A bright orange Tesla Roadster parked near a sprawling park that houses Spain's National Art Museum of Catalonia is a striking, if somewhat paradoxical, image. But the artistic, natural and carbon fiber-constructed beauty are all related in the eyes of the car company, one of the electric vehicle manufacturers in Barcelona this week to discuss mobility for vehicles that are less taxing on the planet at the HiT World Innovation Summit.
While the sportscar's speed has been the main draw for luxury car consumers from Switzerland to Hong Kong, Tesla Motors says that the use of 6,800 laptop-sized chips and electric outlet charging has even compelled purchases from individuals who live completely off the grid. While the combination of good design and green power is important for changing the habits of drivers worldwide, mass production and urban accessibility were larger themes discussed at HiT -- and two without which the overall impact of vehicles is thought to only increase.
The first concept, mass availability and affordability, is dependent on the installation of charging locations and devices for the owners of electric vehicles, Olivier Paturet of Nissan Europe's Zero Emissions Unit told the crowd of entrepreneurs and venture capitalists. He compared the need for easy charging to Copenhagen's public access to bikes, where "people's enjoyment comes from good infrastructure and being able to use the transportation safely."
And while infrastructure may make electric vehicle technology usable, the car creators agreed that government subsidies are vital for making purchases financially viable. In describing the $7,500 federal tax credit that American consumers can receive for the sportscar and potentially for a forthcoming four door sedan, Cristiano Carlutti, VP of Tesla's European operations, said, "Numerous countries have incentives on electric cars, and the reason is simple: given concerns with climate change and the prospect of big price spikes at the pump, governments want to encourage people to 'go green' and reduce dependence on oil. Would consumers make green choices without such incentives? I would like to think so -- but it's impossible to say whether consumer behavior would change quickly enough, given the big challenges our planet faces."
At the same time that selling the $102,000 electric Roadster is a proof of concept to show that there's a market for well-performing electric cars, current research at the MiT Media Lab is looking to prove the usability of a fleet of lightweight folding cars. The Hiriko city car project centers around the idea of mobility on demand: subscribers would pay to use the electric vehicles as part of a one-way shared use network (think of an improved Zipcar). They would then access two door cars resembling bubbles that would be powered when driven over wireless inductive power charging stations on the ground.
Raul-David Poblano, a researcher who manages the technical aspects of the project with the Smart Cities group, is one of three PhD students leading the design and prototype process for the vehicle, which is ultimately to be built at a Formula 1 racing facility in Vitoria, Spain. Poblano, who predicted that electric vehicles will soon cost one quarter of the operating cost of gas-powered vehicles because of power and insurance costs, said, "it will be great to see the vehicle built as a way to demonstrate the paradigm shift in personal sustainable mobility."
That the Hiriko project is a partnership between MiT and the Basque innovation company Denokinn is no surprise. According to Hans de Boer, who leads business development at Shai Agassi's network of electric vehicle change spots and battery switch stations, BetterPlace, said that partnerships around new technology for smart charging companies and car manufacturers is also imperative; "we have common interests and cars are only worthwhile if everything works," de Boer said. And when Tesla works with mass market producers, having formed an engineering partnership with Daimler and a manufacturing relationship with Toyota, it seems that electric vehicle manufacturers looking to be the first to market are relying on a little help from their friends.