Little car completes big journey

14 December 2011

Waikato University

Made It: Waikato University fourth-year engineering students, with electronic technician Ian Honey and lecturer Dr Mike Duke with BEV - the battery electric vehicle the students built and drove from Auckland to Bluff.

Waikato University engineering students successfully drove the electric car they’d built from Auckland to Bluff. It took less than two weeks to cover the 1700kms and apart from a bit of a glitch with one belt not running straight as they headed into Wellington, the car didn’t give them any major problems.

Going the Distance

“We averaged about 270 kilometres a day, travelling at about 80ks an hour,” says student Matt Kershaw. “The batteries need recharging every 150 to 200 kilometres and businesses along the way were great about letting us plug into their mains when we needed to stop.”

The students, their supervisor Dr Mike Duke and an electronics technician Ian Honey stayed at camping grounds and slept in tents along the way. Matt says they didn’t rush the journey and were happy to make detours to take in the scenery. “For some of us, we were seeing parts of the South Island for the first time – we opted for the Catlins coast in Southland because it was more scenic than State Highway One.

“For BEV, the hardest part of the trip was going into Dunedin – the big hills were a challenge.”

Car Mechanics

BEV (battery electric vehicle) was built by the students over two semesters. It’s a single-seater commuter vehicle powered by a bank of 10 lithium-ion batteries. Building and getting BEV roadworthy was a challenge for the students working to tight deadlines and completing other papers in the final year of their degrees. They quickly lost count of the hours they spent on the car.

Dr Duke says there have been many New Zealand electric cars converted from typical petrol engine cars and a few that have used the chassis of existing cars. “But the students have achieved an amazing result by designing and building completely from scratch the first ever fully certified electric car in New Zealand.”

Matt Kershaw says BEV handled a bit like an old mini. “And the noise; it was like driving at speed with two windows down.” But he says the car withstood the hundreds of kilometres extremely well and the road trip was a fantastic way to wind up his four-year Bachelor of Engineering degree. “Knowing what I know now, I’d love to start from scratch and build the car all over again.”

However he won’t be doing that. He and team mates Tim Mason, Greg McPherson and Dale Oswald all have jobs to go to next year.

The student project was funded by Waikato University and a number of local businesses including Splash Monitors and WEL networks.

Future Forward

Dr Duke says if electric cars are going to the commuter car of choice in the future, then there’d need to be good infrastructure to support them. “For instance, you need a good power supply - we managed to trip a few circuit breakers when we charged up en route. The vehicles also use a lot more power when they’re going uphill so, flatter roads and perhaps more tunnels would be necessary to maintain speed and traffic flow.

He says they collected plenty of data on the car’s performance while they were on the road and identified a lot of issues. “Things we wouldn’t necessarily have thought about if we hadn’t spent so long on the road.”