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10Q: A Charge Through the Americas

By Kari Lundgren

If you think finding a gas station can sometimes be tricky, imagine re-charging an electric racecar in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, or Chimbote, Peru.

No problem, said Alex Schey, founding member of the Racing Green Endurance team, a group of students from Imperial College, London, who designed, built and drove their SRZero race car across 26,000 kilometers (16,155 miles) of the Pan American highway. It takes in 14 countries and some of the globe's most extreme landscapes, from Arctic tundra to Chile's Atacama desert. Schey recently spoke with Bloomberg News energy reporter Kari Lundgren about the prospects for electric cars and the challenges he faced building the twin-motor sports car.

Q: What made you decide to do the trip?
A: I wanted to change the public’s perceptions about electric vehicles, and I wanted to get younger children excited about engineering again. It’s such an interesting subject and so crucial to the success of our economies.

Q: How much time and money was spent to build the car?
A: About 330,000 pounds-worth ($520,000) of components and sponsorship, including the batteries, which cost 40,000 pounds ($62,000). There were six to seven core people working on the project full-time. In total, about four man-years worth of work.

Q: What were some of the hardest challenges?
A: Our number one problem was starting the project in the middle of a recession. That meant finding sponsorship while trying to build the car.
It was a challenge to charge the car in remote parts of Alaska and Canada. Out in the middle of nowhere, where electricity comes from relatively small communal generators, if someone’s house comes offline you have a massive voltage spike. A relatively small change makes a big difference, and this caused damage to our chargers.

Q: Biggest myth about electric cars?
A: The perception that the battery will run out. What’s the difference with running out of petrol? Our batteries get 500 kilometers a charge if you’re cruising, 450 kilometers if you’re city driving. In the U.S. the average person only drives 45 kilometers a day, so with one charge you get 10 days of driving.

Q: What was the most gut-wrenching experience of your trip?
A: The wall. We got to Quito in Ecuador and we had the car on display at a university. One of the team started driving the car up and down, and on his last run he put his foot down on the break too late. He smashed the car at about 25 miles-per-hour. I pushed my way through to the car and I saw it buried into the wall. Literally embedded. That was a really heart-wrenching moment.
We took the whole car apart and within two days we got the components and had it fixed. The two pieces of bodywork were destroyed, so we took it to a local guy who did fiberglass. He just worked on the side of the street.

Q: Second-worst moment?
A: We put our car in a container in Panama for the oversea journey to Columbia,and it took ten days to arrive. There is a lot of hot, salty air inside the container, at temperatures of 50 to 60 degrees Celsius (122 to 140 Fahrenheit), which makes for a corrosive and conductive vapor. When the car arrived, it seemed fine. Then two hours later, the back end caught fire. So here we were in the middle of Cartagena trying to fix some pretty advanced electronics. But we managed to fix all the components ourselves and get the car running again within a week. It’s a very common failure point in all cars that are shipped in containers, petrol and electric.

Q: Could electric cars eventually be used as storage for wind power?
A: The number of cars right now is still a drop in the ocean. Grid storage only becomes feasible when you have a significant number of people owning electric cars, and that will take 10 to 15 years.

Q: How clean can an electric car be when it’s getting power from a coal-fired power plant?
A: If you take the energy mix in the U.K., where we have a lot of coal, gas and nuclear, the energy you put into your car is not 100 percent clean. This being said, taking into account the energy mix in the U.K., our car only emits half the carbon dioxide per kilometer than a comparable petrol car. That’s a very strong argument from an environmental point of view.

Q: Is there competition between electric and biofuel-powered cars?
A: I don’t see it as a competition. It’s more akin to the way in which petrol and diesel worked together. They were traditionally used for different applications, and now those distinctions are getting blurred. All these sources will find their niches until some point in the future where increased market share can only come at the expense of competing with other technologies.

Q: Other than the SRZero what’s your favorite electric car?
A: The Tesla Model S. It’s just the most purposefully designed electric vehicle out there. It’s a well-developed technology, and they’re the company that really kicked off the public’s interest in electric vehicles. Apparently it drives beautifully, and it certainly looks the part.


-0- Nov/29/2011 13:12 GMT

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