BY MALCOLM WHEATLEY // PHOTO BY MARTIN BEDDALL
Barry Shrier (left) and Ian Hobday, Liberty Electric Cars, Oxford, England
Land Rover's iconic luxury Range Rover 4x4 needs little introduction. Big and fully loaded with all sorts of customized accoutrements, the $94,100 car has found favor around the world with a certain audience of well-off urban adventurers.
But with an oh-so-thirsty 400-horse-power 4.2 liter V8 engine, the Range Rover doesn't exactly scream green—a fact reflected not just in its carbon emissions and gasoline consumption, but also in the punitively steep taxes it's being slapped with in its birthplace of Britain. Beginning in 2010, vehicle taxes will be based on the grams of carbon dioxide emitted per kilometer. Spewing more than 376 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometer, the Range Rover with all the custom trimmings is woefully off the scale. Those Brits who opted for the car will be shelling out £455 ($853) versus just £20 ($37.50) for owners of a Toyota Prius 1.5 VVTi Hybrid.
Amount of carbon dioxide the average vehicle emits per kilometer
Amount of carbon dioxide a fully loaded Range Rover emits per kilometer
Source: The U.K. Vehicle Certification Agency
Even outside of its native home, the Range Rover could be a tough sell to customers increasingly focused on sustainability.
And that's where British start-up Liberty Electric Cars spotted the opportunity for its flagship project: an electric Range Rover. “It's the world's first zeroemission 4x4,” explains Barry Shrier, a former investment banker who founded the Oxford, England-based company with $60 million in seed capital.
Skeptics might scoff at the idea of a green Range Rover, but it's serious business for Liberty. The upstart company claims a single charge of the Liberty electric Range Rover's power source will sustain the monster for 200 miles (322 kilometers), during which it will burn no gasoline, emit no carbon or other greenhouse gases and do so without compromising performance.
FURTHER DOWN THE ROAD
Realizing not everyone is dying for a green Range Rover, Liberty Electric Cars will unveil other vehicle platforms in due course, says Barry Shrier, the company's CEO. Although Liberty is officially staying quiet as to exactly which vehicle platforms, recent press coverage has been buzzing over an electric version of BMW's bestselling Mini, while the company's past press materials allude to “large luxury cars and other 4x4 vehicles.”
“The running costs are about 80 percent lower than for a gasoline-powered vehicle,” says Mr. Shrier.
That savings will presumably come in useful for the end-user, given the car's hefty price tag: $190,000 to $250,000, depending on specifications.
Yet even with the company in the throes of its project to develop the vehicle, 11 were sold as the result of Liberty's appearance at the U.K.'s 2008 Sexy Green Car Show last May.
“To our surprise, we were the only zero-emission vehicle exhibiting,” recalls Mr. Shrier. “It was quite a shock. The others were all hybrids of some description—and the response to our truly green vehicle was amazing. We hadn't planned on taking orders so soon, but people were literally writing checks and putting down deposits.”
And that number has since grown to 28. Yet in truth—as of press time—Liberty's electric Range Rover has yet to drive the first of those green, zero-emission miles anywhere other than in road tests.
A SUSTAINABLE CHAIN
Given that Land Rover has already tested and certified the gasoline-engine version of its Range Rover, the task of bringing a green version to market should be relatively short once a finalized prototype exists.
Ah, but getting to that finalized prototype …
To date, the project “has revolved around technology selection—making sure there's a viable option for each of the four major technologies in the vehicle that is available in production volumes and with security of supply,” says Ian Hobday, a former senior international chemical industry executive who now heads Liberty's development program.
Since July 2007—shortly after Liberty itself was founded—each of the electric Range Rovers core technologies has been put through a stage-gate selection process. At this point, the team is tantalizingly close to delivering final choices from which prototype vehicles can be assembled and further orders solicited.
WHY THE RANGE ROVER?
Most new car buyers take what they can get, with perhaps a few slight modifications. Not so with the people purchasing Range Rovers. Apparently, they really like to make the vehicles their own, which means there's an extensive body of knowledge about how best to customize the vehicles. And that's turning out to be quite helpful for a company looking to turn out an electric version, says Ian Hobday at Liberty.
To create the green Range Rovers, three- to six-month-old vehicles will be sought to buyers' specifications from the second-hand market. If a requirement can't be met or an appropriate used car located, Liberty will order a new one from Land Rover. The company will then strip out the original engine and gearbox to install its green technology.
“The project plan called for us to build two prototypes by the end of 2008,” says Mr. Hobday. “Instead, we'll have two prototypes to build—and firm orders to fill.”
PAYING THE PRICE
Beginning in 2010, vehicle taxes in Britain will be based on the amount of carbon dioxide emitted per kilometer traveled.
Amount paid by Land Rover owners
Amount paid by owners of a Toyota Prius 1.5 VVTi Hybrid
For each vehicle sold, the manufacturing process calls for the original Land Rover engine and gearbox to be ripped out and Liberty's four key technologies installed. Hence the importance of carefully managing the final selection of those technologies, all of which must work in harmony with each other.
“At each stage in the stage-gate process, we're evaluating the technologies under consideration, not just from the point of view of a concept car or prototype, but from a finished vehicle,” he explains. “It has been about evaluating the technologies and the companies behind them—making sure the claims that are made in respect of them stand up to scrutiny.”
When a potential supplier says it will be able to deliver 10,000 a year of any given component, for example, Liberty goes in to check out the production line.
“We want to make sure that a supplier is making the parts themselves and not outsourcing production to a third party that might steal the intellectual property,” says Mr. Shrier.
“At each stage gate, there are decisions to be made,” says Mr. Hobday. “Do we abandon a particular option or continue evaluating it? Or switch to a competing technology or supplier?”
All discussions with suppliers take place under non-disclosure agreements, and Liberty typically seeks an exclusive relationship.
At one point, it seemed like supplier finance, business viability and the ability to service warranty claims could sabotage the project, he adds, but all the issues have since been sorted out.
The process is so involved, explains Mr. Shrier, precisely because the technology in question is “so truly cutting-edge. We are literally working at the limits of the art of the possible.”
A PEEK UNDER THE HOOD
The vehicle's first technology is obvious enough: the “energy-storage capability.” (“Battery isn't quite the right word,” says Mr. Hobday, wincing.) The evaluation process involves a tradeoff of weight and power output familiar to any laptop computer user.
Next, and perhaps equally obvious, is the electric motor technology. Again, the trick is to combine delivered torque with lightness and durability.
Less obvious, perhaps, is the third technology area: energy management, defined by Mr. Hobday as a combination of hardware and software designed to make the most of each watt of power. The system will include an element of “regenerative braking,” so, as the brakes are applied and the vehicle slows down, the motive energy that would otherwise be wasted is captured and used to generate electricity to help recharge the energy-storage system.
And then there's the fourth technology
WIDENING THE RANGE
Throughout the project, marketing and technology-assessment engineers have liaised closely. At regular weekly meetings, the team gathers to measure the impact of each of the emerging candidate technology solutions against the market's requirements in terms of performance criteria, such as range and speed.
“Manufacturing will be managed in a way that makes as little environmental impact as possible, with much of the assembly work taking place alongside key suppliers' existing operations.”
It's from such project review meetings that the need for the fourth technology area emerged, explains Mr. Hobday. Projections began to suggest the electric version wouldn't be able to deliver a range attractive to enough buyers.
So the vehicle now includes what Mr. Hobday describes as a “second, non-polluting source of motive power, providing a range-extension capability beyond what would be achievable with the basic technology.” It's a description that is studiously vague. Mr. Hobday and Mr. Shrier are guarded during discussions of technology, and beyond this terse description they're willing to go no further.
From hints that have appeared in media coverage, though, it's possible to make an informed deduction that the fourth technology probably involves wind generators. That would mean turning the flow of air around the vehicle into power that can be used to top up the “battery” and thus extend the range.
As of August, the technology platforms that will be present in the final production-ready Liberty electric Range Rover had been finalized. “Basically, we've now got a car,” says Mr. Shrier.
Mr. Hobday is convinced the rigor of the project management process played a major part in helping the team meet the aggressive timescale. “It has allowed us to have the luxury of sales and marketing and prototyping working in parallel, efficiently pursuing their own goals in their own ways, but coming together once a week to make sure everything's on track,” he says.
The process has also helped deliver a project with an engineering team that's certainly far from resource-heavy. There are just three engineers working for Mr. Hobday, assisted by a scientist contracted to maintain a brief over relevant emerging technologies.
Of course, funneling those observations into a real-life project takes a certain agility. “We're already on our second-generation of lithium-ion energy-storage technology,” Mr. Hobday says.
Such is the nature of projects centered on such a fluid field.
The market for electric cars is still in its early stages, Mr. Shrier says. But exponential growth is expected as legislation, social awareness and technological advances accelerate changes in transport choices.
That could mean big numbers. “We're hopeful that annual vehicle production will be in the tens of thousands and will create around 825 new technology and manufacturing jobs,” Mr. Shrier says.
And Liberty would have solid proof its project is plugged in to shifting consumer tastes. PM
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