Building a Better Electric Car

Jetta Engine CompartmentWe recently had an opportunity to attend a look a small electric car show, featuring vehicles owned by enthusiasts and generally on the market. We were struck by one feature common to nearly all the models.

Included were an electric Volkswagen Jetta, a Chevrolet Bolt, a Nissan Leaf, a Tesla Bolt Engine CompartmentModel S and Model X. The first three shared the common feature. The images to the right – Jetta, Bolt, and Leaf, top to bottom – show the batteries are piled into what would normally be the engine compartment.

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In the Tesla models, the same area is a Frunk – an empty space useful for storage. But Leaf Engine Compartmentfor the other manufacturers, years of placing internal combustion engines in the front of the vehicle proved a concept too difficult to overcome.

We were surprised to see this but in retrospect it actually makes a lot of sense. If you’ve been building vehicles for a century or more with the propulsion systems in the front of the car, everything about your manufacturing environment is going to point to the same spot.

This is particularly understandable in the Volkswagen. It is essentially the same as other Jetta models with a different power source. But the Leaf and Bolt were both built to be pure electric vehicles from the start. The opportunity to place the batteries someplace knew was missed.

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Infiniti Q InspirationInfiniti is in the process of designing a line of electric cars based on its Q Inspiration concept car shown recently at the Beijing auto show. That’s it to the right. The company says that an electric car done right requires a different shape than a gas-powered car. The Q’s flat batteries are placed between the front and rear wheels.

Tesla places its battery packs under the floor, just as what Infiniti is doing with the Inspiration. The wheel base ends up a little longer and the car may sit a little higher. And the stability that results from the low center of gravity is a driver’s dream.

BMW i8To Nissan and Chevrolet’s credit, both the current Leaf and the new Bolt look pretty normal. For years, car companies have made too many electric and hybrid concepts that either looked small and frankly ugly or simply outlandish.

BMW offers two electrified vehicles, one of which looks a bit too much like a space ship  the i8, above right  and the other like a toy – the i3, below right. We wondered why they simply didn’t offer an electric 3-Series for instance. BMW i3Now we know it has to do with battery placement.

We hope that all this leads to a future for electric cars that results in their being attractive, efficient and fully capable. Tesla has proven that the market is there and the rest are racing to catch up. It will likely be a very interesting ride, particularly if they can all start thinking outside the engine compartment.

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