The Inside Scoop on Renault's New Electric Cars


Renault's Zoe Z.E.

The Frankfurt Motor Show is the world's biggest, with 753 exhibitors unveiling their shiniest and brightest and best cars. Last week at the show, Renault announced their decision to roll out a series of 4 all-electric cars, with the first one ready for the road in 2011.

This TreeHugger attended the Show, at the invitation of Renault, and was invited to a series of presentations about the car, and its development, as well as a thrilling test-drive. After the fold: (almost) everything you ever wanted to know about the future of electric cars. This TreeHugger and a group of French and Italian bloggers were treated to a series of talks by Mr. Thierry Koskas, Director of Strategic Projects, Ms. Alice de Brauer, Director of Environmental Planning and Mr. Jacques Prost, Director of Mechanical Engineering. From them we gleaned an enormous amount of information.

Renault has made the electric car a strategic priority for the company for a few reasons.

--They believe that the price of gas is going to keep rising and will make cars expensive to run.
--The car industry and the European Union have committed to lower their carbon dioxide emissions in the next 10 years so all the manufacturers are going to have to do something environmental very soon.
--Consumers will be ready for an affordable electric car that is like a regular car and is cheap to run, as long as there is a good infrastructure to support it.

Renault's research shows that :

87% of all city trips are shorter than 60 km.
36% are less than 20 km.
13% are more than 60 km.
.

They reckon if they can get 10% of that market to buy electric they will be successful. In the long run, this represents 6 million cars, of all brands, in the global market. Pretty good.

They will be developing four cars: the Zoe Z.E. (zero emissions) , the Fluence, Twizy and Kangoo. The Kangoo will be the first to be built, and lastly the compact Zoe. Renault's partner is Nissan, which is also working on the development. Israel will be the first country where it will be sold, with Denmark following up.

The car will be the same price as a diesel car and owners will go to regular Renault dealers, so it will be as similar to a "normal" gas-driven car as possible. Maintenance costs are reckoned to be 20% less than regular cars.


Renault's Twize Z.E.

Development of the Battery is Key

The creation of a good long lasting battery is key. They are being made of lithium which is lighter, safer, less polluting and easier to access. Now it stores 15 kw hours. But they want to develop it to store 24 kw. by 2011. The weight of the battery is also an issue; the lighter the better. They can be recycled and last 6 years. The better the battery the farther the car can go without recharging, so its capacity is crucial. The car can go 100 km. now but they want it to go 160 km.

Renault's idea is that when you buy the car, the battery is not included. Instead, the battery would be leased from Renault and their partner Better Place. Consumers would pay a monthly rate and receive charging minutes anywhere and a new battery when necessary. That makes maintenance easier and the starting price of the car cheaper.

How To Recharge the Battery

Recharging the battery easily and conveniently is crucial. Renault is proposing to make 3 different options available.

--The longest charge is 8 hours, done at home, overnight, when electricity is plentiful and cheap.

--The second is a "quickie", the fast charge, 20 to 30 minutes, at various charging stations which will be set up all over cities and towns. Their location will be linked to a GPS in the car.

--The third, and Renault's big idea is the battery swap or "quick drop". With this newly developing system, the actual battery would be swapped with a new one at special quick drop locations. The whole process would take 3 minutes.

No one seemed to have a price for these services. However the Renault website quotes an example of a price: 1,000 km. of mileage for 20 euros ( $29.50 ) a month.

Creating the Infrastructure is Essential

Customers have to have the confidence of knowing that the recharge stations are there and it is safe to travel longer distances.

Creation of this kind of infrastructure is a huge and complex undertaking and requires the agreement and co-operation of governments, municipalities, power suppliers to name a few. Renault is partnering with a company called Better Place which is masterminding this aspect. Renault is also working with Nissan, its partner in the development.

So far Renault has signed agreements with 7 different countries, including 8 states in the United States and Ontario in Canada. In the US and Canada and Japan, the car will be produced by Nissan and called the Leaf. Israel is the first to go in 2011.

Initially there will have to be public incentives offered by governments, like a bonus, to buy electric cars. Presumably the charging stations will be subsidized initially to encourage consumers. Tax incentives will also be given by governments.

Standardisation of Plugs and Batteries Amongst All Electrics

Standardisation of plugs and compatibility of the plug-in system amongst all the manufacturers is key. Then consumers know that they are safe and free to travel without fear. They are holding discussions at a European level with all the carmakers to make sure everyone uses the same socket format. Renault hopes that other brands will also adopt a similar battery size so that they can share the "quick drop" technology. It is not clear that this will happen or that all the other manufacturers will buy into this concept.

The elephant in the room is the source of the electricity: nuclear or coal. A huge and controversial decision in each country. And how quickly will it really happen? One sceptic pointed out that: "Germany has launched an initiative to get one million electrics on the road a decade from now. Ten years is exactly how long it took Toyota to sell a million Prius hybrids. Ten years is a long time."

The battery swap could turn out to be unnecessary or a wasted investment, if other manufacturers don't pick up on it. The Italians use GPL (liquid petroleum gas) and Fiat is doing very well with their small cars using that. And of course, whether or not people will switch over. A huge gamble for Renault and one to watch.

Tags: Carbon Emissions | Electric Cars