Wed, Apr 01, 2009 - Page 14


These days you can barely get through a day without hearing about global warming, energy saving or green living. Most people probably know that electric cars are quieter, cleaner and cheaper to run than gas-powered cars. So why have they failed to catch on? One Taiwanese company has asked itself this very question. Its answer? The Ecooter.

The Ecooter is a new electric car from the Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI) in Hsinchu City. Despite its odd name this new car delivers some great features while actually looking quite pleasing. Feeling a little bit Alien with a pinch of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the Ecooter actually looks like it has been inspired by the most modern scooters that you see zipping around Taiwan.

Sporting four wheels in a diamond shape and diminutive dimensions allow this tiny car to be very nimble in confined city areas such as the capital city of the country in which it was born. Parking in ludicrously small spaces is no longer an issue with the car being only 1.1m wide, 2.45m long and 1.5m high. Miraculously, the Ecooter can house a driver and a passenger in the back — and what’s more, once the car is parked it can automatically go into a mode where it knows its passengers have exited and will actually rise up on its hind wheels to make itself even more compact. This allows Ecooters to be virtually stacked alongside each other for ultimate space saving. Couple this with built-in wireless communication and navigation, integrated cameras all around the car and the ability to rotate 360 degrees on its unique wheel arrangement and it is clearly a desirable vehicle.

The Ecooter is designed for densely populated areas and touted as being much safer and easier to drive than a motorbike. The usual worries about electric cars seem to have been addressed — the battery charges to 80 percent in 15 minutes, which is hours faster than the nearest alternative. A charged battery can power the vehicle for 100km and at a top speed of 65kph. Of course the drawback, as with all electric cars, is that it needs some

kind of special charge station to “refuel.”

Doomed to failure?

Ecooter has not yet hit the production lines, but ITRI is hoping that it can bring new business opportunities to Taiwan. Even though electric cars have never become dominant, the Ecooter represents the latest in an aging industry dogged by failure and even, some say, conspiracy. The theories behind the failure of the electric car in the US vary, but some suggest that oil companies fearful of losing business to a competing technology helped stamp out the electric car by literally buying patents to prevent modern (NiMH) batteries from being used in US electric cars. According to another commonly held belief, automakers have a history of destroying competing technologies such as electric cars since they require less maintenance and will ultimately lead to smaller profits for car dealers. Those less skeptical remain fans of the theory that electric cars are simply bound to fail right now because of poor battery performance and lack of charging points. There is also the argument that electric cars may not actually be greener at all in the grand scheme of things.

Whatever happens, the Ecooter is a bold move that is more likely to survive in the Asian economy than anywhere else. A quick look at any road in Taipei suggests that a small, safe and cheap vehicle has a much better chance of survival here than in countries such as the US, for instance, where space is less of an issue, car owners are more affluent and attempts to introduce electric cars have failed for quite some time.

While the Ecooter faces tough times ahead, as long as it’s priced sensibly it has a chance of surviving — even a chance of becoming the dominant budget electric car. Let’s not forget the raging success of the EeePC, which came out of Taiwan last year and has already spawned an era of its own. Could the Ecooter do for budget electric cars what the EeePC did for budget ultra-portable computers? One thing is for sure: if price is a major concern, then using Taiwanese production processes should guarantee it a smaller unit cost than almost anywhere else in the world.

Gareth Murfin is a freelancer games designer: www.garethmurfin.co.uk