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Fleet boost for electro-Commodore

Electric dreams: EV Engineering chairman Rob McEniry (left) and federal industry minister Kim Carr at EV Engineering's February launch.

Australia’s biggest fleet car buyer signs up with electric Commodore project

27 Jun 2011

A FULL-SIZE factory-built Holden Commodore that consumes no petrol, delivers at least 160km of all-electric motoring, comes with a switchable battery leased from Better Place and costs no more than the model on which it is based will be available to all Australian within a few years.

That is the ambitious plan that took one step closer to reality today with the announcement that Australia’s largest fleet car buyer has joined forces with a consortium that will produce a Commodore EV initially for fleet consumption prior to its full-scale public release.

Melbourne-based start-up company EV Engineering (EVE), a consortium of five leading Australian automotive suppliers with global connections, revealed its $26 million project to produce an Australian-built rear-drive large electric car based on Australia’s top-selling model in February.

It now says it is on target to produce the first two concept vehicles by the end of this year, and to have a fleet of seven all-electric ‘proof-of-concept’ Commodores ready for real-world testing by mid-2012.

None of the vehicles will be ready to unveil at this week’s Melbourne motor show, but EVE today announced a significant boost to the project by announcing it has been joined by GE – the parent company of Australia’s largest company vehicle provider, Custom Fleet.

GE will join automotive component suppliers Futuris and its partner Air International, Bosch and Continental, and EV charging network company Better Place Australia, in the EVE consortium, which is funded partly by a $3.5 million grant from the federal government’s now defunct Green Car Innovation Fund (GCIF).

EVE and GE would not reveal financial details of the deal, but each existing consortium partner will supply both financial and technical support to the project, with GM Holden and the CSIRO to provide technical expertise.

Holden’s only involvement at this stage is the initial supply of vehicles, data for those vehicles and the use of its proving ground at Lang Lang, but EVE today indicated it was likely Holden would manufacture the Commodore EV.

“Clearly we will be working with them on the project and updating them on our progress and yes we’ll be happy to review plans for mass production as we get further down the track with the car,” said EVE CEO and former senior Holden executive Ian McCleave.

Asked if any other manufacturers had expressed interest in a similar project, Mr McCleave said: “Nothing specific at this point”.

EVE said the Commodore EV would eventually become available to individual Australian customers, with a pricing structure similar to that of other vehicles under the Better Place business model.

As with the all-electric Fluence ZE sedan that Renault and Better Place promised to make publicly available in Australia by the end of next year, the Commodore EV will cost about the same as an equivalent Commodore, but its battery pack will be leased from Better Place, which will provide the power to run it.

Asked if the Commodore EV would follow the Better Place example set by the Fluence ZE, Mr McCleave said: “That’s certainly our intention, looking at future projections.

“Each of the major components is transitioning from low volume to modest volume … so at this point we’re dealing with a lot of projections in terms of battery cost, etc.

“So as we talk to suppliers we ask them what their best outlook is and we will endeavour to put all this together during the project so something similar to what you’re seeing with the other Better Place offerings is achievable with the Commodore.

“We can’t see any reason why it can’t be.” Like the Fluence ZE, which will make its Australian debut on the Better Place stand in Melbourne on Friday, the Commodore EV will be powered by a removable battery pack that can be switched for a fully charged unit via a network of battery swap stations now being planned by Better Place.

Mr McCleave said EVE’s internal target for the Commodore EV’s zero-emissions driving range is similar to that of the Fluence ZE and other EVs at 160km, but could be higher.

“Our internal target is in the vicinity of 160km,” he said. “We’d like to say it’s going to be a lot more than that but I think that’s a good target at this point.”

13 center imageTop: EV Engineering CEO Ian McCleave. Bottom: EV Engineering directors at the launch of the new company in Melbourne. The director of GE Australia and New Zealand’s ‘Ecomagination’ initiative, Ben Waters, said the e-Commodore’s switchable battery technology eliminated ‘range anxiety’ – the fear of being stranded in an EV with a depleted battery away from a recharging station.

“The reason the range issue is not a concern to us is that this will be a switchable battery car,” he said. “Better Place is the best proponent of battery switch stations, which really removes the range constraint issue from an EV buyer’s horizon.” Like the Fluence ZE, the Commodore EV will be initially available only to selected fleet customers, but EVE said the GE/Custom Fleet deal will give the world’s first large rear-drive EV the economy of scale required to make it a showroom reality.

“It makes a lot of sense to start with a fleet for several reasons, but certainly there’s no intention on our part to suggest this should be constrained to fleets only,” said Mr McCleave.

“I think it will be very attractive to private people as well, but we have to get a significant number of cars out in the field quickly – it’s a real chicken and egg situation with the network versus the number of cars in the field.

“Everyone wants to build critical mass and working the fleet angle initially is going to be one of the most effective ways of doing that.” Mr McCleave said GE’s partnership with EVE would send a clear message about the importance of EVs in Australia’s sustainable transport mix.

“EV Engineering believes Australia’s automotive future lies in electric vehicles,” he said.

“This project is expressly designed to investigate the technical viability and practical feasibility of producing large electric cars with switchable batteries in volume here in Australia. We look forward to leveraging the valuable insights GE will deliver both from a technology innovation standpoint and commercial fleet operation perspective.” GE Capital’s Custom Fleet division is the largest fleet business in Australia, where it has operating since 1975 and currently has more than 120,000 vehicles under management.

For its part, GE – which operates in more than 100 countries and employs about 300,000 people worldwide – says Custom Fleet’s knowledge of fleet adoption trends will play a vital role in helping EVE to deliver an EV fleet solution that is both environmentally friendly and commercially viable.

As part of its arrangement with EVE, GE will also contribute technical and engineering expertise based on its global experience, build customer awareness of EVs via its Custom Fleet clients and test proof-of-concept vehicles for market.

GE’s involvement with EVE is part of its ‘Ecomagination’ initiative, which was established in 2005 to provide environmentally friendly solutions in the energy, aviation, lighting, transport and healthcare industries.

The company invested $US1.8 billion globally in ‘clean tech’ R&D in 2010, including the development of the WattStation electric vehicle charging station. In November, GE said it would become the world’s largest EV customer when it committed to buying 25,000 EVs by 2015.

GE says that puts it on track to meet its goal of investing a total of $US10 billion between 2010 and 2015. Last year GE generated $US18 billion in revenue from Ecomagination products and surpassed $US85 billion in sales over the past six years – while reducing its carbon footprint by 24 per cent – making it GE’s most successful commercial initiative ever.

“GE has made a strategic move that we think will help accelerate the mass adoption of electric vehicles in Australia,” said managing director of Custom Fleet – GE Capital, Jim Cock.

“Motor vehicle fleet operations have the ability to contribute significantly to a business’ overall sustainability goals. As we move to a carbon-constrained economy we certainly expect to see interest from Australian fleet operators in an electric vehicle option as part of their portfolio of transport solutions.” Better Place will commence the rollout of its Australian EV charging network in Canberra this year and last week claimed Australia would be home to the world’s largest EV infrastructure network by 2013.

Better Place’s automated battery-swap process, which is claimed to switch the battery pack of a vehicle in about the time it takes to refuel a conventional model, is not compatible with a number of EVs including the Nissan Leaf and Holden Volt that will follow this year’s Mitsubishi i-MiEV on sale next year, Interestingly, however, Mr McCleave said Better Place’s battery lease strategy will negate the need for government subsidies for EV buyers because it removes the single most expensive part of the up-front purchase price of most EVs.

“I think a lot of the incentives (offered overseas) have a limited tenure – in many cases they’re cutting out next year or the following year,” he said.

“The attractiveness of the Better Place model – where they lease the battery to the customer – makes the technology more affordable and gives you a better chance of becoming more competitive in the marketplace, so maybe those incentives aren’t going to be needed in three to four years.” EVE currently has a staff of 15, including 10 engineers, and says it is on target to produce its first two Commodore-based engineering vehicles by September.

“Right now we’re at the stage where we’ve packaged all of the electric systems and components including the motor, gearbox, battery and control systems, and detailed design work is about at the 80 per cent level,” said Mr McCleave.

EVE said its development work had so far been limited to just one variant of the Commodore, but that others could follow.

“Everything’s pretty well on track and at this stage it has been confined to the Commodore, which was the scope of the project as we submitted it to the government for the green car funding.

“At this stage we didn’t want to complicate the project by producing multiple variants,” said Mr McCleave, adding that its large EV would benefit from weight-reductions measures in the pipeline from Holden.

Asked if EVE was looking to reduce the weight or improve the aerodynamics of its Commodore-based vehicle, Mr McCleave said: “We are looking at both those areas. Holden has made significant improvements with their MY2011 car in terms of aerodynamics, which will help us.

“Obviously with the time available we’re not going to focus on that in this first project because optimising energy systems will be the focus. But I’m aware that Holden is working on those measures, which will complement our technology.” Mr McCleave said it was not unusual for a relatively small engineering company to co-operate with a large car-maker in the development of EV technology.

Asked why EVE was developing an electric Commodore instead of GM, he said: “Because it was our idea.

“GM has a lot of global priorities and projects that they are working on. If you look at EV projects around the world a lot of these projects were started by smaller companies with specialised skills, working with and sharing information with larger companies,” he said.

As GoAuto has reported, the e-Commodore will be powered by a rear-mounted electric motor and gearbox drawing energy from batteries stored towards the front of the car, reversing Australia’s traditional large car layout of a front-mounted engine fed by a rear-mounted fuel tank, although drive will still be channelled through the rear wheels.

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