Renault’s electric car plans in detail

12 November 2009

Kangoo and ZoeIn the first quarter of 2011, Renault plans to begin selling two mass-market electric cars, both based on existing conventional models. One will be an electric version of a conventional saloon, the other an electrified Kangoo van. Both will be sold in Europe and Israel, including right-hand-drive versions for the UK.

The electric four-door saloon will be based on the Renault Fluence, a new budget model developed alongside the Megane hatchback and designed for East European markets. This might not seem like a promising base vehicle for discerning Western buyers but is at least cheap, offsetting the potentially crippling cost of adding a quarter-tonne of lithium-ion batteries.

Fluence and TwizyIn the second quarter of 2011, Renault plans to roll out the production version of its Twizy urban electric vehicle. This tall, narrow runabout features tandem-style seating for two, with the passenger seated behind the driver with legs either side of the driver’s seat. At just one metre wide it will also – probably – fit between lanes of snarled traffic in the manner of a motorbike.

Thierry Koskas, the man in charge of electric vehicles at Renault, said the Twizy will be sold in two versions: one with a top speed of 50km/h (31mph), making it licence-exempt in some markets and therefore destined to be driven by lucky teenagers, and another with a 75km/h (47mph) maximum.

The Twizy will be homologated as a quadricycle (a legal category that is equivalent to a four-wheeled motorcycle) rather than as a full car, and as such will be exempt from much of the crash-worthiness legislation that applies to full-size cars. Renault is not about to jeopardise its hard-won reputation for safety, however, and the Twizy will offer a driver’s airbag plus curtain airbags at each side on the faster model, according to Koskas. “We would like to get as near to the car regulations as possible,” he said, “but we are saying it is an alternative to a motorcycle or scooter, not to a car.”

In the first quarter of 2012, the production version of Renault’s fourth electric car is due: called Zoe. Koskas says Zoe will be the same size and price as the Clio supermini and will be aimed at people who commute every day. The production car will be very little like the gull-winged Zoe concept shown off at this year’s Frankfurt motor show, except in overall size.

Koskas says the objective is to launch these new vehicles simultaneously in all their target markets, adding that with electric cars, the amount of adaptation required for different markets is actually less than for fossil-fuelled vehicles.

Renault is not planning to sell batteries to its customers – unless they really insist on owning them, according to Koskas. Instead, Renault is aiming to sell the empty car and then lease the power pack at a rate that will be cost-competitive for motorists who drive at least 30 miles per weekday (or at least 8,000 miles per year). Beyond that level of use, Renault’s electric cars are expected to become cheaper to run than their conventional siblings, although achieving high annual mileages in a car capable of travelling only limited distances between recharges will be a challenge.

Koskas’s statements suggest that break-even estimates have been based on an anticipated 2011 oil price of at least $100 per barrel, and if oil rises beyond that level, Renault’s proposition will no doubt seem rosier. If oil remains cheaper, then these upcoming EVs will be a harder sell.

While the Zoe will be pitched at the price of Clio, the likely cost of the tiny Twizy is less clear. Koskas said the sticker price will be in the same ballpark as a large, mid-range motorcycle, but he added that the actual amount is not yet set. He did mention the Piaggio MP3 – an upmarket three-wheeled scooter costing about £6,500 – as a key competitor.

The Zoe and Fluence will use the same 250kg battery storing 24kWh, while the Twizy’s 60kg battery will hold, presumably, about 5.75kWh. The Twizy will be charged only using the standard mains supply. The Twizy has no fast-charging option – as there will be for the bigger cars – but it will take only three hours to fully charge and most drivers will be unlikely to tap its full 100km range.

You can find out more about Renault’s plans at the firm’s Sustainable-mobility.org web site, including a video interview with Koskas (en français, with subtitles).

Here are the rest of the questions we put to Koskas, and his answers as near as we could scribble them:

Thierry Koskas, top EV bod at RenaultGreenMotor.co.uk: We think the Twizy is a great concept – a really brave design and potentially a big step forward for urban mobility. Does the concept only work as an electric vehicle, or could we see a Twizy with a conventional engine?

Thierry Koskas: We want to associate the Twizy with electric drive and the environmental benefits of electric cars. It’s a new concept in transport and it would be pointless to develop a version with a conventional engine.

Does the combination of electric motor and battery allow you to achieve a package with the Twizy that would be impossible if you were starting with an engine, cooling system and fuel tank?

Packaging an electric vehicle is still a challenge – the motor is large, the battery takes some space, so the problem is actually about the same.

Will the production Twizy really look like the concept?

There will be changes of course. The mudguards will be built into the body, for example, but a lot will stay the same. One of the advantages of its layout is that we won’t have to do anything at all to convert it for sale in the UK.

Renault’s EVs only have one socket for both rapid charging and conventional mains charging, whereas most production-ready rivals have separate sockets. The Nissan Leaf has a large and small socket in its nose, while the Mitsubishi i-Miev has a standard socket on one side of the car and a fast-charge connection on the other. Will there be two sockets when Renault’s EVs are launched?

We only need one, because the fast-charging system will be different in Europe. In Japan the fast charge will be high-voltage DC (direct current), whereas in Europe it will be 240V 3-phase power.

Isn’t there a pressing need for standardisation, particularly between Renault and Nissan, who are partners?

Today we are still in a transition phase – the most important socket to standardise is actually the one in the charging point. You bring your own cable, so you know it will fit your car, but will it fit a public charger?

We’ve used Elektrobay charging points, and they hold their end of the cable in behind a lockable flap. Will the other end of the cable lock onto the car as well, to prevent passing vandals (or opportunistic EV owners) from disconnecting your car when you’ve left it on charge?

Yes, there will be a lock at the car end of the cable. We need to reassure customers that they can charge their car reliably and safely.

Will Renault offer remote monitoring of the car’s state of charge, using your mobile phone, for example?

Every car will be able to communicate with a datacentre – with messages both ways. The possibilities are endless. You can switch on the air conditioning remotely if you want to cool the car while it’s still plugged in to the charger.

Will the cars have remote telematics, so Renault can see how they are used?

We don’t want to be Big Brother, but some customers will allow us to very closely monitor use – I am talking about fleets, such as the post office, not private customers.

Does Renault see battery electric vehicles as a stepping stone to hydrogen-fuelled cars?

Well, our lithium battery technology will improve over time, and there are lots of other labs working on other battery chemistries. We don’t realistically see hydrogen as a factor in the next ten years.

You are using bespoke batteries with large cells, whereas Tesla and BMW favour using thousands of small commodity cells. BMW told us mass-produced generic cells are higher quality, because of the scale of production – what’s your opinion?

That’s the sort of answer you give when you don’t make your own batteries. In our alliance with Nissan we think the battery is a key aspect, and owning the technology is a key element to producing electric cars. We are much more confident because we know the costs, we can design batteries exactly for the car, and we are responsible for our own production capacity. We won’t be a victim of price fluctuations when multiple makers want to buy cells from the same providers.

Beyond batteries, do your upcoming electric vehicles share much with Nissan’s equivalents?

Yes, there is lots of component sharing - of things like heating, braking and motors. We are also collaborating on the global communications infrastructure and datacentres. There we are able to gain from the economies of scale.

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