Right now, the vehicle revolution looks set to be electric, but very few people have driven an EV to date. So to dispel a few myths about electric vehicles being about as quick as a milkfloat, or as attractive as a noddy car, we though we'd use our recent experience in the Smith Electric / Ford Transit Connect BEV to tell you what driving an electric car (well, van-based car) of the future might be like.
Getting in to Smith’s demonstrator Ford Transit Connect EV is just like stepping into a regular Transit Connect. It looks like any automatic transmission vehicle. There are two pedals and a centrally mounted gearshift, with park, drive and reverse ratios. It’s when you turn the key in the ignition that things get different. Instead of the churn of a starter motor and the flare of revs as an internal combustion engine bursts into life, what you’re instead greeted with is a barely perceptible whining noise, as the car’s 12volt system powers up, and the diagnostics run a check on the traction batteries. Once that’s done and they’re powered up, you hear a ‘pop’ noise as the connectors kick in, signalling the vehicle’s ready.
From there, it’s simply a matter of slipping the gearshift into drive, and then silently, eerily, moving away. The lack of sound is – quite unsurprisingly – the thing that takes most getting used to. If you’ve ever sat in a car being pushed or towed with its engine off, the first few yards you cover driving an EV will feel familiar. Your brain, used to the gentle rise of revs from an internal combustion engine, struggles to comprehend that you’re moving without sound. Video:
Accelerating and on the move
Moving away from rest is a doddle. Simply press the accelerator, as you would in an automatic car and the van hurries away from the line with no fuss. Electric motors produce nearly all of their torque from zero rpm, which means good acceleration at low speed, and instead of the rise and fall in acceleration rates (and engine noise) you’re used to from an internal combustion engine, there’s simply a constant, linear accelerative force – as if a giant elastic band has been attached to the front of the van, and is hauling you toward the horizon.
One thing that's worth noting is that you do become more aware of other vehicular noises - from the tyres, wind, and interior of the vehicle. We wouldn't be surprised to see a lot of work going into the next generation of electric vehicles to really try and muffle or eliminate some of this other ambient sound, as we suspect that if - say - the interior developed a creak or rattle in your electric car, it'd really draw attention to itself and prove to be much more noticeable and annoying than in today's internal combustion vehicles. Nontheless, the lack of motor noise makes this whole experience feel, as Vinay suggests from the back seat, “a little star trek” – the van has only one gear ratio, which means you just don’t feel the same sense of acceleration. So it comes as a surprise to look down and find you’re doing 60 miles per hour. This thing is not slow. Video:
The most noticable driving difference in the Transit Connect EV over a regular car or van is the regenerative braking system. Prius and other hybrid drivers will already be familiar with such systems, which capture energy when a vehicle is slowing down, and feed it back into the battery. The Transit Connect EV has the most aggressively set up type of this system I’ve yet driven – and if you’re clever and read the road ahead, it means you’ll rarely need to touch the brakes. Simply lift your foot off the accelerator, and the vehicle begins to slow – quite quickly – to the extent that, when exiting a motorway at 65mph, the van had brought itself to a stop at the end of the off-ramp, without me touching the brake pedal at all. Video:
If you’re British and of a certain age, your perception of what an electric vehicle will be like is probably rooted around the milk float – the ancient morning delivery vehicle with a top speed of around 15 miles per hour. Smith Electric, Ford’s partner on this project, actually used to build those vehicles as far back as 80 years ago, but the Transit Connect EV bears so little resemblance to such a device that the method of propulsion almost ought to be given a different name. Both are electric vehicles, but comparing the two is like comparing Issigonis’s original Mini with a contemporary Porsche.
The most complementary thing we can say about the Transit Connect BEV is that it drives at least as well as its internal combustion counterpart, and in many regards it’s better. It easily keeps up with traffic. The lack of drivetrain shunt, engine noise, and not needing to change gear significantly reduces the load on the driver – meaning they’re free to concentrate on the road. Smith report that fatigue and strain levels in drivers of its EVs are significantly lower than in equivalent internal combustion powered vehicles. Critically, in the small delivery vehicle market, this should lead to safer, more aware drivers, who have fewer accidents. The proof of that particular pudding will be in the eating, when these vehicles go on sale in the US next year. But Smith report that of the drivers on its existing fleets who’ve made the jump from gasoline to electric drive, not one now wants to switch back to an internal combustion engine. From a group of drivers who are notoriously hard to please, that’s the best endorsement going.
Posted by Joseph Simpson on 2nd September 2009.
The Movement Design Bureau team visit Smith Electric's production facility in Washington, Tyne & Wear, UK on 17th August 2009. Thanks to Dan Jenkins and everyone at Smith for being so accommodating and patient. Disclosure: Ford is sponsoring The Movement Design Bureau's design and research work in 2009