With electric super car ‘halo’ models entering the fray, environmentally-friendly cars are about to become a lot more desirable. So, what’s the catch?

The competitive landscape for electric vehicles will change forever in 2013, not because of a deluge of sensible, affordable city cars from China, but because the biggest most aspirational car brands will begin a land grab of our heart and minds with a mind-boggling array of super sports cars.

Jaguar, Porsche, Ferrari, Audi and BMW will all release the most jaw-dropping beauties that will give the most ardent of petrol heads a bad case of ‘electric dreams’ – destroying the illusion for ever that EVs are little more than a ‘sensible’ form of sustainable transport.

This move is reinforced by the continued success of electric powered cars in motorsports, most famously at the Le Mans 24 Hours, a race which was won for the first time in 2012 by the hybrid Audi’s R18 e-tron Quattro but challenged closely by the TS030 Hybrids from Toyota.

Last month’s Pikes Peak Hill Climb (PPIHC) saw the entry of no less than seven electric powered race cars, notably that of six-time winner and former record holder Monster Tajima, whose Team APEV car was unfortunately knocked out by an electrical fire. Nevertheless, he’ll be back next year and no doubt the course record of the most famous hill climb in the world will finally be claimed by an electric powered car.

In the high-altitude ‘Race to the Clouds’ of a Pikes Peak hill climb, electric power claims an obvious advantage over combustion, since it’s unaffected by the drop in oxygen levels. For endurance racers the significantly fewer moving parts of an electric car make for greater reliability and instant overtaking torque out of tight corners.

Honorary President of the Motorsport Industry Association (MIA), Lord Drayson, recently revealed his 850 bhp Lola-Drayson B12/69EV. It will most likely join Audi and Toyota at Le Mans next year, together with the hydrogen-electric GreenGT H2 prototype, which has been granted a “Garage 56” spot by the Automobile Club de l’Ouest race organisers.

But while the future looks increasingly green, there is a potential fly in the ointment.

Does the progress of Hybrid powered cars accelerate or delay the development of Fully Electric vehicles?

Jaguar’s £900,000 Project C-X75 will be one of the fastest, low-emission vehicles in the world when it is released in 2013, with a 200mph top speed, 0-60mph in less than 3 seconds and 0-100mph in less than 6 seconds.

The road car will use a 4-cylinder 500bhp internal combustion engine, boosted by both a turbocharger and supercharger and supported by a Kinetic Energy Regeneration System (KERS) from the people who develop Williams F1 powerplants. The headlines quite rightly praise its sub-99g/km CO2 capability, but with an all-electric range of 60km, electric propulsion seems more of an hors d’oeuvre than a main meal.

The Porsche 918 Spyder, a master-class in efficient propulsion, harnesses a 500bhp V8 engine together with two permanent electric motors to produce nearly 750bhp. Porsche’s goal is to deliver 200mph performance, 0-60mph acceleration in 3.1 seconds and a lap time around the Nurburgring Nordschleife of 7 minutes 30 seconds. It will go on sale in September 2013 priced at around £690,000, boasting CO2 performance of 70g/km but with an all-electric range of just 16 miles.

We know far less about Ferrari’s forthcoming Enzo replacement (F70). It is due in 2013, priced somewhere between Porsche’s 918 Spyder and Jaguar’s C-X75 and according to Ferrari’s chairman, Luca di Montezemolo, “.. will be our first-ever hybrid car.” It will be the carmaker’s most powerful model, combining two electric motors with a 12-cylinder petrol engine, which will achieve a 40% reduction in fuel use. Electric power will be used yet again as a way of reducing CO2 emissions, rather than providing a genuinely feasible means of propulsion.

Audi’s R8 e-tron quattro has already established a performance benchmark at the Nurburgring, claiming the fastest ever lap of 8 minutes 9 seconds in June. It’s also the first of these electric powered sports cars which runs ‘purely’ on electricity. Propulsion comes from four electric motors driving each wheel, delivering a total power output of 313bhp and 3,319lb-ft of torque (equivalent to around 502lb ft in real world terms). The R8 e-tron’s all-electric range from its lithium-ion batteries is a far more respectable 154 miles and it will be priced at a little over £100,000 when it goes on sale in early 2013.

As distinctive as these design sketches are, the interior of the production i8 coupé is unlikely to look this flamboyant, and i8 test cars have been
seen using an array of 3-Series components.

Last but not least in our short list of established sports car makers is BMW. The i8 Concept is a 2+2 seat sports car with a 1.5-litre three-cylinder petrol engine working in tandem with a front-mounted electric motor. The combustion engine produces 220bhp and 221lb-ft of torque which combined with the second electric powerplant delivers around 354bhp. Acceleration from 0-60mph will be achieved in under 5 seconds combined with a maximum fuel consumption of 104mpg.

The i8’s price should be around the same as the R8 e-tron (£100,000+) but unlike the Audi, BMW’s electric powered sports car has an all-electric range of just 20 miles.

* * *

So what’s the problem?

Compared to just a few years ago we will soon be facing the production reality of five sports cars from the most prestigious performance car makers in the world, all waving the flag of environmental sustainability through their use of electric power.

Such a ‘halo’ presence in the market will significantly raise the appeal of both battery powered electric vehicles and their hybrid counterparts. But will customers appreciate the difference between Audi’s R8 e-tron and BMW’s i8? Or in fact show preference towards the BMW due to its superior (perceived) range when using both petrol and electric drive?

The question is an important one because the future of sustainable transport depends on the rapid innovation in battery technology. All of the above cars use lithium-ion batteries which are far slower to charge than lithium–titanate batteries, as well as having a shorter life span (lower cycle life).

This reliance on more familiar technology is one downside of innovation being led by large manufacturers, whose interests lie more in protecting their own investments than accelerating the technological progress for all.

In economic terms we call it rent-seeking, manipulating the social or political environment of a sector to maximise their own economic gains. There is of course a social cost to monopoly, but there may also be an environmental one when it comes to the development of electric vehicles

Audi are already anticipating that their near-silent electric cars will need to be heard by pedestrians who are used to the sound of oil-burning engines. Seen here on a rolling road surrounded by microphones, this is the R8 e-tron undergoing acoustic engineering to develop a synthetic solution: Audi e-sound.

Apart from Audi, the other car makers mentioned above are merely dipping their toes in the electric vehicle ecosystem, although BMW deserve credit with their i3 hatchback which uses the same electric motor as the i8 but lives up to the pure-play all-electric format of the R8 e-tron.

So let’s celebrate the onset of an electric vehicle revolution in 2013, where for the first time in the history of the car, our automotive pin-ups will major on sustainability rather than self-indulgence.

But beware of complacency, for electric powered vehicles to reach the majority of road users the cycle time for innovation needs to become shorter and the distinction needs to be maintained between range-extended hybrids, performance-boosted hybrids and all-electric cars.

Read the magazine:  Green Car Design/Review – Special Paris Motor Show Edition