TreeHugger: You recently added liquid petroleum gas (LPG) powered Smart Cars to your product line, as well as offering a plug in conversion for the Toyota Prius. How successful have these additions been, and are there plans for further expansion?Keith Johnston: Our focus is zero emission and low carbon cars. We introduced the Smart LPG because we were being approached by customers who wanted to green their motoring behaviour, but the G-Wiz just didn’t provide them with the performance they required – the range wasn’t large enough because they had too many miles to travel. So we started selling the Smart LPG, which is also exempt from the congestion charge, but it’s a relatively small part of our business. Since we introduced the LPG model, Smart have introduced an EV version here in London as a competitor to us, and we don’t sell that product, so I imagine the Smart LPG is an interim product for us that will be phased out probably later this year.
The plug-in hybrid is an exciting technology, because it does allow much greater performance – though obviously it’s not emission free. We are basically supporting a company that provides conversions of the Toyota Prius and, at the moment, that technology is relatively expensive so demand is low at the moment. We are really showcasing that technology, as much as anything.
Looking ahead, it’s really exciting to see that there is so much investment in the technology of electric cars, both here in the UK and around the world. We work closely with our manufacturers, Reva Electric Car Company in India, and we get feedback from our customers here in the UK. There is certainly a new product development [NPD] programme in place over in India. We are fortunate that Reva have recently raised US$20 million in fresh equity and a good chunk of that will go into NPD – so I think the future products from India over the next few years are going to be very exciting. We are also looking to expand our range, and we try to keep an eye on what is going on globally, and we’ve spoken to a number of manufacturers and would-be manufacturers. There are a few interesting things going on that I can’t talk about right now, but I think we’ll see real explosion in product and an improvement in performance over the next two to five years.
TH: What are your views on the recent flurry of green, or at least greener, concept vehicles coming from the major manufacturers? Are they for real, and will they ever reach the market?
KJ: That’s a good question. It depends if you’re a conspiracy theorist or not. I think it is exciting to see the concept cars coming through, but the real question of course is whether they remain concepts, or whether they go into full production. I read a couple of days ago about General Motors’ Volt, the new concept hybrid that is really the heir to the EV1 car, and which sounds very exciting. From what I’ve read it is really a battery electric car, with a small 1 litre engine, but the engine is used to power the battery – that’s an exciting technology if it can be made to work efficiently. I hope, in the longer term, that the really exciting concept would be to replace the engine all together with a fuel cell, and use that to power the battery. That’s when it gets really exciting.
TH: Aside from purchasing an EV, or other low carbon vehicle, what can the average Treehugger do to help speed up the transition to greener vehicles?
KJ: The support of both local and central government is really required on this, in order to make markets happen. The technologies exist around the world now, and the companies exist, so it’s really down to government to be forced to focus on the issue. However, the political issue is a difficult one because it is not necessarily a vote winner. That’s the problem we have here in the UK. We have a Labour government that probably leads the world in terms of rhetoric, but it is not necessarily reflected in terms of action. We certainly feel the struggle here in the UK, and recognise that in other countries around the world it must be even greater. There’s only so much money that can be spent, and there are so many pressing issues, so this really needs to be a consumer lead revolution, rather than a government one. So I would encourage everybody to contact their Member of Parliament, or senator, or whoever the most appropriate person is, on a national or local basis. It’s just about forcing their attention on these things.
Photograph of G-Wiz rally in Regent's Park was taken by Nick Ray.
[Interview conducted by: Sami Grover]