There is a fascinating amount of electric technology rolling through the car factories of the world. The task of observers grows more interesting daily and the danger of missing something significant continues to grow.
But quite the most difficult question is that which confronts you when you step out of a new prototype insured for hundreds of thousands of pounds and the fruit of many millions of research and development. “What do you think of it?”
The difficulty is not that the car is dull: it never is. It is not that it is unsatisfactory; how could you make that judgement when there is still no defined market?
The difficulty in forming an opinion of an electric car is that its performance characteristic it is more or less identical to the last electric car.
A lunch-table of Renault product development people near Paris this week took that idea on board and ran with it. We know we need to think about that, they say. We know that we have to design in more personality.
We have been able to drive the Mini-E, Vauxhall Ampera, Citroen C-zero, Nissan Leaf and now the Renault Fluence Z.E. The distinctive feature of electric drive is that it has rapid, seamless, soundless and yes, exciting acceleration. And it has regenerative braking that (helpfully) slows the car when the throttle is released. There is some disparity here: the Mini-E has quite pronounced braking effect at one end of the spectrum. The new Renault prototype has very little.
But the answer for the Renault guys when they ask what you think of their car can be little more instructive than…it feels the same as all the other electric cars. An internal combustion engine gives you a series of aural signals, more or less-torque at various points of the gearing and acceleration, a manual or automatic gearbox to take control of. A keen driver can derive a sense of involvement and control.
Once electric cars are commonplace, the planners will be obliged to design-in new cabin gizmos and delights to distinguish their offering and give it superior appeal.
In its arrangement, the Fluence has two distinctive features. The electric “engine” is built to proportions similar to those of the typical petrol engine so that it will fit the engine bay of existing platforms. And it has the batteries in a stack in the boot rather than being shaped for under-floor stowage or for packing into the spine of the car.
It conforms to the Quickdrop pattern which manufacturers are attempting to standardise for rapid battery exchange systems.
The idea is that you extend the electric range of the car by planning your route around battery exchange stations. You roll in, press the release that allows an under-floor robot to remove your spent battery tower and replace it with a fresh and eager stack. You grab a coffee, pay the bill and get back on the road.
The success of the scheme depends entirely on you being able to communicate on the move with an exchange station to ensure that it has fresh batteries in stock, there is not a queue and that when you arrive all is ready and you can get away fast.
Renault is pioneering introduction in the compact nations of Israel and Denmark. This is not a solution to suit the Paris-Berlin road commuter. You’d be sick of coffee in half a day.
The Z.E. will be built on the same line as conventional Fluences, which are now charmingly described as being powered by “heat engines”, at OYAK-Renault in Bursa, Turkey within the year. Within very short order therefore, designers will have to decide how this electric car will stand out in a crowd.