Think electric

The story of the world's most successful electric car.

With biofuels being subjected to allegations of hidden carbon costs and causing food shortages in the developing world, it has never been a better time for makers of that other current viable petrol alternative, electric cars, to develop and market them.

The latest is the TH!NK car, a Mini Cooper look-alike, launched by a Norwegian firm of the same name at the Geneva Motor Show this year. Inevitably, the car has already been dubbed the 'Fjord'.

Early car magazine reviews have been positive, one calling it "wacky but fun". Another motoring journalist, from a UK tabloid, writes: "It looks a bit like Noddy's car but drives like a proper motor... even though it's quieter than a milk float." The writer adds that he was "impressed, it was quick off the mark and smooth to drive, a quirky and neat little car that is a realistic option for city driving".

The 2+2 seater can reach 62mph and has a 110 mile range with current battery types. It has also got a maximum four-star pending rating in the EuroNCAP crash tests, the legacy of being once developed by Ford, who gave it a sturdy frame with the intention of achieving safety competitiveness with "normal" cars.

These features arguably put it ahead of the electric car most seen on London's streets today, the G-Wiz - the runty, even more Noddy-looking vehicle whose maximum speed is 50mph, maximum range 48 miles and which, because it's classed by the EU as a quadric-cycle, does not have to abide by the EU safety laws for cars. The G-Wiz needs to be serviced every six months at the manufacturer's Southall centre, which, as even the makers admit, limits its appeal to the London area. (Imagine what a marathon it would be driving from Glasgow and recharging every 50 miles.) In contrast, the TH!NK only needs servicing every 18 months.

The catch is that the TH!NK is expected to cost a lot when launched in the UK next spring (it's already on sale in Norway): £14,000, plus £140 a month battery lease charge. This means that when the battery loses efficiency, it can be traded in for free (to the manufacturers ) for a working one. The G-Wiz costs just £9,000, and its batteries (bought not leased), which have to be changed every other year, around £2,000.

Both cars though are cheap to run. They also produce zero tailpipe carbon emissions.

All electric cars in the UK are exempt from the London congestion charge, central London parking fees, and road tax, saving up to £6,000 annually and several councils are setting up on-street parking with charging points that can be used for free. Recharging a battery - which can also be done via the household electricity supply - takes up to eight hours and costs about £1.50.

In short, driving electric costs two pence per mile. Over 900 G-wiz cars have been sold and TH!NK has a waiting list of 3,000 worldwide - not bad for a project that has been on the ropes several times.

The TH!NK story

The story of the TH!NK is an interesting one. The idea began in the wake of the 1973 oil crisis when Lars Ringdal, head of the company Bakkelitfabrikken A/S in the town of Aurskog, thought about a cheap runaround.

The factory, which also made small sailing dinghies, started work on the project, which eventually ran into the sand. But the idea of a small ecological car did not go away.

In 1990 PIVCO, the Personal Independent Vehicle Company, was established, with support from Statoil, Norsk Hydro and the Norwegian Department of Energy. They produced a prototype TH!NK that was used at the Winter Olympics at Lillehammer in 1994. In 1999 Pivco went bust, but was bought shortly after by Ford to help the US car company comply with California environmental legislation.

In 1990, California, following a series of shocking reports of smog effects on children's health, passed a law mandating that all car makers had to produce a certain proportion of vehicles that were zero carbon emitting: 2 per cent of their production by 1998; 10 per cent by 2003. In response, GM developed a model called the EV-1, while Ford, having no model of its own, bought Pivco and started churning out TH!NK cars developed to EU/US safety standards in the late 1990s.

In 2003, California's zero emissions law was scrapped after carmakers sued the state for infringing on the federal government's sole rights to legislate on national fuel standards. The argument was a bit complicated, but the documentary film 'Who Killed the Electric Car?' (2006) alleges that the carmakers played unfair. They extracted a concession on standards, and then used that concession, which was meant to help them, as a basis for saying that California had overstepped its mandate. The film argues that neither carmakers nor oil companies wanted electric cars, which would threaten their profits.

Once the law was repealed, the companies could and did wind down their electric car operations.

All GM's EV-1s were destroyed: they had been leased to customers on an experimental basis, so the firm could take them back, despite numerous offers from customers to buy the popular car, which looked, curiously, a bit like a streamlined version of that old French classic, the Citroen DS, and went like a rocket.

Ford divested itself of its electric car arm (though the vehicles were shipped back to Norway) to a Swiss company and, by 2006, TH!NK had gone bankrupt.

But Norwegian private investors stepped in, and now they have logistics and marketing support from companies as diverse as Porsche and Google (the latter company's founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, drove an early TH!NK back in the 1990s and are enthusiastic backers of electric cars).

Employing lean manufacturing techniques, TH!NK builds no body or parts itself, buying in plastic panels from Turkey, motors from France and mainframes from Thailand and doing only the assembly of components in Aurskog.

The company will do away with traditional showrooms: cars will be sold online, built to order. There will be no conventional advertising, just word of mouth and so-called viral marketing. TH!NK hopes to sell to car-sharing companies whose customers will then recommend it to their friends.

Lithium future

The next couple of years will be challenging. TH!NK launches in America at the end of next year; and there the competition could be considerably tougher than offered by the G-Wiz today in Europe.

GM appears to have had second thoughts about electric cars and is now developing modified electric models, including the Chevrolet Volt, starting production in 2019. They will be plug-in hybrid emissions vehicles, described as offering the best of both worlds: they run on electricity for the first 40 miles, then, when the electricity is running out, have a petrol engine that doesn't drive the engine directly but generates more electricity for the battery, extending the range to up to 640 miles. They can also be charged at home.

Here, the plug-in hybrids differ from the popular Toyota Prius hybrid, which is motored by a petrol engine, augmented by battery electrical power generated by braking, often used at the same time. The Prius does not have a plug-in. 

Nissan-Renault and even Citroen are also said to be developing electric cars. Nissan's electric car range could be ready for 2010-11, and the company will be encouraging pure electrics, rather than the plug-in hybrids favoured by GM, or the simple hybrid of today's Prius.

Whatever happens to TH!NK, the growth in output of electric cars is surely a good thing. A study by the US Natural Resources Defense Council concluded that electricity consumption would rise only by about 8 per cent, if 60 per cent of light vehicles in the US were replaced by zero emissions plug-in vehicles by 2050. At the same time, it would cut US carbon emissions by 450 million tonnes annually, the equivalent to scrapping 82 million cars.

The growing displacement of current lead acid and nickel hydride batteries for more powerful lithium ion ones is bound to increase their attractiveness, as lithium offers far greater range, allowing cars to travel up to 300 miles farther, on batteries alone.

Its extreme energy density makes lithium suitable for batteries, but a rising demand for it would put a heavy strain on its world resources.

Lithium carbonate is mined mostly in Brazil, Argentina and Bolivia, all of which would require further investment in extraction capabilities to meet a great leap in battery demand.

The geopolitics of South America as the new epicentre for transport resources (and Brazil is big on biofuels too) is, to say the least, intriguing.

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