Pragmatic Electric Strategies the Rage in Geneva

Pragmatism continued Tuesday on day two of the Geneva Motor Show, as automakers more displayed creative means of developing electric vehicles (EVs) in spite of an industry-wide cash crunch. Monday it was PSA Peugeot Citroën unveiling a nascent partnership with Mitsubishi to craft a Peugeot version of the i-MiEV, the battery-powered micro-car that Mitsubishi is preparing to launch in Japan this summer. Yesterday it was Ford Motor and India’s Tata Motors showing EVs they can push to market quick by literally swapping the engine and fuel tank out of petroleum-powered vehicles and popping in batteries and electric motors.

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Tiny EV Commuter Cars Heading Mainstream

Prototype i-MiEV shown at Geneve Motor Show sketch Source MitsubishiIf batteries aren’t yet up to the task of electrifying the family beater, why not shrink the beater? French automaker PSA Peugeot Citroën kicked off the Geneva Motor Show this morning announcing it was joining an accelerating embrace of this logic. The Paris-based manufacturer revealed this morning that it is pursuing a deal with Mitsubishi Motor to develop a compact Peugeot for sale in Europe next year based on Mitsubishi’s i-MiEV, the 100-mile-range commuter car Mitsubishi plans to roll out in Japan this summer.

Plenty more of these little four-wheelers are in the automotive pipeline. Daimler will sell a battery version of its popular Smart Fortwo next year, and Volkswagen is engineering a commuter EV called the Audi Up! with a top speed of 130 kilometers/hour and roughly 100 kms of range. Renault is engineering a pair of battery-powered , to be produced starting in 2011.

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Deja Vu as France Plans National EV Charging Network – Again

paris-ev-charge-station-sign-credit-peter-fairleyFrance’s government launched a working group this week to coordinate installation of a standardized national charging network for plug-in hybrid electric vehicles and battery-powered EVs. Many may be experience deja vu, so to speak, because this would apparently be the second such charging network the country has installed.

President Nicolas Sarkozy has set a goal of seeing 100,000-plus electric-mode vehicles on the road in 2012 and has offered French automakers bailout funding partially tied to development of EVs as summarized by Earth Times. But as French state minister for industry Luc Chatel told French business magazine Usine Nouvelle [French], “Their battery serves no point without the infrastructure to go with it.” Hence the working group struck last week, representing automakers, energy distributors such as state-owned nuclear utility EDF, municipalities and other players, which is to deliver a plan in June.

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Paris Actualizing the EV CarShare

Paris City HallThe concept of selling mobility-on-demand rather than cars may be gaining some traction. Remember the stackable urban rental cars proposed by GM-funded researchers at MIT last fall? The issues of Forbes magazine to appear on magazine stands next week touts the MIT City Car concept as the embodiment of a new car-sharing direction for troubled automakers. City Car co-designer Bill Mitchell of the MIT Media Lab’s Smart Cities group adds to the drumbeat in an editorial for architecture website BD. “People don’t want cars, they want personal mobility,” writes Mitchell.

Mitchell argues that, rather than bailing out car firms, governments should be radically rethinking urban transport around ultra-lightweight battery electric vehicles (EVs). To provide mobility most efficiently, says Mitchell, we should…

…organise urban electric cars in mobility-on-demand systems like the Vélib bicycle system in Paris. Racks of public-use cars would be provided at closely spaced sites across the service area. If you want to go somewhere, you walk to a nearby rack, swipe a card, pick up a car, drive it to a rack near your destination, and drop it off.

In fact, Paris is already planning the auto equivalent of Vélib, which offers over 20,000 bikes at more than 1,400 sites in the city and is now expanding to the suburbs. Paris mayor Bertrand Delanoë announced in June that the city will place 4,000 electric cars at 700 Autolib pick-up points around Paris and the suburbs starting in 2010. French trains giant SNCF is reportedly vying to operate the Autolib points out of its train stations, which are distributed across and around the French capital, according to business daily Les Echos [story en Français].

The city may have a solution to a potential game-killing problem: the inevitably uneven distribution of vehicles as cars pile up at popular destinations. Parisian’s are well aware of this problem. Mid-morning, for example, as Vélib stations at the periphery of the city empty out and those downtown jam up, it’s not unusual to see trucks redistributing the bikes to counter the tide. That’s easy enough with bikes, but harder to envision with even small EVs.

The city’s solution, according to a leaked document reported by autonews website Caradisiac [en Français], is to have users declare their destination upon checking out a car. In response, the system will determine the closest Autolib point with a free spot for drop-off and reserve that space.

No news on another potential problem for Paris’ Autolib: the name.  Lyon, which beat Paris to the bikeshare program with its own vélo’v, already sports a conventional car-share program called Autolib.

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This post was created for the Technology Review Editors Blog: Insights, opinions and analysis of the latest in emerging technologies