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For those of you interested:

The automotive landscape is changing at a faster rate than at any time since the birth of the car, impelled by concerns over climate change, air quality and the depletion of the fossil fuels upon which we have all become so dependent. Consider it a rebirth. Because we’re now faced with the same challenging questions that faced the pioneers of motoring. Petrol or diesel? Perhaps biofuels or other alternative fuels. Electric or hybrid? Back when those questions were first posed the answers only had commercial implications; nowadays, in a ‘worst case’ scenario, the consequences could impact upon the survival of the species. Even if you dismiss such an outcome as hysterical overstatement, the prospect of ‘peak oil’ (the point where cumulatively over the years we’ve used more oil than is left underground) within our generation is scary enough, while in countries such as America, energy security is increasingly a cause for anxiety. No wonder there’s tremendous pressure for car manufacturers to ‘do the right thing’.

The right thing – precisely what is that? It is, of course, the key issue right now. And it has become abundantly clear that there is no single ‘thing’; there are ‘things’, plural, that will steer us towards cleaner, more efficient vehicles, but we need to determine what are the best solutions for particular applications and keep our eyes and ears open for emerging technologies. What makes this task potentially more difficult is the fact that the car industry, in its broadest sense, is on the brink of numerous technological breakthroughs, but we still need to implement interim changes while these advances come to fruition.

Keeping track of what environmental solutions are already out there, which are the most important of those waiting in the wings, and which embryonic ideas might show long-term promise, is a time-consuming and complex business. But a vital one. Which is why Lotus Engineering has established a dedicated HEV & EV Technologies division, under the stewardship of Phil Barker, to identify, observe, experiment with and implement the new technologies, as well as consolidate Lotus Engineering’s considerable experience in producing efficient, clean and fun to drive vehicles.

It’s in the nature of automotive engineering consultancies to go about their business with the minimum of recognition – for the sake of client confidentiality – so it’s little known that Lotus Engineering has been working on electric and hybrid vehicles for the past 19 years. In a way that experience extends back 26 years, because the vital control strategy systems required to make gasoline and electric motors co-operate with one another are basically the same as the active systems developed by Lotus Engineering’s Control Group for the company’s Formula One racing activities.

The company first became involved with a hybrid project back in 1990 and during the following decade participated in several more; unsurprisingly, activity has intensified over the last five years and has included electric vehicle, or EV, projects too. What’s interesting is that the trend towards purpose-built ‘green’ cars is attracting investment from outside the normal automotive arena, and a number of these start-up car companies have turned to Lotus Engineering for feasibility studies, model making, prototype building, manufacturing advice and more.

It’s not just relevant experience that makes Lotus Engineering attractive to these start-up outfits (not to mention major OEMs); it is able to make quick decisions because of its compact internal structure and is flexible because it doesn’t have a legacy of largescale investment in things like engine plants that require a healthy return on their investment. Open-mindedness, innovation, and vehicle efficiency have always been at the heart of Lotus’s engineering ethos, and with so many client projects broadening the knowledge pool over the years, it’s perhaps only to be expected that the company is already deeply involved with a number of diverse ‘eco-car’ assignments.

Of the projects not tightly bound by client confidentiality agreements, the EVE (Efficient. Viable. Environmental) Hybrid is one of the more fascinating, largely because of its near-term relevance. The aim of the project – conducted in conjunction with Lotus shareholder, Proton – was to apply hybrid technology to an existing model range and achieve a 22% reduction in CO2 emissions. Cost effectively. And quickly. The base vehicle in this instance was a Proton Gen 2 compact saloon with a 1.6-litre gasoline engine. It was fitted with a belt-driven starter generator to give it start/stop capability; on its own this resulted in a 5% fuel saving. It also had a CVT automatic gearbox to ensure its engine ran at peak efficiency more often. And it had a parallel hybrid system, incorporating regenerative braking, that even with ‘old school’ metal hydride batteries enabled EVE to run for short distances (up to 5km) on electric power only – with the latest lithium batteries that range is expected to extend to 30km. Even in its first iteration, however, EVE not only achieved the target fall in CO2 but also posted a 28% improvement in fuel consumption.

Another recent, but entirely different, project was a collaboration with Siemens VDO – now owned by Continental – to create a ‘mild’ hybrid. Based on a Vauxhall/Opel Astra, this replaced the standard 1.8-litre four-cylinder gasoline engine with a double act of 12kW electric motor and a downsized gasoline engine, a Lotus-designed 1.5-litre turbocharged three-cylinder unit. Thanks also to some sophisticated combustion technology, this dynamic duo cut CO2 emissions by 15%, produced fuel economy akin to a diesel, and improved performance over the 1.8. And it was a relatively low-cost solution. It also proved that far from its days being numbered, the spark ignition engine still has lots of potential left to exploit.

Let’s abandon internal combustion for a second and turn to pure electric cars. Pure electric cars with a modicum of acceptability with the general public, that is. When a Europe-based lithium battery maker needed a showcase for its technology it turned to Lotus Engineering to convert a Vauxhall/Opel Corsa to electric-only power. To help maintain a sense of normality, Lotus Engineering retained the clutch pedal and gearstick so that it could be driven like a gasoline version. More crucially, however, were the facts that the electric Corsa had a 90-mile range so potentially could be used every day, and it could be charged overnight from a domestic power socket. The current limitations and forthcoming advances in battery technology are areas in which Lotus Engineering focuses much attention. So too is the need for government-level infrastructure – as is being pioneered on a very small scale by Westminster council with its car park charging facilities – to enable greater take-up of electric powered vehicles.

Hydrogen fuel cell technology has been a headline-grabber for the last few years, and again Lotus Engineering is investigating this as part of a collaborative venture with taxi maker LTI, Intelligent Energy and TRW Conekt. In a project funded by the UK Government Technology Strategy Board, the goal is a zero emission TX4 London cab for use at the 2012 London Olympic Games that is also commercially viable for general use in other cities around the world from 2014. Also part of the Technology Strategy Board’s overall suite of projects is Limo-Green, a luxury hybrid executive saloon capable of CO2 emissions of just 120g/km. Lotus Engineering is working on this scheme – that involves an advanced drive motor, small battery pack and small prime movers – with Jaguar Cars, MIRA Ltd and Caparo Vehicle Technologies. Lotus Engineering’s primary role is to develop the prime mover that will power the Jaguar on non-urban roads; it could also be termed a ‘range extender’ engine. Because there’s no mechanical link between the engine and the road wheels – the engine powers a generator that produces electricity for the motors that drive the wheels and recharge the battery pack – the engineers have decided to keep the engine spinning at a speed and load range that’s best for peak efficiency, which allows all the engine’s components and systems to be optimised for these running conditions.

These are just a few examples of the scope of Lotus Engineering’s commitment to the future of hybrid and electric vehicles. The company is also looking into quick and easy solutions such as low rolling resistance tyres, advanced lubricants to reduce the internal friction losses of engines and gearboxes, and ways to cut heat loss in cooling systems. Then there are lightweight vehicle structures to consider, packaging efficiencies that arise when drive motors are in the wheels rather than under the bonnet, and alternative construction materials – the recent Eco Elise study used sustainable hemp, ecowool and sisal in the manufacture of its bodywork and trim and shed 32kg in the process. It is not just automotive technologies that Lotus provides their extensive expertise on however. Although widely known for its automotive engineering excellence, a ‘flow battery’ project brings to light the diverse skills base that has been nurtured and refined at its headquarters in Hethel, Norfolk. A novel ‘flow battery’ was developed, capable of delivering high power capacity for an extended period of time at low cost. The project involved a collaboration of Applied Intellectual Capital (AIC), Electrochemical Design Associates (EDA) and Lotus Engineering. The resulting technology has a range of key applications, including
large scale power storage for use with renewable power generation. The project produced large scale 250kW modules capable of offering up to eight to ten hours of continuous high capacity discharge. Novel flow battery technology, such as that developed in this current programme, is key to improving power supply-demand quality, reliability and efficiency.

It’s a confusing and frenetic yet exciting time to be in the car industry, provided you can move swiftly and respond with appropriate technology. As Lotus Engineering has discovered, you have to be adaptable, knowledgeable and be prepared to mix technologies; whole vehicle energy management is critical. But while automakers rocket ahead to meet the energy and climate related challenges of the 21st century, legislation and infrastructure lag far behind. The infrastructure won’t accelerate until legislation either encourages or demands it – preferably both – but the legislators have yet to grasp the intricacies and ultimate benefits of the new technologies. Educating the legislators could turn out to be as important a task as developing the next generation of hybrid and electric vehicles.
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