It was 29 August 2013 that I took delivery of a Holden Volt. The Volt was unique in the electric vehicle (EV) and hybrid landscape. There were pure EVs and there were parallel-motor hybrids and plug-in hybrids but there was nothing else like the Volt. The number one reason for stalled EV sales (then and now) was range anxiety.

In one attractive EV hybrid package, the Holden badged Chevrolet Volt solved range anxiety. It was a plug-in EV with a 16.5kWh battery good for 87 kilometres of EV driving. Plug it in each night and the next morning your car was ready to go again. Despite this distance being double the daily average for an Aussie, people were always going to be nervous about the range…but the designers had an ace up their sleeve. They went back through history to solve the problem from another angle. In 1903, Russia produced a ship that used a different concept for propulsion; the following year the Swedish Navy followed suit and by 1918 the US had a train using the same method of producing motion. Diesel-electric motors. Use a diesel engine to spin a generator to produce electricity to drive an electric motor.

The Holden Volt copied this concept. As soon as the battery was depleted, a 1.4-litre petrol engine automatically started and drove a generator to continue to power the car. The small fuel tank was good enough for another 550 kilometres of driving and once that ran out, you filled up with petrol at a normal service station. The best of both worlds. Unfortunately the Volt was a complete flop and the Volt I drove was one of only 250 on the roads in Australia. Ahead of its time?

Well the latest announcement by Nissan would reinforce that idea.

Nissan already has a full EV with the Nissan LEAF (we have one parked in our driveway) but range anxiety is still limiting sales. Enter the Nissan e-Power concept. The idea is to combine the instant response of an electric motor while a 1.5-litre petrol engine provides the power. This is not a plug-in model – instead it is a petrol-electric drivetrain similar to a diesel-electric train. Toyota’s hybrid concept uses parallel motors to drive the wheels but the e-Power is a serial hybrid where the wheels are only ever driven by electric motors and the engine is only ever used to generate electricity. There is no mechanical link between the petrol engine and the wheels. This makes the drivetrain simpler and driving feels smooth with high torque from standstill just like an electric vehicle. While personally I would like to see  higher focus on pure EVs, I am pragmatic enough to understand that for many, the leap to a full EV might be a step too far. If the e-Power is successful I would see it as a gateway solution to consumers adopting EVs on mass.

The latest figures from worldwide sales for the first half of this year show that progress is being made with EV sales – but this country needs a boost (pun two). EV sales increased by 160 per cent year on year. In China, 12 per cent of all cars sold were EVs while European sales hit 15 per cent. Whilst some individual countries surge ahead – Norway is now at 80 per cent – Australia is still languishing in the fumes of ICE at only 0.8 per cent.

Maybe the e-Power will start to turn these figures around.

If too much tech is not enough, listen to the highest ranked Australian produced technology podcast, ‘Tech Talk with Mathew Dickerson’.

Mathew Dickerson

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