One Tonne Life: Test Driving the Volvo C30 Electric Family Car (Interview)
All images via One Tonne Life
Last month I was lucky enough to visit the One Tonne Life project in Stockholm to meet the Lindell family, who've embarked on a low carbon lifestyle experiment to radically reduce their carbon footprints from an average of seven tonnes per year to just one tonne. It's an ambitious project, but there's amazing technology on hand to help, including a prototype Volvo C30 Electric car, powered by the house solar panels. I got to take the car for a spin and interview Volvo's Johan Konnberg - an exercise in my multi-tasking skills while driving on what is, for this British girl at least, the 'wrong side of the road'...Johan Konnberg: So the motor is running.
Leonora Oppenheim: Yes? And it's automatic?
JK: It's automatic, yeah.
LO: All right. So which way are we going?
JK: To the left. So this is a full battery or electric vehicle. 110 horse power and the electric motor is placed between the front wheels, driving the rear axle. You have a lithium-ion battery, 24 kilowatt hours storage capacity. You charge the batteries with... Turn right.
You charge the battery with standard household electricity. One phase, 230 volts. If you completely empty the batteries it takes you approximately 10 hours to fully charge the batteries again. So, you can do that over night, when you're at work, or whenever you stop and park the car you can plug it in.
LO: Are charging stations publicly available then?
JK: In some places, yes. It's not that common, but you can find some in shopping centers and parking places.
LO: So, this a fully electric vehicle. It's not hybrid at all?
JK: Nope. It's fully electric. Only a battery and a motor.
LO: Is it on the market? Is it available to buy?
JK: No. It's not. It's not available yet. We've started on what we call low volume production and the plan is to build between 250 and 350 vehicles within the year. We're looking for customers in private companies, official bodies and communities for leasing of the vehicle for 36 months period to start with. Because we still need to learn, we still need to get some hard data out of the vehicles. Especially when it comes to the aging of the batteries, because I would say that noone knows exactly what happens to the battery over time.
LO: No one knows how long they will last?
JK: Exactly. So, we could find ourselves in a situation where a specific driving behaviour is hazardous to the performance or the life of the battery. If that's the case we can try to electronically filter that out in the next generation.
We also need to learn more about you and your behavior as a customer. How do you drive the vehicle, how do you charge the vehicle, then we can put new data as prerequisites in the next generation of vehicles. So, that is where we are.
LO: How many exist of this car that I'm driving now?
JK: At this moment we have about 20 to 25 vehicles.
LO: Wow. So I'm driving a prototype - this is quite an exciting thing to do!
LO: Shame we can't go on the motorway. Is there a speed limit in Sweden? Or is it like the autobahn in Germany?
JK: There's a speed limit, 120 kilometers an hour is the maximum. The limitation of this vehicle is 130 kph and that is mainly dependent on the revolution of the electric motor, otherwise it would run too fast.
LO: What would happen? It overheats?
JK: It overheats. Yeah. You lose performance and it might be hazardous. Yes. This is a designed preferably as a commuter vehicle, meaning you go back and forth through your daily run at 70 - 90 kph.
LO: Is this what you're testing? Whether the battery performs better or worse over lots of short journeys or over fewer longer ones?
JK: Well that depends. Ideally for these vehicles, we'd have one driver in each vehicle for a three year period. Some driving 20 kilometers a day, some driving 50 a day, some driving 80 kilometers a day.
So, from a statistics point of view, we can get a lot of data out of that. We are doing a research program trying to find trends in the battery performance, because no one actually knows. This line of battery in automotives hasn't been on the market for its full life time yet.
LO: Even though electric cars have been around for a long time?
JK: Yes, but not these lithium-ion batteries.
LO: How do they differ?
JK: Previously they were lead or nickel hybrid batteries. It has different chemistry, not to go into detail, but it has different chemistry and the energy density is much, much higher in the lithium-ion.
LO: Meaning it holds energy for longer? It's more efficient?
JK: Yes. It's more efficient.
LO: Which means the car can go further without out being charged? Is that right?
JK: Yes, exactly.
LO: Is there a speed versus distance equation with an electric car battery? Do you know what I mean? With petrol the faster you drive...
JK: The more it consumes. Yes. It's the same.
LO: So, there's still a question of efficient driving with electric cars?
JK: Yes. You have the weight of the vehicle and you have to over come the rolling resistance. That's independent of how you propel the engine.
LO: What did you call it? Rolling...
JK: Rolling resistance.
LO: What does that mean?
JK: The tires against the pavement...
LO: Right. So, literally the friction?
JK: Yes, the friction. You also have to over come air resistance the faster you go. So, if you go 50 kilometers it's a rolling resistance, but if you go 100 kilometers an hour, it's the...
LO: Air. So then it's about aerodynamics?
JK: Yes, exactly. So you need a light vehicle and you need an aerodynamic vehicle to make it more efficient. These elements will hopefully come into the next generation Volvo. We don't have the financial muscles at the moment to start with a white piece of paper. So we have started with an existing vehicle.
LO: Oh, I see. So you mean the shape, the design of the vehicle itself, will change in order to maximize the...
JK: The efficiency. Yes, that's correct.
LO: So what is your role in this project particularly?
JK: I would say that at this stage my role is in two parts. One is to be a spokesman for the technology or the vehicle. The other part is to find customers. I'm not the one who sells the vehicle itself, but...
LO: You look for market opportunity?
JK: Yes, exactly. So we are in the position now to plan different customer events, starting within a couple of weeks, with priority to the Swedish market. Then we're going to Germany, Norway, and other European countries. I'm not 100 percent sure of when and how we'll go to the UK, because this is a left hand drive vehicle. So my role is basically to educate, I would say.
This car shouldn't be any different to drive than a standard vehicle but, in fact, there are a few more questions to deal with when it comes to an electric vehicle. For example, charging the vehicle.
LO: Well, the infrastructure isn't quite in place yet. I imagine that holds up the progress somewhat because you're dealing with something where the infrastructure is not necessarily convenient for everybody.
JK: That's true. Not for everybody. If you're living in a house or a villa, actually it's pretty simple. But if you're not...
LO: If you're in the city and you can't find a place to charge the car... Do people say, "Well, it's just not practical yet"?
JK: Not much actually, but if you're living downtown in an apartment, and you don't have any specific parking place for your vehicle, then you're in trouble I guess. It depends on the country, but generally you're not allowed to have an extra cable running out from your window because of safety reasons.
LO: So it really suits this One Tonne Life house here?
JK: Oh, this is a perfect combination. And what's fantastic in this house is that you have an over capacity of electricity in the solar cells on the roof and on the facade, meaning that you have approximately 5, 000 kilowatt hour in over capacity. And for 5, 000 kilowatt hour you can drive this vehicle for two years.
LO: Wow! Which means they're essentially driving for free.
JK: Exactly, exactly.
LO: What impact does that have on Volvo as a company? The idea that people are possibly going to be driving cars for free? Or is that much more to do with the petroleum industry than Volvo? Does it benefit your business?
JK: Yes, it does. I guess that we need to talk more about the complete operating cost.
LO: So you're looking at the full life of the vehicle?
JK: Yes, not only the original investment, today people only think about the investment they make on day one, the day they buy the car. They are not thinking about the fuel costs.
LO: So how do you think it will influence the car industry? Do you think it will raise the price of cars? Or do you think it'll just make driving cheaper for everybody?
JK: Not necessarily. I would say that the initial cost, especially for the components and the batteries, is often very high.
LO: So it's the perception of buying an electric car? It saves you money in the long run, but upfront it's a bigger investment.
JK: Yes, it's a high investment initially, today, but maybe not in 10 years.
Thanks to Johan for directing me around the suburban streets of Stockholm. You will all be glad to hear I managed to stay on the correct side of the road throughout the test drive and returned the Volvo C30 Electric back to the One Tonne Life house unscathed, leaving it ready to be plugged into the solar charged carport. What a smooth ride!
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