Europe´s major cities face increasing problems of noise and atmospheric pollution from traffic. Part of this problem could be solved by developing new types of vehicles which avoid producing contaminating emissions at source. One such solution could be the development of an electric vehicle which is non-contaminating in terms of noise or exhaust gas emissions. In a world context, the United States has been pioneer in the promotion of electric vehicles, with the LEV program from California and New York making the production of 2% of cars with zero emissions obligatory. In Europe, the only country with similar initiatives has been France which has economically supported new development projects and launched a special program promoting the use of electric vehicles in 22 major cities. In the European Context, there have been 2 projects in the EU Research and Development Programs aiming to develop electric vehicles for urban driving, combined with various projects focusing on the problems of battery development and on how to achieve economic viability and product acceptability to the consumer. Two key obstacles stand in the way of the development of such a vehicle. Firstly, the lack of a current market and secondly, the necessity placed on car manufacturing companies to develop a completely new technology, demanding a “technological leap”. The beneficiaries, have developed an electric car prototype: ZEUS together with their partners from the Mondragon Corporation and IBERDROLA, which incorporates a traction and control system specially designed to optimize performance and an individual battery control system which allows for individual recharging. The vehicle was awaiting official recognition to be launched in the market. It was therefore felt by the beneficiaries to be the right moment to test out the market with a pilot sample of ZEUS electric vehicles in order to gauge the most adequate segmentation strategies for further production and commercialization of the vehicles.
The purpose of the project was to develop the manufacturing process for producing 50 ZEUS electric cars a year and to test out their performance and viability in the current market. The project would manufacture 5 electric vehicles in an industrial plant and test out the response of potential clients, particularly from the service sector: maintenance, delivery and messenger fleets. It would also fine-tune the different problem areas raised by the design of the car: particularly the control system and the individual battery charger. It would also continue with further testing on the two prospective types of motor using alternating and continuous currents. In order to produce the cars, the project would create a new workshop specially equipped to manufacture and assemble the coachwork and components. This would include the provision of a special oven designed to reach 125º C, freezers to keep the raw material and moulds. The vehicle would have to pass through the process of official recognition before being tested out on the selected consumers. It was calculated that the end product would cost in the region of 18,031 Euros to produce.
In the initial phase, the project suffered from serious delays and was granted an extension until 1st February 1999. This was primarily due to the need to modify the design in response to the official authorization process in INTA (Instituto Nacional Técnicas Aeroespaciales). The project successfully completed the manufacturing process of 4 different prototypes (with 4 more in the pipeline), fine-tuned the industrial process and carried out a detailed market study which tested out the reactions and viability of the vehicle in the market. 10 of the prototype vehicles were sold to companies who agreed to collaborate in the performance monitoring process. As a result of the authorization process, several changes in the specification of the electric vehicle were made. These were mainly related to the positioning of the lights, the sliding windows and the brake system. The project also tested out the performance of different batteries, proving that the vehicle using Oldam or Schonesghein batteries and loaded with 500kg were able to run further, over 70km. Following tests on different types of motors, the performance of the alternating motor was found to give better results and more autonomy. Whilst the batteries selected were lead-acid type, as they offered the best reliability, low maintenance and best quality/price ratio.
Key innovations were introduced with the incorporation of the latest coachwork design tendencies. These were made in composite materials, combining lightweight qualities with great structural resistance. The final vehicle incorporated the innovatory battery charging system whereby it was possible to balance the charging of individual batteries within the connected block. The new integrated control system also provided complete information on the current state of the vehicle and incorporated controls over this individual battery charging process.
The final outcome was a prototype of an electric car for two people capable of carrying a 500kg load. This vehicle has a potential of 3 CV, weighs 1.505kg and can last for up to 90km at a maximum speed of 90 km/h. It works on 24 batteries and needs a total recharging time of 10 hours. Overall, the project proved that that the ZEUS electric vehicle could offer significant advantages over the traditional thermic motor fleets: it produced minimum environmental impact, eliminating the emissions of CO2, CO, NOx, SO2, NMVOC, whilst drastically reducing acoustic noise. It also offered clear economic advantages with low energy consumption and reduced running and maintenance costs. The prototype has been presented in numerous fairs, exhibitions and conferences and 25 companies have shown interest in buying the end product.