AMSTERDAM, THE NETHERLANDS—We are on the campus of the technical university in Delft, the Dutch city made famous for its blue-tinged china. But today tech has the edge, and we’re cruising in a WePod self-driving transporter that’s offering a “last mile” solution—from the station to work.
Suddenly, an inflated T-shirt-wearing skateboarder darts into our path. Bingo, the bus stops. The vehicle is equipped with nine radars and nine cameras and they are working, apparently, because mylar is not spread all over the road. The WePods are already working at another Dutch university, providing automated shuttle service around campus and rides to the train station. And similar French-built pods have now gone into autonomous shuttle service in Taiwan.
Welcome to the Holland not of wooden shoes and windmills, but of green driving solutions. The Netherlands isn’t a center for carmaking, though the much-missed DAF (absorbed into Volvo) pioneered the fuel-saving CVT transmission.
Minis are assembled here, as is the BMW Z1, but there’s no indigenous car, and maybe that’s why the Dutch try harder on leading in the self-driving car space. Like Israel, The Netherlands is a startup nation—my favorite was a car-sharing service in Eindhoven, Amber Mobility, headed by a 22-year-old CEO. It’s already got corporate customers for its electric BMW i3 cars, and guarantees a ride within walking distance. As if that wasn’t enough, the company is trying to launch its own electric car, the Amber One—with 250-mile range.
Another startup that could lead to a Dutch electric car is Lightyear One, which also has a just-out-of-college team. The idea here is an all-new lightweight car that will derive much of its energy from a roof-mounted solar panel. Solar on car roofs isn’t a new concept—the Fisker Karma offered it, for instance, but it didn’t provide much useful power.
The Lightyear One team, with the ambition of youth, thinks they can power your family car with solar power alone. They’ve competed in solar power challenges, and think they can take it further with a road-legal car by…hmmm, 2030? They’re a bit short on the details. Martijn Lammers, whose business card just says “strategy,” seemed convinced it was going to happen. We saw the car in silhouette only, but it certainly looked nice.
Another Dutch student team is convinced that it’s going to be too expensive to build a network of hydrogen stations to make fuel-cell cars viable, so they’ve come up with the idea of a thankful of liquid formic acid and a chemical reformer to make hydrogen on board.
This idea has been tried with methanol by Daimler, but was found to be too expensive and heavy, but these Dutch students, Team Fast, think they can make it work. Their target is not cars but heavy trucks, which aren’t really viable to work with battery power. They’re working on Rex, a 25-kilowatt range extender that could power a bus.
Of course, it’s not all about students. Scoop alert: A Dutch company called ProDrive will be providing an 11-kilowatt wireless charging solution for the electric, 600-horsepower Porsche Mission E due in 2019. The system will operate at more than 90 percent efficiency, and the aimed-at-Tesla car will be automatically guided onto the charging pad in the garage floor.
TNO Automotive Research is all about platooning—saving fuel by having big trucks operate in tight convoys with just 33 feet between them. Belgium to The Netherlands runs have been successful. The company is also working on self-driving systems, and is conducting a three-month test in normal traffic with four brands—Volvo, Daimler, Audi and Tesla—to see how people live with Level Two automation.
Of course, the Dutch are all over Elon Musk's Hyperloop. A TU Delft student team we talked to actually won the competition held at Musk's headquarters in California, and have set up a spinoff company called Hardt Global Mobility. That competition was for a non-powered pod, but the one they're working on now will have its own electric motors and attain speeds of 300 mph in the test tunnel.
Holland is a manufacturing country, and one of our most fascinating visits was to a company called EuroCarbon that is doing creative things with carbon fiber. As you probably know, it’s four times lighter—but just as strong as—steel. And carmakers are increasingly turning to it for electric, self-driving and high-performance cars. It’s still expensive, which is why EuroCarbon’s customers tend to be high-end—Mercedes, Lamborghini and BMW (for the i8 door frame and rocker panels).
The process was captivating, using braiding methods developed—in Holland!—in 1653. Carbon fiber raw material is in thin filaments, and the machines braid them together into a basket weave, which is then impregnated with resin to make the hard surface. Without the resin, it’s like cloth, and EuroCarbon can and does make dresses out of it. Probably a bit scratchy.
The Dutch role would probably be better known if the country actually made cars, but it’s certainly worthy of attention. The location is strategically good—right near Germany, Italy, France and other Euro automotive powers.
We concluded one day’s tour with a visit to the Fuze Formula Student racing team. Its electric car is formed from a 3D printed monocoque and nose cone, using two 100-kilowatt motors. It has the acceleration of a Formula One car, and weighs only 550 pounds. The kids worked on it without university credit, but that didn’t seem to slow them down. The big question is who will actually get to drive it in the upcoming competition in Germany.
“We’ll have it running in a few months,” they said. Ah, the boundless confidence of youth. Here's the Green Team Twente's fuel-cell car in action on the campus. See it break down because of a supplier's poor connectors, but don't worry, they got it going again. Anyway, breakdowns are par for the course with student teams: