For most Americans, the appeal of electric vehicles is somewhat blunted by the fact that they tend to be small, European-style hatchbacks rather than large, red-blooded “American-style” sedans. But what if large, rear-drive electric sedans were developed, using battery-swap technology that could allow battery-leasing business models and instant range-extension? Might Americans rethink a few of their long-held stereotypes about EVs?
Well, the United States isn’t the only nation facing this dilemma, and unlike the US, Australia is actually doing something about it. Australian automotive suppliers, Air International, Bosch, Continental and Futuris, have teamed up with Project Better Place to develop seven “proof of concept” Holden Commodore-based rear-drive electric sedans that could be the first of their kind [press release here in PDF] in a joint venture called EV Engineering. The project is part of Australia’s effort to revamp its automotive industry by 2020.
Holden is only peripherally involved in the the $26m JV, providing engineering support and use of its proving grounds, according to drive.com.au, but several former Holden executives are heading the project. And the project is almost entirely privately-funded as well, with a mere $3.5m coming from the Australian government’s now-defunct green car innovation fund. The project has no plans to put EV Commodores into production, but each participating supplier will use the vehicles to develop know-how around large, rear-drive electric vehicles, a segment that does not yet exist in the marketplace. The idea is that, down the road, the research will help Australia become the global auto industry’s source of rear-drive EV technology and experience.
The projects goals, beyond building the seven prototypes, are:
1) Deliver zero emissions motoring when powered by renewable electricity and greater than 30% reduction in CO2 emissions when powered on grid average electricity.
(2) Deliver the same high standards of safety and feature available in this class of vehicle while delivering comparable performance.
(3) Be designed for a manufacturing cost equivalent to top selling petrol vehicles in this class, without battery. (Batteries will be included as part of monthly electric vehicle charge network subscriptions, replacing petrol costs.)
(4) Be capable of accessing both EV charge spots and ‘battery switch’ stations for unlimited range extension. Additionally, the project will help to develop electric vehicle engineering skills and components within the Australian supplier industry for potential export to car makers globally, with opportunities including battery pack design and thermal management systems.
This project is highly significant on a number of levels. First, battery-swap-enabled large sedans operating in Australia could show the way forward for the US, by breaking stereotypes about EV size, capability and operating environments. Second, the project marks the first sign of flirtation between General Motors and Project Better Place’s battery-swap-based business. Though Holden is not an official partner, there’s no doubt that GM will be keeping a very close eye on the project, especially given its possible applicability to the United States. Thus far, only Renault has officially signed on as a Better Place vehicle supplier. Finally, by spurring on development of an EV based on Australia’s best-selling car, Better Place strengthens its position in the Australian market, which could also inspire more interest from American governments and automakers in the batter-swap business.