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Lotus and Electric Cars

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Lotus and Electric Cars

Lotus is best known for producing driver-focused sports cars, so what happens when the company combines this expertise with the development of an electric car?

The result is a vehicle that we should all be excited about. Electric cars promise to provide a mobility solution that results in zero-tailpipe emissions, which is to be applauded. However the fact is that thanks to their common format of battery, motor and single-speed transmission, the vast majority of electric cars drive in a similar way, and they are not particularly engaging for the driver when compared to today’s Lotus products.

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Lotus, or more accurately Lotus Engineering, believes that it has a solution to this issue, which will combine the environmental benefits of an electric car with a more interactive driving experience. The car in which this technology will be demonstrated is the Lotus Evora 414Evolution, a series hybrid. However the engineering solution is currently being tested in a Proton EMAS hybrid city car package (Proton being the owners of Lotus since 1996). A city car may not sound as exciting as an Evora, but as far as city cars go, this one has particularly modern and dynamic styling, both inside and out (thanks to Ital Design).

We took the Proton EMAS development car for a spin around Lotus’s brand new test track, and although the car is still in development, it proves that the technology works. We drove the car in electric-mode only, but the eventual solution will be an electric car with a Lotus range-extender generator on board. This means that for many journeys, the car will operate purely as an electric car. However, if you need to drive for a longer distance than the range of the batteries will allow (the EV range is currently around 30 miles, which results in an emissions figure of around 60 g/km CO2), the car can still do this, with the help of the on-board petrol engine, which will give an additional 320 miles of range. This powers the electric motor until the car can be recharged – or refuelled with petrol, although the car will demonstrate greatest efficiency when recharged with electricity overnight (which should take around four hours) rather than using the petrol engine.

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It’s also possible to control the system so that the generator works when driving outside the city, so saving the battery so that it can operate in EV mode in urban areas, as access may only be granted to electric vehicles in certain urban areas in the future.

So is it a hybrid like a Toyota Prius? Well, not exactly, as such hybrids are traditionally powered mainly by the internal combustion engine, with battery assistance, whereas the Lotus will primarily be an electric car, with back-up from a petrol engine; in other words, almost the opposite to a Prius.

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So is it like the Chevrolet Volt or Vauxhall Ampera? In other words an E-REV – an extended-range electric vehicle – which is essentially an electric vehicle with a back-up petrol engine in case the battery becomes depleted. Yes – but the Lotus system has the potential to be better for a number of reasons.

Firstly, the petrol engine in the Volt is an off-the shelf unit that is used as the main form of propulsion in other current production cars, whereas the Lotus unit has been specifically designed, with Spanish company Fagor Ederlan, to be a range-extender generator for an electric car. That means that the 1.3-litre, 3-cylinder unit, which can run on petrol, ethanol or methanol, is lighter, more compact, and optimised to work at the sort of rev range that is needed in its role as a generator, ie. between around 1500-3500 rpm. It meets Euro 6 emissions standards and the latest version of the unit also features a supercharger. Therefore Lotus’s solution should be more efficient.

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However there’s more. The next exciting thing about the Evora prototype is that it has a simulated gearshift system, operated by paddles behind the steering wheel. This means that drivers who like driving, in other words the sort of people who would buy a Lotus sports car, will feel as though they have more engagement with the vehicle. Those clever Lotus engineers have even found a way to mimic the torque shift that you experience when you change gear.

As if all that wasn’t enough, Lotus has also addressed the issue of sound. The all-electric Tesla Roadster, developed with the help of Lotus, is an undeniably impressive car, but it doesn’t create the same emotions as a petrol-powered Evora in terms of its sound (as the Tesla doesn’t make any sound). So Lotus has applied its HALOsonic technology to produce artificial sound, and this works both inside the car in conjunction with the simulated gearshift system, as well as outside of the car for the benefit of pedestrians.

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On the Evora demonstration prototype, you can choose between a number of sound options, ranging from a V6 to a V12 petrol engine, or even a spaceship-like noise. As well as making the driving experience more interesting, this technology also addresses potential legal issues, as Japan and America are leading the way with their intention to introduce legislation to ensure that electric cars emit some form of sound for safety reasons. Lotus believes that specific sounds will offer new product branding opportunities in the future for car manufacturers.

So, the resultant driving experience should be one that primarily has zero-tailpipe emissions, but without any range anxiety, combined with the physical feeling of changing gear and the appropriate noise.

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And of course all that technology will be in a Lotus Evora, one of the world’s best handling cars. Electric cars have just become much more exciting. And remember that Lotus has ambitious new model plans that are due to be rolled out over the forthcoming years. Ironically, despite all the work that the company is doing to reduce CO2, which includes lightweighting as well as developing electric technology, the average CO2 emissions of Lotus are almost guaranteed to increase by introducing new, higher performance cars into the range. Therefore the brand will need to do everything it can to apply low carbon technology to its new model range. And the signs are that this is happening, as the 2015 Elise is expected to produce 300 hp, yet still emit only 149 g/km CO2.

However the fact is that if this technology only appeared in the Evora, or in Lotus’s planned new models, then it wouldn’t be experiencing huge adoption. So Lotus plans to license the range extender unit to other companies. The engine has been designed to work vertically or horizontally, maximising the chances of it fitting within the architecture of different vehicles.

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The engine will also be available with two outputs, either 35 or 50 kW of electrical power generation – the smaller output will be used for city cars, and the larger output used for vehicles such as Jaguar’s XJ Limo Green, which uses the Lotus technology, as Lotus and Jaguar collaborated as part of a Technology Strategy Board project. The actual engine will be available in 2012 in production form.

The efforts being made by Lotus are impressive, but it should be remembered that all electric cars are just moving the CO2 emissions from the tailpipe to the power station. So we now need the UK’s electricity generation to make similar strides towards low carbon – but that’s another story. In the meantime Lotus is promising to give us electric cars that will also appeal to people who enjoy driving; we wish the company every success with this goal, as well as with its ambitious new model plans over the coming years. There’s a lot going on behind the scenes at Lotus and at Lotus Engineering, and it shows that the UK is still a leader in the global automotive industry in areas such as the innovative design and engineering of efficient cars.

Paul Clarke

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