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Electric cars on the move -

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Electric cars on the move

Developments in batteries mean the heavy lead batteries of the past are being replaced by lighter
lithium batteries. These supply power and speed, seen as essential for car batteries. Now, in
Finland, electric motors are being developed to convert petrol cars to electric power. The next
challenge is to develop a system of charging points away from the home.


Robyn Williams: Research continues to change the world, change it back in the case of electric
cars, which were with us long ago, then removed. So what's happening now? Here's Rebecca Martin in
Perth talking to Tuarn Brown, president of the Electric Vehicle Association.

Tuarn Brown: Probably two years ago we had a Melbourne and Sydney branch and maybe 140 members. We
now have Perth, Melbourne, Sydney, Canberra and we're looking at a Brisbane branch, and in fact
we're now getting interest again from New Zealand which actually had occurred in the past in EVs
(electric vehicles). Meetings are typically monthly at those locations and there can be between 50
and 100 people turning up to those meetings really thirsty for information largely about
conversions because that's really what's available to them at the moment. There is no commercial
manufacturer offering them an EV on the showroom floor. We're conscious of not misleading people
into them being able to just simply walk out into a conversion, you need some knowledge, but then
remembering that in the community there are a lot of quite mechanically and technically capable
people, and electric conversions are not all that complex.

Rebecca Martin: There are already hundreds of converted electric cars on Australian roads, and
making them more attractive is improving technology. In particular, the old heavy lead batteries
are being replaced by lithium batteries, which is giving car lovers the two things they love most;
power and speed.

Tuarn Brown: I think probably the first converted electric car in Australia to run on lithium
batteries that were available to a private purchaser was probably converted about two years ago.

Rebecca Martin: So quite recently.

Tuarn Brown: So it is quite recent. The batteries themselves have been around for probably 20 or 30
years, but in a form where they're actually purchasable by a general user and not by somebody at a
research level with a $200,000 budget, that's actually only been very recent.

Rebecca Martin: And so are you expecting this to make a big change to the number of electric cars
on the roads?

Tuarn Brown: Yes, I think so, because it immediately gives you at least a three-fold improvement in
a vehicle's range or performance, which of course makes a big leap in interest and acceptability in
the electric car to the public.

Rebecca Martin: And what about the cost of getting your car converted to electric professionally?
What are the costs involved?

Tuarn Brown: The costs of the materials themselves, a motor, a controller for it and the battery
pack...the battery pack will be the largest of the three costs, and then there will be the labour
cost if you are actually taking it to a workshop to fit it. One of the issues there with the labour
cost of course is because most of the conversions are one-offs for that particular car that you're
taking in, so there's a lot of individual components that have to be made up and mounted, the
labour cost is higher than if there was, say, a standard kit for a standard model car. One can
actually imagine getting to the point where you go to a local hardware store and buy a kit of the
necessary parts to go into a car, and if you're either competent as a D.I.Y. (do it yourself) or
you can then take it to a workshop you can actually have it fitted because all the manufacturing
and machining is actually already done and it comes in a kit form.

Rebecca Martin: Enter Finnish group E-Cars Now. Tired of waiting for car manufacturers to bring
electric cars to the market, they're doing it themselves. They've pooled together all the
automotive brains they can to design prototypes of electric engines for the most popular cars
driven in Finland. Jiri Rasanen from E-Cars Now says they hope to have the first prototype electric
engine for the Toyota Corolla finished by the end of the year.

Jiri Rasanen: There have been singular conversions all along since the early 70s, and these are
fine but if you want to have an electric car that's suitable for the average person, and since
there are not too many of them at the moment in the market from the big car companies, one solution
is then first to make a prototype of a conversion, a kind of a prototype that is aimed for mass
conversion. So the idea is that the conversion would be so modular and comfortable that it could be
done in one day.

Rebecca Martin: And with a Toyota Corolla, is this conversion kit going to work on Toyota Corollas
outside of Finland?

Jiri Rasanen: The designing process is happening entirely in Finland, but since it is open-source
we will publish everything and basically anyone can start a sister project anywhere in the world,
and we are within our resources trying to help interested people to start a sister project.

Rebecca Martin: Professor Wal James from Curtin University says there's no doubt that e-cars are
coming. But he says we will need a transition period before this revolution can be fully realised.

Wal James: The potential of making charging stations, every lamppost is a possibility of being a
charging spot. So it doesn't matter if you don't have access at home for it if you live in a
ten-storey apartment block or whatever, you could still park outside and have access to this. The
issue with the fully electric battery is that you need a higher powered charging station, and that
is going to be an issue with the utilities and the distribution area of the sites. But initially
the normal 10-amp, 240-volt power point is sufficient to get you around. So if you're going to
drive, say, 15 kilometres from work back home, it should be able to give you the capacity to return
home. A ten-hour off-peak charging at home of course is capable of charging the batteries.

But the psychological effect of having another charging point available when you're going in town
or where you're going the longer distances is very important. Even if you don't use it, the sheer
fact is that you've got 50% of your battery available when you depart home and you say, well,
that's not going to get me back, you might think I'll take the other car or take the bus, or

We will see the main industry coming with initially what we call the plug-in hybrid electric
vehicle which is something like a Toyota Prius with an extended battery which allows you to operate
the vehicle for longer distances on a battery. This will bring credibility to all of these new
interests that are occurring in the general public on electric vehicles as such. But the volume of
the automotive industry is going to bring the battery prices down and this is going to create a
further wave of interest from the public in going full electric. And that is the question, as to
what are the volumes and when is this going to happen? And I think it's going to happen soon.

Robyn Williams: Wal James who does research on electric cars at Curtin University in Perth. He was
with Rebecca Martin.