Shai Agassi's Chinese rival

The Chinese electric car is a five-seater sedan with a design and dimensions similar to those of the older Toyota Corolla.

The electric car project continues to move forward at full steam, but the fog of mystery surrounding it remains opaque and indistinct. The project was presented to the Knesset Internal Affairs and Environment Committee in mid-November, but the minutes of the session reveal that save for the vision of the "electrification of Israel's roads" very few real technical details were disclosed about the project, car and/or manufacturer.

With no information available about the car, we went looking for answers elsewhere. We found them in China in an electrical car called "BYD F3e, which was unveiled last year. The car looks like a quintessential version of the idea conceived by Shai Agassi and the Project Better Place team. It is not a micro two-seater car, but a real five-seater family sedan with a design and dimensions similar to those of the older Toyota Corolla. The car did not undergo an improvised conversion in someone's backyard, but was developed from the outset by the manufacturer with goal of serving as a platform for electricity-driven motion.

Located under the car's bonnet is an electrical motor which produces 75 kilowatts of power, which is then conveyed to the wheels through a sophisticated delivery system. But what really makes it unique is its power source. This is an innovative Lithium iron phosphate battery, the very same "wonder battery" around which Agassi's electric car vision has been built.

This battery is a technological marvel, developed in recent years through nanotechnology, with properties that make it highly suitable for vehicle motion. It is much more stable than standard lithium-ion batteries, it has a high level of energy compression, it does not cause excess harm to the environment, and it can be charged, theoretically, more than 3,000 times. That is more than enough for the typical 10-year period of car use. Most important of all, it is also supposed to be far cheaper to produce than regular lithium batteries because its electrodes are made from commonly available and cheap materials rather than exotic minerals. Another advantage is that it can be charged very quickly.

It is worth noting, at this point, that the parent company of the car manufacturer is Chinese battery concern BYD (HK: 0285), is one of the world's largest battery manufacturers. This fact gives the small car company access to substantial R&D resources and, theoretically, also batteries at cost prices.

The F3e's manufacturer's technical specifications sheet provides details that bear a striking resemblance to the scant information published about Agassi's electric car. The Chinese Sedan can go from 0 to 100kmh in 13 seconds, has a maximum speed of 150 kmh, and can, in theory, run for 300 kilometers on one charge.

The increased distance compared with the Israeli electric car, stems from the use of a bigger battery, which weighs 300 kg, as opposed to a battery which weighs "only" 200 kg. The Chinese did not spare any effort and also developed a sophisticated recharging station, which can, theoretically, recharge the giant battery to 70% of its capacity within just 10 minutes. A full charge will take several hours or whole night on a home charger. In short, it appears that the Israeli electric car is becoming reality in China.

The perceptive reader will, no doubt, have noted the frequent use in this article of the word "theoretically." It turns out that despite the availability of batteries, low production costs in China, and the fact that the car itself already exists and is on sale (with a petrol engine), the developing company itself feels that its electric car will not be ready for manufacturing and marketing on a commercial scale for another three years. Even then manufacturing capacity will be limited, at its peak, to just several tens of thousands of units a year.

So what do the Chinese know, that their counterparts in Israel with their projections for thousands of units, don't? Part of the solution to the mystery lies in the car's technical specifications. In contrast to the Israelis' secrecy, the Chinese have demonstrated a highly laudable transparency about the electric car's technical potential in real world conditions.

They admit, for example, that the calculation of the maximum traveling distance on one charge is based on an average city speed of 40kmh, and with no air conditioning operating. A more vigorous performance and a "kick down" would shorten the traveling distance considerably. Also subject to limitation is the angle of the road gradient the car can handle, and weight is a serious problem. With a giant battery, even when one factors in the saving in weight through the removal of the regular engine, the family sedan weighs, with no passengers inside, more than 1.5 tons. The weight it will be permitted to carry will shrink accordingly. In other words, anyone planning a weekend trip to the countryside will have to leave the picnic equipment (and possibly a child or two as well) at home.

But the biggest constraint of all today, which the Chinese are reluctant to elaborate on, is the limited volume of production of lithium iron phosphate batteries. These batteries are only just coming into use in electronic products such as laptops, model planes, wheelchairs and others. However, manufacturing them to the dimensions required for vehicle motion will require the use of a highly complex technology, which is patented and which will require heavy investment to make it commercial.

One of the leading manufacturers of batteries like these today is Canadian company Phostech Lithium, which holds a license to manufacture batteries based on initial research conducted by the University of Texas in 1996. The Canadian company's manufacturing capacity now stands at 300 tons of lithium phosphate a year, the equivalent of 1,500 batteries at 200kg each. Phostech Lithium is now investing tens of millions of dollars in expanding its production capacity in order to reach an output equal to 7,500 batteries a year, but given the astronomical demand for them in the global electronics market, it estimates that most of the production will actually be earmarked for the electronics industry rather than the vehicle industry.

So for now, with no clear answers about the Israeli project, we are left mainly with questions. Where are the thousands of batteries that will supposedly power Israel's electric car fleet come from? Who, if any, will carry out the necessary safety and reliability testing on the Israeli car to ensure its compliance with regulatory standards (and which will cost millions of dollars)? How usable will a car like this be in typical conditions on Israel's roads where the driving is aggressive and the air conditioning is on most of the year? These are many questions most of which remain unanswered.

Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes.co.il - on December 26, 2007

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2007

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