A SAAB 9-3 Convertible fitted with the Electroengine True Electric system.

A SAAB 9-3 Convertible fitted with the Electroengine True Electric system.

The zero-emission car has long been seen as a distant dream, but a Swedish company is making the dream a reality.

Many people still equate electric cars with flimsy plastic boxes that fall far short of the standards we’re used to in passenger cars. Energy efficiency and sustainability are strong arguments for a certain segment of the buying public, but if electric cars are ever going to break into the mainstream, they will have to offer the same levels of comfort, performance and safety as is found in traditional cars.

Electroengine, based in Uppsala, Sweden, has developed a modern drive train—True Electric—that the company claims can be installed on virtually any model of automobile.

True Electric involves the use of very high performance and advanced synchronous electric engines and a new engine control system that dispenses with the need for a transmission or differential. Driving a car converted to True Electric is no different than operating a petrol-powered vehicle, but filling the tank is replaced by plugging in to an electric outlet.

Unique battery technology

Electric cars have been around since the dawn of the automobile age more than a century ago, but they have always suffered from the poor power-to-weight ratio of the batteries and long charging times. Electroengine’s True Electric reduces these practical problems by increasing the vehicle’s range by up to 30 percent compared to traditional battery systems.

Charging is more secure, contributing to longer battery life and better total economy. If one battery cell fails, it can be replaced by a new one without needing to dispose of the rest of the battery. And the vehicle can continue to operate even if one or more cells have failed.

Each 10 km of desired driving range requires about 10 kg of battery weight, so an average-sized car can be configured to drive about 30 km without exceeding weight limits.

We expect modern cars to be safe, protecting us against injury in the event of a collision, and sitting next to a heavy bank of old-fashioned lead-acid car batteries during a crash is not an attractive idea. The True Electric system uses lithium batteries, which do not contain any heavy metals or corrosive substances and are not explosive or flammable. Electroengine says its system is adaptable for new types of batteries as they emerge on the market.

Powerful torque

The True Electric system is built with separate motors for each of the two drive wheels. Electronic controls separately regulate the power delivered to each wheel, effectively mimicking the function of a differential to propel the car forward efficiently.

The motors supply extremely high torque for strong acceleration even from a standstill. A SAAB 9-3 Aero automobile equipped with True Electric drive can go from 0 to 100 kph in 6.3 seconds. The cars require neither a transmission nor a differential, reducing transmission energy loss.

Modern petrol and diesel engines are advanced mechanisms with many moving parts and sensitive components that can break down. An electric motor, on the other hand, is relatively very simple and requires minimal maintenance, providing high operational safety and good operating economy.

A gigantic potential market

Electroengine is pursuing two separate but related business concepts. One is to supply technology to auto manufacturers looking to include electric vehicles in product lines. The other is offering after-market drive packages for car owners who wish to convert to electric. This latter concept suffers somewhat from Swedish regulations for type approval, however. The original manufacturer must provide certification for a converted car to be licensed for street driving.

The most promising avenue is joint development projects together with auto manufacturers. Thomas Bergfjord, CEO of Electroengine, says the company has no aim to become a giant manufacturing enterprise, but to pursue steady growth as a technology supplier. “Our auto manufacturer partners are experts at large-scale production,” he says. “They’re simply better at that than we can hope to be.”

A crucial success factor for electric cars will be future developments in battery prices. With the rapid advancements taking place, Bergfjord believes the overall economy of electric cars will be competitive with traditional vehicles in a few years: “By about 2012 or 2013, battery prices will drop enough that the purchase price of an electric vehicle will be within 20 percent of the price of a traditional car. And operating costs are of course much lower.”

Electroengine is engaged in negotiations with several manufacturers, and Bergfjord expects to sign a contract with a major player before the end of 2009.

Article published in October 2009