How far can a hybrid car be pared down to make the lightest, cheapest and simplest runabout?
Well, for a start the batteries should only be enough for the ‘key local services’ trip of under 25 miles; under 5kW.hrs then and under £1,000. And that immediately starts the benign circle of lightness where many components spiral down in weight and cost.
The engine – This modified Honda GX270 engine can be picked up with one hand but still delivers 12hp, just like Fiat 500s and 2CVs of old. The engine connects to one end of a power shaft via a lockable centrifugal clutch so the electric motor on the other end can start it.
The electric motor: Eg. The 7Kg Magnax motor is the size of a soup bowl and produces a peak boost power of 113hp. Our small batteries will considerably reduce this but even so the power will be adequate, especially if supercaps are used for acceleration. The motor also provides regenerative braking and two reverse gears.
The transmission: From the power shaft two selectable gears drive the differential unit and the drive shafts.
Why two speeds? Some electric cars just have a single speed direct drive but having a low gear for hill starts and town pottering and a high gear for relaxed cruising is a necessary nod to the limitations of the petrol engine. A simple programmable logic controller matches gearchanges perfectly and more besides.
A cam driven pump on the drive shaft circulates transmission oil to cool the electric motor and the finned case dissipates heat from the returning oil without the need for a radiator.
With regenerative braking there is less cooling needed on the brake discs so they are moved inboard and neatly integrated onto the side plates. The petrol engine and the electric motor have to be spaced off to allow the brake discs to fit beneath them. The effects of this position change to inboard brakes are so profound that brakes are dealt with in more detail later.
The unit is completed by supporting the steering rack and some suspension as well. Super light vehicles need less unsprung weight; this solution is much better than in-wheel motors and brakes.
This tiny integrated unit is all there is to the powertrain. No wonder Silicon Valley, Dyson et al feel they can join the automotive fray – they can. When contracted out a package like this covers most of the engineering work leaving the new entrants to focus on their metier – control and electronic interfaces. Will car buyers want inexpensive light hybrids that run almost free and barely need a service? Maybe, but it’s the new breed of car makers that will first be attracted to this package.
Solar panels – Our low voltage batteries would be compatible with on-car solar panels. Between 200 – 400W trickling in all day is worth something like another 10 miles in the bank which is a huge increase on the standard range. This is only viable on light and low powered cars but makes for good marketing USP.
Auto connect charging – Low voltage and low power enables safe charging like this. Drive up against the spring loaded prongs and the electronics check connections and allocate polarity. A vertical slatted grill on the car completes the connections but still allows air flow. No special accuracy is needed from the driver with last contact automatically controlled; just drive into your car port and press the ‘dock and charge’ button. An air blast dryer might be needed for wet days – hello Dyson.
Aluminium panels – Complex light panels can be made with a CNC machined ply and aluminium sandwich. Internal plugs with star washers feed heavy loads into the structure. Suitable for complex bulkheads, doors and in particular for battery boxes. Edges are peened over and ply machined away to leave hidden internal struts. Early Lotus F1 cars used a similar idea for bulkheads.
Tubes between bulkheads give useful channels and torsional rigidity to the vehicle. The cast aluminium brackets have a slight internal taper at the ends. Tubes are glued then expanded a few thou with a pressed-in taper ring.
The day that cars were required to do an emergency stop with no help from our leg muscles was the day hydraulic brakes became redundant. Instead of using ever more complex interfaces with electronics the hydraulics should have been entirely binned.
With inboard brakes it is easier to go all electric with no particular size restraints. For example a 120mm diameter stepper motor driving an internal ball screw could easily push a brake pad onto a floating brake disc. With each ‘twist caliper’ mounted on a pivot, a load sensor can enable braking power to be calculated making these brakes particularly suited to autonomy. Actually, even calipers might be redundant; something more like a clutch assembly allows spring assistance (and a power free parking brake) and less power from the actuator. In other words the brakes are already on by default and the actuator starts off by forcing them off. Either way, all the usual features – EBS, ABS, yaw control, hill descent, handbrake, pad wear check, regen prioritising, LSD – are all easily accommodated.
I write this in frustration at the lack of affordable electric runabouts – likes and comments are welcome.