Thursday, April 26, 2012

A transition

I have enjoyed driving an Audi R8 V10 for several years. It's a great car, maybe even one of the best ever. It's pretty much everything you'd ask for in a super-car but it's also surprisingly practical - which is really why I have owned one. I don't collect cars, or keep special models especially for tooling around at weekends, but like many people I appreciate a really great car and have aspired to own an R8 since I first saw an article on the original V8 years back. To me, the R8 is one of the most beautiful automobiles ever made. Some people like the classic lines of Ferraris, Porsches and others, but I'm a sucker for the the squat, wide bodied hyper-modern look of the later Lamborghinis and the R8 (of course, now all owned by the VW group). I have also had a soft spot for Aston Martins (more about that in a sec).

Despite loving the R8, enjoying the thrill in the morning when I turn the key and hear that big 5.2 litre engine fire up and occasionally the joy of that resonant big exhaust note when I apply a little gas, I've also always thought that I'd probably like to own an electric vehicle - as soon as they made one that didn't suck practically, or indeed to look at. I'm an avid watcher of Top Gear, as much for the 'three men larking around' fun as for the cars, but I'm not glued to the auto press. So while I knew about the Nissan Leaf, the Chevrolet Volt and the Tesla Roadster, I had completely missed anything about Fisker Automotive. Then, out of the blue recently I came across their Karma model on the web.

I was beginning to get a little depressed about the state of automotive innovation. That's in much the same way as I have been (and still am) depressed that, while I was born at the same time as the moon landings and therefore might have had every reason to expect to observe mankind's great emancipation from our Earthly tethers, we just haven't really been bothered to do any more of that since the early 70's. I suppose the reasons are similar too - the political will has been an issue and there's an awful lot of vested interest to put a drag on determined innovation. Clearly, electric vehicles in some form or other are the only way forward - we may not wean ourselves off mass personal transport, but we surely must stop with burning fossil fuels at the insane rate we all do, just to shuffle ourselves around the place (and often for less than essential reasons).

When hybrids like the Toyota Prius started to appear, I was briefly interested. It seemed like this was the very reasonable first step - not a Big Bang, but a sensible evolution in the right direction. Unfortunately, it was clear all too soon that this really wasn't much of a step really. Fuel savings were marginal, even for those only doing short urban commuting - and I just couldn't understand why the early vehicles didn't allow plugging-in to top up the marginal battery capacity. I thought that situation would be very temporary, but it has lasted longer than I expected. Successive hybrid generations came and went. The hybrid idea caught on pretty much across all the major auto vendors, but each maintained these limitations while actually charging a considerable premium just to belong to the 'hybrid set'.

So, as the years ticked by, I found myself wondering just how much further into the future the electric revolution would actually be. The very idea of electric vehicles became something of a joke and many people like me were left wondering if we were ever going to break whatever was holding back a real step forward. Certainly, we're all aware of the limitations of automotive battery technologies, but there was also a sense that both oil prices and oil politics would need to shift too. Finally, we started hearing about Tesla, then the Leaf and the Volt (as prototypes and projects before they had product names). Thankfully, the true electric vehicle was slowly materialising. To me however, there were still a couple of issues. The practical one was range, but IMHO aesthetics were also generally lacking. Actually, the Tesla Roadster was definitely not short of beauty (at least I happen to like the Lotus look), but all the other electric cars were small/light and not particularly distinguished in classic good looks. It was as if electric cars were supposed to look frugal and practical to go with the tree hugging, or something. Now, don't get me wrong, I think the Leaf is cute and in many ways the Volt is the most striking and good looking GM car I've seen (I had a thing for Pontiacs once, but in any case they killed that brand). However, these cars aren't sports cars, let alone R8s or Ferraris.

Then I spotted the Karma online.

Here was a genuinely, strikingly beautiful automotive design mated to a legitimate (if still transitional) electric vehicle drive system. Thanks to Henrik Fisker, the back looks like an Aston Martin and the front looks like a cross between an American muscle car and an Italian supercar. It has big hips like an R8, huge wheels and flowing lines down its long length. Wow.

It wasn't too many YouTube videos and some avid article reading later that I was starting to recognise that this might be what I was looking for to do my own conversion into the electric vehicle age. I'm lucky enough to work only about 10km from where I live, so an 80km electric-only range (from a fully charged battery) is four times what I need, though there are some big hills involved in my commute. However, I would not be considering an electric vehicle if I couldn't also use it more generally, and even for some vacations and road trips. No current EV has anything like a suitable electric-only range for this. The upcoming (summer 2012) new Tesla S promises an awesome 300 miles range from full charge, but that's not quite here now, nor is there a dealer in Vancouver. Besides, for an electric-only vehicle you are naturally going to have to find a plug for an overnight charge (on 110V if you can't find a fast charge outlet!) once you've exhausted your juice - so even for the amazing Tesla S, that's just a little over the distance between Vancouver to Seattle, so no cruising down the West Coast in a pure electric just yet! However, the approach taken by Fisker (not uniquely) is to use a serial hybrid rather than just rely on batteries. I think this is an excellent compromise while we wait for battery technology to increase capacity and for charging infrastructure and technology to develop too. With Fisker's Electric Vehicle Extended Range (EVer) take on a plug-in serial hybrid, you can have your 300 miles from combined electric and gas power AND you can continue your journey indefinitely like any current generation internal combustion engine vehicle by virtue of finding ubiquitous gas stations as usual. Despite my irritations about the lack of speed of development of electric vehicles, I'm really hoping that by the time I come to change cars again in several years, the reliance on pure electric power can be much greater - even if there remains a backup gas engine present for 'special occasions'.

So. This blog is basically about the fact that I'm taking the plunge into EVs. I'm going from possibly one of the nicest internal combustion engined sports/race vehicles of all time, to an early generation but hopefully practical electric GT style car.

I do have some apprehensions about this. I'm a little worried that I'm going to miss the R8's raw character terribly, but the Karma looks like the car to do this for. To be honest I'm also apprehensive about being an early adopter AND the fact that Fisker is a brand new and still largely unknown entity. However, I'm going to have a little faith - and I certainly like some of their behaviour so far in how they have addressed teething problems and supported their customers. I'll try to blog my experiences here, in case they're interesting or useful for others, but also because I think I'll enjoy reading my own journal in the coming years...

No comments:

Post a Comment