -- Dr Floyd has to pop into a videobooth to call home.


Why we all thought we might be wearing suits made from tinfoil in a technologically advanced world I don't know.

Perhaps it was the best protection we could imagine against rebellious robots. Scientists have, however, developed many 'smart' textiles that are in common use, from sports fabrics that 'wick' sweat away from skin to crease-free holiday clothing.


Frankly, the absence of the jetpack in my everyday life has been of great personal disappointment. Buck Rogers had one in 1928. Sean Connery had one in 1965 Bond film Thunderball -- a variation of the rocket belt, invented in 1961.

Scientists have yet to develop a version that has a useful application. Boo.

1 comment:

  1. Hello!

    Congratulations for the test drive, nice article too.

    We are preparing a pilot project with electric vehicles in Slovenia, (south EU) and are desperatlely trying to connect with mr.Sebastien Albertus of Renault, is there any way you could forward my contact (vladimir(at)ketnaa(dot)com to him or his to me?

    you can veiw my portfolio here:, so you see I am no crazed stalker:)

    best regards