The Economist, 10 March 2011
The Rolls-Royce Phantom 102EX Concept on display at the Geneva Motor Show had a surprise under the bonnet. In place of a polished, gleaming cylinder-head there were batteries and electric motors to drive the 2.5-tonne aluminium giant. This was just a one-off concept car for a world tour to see what the super-rich think of having their everyday transport run on electricity rather than petrol.
Less opulent examples of luxury cars going electric were also in evidence. Lexus (the luxury brand of Toyota) showed off seven petrol-electric hybrid models, while Land Rover, Porsche, Mercedes-Benz and BMW (the owner of Rolls-Royce) all had hybrids on show.
Until recently only Lexus among the premium brands seemed likely to follow its parent company, which has made more than 2m of its pioneering Prius hybrids since 1997. The Prius itself has evolved, and Toyota now offers an upmarket, seven-seater people-carrier version, with a lighter lithium-ion battery instead of the nickel-metal-hydride technology in earlier models. In Europe one in five Toyota and Lexus cars sold will soon be hybrids, and the Prius is already the company’s best-selling model in Japan.
However, now Toyota and Lexus hybrids are being joined by other, posher cars, as manufacturers feel the noose tightening on their tailpipes. ‘Society and governments want to move towards zero emissions from cars,’ said Ian Robertson, BMW’s Board Member for Sales and Marketing. The enthusiasm of Japanese customers for hybrids is also spurring on the Europeans.
BMW’s electric cars are confined to its new i sub-brand for the moment, but a hybrid BMW 5 series and a 3 series will come to market this year and next. BMW’s i-models tuck away their batteries and electric motors under the floor, leaving plenty of room for passengers and luggage.
Carl-Peter Forster, Chief Executive of Tata Motors, which owns the upmarket Jaguar and Land Rover brands, reckons that within ten years up to 80% of premium cars will be powered by hybrid engines. Over the past ten years such cars had largely switched from petrol to diesel for better fuel economy and lower taxes.
Volume-car companies are all bringing pure electric vehicles to market, but the batteries needed to power a big limousine would be too heavy. So hybrids are the obvious answer, according to Mr Forster. Even so, an all-battery Roller may yet cruise the highways, given advances in technology spurred by the electric enthusiasm of the car industry. ‘We’ll see batteries advance more in five years than they have in the last 100 years,’ predicts Mr Robertson. BMW can make such a prediction confidently because of the progress it sees in universities, research centres and some start-up companies.
Petrol-electric hybrids are not the only alternative to all-battery cars. At the Frankfurt motor show in September, alongside hybrid versions of its largest cars, Daimler will show off versions of its Mercedes A-class and B-class models that can be powered by battery, petrol-electric hybrid or fuel-cell hybrid. Daimler’s director of research and development, Thomas Weber, says the company has succeeded in bringing down the price of fuel-cell systems (which run on hydrogen) ready for mass production whenever Germany or maybe California starts building the world’s first network of hydrogen filling stations.
Three fuel-cell cars are on a world tour to drum up support for such infrastructure, which Mr Weber argues costs no more than a network of charging stations. Batteries and petrol-hybrids are centre-stage for now but fuel-cell vehicles, which look like being the best for long journeys, still have the capacity to be strong contenders, for cheaper cars as well as fancy ones.
[Source: The Economist]
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