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September 17, 2009

FRANKFURT WRAP: Good time to be in R&D but…

It's an exciting time to be a car engineer or designer. Probably not such a good time to be in sales or marketing.

It’s an exciting time to be a car engineer or designer. Probably not such a good time to be in sales or marketing.

That was the consensus as a quiet day two of drew to a close at the the Frankfurt motor show.

As one engineer said, two years ago many of the electric vehicles on show were little more than wooden mock-ups with painted-on recharge sockets.

This year’s EVs were all running prototypes with production dates at least penciled in.

It’s a good time to be a stylist, Mazda ‘s new chief designer Ikuo Maeda said.

“We can change the proportions and create new shapes as the powertrains alter,” he said

And it’s a good time to be an engineer with endless possibilities, said Prodrive managing director of automotive technology Tony Butcher.

“With an engine at each wheel, no drive shafts, or very short ones, and no prop shaft, we can do anything,” he said.

One possibility is a clamshell design with a very smooth underbody to improve efficiency.

“Designs that were science fiction in The Eagle comic of the 1950s and 60s or in Star Trek are now possible,” said Butcher. “There will be no gearbox, no clutch and you can put the weight where you want it.”

Even more exciting from an engineering point of view is the ability to take control of each wheel.

“This gives us infinite possibilities for tuning,” he said.

To extend the range of the electric car beyond the 80 miles (120km) or so that most reckon is achievable, a small range-extender engine designed to give high power at constant rpm, rather than oodles of torque, will be fitted. It will be no bigger than a carry-on suitcase.

Prodrive is working on a two-stroke diesel because that offers the best compromise.

But Butcher cautions against backing the wrong sort of battery technology.

Just as people faced a choice between VHS and Betamax VCRs in the 1970s, so car makers need to choose their battery technology carefully.

And what would stop companies like Sony, Nokia or Toshiba from making cars if all you have to do is provide an electric motor in each corner and the right battery technology?

We can’t wait … just so long as it doesn’t make the Frankfurt show any bigger.

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