Ross Blade runs a small business in the Victorian country town of Harcourt, roughly halfway between Castlemaine and the old mining town of Bendigo. Far from producing the hot rods or the high-performance parts that are the speciality of many a Castlemaine business, Blade's operation retrofits electric motors, speed controllers and battery packs into Hyundai's inestimable light car, the Getz.
With its light weight and almost-small-car packaging, the Getz is an excellent core design for such an undertaking. It's also inexpensive, reliable and robust -- but most importantly to Blade, his company has some (unofficial) support from Hyundai. The South Korean car maker, through its local distributor, honours the modified Getz's warranty after Blade's company has converted the car to run on battery power. The warranty only applies specifically to those parts fitted to the car from the factory, not the parts fitted by Blade's company, Blade Electric Vehicles.
"Let's be very clear there," says Blade, "Hyundai, more than any other manufacturer that we have dealt with in the last couple of years has been helpful and forthcoming with information. They are not in any way business partners. We are best described as an aftermarket service."
So there's no direct involvement in this project for Hyundai's part, but Blade is fulsome in his praise of the company and its tacit support of a program that offers barely tangible direct benefits for the South Korean car maker.
"Talking with the auto people in the Victorian government -- and they certainly know what they're talking about -- they were delighted with that attitude from Hyundai and regarded that as really quite special," explains Blade.
"We respect that and we go to a lot of trouble to make sure we look after [Hyundai's] reputation. We don't want to do anything that detracts from all the years of hard work that organisation has put into building their image."
Blade's company has come from virtually nowhere in a few short years. Initially, he struck out as one-man-band, but the company is now formally organised along corporate lines.
"I'm a teacher by training and worked in IT [Information Technology] for many years," he recounts.
"I was fairly good at my research and after the Iraq war I took an interest in what was happening with energy around the world.
"I did a lot of research privately and published a website for some time, where articles from around the world were presented and people could form their own view. I wasn't making judgement.
"Based on that, I was asked by somebody to research the viability of bio-diesel for investment, because they knew I was doing a lot of this work.
"Back then, I said 'No, look, bio-diesel's not mature yet'.
"Back in 2005, people still thought it's going to be the next big thing, but I said 'No, avoid it for the time being, but... electric really would be the next major development' and he wasn't interested in electric. I thought 'Well, why waste good research?', so based on that research, we began the business.
"And the research turns out to have been pretty good.
"We started as a 'sole trader trading as' in 2005 and did all of our research using that structure. We didn't change over to a corporate structure until mid-last year -- and then the first cars were starting to be delivered in February this year."
Just six (soon to be seven) cars, which are named the Blade Electron, are operating on public roads, but the business principal has big plans ahead. One of the converted cars has already made its way to New Zealand and will be followed next year by a further 200 units. That's a done deal, but Blade has formed the hope that the business will do better than just that over the next few years.
"We've got four that have been on the road since February of this year and we're delivering the [Victorian] State Government their first," Blade muses out loud as he totes up the vehicles.
"We've delivered one to New Zealand and that's on the road, so I guess that would be a total of six on the road. We've got another eight in the workshop in various stages. Next week another one will be delivered, so that will take us to seven.
"We're due to supply New Zealand with a couple of hundred next year.
A couple of hundred units is a healthy output for a small business of this kind, but it's just one customer order. What else is there to sustain the business into the future?
"We will do one of two things next year," says Blade, "We will either produce 200 or we'll do a thousand".
"It will be one or the other next year, but in three years, you would hope that you'd be doing 5000 a year. That seems very difficult to believe right at this point in time, but events around the world are moving very rapidly and it may well be the case.
"Strategically, there are a few directions we could go in. We could, for example, become the supplier of a kit that is used for the millions of Getz around the world; we could become a retrofitter; we could be a source of IP [Intellectual Property], because we've developed and registered a range of IP -- so there are a number of ways in which our business could unfold in the future."
Talk about exporting finished products raises the question of engineering considerations for foreign markets, but Blade is mostly optimistic on that point. In some ways, he intimates, his conversion kit is at least as easy to fit in a left-hand-drive Getz as in a right-hand drive car, to use one example.
"What we're doing is changing the drive system and it's interesting, because when you retrofit [the Getz] and you look at them, you realise that fundamentally they were made for a left-hand drive market. You'll notice that the brake vacuum pack is on the passenger side of the car. Often, it's on the other side... There are no issues there."
That doesn't mean it's all necessarily plain sailing though.
"If you want to go into the American market, they have rear-crash testing requirements. We don't have rear-crash testing requirements here. Everything's from B pillar [forwards]. So we would have to conform to a different set of rules. We've tried to account for all of it, however there may be additional things we need to do if we were to go into the US market."
To convert the Getz to an Electron, the company removes the existing petrol engine and fits an electric motor coupled to the standard Getz manual transmission, but modified with gear selection restricted to just first, second and reverse. Because of the electric motor's ability to rev and yet produce high torque from low revs, the locked first gear serves as the Electron's 'town gear' for speeds up to 60km/h. To drive the car above that speed -- it's capable of reaching a top speed of 120km/h -- the driver must select second gear, which is the 'highway gear'.
"We do keep the manual transmission," says Blade, "but in fact there's no clutch and there are only two gears to select; there's what we call 'town gear' and 'highway gear'.
"It's not a manual and it's not an automatic. You could in fact hop in and just leave it in 'town gear' and drive it all around the town -- and never touch it. It's really only when you get on the highway and want that extra torque to get your speed up, take your foot off the accelerator, slide it into highway gear and off you go.
"We lock it into what used to be first and used to be second. The way you drive, the characteristics change -- surprisingly, in a good way.
"With female drivers, we were particularly interested to know how they'd respond. With some of our earlier trials, we offered the electric car with a clutch and five gears -- and I have to say, they hated it.
"Then we tried it with 'clutchless' and five gears -- and they liked that even less.
"Then we hit upon the two gears and we have a number of women who drive the cars -- and they love it.
"What we found was that women adapt to it more quickly than men -- and particularly men in the 18 to 30 category, who would like to flick through those gears real fast."
The motor develops 90Nm of torque, which is not a lot, but also not a lot less than the torque developed by the standard petrol engine. With the added weight of the lithium-ion phosphate batteries, the five-seat Getz becomes a four-seat Electron. The extra weight amounts to 100kg over the weight of the petrol-engined vehicle. According to Blade, the battery technology has pros and cons, but on balance, it's a better solution for automotive applications.
"When you look at what the major car manufacturers are doing -- take GM for example -- they're looking at two chemistries: lithium-manganese and lithium-ion phosphate. Nissan is looking at lithium-manganese. The major car manufacturers are looking at these more recent alternate forms of lithium batteries. The reason is: they have longer life, they're more temperature-stable -- and they don't blow up.
"A lot of the earlier work was done with -- say for example -- lithium-polymer. Now lithium-polymer is still around. It [has] much higher energy density -- with a higher price as well -- it has a shorter life and you can get 'thermal run-away' far too easily.
"You know when you use your mobile phone? That's got lithium-polymer [battery technology]. When you talk, it's getting hot and when you charge it, it's getting hot.
"The major manufacturers don't see it as a safe way to go -- and we take the same view. We could use lithium-polymer in our cars and double the range overnight. We could do it, our battery-management system would handle it, but I must admit, I would prefer to have shorter range, a longer-life battery -- and the certainty that it's not going to pop."
Indeed. The last thing a budding electric car industry wants is a reputation for 'popping' products. Plainly, Blade and his company have engineered the conversion to be as durable and cost-effective as possible for owners. Blade estimates that the running cost -- even on expensive green power -- should be as low as $2.50 per 100km. One hurdle for buyers is the purchasing price of the car. The company will supply you with an existing vehicle converted for $39,000 -- or $29,900 if you supply the Getz donor car. That sort of expense will immediately deter many would-be buyers, although the full price is not much more than that of a Toyota Prius.
Blade can also provide reasons for buying the Electron beyond the running costs of the car. When confronted with the suggestion that the Electron -- particularly in the brown-coal-dependent state of Victoria -- merely moves a pollution problem from one location to another, Blade has his answer to that.
"At least nobody's being shot in the process," he responds, taking a swipe at the current situation in the Middle East.
"That aside, the question that some people are raising -- and rightly so -- is that brown coal is extremely dirty and OK, if you start 'filling up' your electric car on brown coal, yes, it's true...
"The bottom line is this: green power is now readily available and even though we have a coal-fired grid, you can go along to a windpower station -- there are various government-audited processes -- and you can buy green power. You can either get it from a retailer or you can get the 'RECT' certificate.
"60,000 homes today in Australia are connected to green power. And having said that, you don't need to have 100 per cent green [power] to improve the situation. You could, for example have [in] your home 30 per cent green and the rest of it's coal-fired. You're still way ahead of petrol.
"We don't have to jump to 100 per cent green. What the electric car gives us is the opportunity to use real green energy for mobility, whereas there's just nothing [else] available today that allows us to do that. They all use petrol or diesel...
"So no, it's not a silver bullet, it doesn't solve all problems, it's not going to be suitable for everyone, [but] it has a niche, it's good for short urban drives, it's good for car pools -- and absolutely, you should have some mix of green power. Otherwise you are not really helping [the environment].
"[And even though] You might not be helping with the ecology, but you'll be helping the economy... because the growing deficit for purchasing oil is something quite frightening."
More information on the Blade Electron can be found at the company's website here.
To comment on this article click here