A Glimpse into the Future of Electric Cars

If all-electric vehicles and infrastructure seem far-fetched, wait until you see what developers are working on for the future of the automobile. Automotive engineers and designers are pushing the envelope in their efforts to come up with designs to make tomorrow’s cars and trucks compatible with increasingly densely populated urban areas.

General Motors Company’s EN-V concept vehicle exemplifies the automaker’s view of the future of the automobile. The EN-V is a small, two-seat battery-operated vehicle based on the Segway scooter concept.

In contrast with today’s electric vehicles, with an average battery-only operational range of about 100 miles, the EN-V has a maximum range of only 25 miles and a top speed of just 25 mph. The key improvement of the EN-V can be found in the “N” designation which stands for “Networked”. Three versions of GM’s EN-V (Electric Networked Vehicle) which was developed with the automaker’s Chinese partner, Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation, were unveiled at the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai last March.

According to Nissan Research Center’s Mobility Service Laboratory general manager, Takeshi Mitamura, three trends are currently driving the development of micro vehicles: the move away from traditional, fossil fuels, increased urbanization and an aging world population. He says automobiles will have to become much smaller, much more maneuverable and much more “intelligent” in order to accommodate those changes.

GM’s EN-V is a good example of the smaller, more maneuverable vehicles to come and it networking capabilities give it the ability to communicate with other network enabled vehicles and the electric grid as well as other infrastructures.

GM’s director of advanced technology vehicle concepts, and co-author of “Reinventing the Automobile” Chris Borroni-Bird said, “That’s a game-changer.”

Networked vehicles, like the EN-V, can be programmed to drive themselves from Point A to Point B and can avoid colliding with each other and other objects along the way. This ability eliminated the need for a driver and passengers are free to relax or take care of social or work-related tasks.

The network can also provide information about available parking spaces and the best, least congested route to the passenger’s destination.

Eliminating the possibility of collisions with other vehicles or buildings will allow automakers to build their vehicles from lighter materials with less body structure and fewer safety features than are currently found in automobiles. Borroni-Bird said that would translate into much smaller, lighter vehicles and would also represent a significant cost saving for manufacturers.

For collision-avoidance capabilities to work, however, every vehicle within any given area would need to be networked. Borroni-Bird said, “It’s got to be a case of all or nothing,” and suggests that designated guided-vehicle zones may be created, for example, in large metro areas and on college campuses.

He said that, although the move from gasoline- and diesel-powered vehicles will reduce tailpipe emissions, the only way to optimize traffic flow and parking, and reduce vehicular accidents is through networking. “If you just focus on ‘clean’ and we all switch to electrics, what we end up with is still gridlock,” he said.

He said a number of large metropolitan areas like Mumbai, India and Shanghai, China can’t build infrastructure fast enough to keep up with the explosive growth in auto ownership. London has introduced “congestion pricing” to minimize the amount of traffic in the city’s center and a similar initiative was considered in New York City but never implemented.

In addition to GM’s EN-V concept vehicle, a number of other futuristic concept vehicles are currently being developed. A team of researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently developed a concept vehicle called the CityCar that can be folded up to a mere 60 inches in length for parking.

The M.I.T. researches also see the CityCar as the ideal vehicle for what they call “mobility on demand” which is similar to the vehicle sharing model pioneered by companies like Zipcar.

BMW has also confirmed that it plans to build a purpose-built electric car it calls the Megacity. The company plans to launch the first Megacity model as soon as 2013. BMW of North America’s manager of electric-vehicle operations, Rich Steinberg, said the Megacity urban vehicle will be build using carbon-fiber plastic and will compatible with 480-volt commercial fast chargers as well as residential 240-volt charging units. Steinberg said, “Our concept is to use electric power to reduce emissions within the city environment, with enough capacity for passengers and cargo, with the smallest footprint that makes the most sense.”

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