Does the carbon fibre car need a woman’s touch?

CUER Resolution and Driver Lucy Fielding

Cambridge University Eco Racing's Resolution and Driver, Lucy Fielding.

Working on the recent launch of Cambridge University Eco Racing’s British entry to the World Solar Challenge, we were encouraged to see how many female students from the University of Cambridge were getting involved in all aspects of the project. The ever-present concern about peak oil makes discussion about the future of the car ever more relevant. It is just a shame more women consumers aren’t voicing their interest in the debate.

At a meeting of the Cambridge Enterprise & Technology Club I joined a packed room to hear Jim Router, Router Automotive, and Dr Steven Cousins, Axon Automotive, and speakers from the Hethel Engineering Centre, talk about their vision of the future.

 

I was intrigued to hear that although both Steve and Jim were working on electric cars the combustion engine was still coughing. The consensus in the room was that the transition to hydrogen would be more palatable to the automotive industry in the short term and that the ‘hydrogen super highway’ was progressing to support that objective.

To overcome the risk of a ‘Hindenburg Effect’ and the need for a huge container on the back of the car to transport the fuel, a new approach to refuelling is emerging. Steve described a new hydrogen fuel technology, which uses rechargeable pellets to transfer hydrogen to the tank of a car creating the possibility of a safer and more energy dense fuel.

However, it was Axon Automotive’s carbon fibre car that was of most interest to me. We had featured the little orange car at a technology press day we organised for St John’s Innovation Centre and it had stolen the show. Who could resist an aerodynamic eco-car that can do 100 miles to the gallon with less than half the CO2 emissions of an average car?

The Axon team have developed methods to manufacture not only the body panels but also the chassis and underlying structure from carbon fibre, making the car incredibly light, but maintaining strength and material properties.

Steve explained that the Japanese are investing heavily in carbon fibre and it is possible that reducing the weight might provide the short term break-though the industry so desperately needs to cut its energy consumption.

However, there was also another benefit for the industry – tooling for the production of a steel car costs typically $500m which means it needs the sale of 250,000 cars a year to recoup the cost, so 6 years before it shows a profit. In contrast, the carbon fibre car needs only to sell a few thousand cars, creating the potential for shorter production runs, more specialist cars and greater fuel economy.

My immediate thought was that if we had a few more women in the automotive industry then carbon fibre would get a huge boost. Suddenly you have the opportunity for short runs of personalised cars and funky designs. The majority of women would rate fuel economy higher than the ability to get from 0 to 150 in a couple of seconds. Also, the majority of their journeys are shorter than the average bloke. A hybrid car, like the Axon, that can do 30 miles on electricity, with a back-up tank of petrol for that spontaneous journey, has great appeal.

Also, provisional drivers might find their insurance premiums reduced. You are not going to damage much tootling about in an electric car. A huge benefit for young women in their first job.

And for the boy racers there is always the Ecotricity Nemesis Electric Road car. Jim, who is more used to working with Lotus, McLaren and Bugatti, has created the ultimate scalextric car running on EV technology. All was going well for me until he opened up the back and showed the battery with its mess of wires. Suddenly all those childhood memories of frustrating hours looking for the broken connection in the track came flooding back.

However, you have to start somewhere and, if it helps marketing, sell the concept then go for it.

Discussion of the battery revealed that the ‘householder battery’ is a core concept of the smart grid. Someone said that you should view the battery in an electric car as ‘six years fuel’ – after this time it can go into the utility room and provide a home store for energy generated by solar and wind topped up by the grid when necessary.

A neat concept, but will it catch on? A little known fact is that when the automotive industry denied it was possible to remove lead form petrol it was the action of the women’s institute that created a ground swell of opinion that changed their minds.

Perhaps Steve should be talking to mumsnet and the WI and then perhaps electric will become more interesting to the government.

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