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Might the most fuel-efficient vehicles in mass production–powerful hybrids, such as Toyota’s Prius, that can run on either gasoline or electricity–already be destined for the science museum? That’s the argument that French carmaker Renault is making at the Mondial de l’Automobile, the giant auto show running in Paris this week. Renault says that it is engineering a pair of battery-powered electric vehicles (EVs), to be produced starting in 2011, that it claims will be cheaper to build, cost markedly less to power, and produce far less carbon dioxide.

Renault’s vision for electric cars is small vehicles principally designed for commuting. At the Paris show, Renault unveiled a concept car showing the design of a compact EV commuter car: an EV version of its Kangoo utility van, with startling acid-green windows to minimize air conditioning and a lithium-ion battery that carries the van 160 to 200 kilometers on an average charge. That range “really covers the usage by our customers, who are using their cars only for commuting and maybe short trips during the weekend,” says Renault EV project director Serge Yoccoz. As a result, he predicts that such EVs could capture from 10 to 15 percent of the European car market as early as 2015. (Hybrids currently command just 2 percent of auto sales worldwide.)

Renault won’t be the first to test the commuter market with battery EVs. Mitsubishi Motors announced in Paris last week that it will begin testing its i-MiEV minicar in Europe next month with a view to commercial sales by 2010. Daimler, meanwhile, said that a battery version of its popular Smart Fortwo, in testing in London since last year, will be sold starting at the end of 2009.

Renault says that EVs are a necessity because hybrids cannot deliver the level of gasoline use and emissions reductions that governments and customers are demanding of automakers. The EV is the breakthrough required because, according to Renault, driving the EV Kangoo displayed in Paris generates zero carbon dioxide when charged with renewable energy, and no more than 60 grams per kilometer when charged on today’s coal-heavy power grids; when charging in France, carbon-dioxide emissions would be somewhere in between because nuclear power provides 80 percent of France’s electricity. Any of those scenarios compares well with the more than 130 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometer coming out the tailpipe of Renault’s diesel-fueled Kangoos, which are relatively efficient vehicles for their class.

Lithium batteries for Renault’s first round of products, at least, will come from a joint venture of Japan’s Nissan, with which Renault is partnering on EV technology development, and NEC. Newer lithium technologies have eclipsed the performance of the joint venture’s manganese-based lithium-ion chemistry, but Yoccoz says that the Nissan-NEC process is one of the cheapest.

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Credit: Peter Fairley

Tagged: Energy

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