A champion of electric vehicles has been awarded the Royal Academy of Engineering's highest individual award for his contribution to the profession.
Professor Ching Chuen Chan, Honorary Professor in the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering at the University of Hong Kong, will receive the Prince Philip Medal during the academy’s awards dinner in London on July 2 for his pivotal role in furthering the field of electric vehicles.
Referred to as one of the ‘Three Wise Men’ of the electric vehicle industry, Chan has authored 300 research papers, published 11 books – including the seminal Modern Electric Vehicle Technology – co-founded the World Electric Vehicles Association and is a consultant to several major car manufacturers.
He was instrumental in the development of the E2O, Mahindra REVA’s low cost electric car for the Indian market, advised Honda on the development of their electric vehicles from 1992 until 2002 and is also chief advisor on the development of new energy vehicles to FAW – China’s largest automotive manufacturer.
But despite a 40-year career at the forefront of electric vehicle development, the inspiration that sparked what Chan refers to as his “obsession”, came from humble beginnings while growing up in Indonesia.
“People ask, ‘why are you obsessed by electric vehicles?’. It is because when I was a boy growing up in Indonesia my father ran a taxi and bus business and after school I would go round to the garage because it was next to our home,” said the 77-year-old.
“I would see these beautiful cars in the garage and think, ‘why are they so ugly and dirty and why was there so much smoke?’ I questioned why such beautiful cars became so ugly when they came to the garage and I wonder if it was possible to make a car with no emissions.”
After graduating from the electrical engineering department of the China University of Mining & Technology in the 1950s he started working on electrically powered mine carts for the coal mining industry, which made him question why they were not in wider use above ground.
He became fascinated by the fact that prior to Henry Ford’s innovation of the automotive assembly line electric cars had been more popular than those powered by internal combustion engines due to their lack of noise and lower cost due to smaller, less complicated power trains, a fact that convinced him that with the right support electric vehicles could take the lead again.
“The challenge for electric vehicles is not only to have a good product, but also good infrastructure and a good business model to reduce the initial cost and make the use of them affordable, safe and reliable,” the 77-year-old said.
But the technology is highly disruptive, he says, which means one of the biggest challenges is for governments to come up with innovative policy that both ensures uptake of electric vehicles while convincing the big players it is in their interest to get on board and not obstruct progress.
Equally important is the development of infrastructure to support any electric vehicle revolution. While companies like Tesla are making bold claims about rolling out quick charge stations, Chan believes the expense involved in creating such a network and the surges in demand it will create for the power grid mean this is not a complete solution.
“Electric vehicles are not only a means of transportation; they are also a moving energy storage device,” said Chan. “They are not only a mechanical product they are also an electrical product.”
He believes a mix of slow charging at home, medium charging and battery swap schemes on the roads, and quick charging for emergencies will provide the most responsive and grid-friendly solution to the infrastructure problem. Better integration with smart technologies to aid the development of a future ‘smart grids’ and ‘smart cities’ is also a major opportunity.
And despite his enthusiasm for electric vehicles, Chan accepts that limitations on range mean there will still be a place for the internal combustion engine in the world’s future transport mix, though they will be hybrid vehicles capable of burning clean fuels like hydrogen and biofuel.
“Designing an electric vehicle with a long range – 200 or 300km – can be done but it’s not economically viable because to cope with such a high mileage you need a very big battery. You can do it but you’ll only be able to carry the battery and the driver!” he said.
“The internal combustion engine still has a place but this will be a new generation of engines using new methods for propulsion, using hybrid engines, using multiple fuels.”
And despite every excuse to rest on his laurels, Chan continues his research, focusing on the new infrastructure needed to integrate electric vehicles into the world’s energy systems, such as smart charging and vehicle-to-grid systems, and the correlation between energy and information.
“Nowadays many young people have no obsession but you need obsession for innovation,” he said. “Electric vehicles have been my bread and butter in the latter half of my life and indeed they are what have made me what I am today.
“To cope with the challenges of this new era, it is essential to promote a climate of renaissance and open mindedness, truly in the spirit of engineering. The philosophy of engineering is system integration and optimisation; the engineering spirit is a ‘can-do’ spirit.
“It is in that spirit that I accept this prestige award, not on behalf of myself only, but on behalf of my institutions, teachers, colleagues, friends and students. This is the result of decades of collective work; the honour also belongs to them”.