(AND PETROL’S ARE COUNTING DOWN…)
The end of the line is drawing close for the Internal Combustion Engine. Sales of new fossil-fuelled vehicles will soon be banned in a lot of European countries and as I write this, a similar ban effective in 2030 has been proposed for Australia. So, does that mean we should crack open each other’s skulls and feast on the delicious goo inside? Yes… But, before the apocalyptic orgy of panicked head bashing begins let’s take a deep breath and consider the electric future of the 4x4 as we know it.
Electric cars are certainly not a new thing; however, it’s really been only in the last decade that serious leaps and bounds have been made. Taking the electric car from an inner city commuting novelty to a cross-country crushing, auto-driving, futurologist’s best day at work ever. Whilst they haven’t been the only ones doing the heavy-lifting, Elon Musk’s squad at Tesla have made the electric car a rock star and the stats make it easy to see why. The incredible Model S P100D will give you the full Chuck Yeager, accelerating from 0-100 in a meagre 2.3 seconds! It’ll smoke the quarter mile in 10.5 seconds with a trap speed of approximately 201km/h. Then, it’ll carry four adults in total luxury, has two boots (thanks to the packaging of the electric drivetrain) and is so technology laden it can, literally, drive itself. I thought the graphic equaliser in Mum’s ’85 Ford LTD was trick stuff!
In best conditions, the Model S will, on a full charge, go a distance of around 605km. That’ll comfortably get you from Martin Place, Sydney to the charging station at Wodonga, VIC. Plug her in, grab a cuppa and 30mins later you’re good to continue silently whirring into Melbourne. The range and charge times continue to improve, currently, at a pace of months, not years… So, it’s not a stretch to say in the next 12 to 18 months we could be seeing electric vehicles with over 1000km of range to a single charge.
However, in Elon’s Nikola-worshipping, electric dream, what becomes of the traditional, off-road capable 4x4? The Barnaby-lovers amongst us would cry-foul at thought of towns like Tamworth being bombarded, not by the sounds of an angrily clattering 70 Series, but by the subtle whizzing of a Bollinger B1. The way we see it, moving forward with the plug-and-play 4x4 of tomorrow, there’s going to be three major hurdles to overcome for wide-spread electric off-roader acceptance. Range, recharging and capability.
As we’re taking a broader look at the electric 4x4 in general here, we won’t be able to dive deep on the nitty-gritty tech of how this stuff actually works. Instead, let’s look at where things are at, where they’re going and why the EPCOT-esque world of tomorrow isn’t going to be a bad place for off-roaders. POWER TO THE PAVEMENT Electric 4x4s, or more precisely, all-wheel drives are already here. The Tesla Model S sedan and Model X SUV are both AWD, using two electric motors, one positioned at each end of the vehicle, driving two wheels a piece. To complicate things, we can add a small Diesel or Petrol engine into mix, creating a ‘Hybrid’. Thanks to your weird, too-many-cats owning Aunty and her Prius, hybrids get a bad rap. However, initially, hybrid drive-train systems will be necessary for the electric off-roader to get a foothold. In short, you’ll find two types of hybrid systems on the market today – ‘Series’ and ‘Parallel’. In a ‘Series Hybrid’ the engine is not used to drive the wheels directly. Instead, it’s used to generate additional power for the electric motors whilst also charging the battery pack in times when range is getting low or there is increased demand on the motors. For majority of the time though, a ‘Series Hybrid’ runs as a pure EV. ‘Parallel Hybrids’ use the engine in conjunction with an electric motor. This allows a much smaller, less powerful and highly fuel-efficient engine to be used, with the electric motor taking up the slack. The ‘Parallel Hybrid’ can run as a pure EV, but usually only until a certain speed is achieved or a particular amount of throttle is used (I.E mash your foot to the floor and the engine will kick on). There’s already been a couple of bites at the off-road EV cherry as well. Back in 2013 Land Rover built seven experimental electric Defenders. Land Rover removed the turbocharged Diesel four-cylinder along with the six-speed manual and replaced it with a 70kW, 330Nm electric motor and a 27kWh Lithium-Ion battery. After that there was still a transfer case delivering drive to a pair of solid-axles. The range was not stellar and Land Rover advised only 80km could be pulled from the battery before you’d have to find the nearest 240v outlet. However, they claimed that in typical low-range off-roading, this gave eight hours of instant peak-torque, dirt squirting action. Plus, the wading depth was reportedly increased to 800mm (thanks to a lack of engine air-intake) and the whole-shebang made the Rover only 100kg heavier than its typical sulphur-sucking sibling. Again, this was five years ago and typically technological advancement is two-fold. Meaning there’s been something like 10 years’ worth of advancements in this field within the past five.
GOING THE DISTANCE ‘Range Anxiety’ is a term that’s come about thanks to our EV wanderlust. Basically, Range Anxiety is the fear that your electric car (or 4x4) won’t have the range to reach your destination. Leaving you and your crew stranded. Whilst it’s a pain in the backside and pretty embarrassing to have this happen on the verge of the Pacific Highway, ultimately, you’ll be fine. Having it happen in the middle of the desert though is very high on the list of things that will kill you in the Outback. So, the first major hurdle for the electric 4x4 is quite obviously range.
As I said before, battery tech and motor efficiency are just improving at wild-fire rates of speed. Remember, five years ago the Defender EVs got 80km of range. Now, the Tesla Model S gets seven and a half times more distance from a single charge! Depending on which route you follow, crossing the Simpson (which I’m sure we can agree on as a benchmark of the range abilities of any off-road electric 4x4) is about 550 to 715 kilometres across. That means with current tech, we’re very close to making the crossing without recharging at all. Factor in other EV tech like regenerative braking, which recovers some of the energy lost when coming to a stop and uses it to provide a small additional charge to the battery, along with newly emerging, energy-harvesting clear glass (a.k.a. ‘clear solar panels’), and the idea becomes more tangible. As of this moment, the range capabilities of most EV tech are just short of what we need for big, remote area touring. However, for a weekend trip to Bribie Island or the Blue Mountains it’s looking very good. ‘Series Hybrid’ EV 4x4s will fare a lot better in remote areas to begin with, as their small Diesel or Petrol engine can give the batteries a top-up and a boost in power when required. Helping to extend the range and alleviate some of the dreaded ‘Range Anxiety’. “CAN I BORROW YOUR CHARGER?” Oh how I wish when people ask me this they meant a genuine Six-Pack Valiant … Charging has got to be the major hurdle for electric 4x4s, but, unlike your iPhone, if you’re running low on sparks things aren’t as simple as grabbing your mate’s charger. Sure, as electric cars become more prevalent there are more charging stations popping up along the East coast and other locations. For the daily home-work-home commute, most EV owners find that charging the vehicle at home during the night provides adequate range for the Monday to Friday blacktop grind. Off-road, however, is a different story. Where, and how, exactly do you get a charge in the middle of nowhere?
The loading put an off-road electric 4x4’s drivetrain will be greater than that put on an electric car. Rolling resistance, weight, variance in surfaces and traction levels will all play a part in how quickly your charge will be depleted as the motors will need to work harder than if you were just cruising on the highway. A range of six to seven hundred kilometres, quickly becomes shorter in higher load situations. So, the need to recharge when travelling off-road will be greater than that of the average highway EV. In the short-term, for long-distance, remote area travelling, a pure electric 4x4 will not be up to the task without the infrastructure in place. It’s not necessarily a problem with the vehicle or electric drive-trains in general, we just need more… Servos, for lack of a better term…
By the end of this year, according to the Electric Vehicle Council, the most remote EV charging point will be in Marla, SA, about 210km West of Oodnadatta. So the facilities are increasing and getting into areas where off-roaders will need them. Building charging points in remote communities and stations may sound like a big undertaking, but the facilities can be relatively simple and self-sustaining. Charging stations built using a large storage battery filled up by solar arrays, wind turbines or a combination of both will present less of a challenge than maintaining a Diesel or Petrol pump in the same places. The EV recharging station can create the ‘fuel’ it will dispense. No need to get a tanker into the middle of nowhere and no fear of running out of supplies before the next truck arrives! “YEAH, BUT IS IT ANY GOOD IN THE BUSH?”
As soon as you starting making changes to the basic 4x4 recipe, Australian off-roaders start fist-thumping on the ground like a petulant two-year-old. Remember when IFS 4x4s started becoming more prevalent? But if you think taking away your precious Diesel is going to ruin 4x4s, think again! Forget about charging, range anxiety, pure electric, series hybrid and all that garbage for a moment. Once we get rid of the internal combustion engine (or I.C.Es) from the 4x4, pardon my French, shit really gets wild. You see, I.C.Es, for all their awesomeness, can take up an awful lot of room. So does a transmission, a transfer case and driveshafts. Now, get rid of all of that junk. Take it and throw it in the bin.
While the Defender EV of 5 years ago kept it simple and held onto everything from the transfer back, the facts are this is a really inefficient way to build an EV 4x4. If we build EV 4x4s like that we’re denying ourselves all of the advantages this technology allows. Take for example the Bollinger B1 concept. The B1 is a ‘clean-sheet’ design. Bollinger did not base it on any existing frame or production 4x4. Like the Tesla twins, the Bollinger uses two front and rear-mounted electric motors each with a 2-speed helical gear reduction system to create a high and low range. Drive is finally sent to the wheels via portal drives at each corner. The way it’s all packaged gives the B1 50/50 weight distribution and a completely flat underside with almost no exposed drivetrain. The ground clearance is an incredible 394mm! To put that in perspective, the Ford Ranger rolls out with 237mm of clearance. Then, inside, the floor has no transmission tunnel or clearance for driveshafts.
It’s totally flat from front to rear. This helps with one of the Bollinger’s party pieces. Without a honking big engine sitting up front, that whole area now becomes extra storage with an access port in the bulkhead giving pass-through, front-to-rear storage.
Now put independent motors on all four wheels, then we can start talking about things like ‘Torque-Vectoring’. It’s pretty tricky stuff, but to put it in English, imagine being able to turn your 4x4 on its own axis. Just like a tank does! Or perform front or rear ‘digs’ like a comp truck with transfer disconnects. It’s all possible with the electric drivetrain depending on how it’s setup. Capability-wise, taking away the traditional I.C.E drive-train we know and love from the off-road 4x4 won’t diminish any of its abilities. The possibilities it opens up will actually increase its capabilities and due to the packaging of these systems storage options open up massively as well. Whilst we’ll lose the transfer case, we won’t need to lose low-range gearing. Whilst the differential is gone we’ll still have a ‘locking diff’. The electric motors can perfectly distribute 50/50 power and torque between the wheels. The future of the off-road 4x4 in a rapidly approaching, post-fossil fuel world has already got its foot in the door and we’ve got a hell of a lot to gain and only our prejudices to lose…