Michelin Unveils Active Wheel in Affordable Electric Car

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Close up of new tires lined up at a car shop.

Marin Tomas / Getty Images

The Holy Grail of Eco-transportation

Could this be the technology that revolutionizes transportation? Will the company that invented the air-pressure tire trump that achievement by making electric cars affordable and practical? Michelin's Active Wheel system is the holy grail of wheel technology: a wheel with an integrated drive motor that has succeeded to meet unsprung weight limitations.

The Active Wheel frees automobile designers from the restrictions posed by the need for engine, transmission, drive shaft, differential and exhaust systems. Imagine the possibilities. Curiously, the prototype which Michelin will partner to bring to the roads in 2010 may not be what you imagined.

Heuliez WILL wheel driven electric car photo

Image: The Heuliez Will, Michelin
The Future of Car Design
The future of automobile design looks like...an Opel Agila? Meet the Heuliez Will, the first electric car with Active Wheel drive, built on the platform of Opel's Agila. The Will results from a partnership between Michelin, coachbuilder Heuliez and French telecommunications giant Orange. Although the Heuliez Will may represent the next generation in transportation technology, its designers and builders want to convey a comfortable familiarity. The empty storage space in both the front and rear trunks first hints that something strange is afoot.

Nonetheless, enthusiasts point out that in-wheel motor technology should trigger a paradigm change in car design. Without engines, transmissions and exhaust systems, smaller cars can carry more people and cargo. Impact absorbing collapse zones in both front and rear offer safety improvement potential.

The Tech Specs
A 7 kilogram (14.4 pound) in-wheel motor forms the heart of the Michelin Active Wheel. Packing in a sophisticated active shock absorption system, with its own dedicated motor, and disk braking brings the wheel to a hefty 43 kg (95 pounds). But Michelin Director for Sustainable Development and Mobility of the Future, Patrick Oliva points out in Die Welt that the unsprung weight in the Heuliez Will is 35 kg (77 pounds) on the front axle and 24 kg (53 pounds) on the rear, noting for comparison that the small Renault Clio has 38 kg of unsprung weight on its front axle. With battery packs on board, the prototype Heuliez Will weighs in at 900 kg, 75 kg less than the Opel Agila.

Together, the two front wheels deliver a steady 41 horsepower, which can spurt up to 82 hp for short sprints. The Will should do 0-100 km (0 - 62 mph) in 10 seconds and will have a max speed of 140 km/h (87 mph).

Lithium ion batteries will be delivered in three modular configurations, offering ranges of 150, 300 and 400 km (93, 186 and 248 miles). Just like hybrids, the Active Wheels recover energy during braking to extend vehicle range. The in-wheel motors are reported to be 90% efficient, compared to about 20% efficiency for a conventional vehicle in city driving.

The partnership with Orange ensures that the Heuliez Will customers benefit from the latest in mobile communications technology. The Will is wired for high speed 3G+ WiFi and optimized navigation that monitors real-time traffic information.

The target price of 20 to 25 thousand euros (US $27 - 34 thousand) puts the Will in the class of affordable electric vehicles, along with the much anticipated Chevy Volt. The first Active Wheel vehicles are on the streets for testing now and Heuliez intends to make the first production vehicles available to professional drivers, fleets and municipalities in 2010 followed by release to the general public in 2011. If you are willing to wait a bit longer, and spend a bit more, look for Active Wheels on the Venturi Volage in 2012.