Call it a technological revolution in progress, but Volkswagen’s new all-electric I.D. R prototype hill climb car has successfully challenged the modified electric vehicle class record of 8 minutes, 57.118 seconds, set by Rhys Millen at Colorado’s Pikes Peak International Hill Climb in 2016.
More to the point, three-time Pikes Peak class winner and world-class driver Romaine Dumas’ new modified electric record of 7 minutes, 57.148 seconds also beats the unlimited class record of 8 minutes, 13.378 seconds set by World Rally Champion Sebastien Loeb driving a 3.2-liter, twin-turbocharged car in 2013.
Slashing the unlimited class record by 16 seconds, Dumas firmly established the I.D. R prototype as the car to beat at the June 24, 2018 hill climb event.
On the technical side, the I.D. R reportedly uses a 43-kilowatt hour battery to supply two electric motors, which produce a combined output of 500 kilowatts (about 680 brake horsepower and 479 foot-pounds of torque), which will accelerate the 2,425-pound all-wheel-drive car from 0-60 mph in 2.25 seconds and to a top speed of 150 mph. But numbers don’t tell the whole story. Electric motors produce full torque off the corners and there’s no power loss at altitude, which makes an electric motor the ideal propulsion unit for high-altitude hill-climb racing applications (see photo #1).
WHY PIKES PEAK?
The race is challenging, to say the least. The weather can change from warm and sunny at the bottom to freezing cold with blowing snow at the top. The race begins at 9,400 feet altitude and drivers must artfully master each of Pikes Peak’s 156 corners on their way to the finish line at the 14,110-foot summit.
The lower portion is basic road-course driving. But just below timberline, vehicles encounter a long series of steep switchbacks called the “Ws,” which include a series of unforgiving “blue-sky” corners that can catapult an out-of-control racecar over 1,000-foot embankments to the road below.
The finish line runs over a cold, windy, rock-strewn knoll overlooking the eastern plains of Colorado. Despite the odds against winning, auto manufacturers continue to use Pikes Peak as an automotive test track, the same as they have for the past 100 years.
IT’S ONLY MONEY
So, why are major auto manufactures like Volkswagen spending so much money on the EV market? Sheer numbers don’t tell the story because EVs comprise less than 1% of the current domestic market. But, let’s look at the technology. In the bigger picture, electric motors emit no polluting exhaust gases, which simplifies design and building costs for mass-produced vehicles.
But the problem with EVs at Pikes Peak has always been battery capacity. During the 1990s, many electric entries were challenged to merely complete the 4,710-ft. hill climb. No doubt Volkswagen, like all auto manufacturers racing in the electric vehicle classes, is reluctant to discuss their latest battery technology. But we can rest assured that they’re not spending big money to race with mass-produced batteries (see Photo #2).
THE BATTERY-POWERED MARKETS
Conventional hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs) were initially welcomed by environmentally “green” drivers when Toyota introduced its first domestic Prius models in 1997. According to one source, plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV) sales peaked at 160,000 units, or 3.2% of total domestic auto sales, in the 2013 model year. In 2016, PHEV sales had dropped to 2.0% of the total domestic market.
PHEV battery-only operating ranges vary widely, from as little as 20 miles to well over 200 miles. But PHEVs have begun to encounter competition in the “green” markets because EV sales have risen from nearly zero in 2007 to about 96,000 units in 2013. In any case, this summer’s rising gasoline prices will tend to boost PHEV and EV sales.
Marketing projections often don’t account for PHEVs and EVs evolving from being an environmental statement to becoming a more utilitarian, point “A” to point “B” transportation issue. Originally purchased by the environmentally conscious “green” buyer, many PHEVs and EVs are now purchased for their reliability and economy as commuter vehicles, especially in large metropolitan areas where their regenerative braking systems excel in stop-and-go driving.
While the range of a PHEV is limited by the size of its batteries and fuel tank, the EV is limited solely by the range of its batteries. Typically, an EV’s range on a single charge is less than 100 miles for entry-level EVs, and up to 300 miles for higher-end EVs. Recharge times are rated at miles traveled per hour of charging time. For example, “Level 1” charging adds 2-5 miles per charging hour from a 120-volt outlet. “Level 2” adds 10-25 miles per charging hour from a 220-volt to 240-volt outlet. Level “3” charging can achieve an 80% charge in 30 minutes on some advanced vehicles (see Photo #3).
BATTERY LIFE ISSUES
PHEV/EV main batteries are of two general types: nickel/metal or lithium-ion. While battery life appears to average somewhere between 5 to 10 years, it continues to be a moving target due to improving battery technology (see Photo 4). Battery warranties revolve around normal loss of battery capacity versus excessive loss of battery capacity, with original equipment (OE) battery warranties reportedly ranging from four years to lifetime. Being the exception, California mandates a standard battery warranty of 10 years/150,000 miles.
Battery service is perhaps the most lucrative part of PHEV and EV service because all batteries, even the lithium ion-types, tend to lose capacity with time and mileage. Two major determinants of battery life are the number of discharge/recharge cycles the battery has experienced and the average ambient temperatures under which it performs. The hotter the outdoor temperature, the shorter the battery life.
Based on manufacturer’s suggested retail price, complete new battery packages range from around $2,000 to $6,000. Many shops are now repairing batteries by replacing individual cells, so pricing at that level is indeterminate. Battery costs have fallen about 80% per kilowatt/hour in the past six years, which is expected to be a continuing trend.
Based upon the above data, I doubt that our service bays will soon be flooded with PHEVs and EVs. It’s also hard to judge how PHEV and EV mechanical and electronic reliability will affect the service market because overall vehicle reliability has been increasing across the board during the past decade. My outlook would be that the reliability of PHEV and EV on-board electronics would be on par with conventional internal combustion engine (ICE) platforms since both are based on the same technology.
Because PHEVs incorporate ICEs to both propel the vehicle and recharge the batteries, some conventional engine services like oil/filter changes, spark plugs and perhaps timing belts will be needed. But, due to the ICE’s unconventional operating modes, hybrid ICE service intervals are often extended to at least 150% of its conventional ICE counterpart. Plug-in hybrids can be expected to extend that service interval. Since electric motors require no oil or coolant changes, I’m not seeing much in the way of service opportunities for servicing EVs at least in the near future.
Regenerative braking will be taking another toll on the service market with brake linings on many HEVs reportedly lasting well beyond 100,000 miles. Steering, suspension and axle service should follow normal parameters. On the other hand, never say “never,” and never say “always” when it comes to estimating the influence of advancing technology on the repair market.
In the final analysis, the rebirth of electric vehicles is driven by cheap renewable energy in the form of wind, solar, and hydroelectric power. The particulate and chemical emissions concerns traditionally associated with electric power generation are now being reduced by replacing coal with natural gas. In brief, PHEVs and EVs are energy-efficient and produce nearly zero direct and indirect emissions.
Experimental cars like VW’s I.D.R Pikes Peak prototype are proof that battery-powered vehicles can successfully make the transition from abstract theory to practical application. According to one EV manufacturer, approximately 36,000 charging stations are now in place throughout the continental United States. Whether we believe or not, the battery-powered vehicle has arrived center stage. Think of it as the new horseless carriage of the 21st Century.
Servicing PHEVs and EVs
Since battery power is relatively new to most import shops, let’s look at some PHEV and EV service basics. For example:
1. PHEVs will obviously need engine maintenance as they accumulate miles.
2. Don’t forget the A/C system in your electric vehicle service menu or that the EV will have an electrically driven A/C compressor.
3. Enhanced aftermarket scan tools will probably fill the need for most routine service situations.
4. But, remember, these vehicles incorporate the ultimate in electronic controls, which means that the original equipment scan tooling and information systems might be required for in-depth repairs.
5. Compared to ICE vehicles, special tooling requirements for PHEVs and EVs appear relatively low.
6. Safety first. Due to extremely high operating voltages, formal training is required before servicing main drive batteries, drive trains and control systems.
7. All electrical test equipment, and items like safety gloves, etc., must meet CAT standards for working with high-voltage battery.
8. Battery-powered vehicles offer yet another opportunity to specialize in a niche market. Maybe it’s time to quit changing engine oil and begin changing batteries.