From space ship to electric car

Posted on 26 Apr 2010 by The Manufacturer

Mark Young speaks to Red Dwarf actor and car enthusiast Robert Llewellyn about his involvement in the CABLED electric vehicle demonstrator programme.

Featuring at the recent Sustainability Live conference at the Birmingham NEC was professional services company ARUP which is managing CABLED – the largest of eight electric vehicle demonstration projects currently ongoing around the country.

CABLED (Coventry and Birmingham Low Emission Demonstrators) involves a collaboration between car manufacturers, councils, electricity companies and universities to research the logistics and infrastructure of operating electric cars in the UK on a mass basis. It is funded by the Technology Strategy Board.

There are 110 drivers from all warps of life driving various electric cars around on their usual day-to-day endeavours over a 12 month period. Robert Llewellyn is one of them. The British television personality and writer who first found fame as the robot Kryten in hit 90’s sci-fi comedy Red Dwarf before becoming the first presenter of DIY engineering show Scrapheap Challenge, is one of 25 drivers of the Mitsubishi i MiEV, having been invited to take part after surprising himself by enjoying driving one for his internet show Carpool.

TM had the pleasure of speaking to Robert inside an i MiEV the Sustainability Live.

Robert Llewellyn with a Mitsubishi i MiEV

“It’s just such a fun car,” he says. “Without a doubt I am a reformed petrol head. You look at a car like this and you think it is a little bubbly smart city car type of thing but you get in and you realise its actually a lot roomier than you’d expect. Yet it is still a small car – it’s very narrow – which makes it great for parking and things.”

Robert is tall gentleman, well over six foot, but this isn’t an issue – he clearly has headroom to spare. The backseats are included for more than just aesthetics as well. Though somebody of Robert’s size would certainly feel cramped in the rear, a child or small adult would be far comfier here than they would in the average 4-5 seat sports car.

“A lot of this is to do with the fact that you haven’t got gear boxes and clutches and engines and things taking up space,” he explains. “Its very comfortable, its roomy, very good visibility. It’s got very good handling because all of the weight is very low down. This means you go round roundabouts a lot quicker than you’d expect. And it handled the snow very well too.”

Robert lives in the countryside; not a typical place you’d expect to find electric cars, which is good for the research side of the project. And it doesn’t hinder his use of the car everyday, “dropping the kids off at school, trips to town, going to the DIY shop to pick up the annoying hinge that’s fallen off the door – not from the car of course!”

But it does mean he has to be careful. He’s done 72 miles on one charge but admits to a certain “range anxiety”. He’s done longer trips during which he recharged using Mitsubishi’s fast charger at its UK headquarters in Cirencester, Gloucestershire, and he feels the key to mass market adoption of electric vehicles in this country is making that technology widely available.

“That’s the game changer – If that technology was at every motorway service station people could recharge their cars in 20 minutes and easily get a good 60 or 70 miles out of it no problem, meaning they could then take these things on longer trips. It only takes 30 minutes from absolutely empty and you can get it charged to 80 per cent in 10 to 15 minutes.

“You have to plan ahead – you don’t use it for everywhere you’re going to – but the big difference is every time I get in it it’s fully fuelled. The other day I got in my petrol car and the fuel gauge was flashing. I won’t blame anyone, except for my wife, but we live 15 miles away from the nearest petrol garage so I was sweating a bit.”

Robert maps out the way to a low carbon future at ARUP’s standard at Sustainability Live

Range might not be so much of a problem in the very foreseeable future. “New battery technology in laboratories are keeping mobile phones running for week so I think within five years you’ll see electric cars doing 300 miles,” predicts Robert.

The big benefit to the environment is that an i MiEV is responsible for around 40g of carbon per km if coal is burned to produce the electricity. The best petrol car – a Toyota Prius which Robert also drives produces 90g, a typical family saloon produces 150g, and a 4×4 can produce up to 500g. “If all of us were driving these electric cars nobody would be mentioning global warming,” says Robert. The personal benefit, except for any moral high ground garnered, is that it costs under a pound to fully charge the i MiEV, making it under a penny a mile to drive.

For those that just can’t get on board with the size of the i MiEV, never fear – there are five electric Land Rovers being trialled within CABLED as well. However, Robert suggests there should be a debate within society as to whether anyone needs to drive a car that weighs three tonnes anyway.

“Is it really necessary?” he asks. “Is your ego so fragile and the fear of the size of your genitals so overwhelming that you need to have something that big to prove you’re a man?”

(Editor’s note: ‘Chelsea tractor’ drivers have right to respond)

What does meet Robert’s approval is electric taxis, five of which are set to be rolled out for trials around Birmingham and Coventry soon as part of the CABLED project. Electric taxis “makes the most sense,” he says. “They only drive in towns and taxis typically do around 150 miles a day. This is well within the (logistical) capacity of an electric car.”

Robert is currently making a dedicated electric vehicle programme called Fully Charged which will consider the whole argument from where we get the electric from to the technology behind the cars. He doesn’t need any more convincing himself though; “The next car I buy without question will be an electric car,” he says. For the rest of us though Fully Charged will be broadcast on the internet in the next couple of months and on TV from end of this year or the beginning of next.

ARUP will produce an interim report on the CABLED project shortly after the general election. Check back for details.

Mark Young

*Next year government will offer a 25 per cent discount up to a maximum of £5,000 on the cost of a new ultra low carbon car. The offer is open to both businesses and individuals.