Electric Cars. 130 Years On and Still Stuck in Second Gear

02-07-2015 |   |  By Paul Whytock

Expensive to buy and run, lack of range, slow charging from inadequate networks and environmentally not the saviours of the planet we are led to believe. These are just some of the reasons why sales of electric vehicles (EVs) are still plodding along in the slow lane, despite first being thought of more than 170 years ago with English inventor Thomas Parker creating the first production built EV in London back in 1884.

However, a positive note for EVs is that aesthetically they have moved on from the hideous looking early models that certainly scared off potential buyers into very attractive designs from companies like Tesla.

But even the car mad Germans have failed to embrace EVs, despite one of their favourite car makers, BMW, making some great looking and performing electric cars. In fact, France and Britain are way ahead of Germany when it comes to buying EVs.

Part of the problem in Germany is a lack of charging stations. There are nearly 5,000, which on the surface sounds pretty good until you look at France with its 15,700 charging stations. And when it comes to the actual number of EVs on the road Germany scores about 23, 000 with the UK ahead of that with 32,500.

So Germany has to play catch-up on EV adoption and as is so often the case with a country that has a phenomenally rich engineering ethos one of the ways it will do this be by technically improving one of the key EV stumbling blocks, slow re-charging and lack of range.

The German automotive industry, Infineon and Research Institutions and universities have got together on a research project that will develop component systems for high-power electric drives.

A research project called HV-ModAL (a German acronym that translates as modular drivetrain topologies for electric vehicles with high power) aims to make the drive trains of EVs much more capable than existing ones. Part of the plan is to create an electric drive train modular system which would be compatible with a range of vehicles from various manufacturers.

Key to this is the development of a power bandwidth between 50kW and 250kW with the range of the vehicles further extended. Today, 125kW and an operational range of 150 kilometres are typical.

Research will address IGBT power modules for high-power drives up to 250kW and high voltages of up to 900V, modular multi-level DC/DC converters, batteries with integrated DC/DC converters and system components for batteries over 600V.

To design these components, then tune them to one another, the research partners are developing a flexible system simulation model for different vehicle platforms. To verify the theoretical results, optimised components and architectures will be built as demonstration models and tested. The results will form the basis of HV-ModAL system designs.

And here's one of the reasons why Germany so often succeeds on its engineering projects, sufficient funding and project partners that are not only well qualified but prepared to see the project through to fruition.

Over the duration of the project, about €7.5 million will be invested. Half of this will be funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research and the project will run until the end of 2017. Infineon Technologies has the project lead.

So who's involved? Project partners include car manufacturers BMW and Daimler, automobile system supplier Robert Bosch GmbH, the drive system developer AVL, the Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Systems and Device Technology, the Leibnitz Universität Hannover, the Universität der Bundeswehr München, RWTH Aachen University and Infineon Technologies AG.

So could this engineering project spell the end of a now well-documented consumer concern regarding EVs called Range Anxiety, or Bereich Angstzustände as it may be called in Germany, the fear of being stranded because of a vehicle's inability to reach its destination? Maybe, but not entirely. Not until the network of re-charging stations is sufficiently widespread, no matter what country.


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By Paul Whytock

Paul Whytock is European Editor for Electropages. He has reported extensively on the electronics industry in Europe, the United States and the Far East for over twenty years. Prior to entering journalism he worked as a design engineer with Ford Motor Company at locations in England, Germany, Holland and Belgium.

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