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Electric Cars on the Move: The View From Europe

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BARCELONA, SPAIN—The best car shows are full of small moments that tell you quite a lot about where the industry is going. EVS 27, in Spain this year, is an international event that draws patrons from all over the U.S., Europe and Asia. Here are some of the interesting things I picked up in three days on the floor:

It's too bad the Renault ZOE Z.E. isn't sold in the U.S., because it's a very credible EV. (Jim Motavalli photo)Zero-Emission ZOE. Renault (and fellow French carmaker Peugeot) stopped selling cars in the U.S. decades ago, which is why we don’t get the electric ZOE Z.E. in the American market. Too bad, because it’s a very credible car. I was impressed by how nicely finished it is, by the comfortable seats and sophisticated electric displays. Some 15,000 have been sold in Europe, which is a very respectable number.

We’re Ready. Senan McGrath, chief technology officer for ESB eCars in Ireland, said that studies his company has done demonstrate that fears of EVs decimating the grid are unfounded. “Even if all the cars in any country were to go electric, it would only add about 20 percent to the number of kilowatt-hours that would have to be generated,” he said. “If all of them were charged off-peak, then we could go 100 percent electric without adding any power plants or transmission lines.”

If all those kilowatts were coal-fired, it would result in emissions of 130 grams per kilometer, McGrath said. If natural gas were used, 50 grams per kilometer; and if wind, well, zero grams per kilometer. The European Union has more modest goals than 100 percent wind-powered cars—it wants 20 percent renewable power by 2020 (and 10 percent from transportation). More than 80 percent of Europeans will live in cities by 2050, so it makes sense that BMW is introducing its i3 electric (featured here) as a car for “mega-cities.” A brief ride demonstrated that the i3 won’t be disappointing to performance nuts.

The BMW i3 made a big splash in Barcelona, and they let us drive it finally! (Jim Motavalli photo)E-Up! Volkswagen was slow to get into electric cars, preferring to advocate for diesels (like the Audi A6 TDI I’m driving this week), but now the company is bowing to the inevitable and embracing EVs. In the U.S., we’re getting the E-Golf, but in Europe (where cars are smaller) it’s the E-Up. It’s unfortunate we missed out on the whole Up phenomenon, because they’re lovely cars. I drove an E-Up and while it’s no road rocket, performance was quite good, especially the handling and braking. The driver has four separate regenerative braking modes to try out—I like it dialed to the max.

VW's E-Up is headed for Europe; the E-Golf is the one we get on this side of the Atlantic. (Jim Motavalli photo)Market Moving. Brian Wynne, president of the Electric Drive Transportation Association (EDTA), told me in Barcelona, “We are moving beyond market introduction into market expansion. I’ve been all over the world recently, in China, Germany and the U.S., and what those trips had in common is that everybody’s having the same conversation—they’re understanding that advanced-technology vehicles are the wheelhouse of the future. Any country not doing electrics is falling behind.”

Land Ho! Europe has an enthusiastic electric boat movement. In the U.S., “Electric Boat” is the name of a company that makes nuclear submarines, but in France there are more than 4,500 “e-boats” operating and the Association Francais Pour le Bateau Electrique with 55 active members. Most of the companies making electric boats in France are low-volume manufacturers that can custom-make a battery craft to your specifications.

Only in Europe! A combination EV charger and espresso maker. (Jim Motavalli photo)Batteries in Barcelona. The NV200 “Taxi of Tomorrow” is in trouble in New York, in part because there is no currently available hybrid option (and the city’s rules demand one). But Nissan is developing both electric and hybrid version of the NV200, and the e-NV200 was on the company’s stand in Barcelona. It’s actually going into taxi service in the Spanish city next year. The taxi should perform similarly to the Nissan Leaf, because it has a similar drivetrain (though its heavier). Top speed is around 86 mph, and range 118 miles.

The Nissan e-NV200 is already decked out as a Barcelona taxi. (Jim Motavalli photo)Tidbits: A university study shows that plug-in hybrids offer better performance in the relative open spaces of Raleigh, North Carolina compared to the packed streets of Lisbon, Portugal…Chinese companies are eager to get into the international market, but their cars are still sub-standard…Ricardo, an EV consulting company, built a very credible battery version of the Volvo XC60 wagon I drove in Barcelona. It's just a demonstration project, alas...Maxwell is making ultra-capacitors that are likely to be in wide use powering start-stop systems on European hybrids…Next year the Formula E race series will bring Formula One-type excitement to an international audience, with electric races in Beijing, London—and Miami and Los Angeles.
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