This last week has brought a major achievement. Riversimple has presented its second prototype, one that is ready for production and has named it Rasa. This is something the company is willing to do since 2009, as my article about the company written back then confirms (in Portuguese). Chris Reitz, former head of design at Alfa Romeo, has joined the project in 2010 and is responsible for the Rasa styling. But many websites and blogs have taken the new prototype as something that came out of the blue. They have judged it because of its thin tires, its size or the fact that Riversimple does not intend to sell it. Some jerks have even urged the European Union to ask for a refund. Summing up, they did not get the point. Because of plain lack of judgement, laziness or simply because they needed to be polemical to start some buzz. And that is wrong in so many ways we had to write this article to make things straight.
Riversimple begins with Hugo Spowers. As an engineer graduated at Oxford, he has started his career building race cars and restoring historic race cars, but soon he realised that something was not in place. “If we want to build a sustainable industrial society, we have to move away from selling product to selling performance. Because if you sell product, you’re rewarded directly through resource consumption. The more resources you use the more money you make. Even politicians have understood now that what we’ve got to maximize is not resource consumption but resource efficiency. How can you possibly hope to establish a sustainable industrial society if we continue to reward the industrial sector for the opposite of what we’re trying to do? It’s just not very clever”, Spowers told MotorChase.
With so many capable executives in the auto industry, why has none of them come to the same conclusion? “I think that the business model of the industry absolutely has to change, but I don’t believe it’s possible in any industry for mature industries to change business models. It’s much harder than changing technology. When you go through a technology disruption almost invariably the business model needs to change as well. So I’m not trying to talk to the auto industry to convince them to make this sort of car. I think it’s very difficult for them. It’s just that they’re very, very good at what they do. And I’m asking them to do something completely different. Even the senior executives in the auto industry have a very limited mandate of what they can do. The company isn’t their company”, said Spowers.
In recent years, this old business model, in all industries, has led us to Earth Overshoot Day, also known as Ecological Debt Day. It means that the resources Earth was able to produce in one year were all spent way before the year’s end. In 2015, that happened in August 13. In other words, something that should last 365 days has only managed to be available for 225 days. Something similar to seeing your month salary end by 18, with 12 days left for your next payment to happen. Not sustainable for a home budget nor for life.
This was when Spowers decided to change things. In 2001, he has founded OSCar Automotive, the very company that, 6 years later, would be renamed to Riversimple. “I put the LIFECar consortium together in 2002 and spent 3 years persuading the government to give us a grant. The project was officially led by Morgan because, with Oxford and Cranfield universities, BOC, Qinetiq and Morgan, OSCar was not a credible company to lead, with me as the only employee!”, Spowers said. Check below the LIFECar, in case you have never heard of it (we doubt you haven’t).
But fuel cells where very expensive to be used as combustion engines have always been. “A real technology disruption is one that is a step-change in performance, but on the basis by which the product is sold, it is a negative step change. It’s worse. And fuel cells are worse than combustion engines on the basis on which cars are sold, which is basically performance. Fuel cells are hopeless in terms of sheer power. So it’s a classic case for me of a disruptive technology”, said Spowers. And why is that so?
“People talk about the cost of fuel cell per kilowatt. And, if you want twice the number of kilowatts, it’s going to cost a twice as much, which is not true. On the combustion engine, if you want twice the power it will cost you five percent more. We say it’s actually much worse than that. If you want twice the power it’s going to cost you four times as much. And the reason for that is that fuel cells also cost pro rata to power density. So if you want the same power in half the volume, it will cost you twice as much. If you want twice the power in your car, your engine bay won’t get any bigger. So as well as twice the power, you need twice the power density. And that will cost you four times as much. That is something that the industry doesn’t recognize, but it makes a huge difference to commercialization”, said Spowers.
How to preserve individual means of transportation in a sustainable way? Spowers answer for that was to produce the lightest vehicle possible, but that would not be enough. So he and his team have conceived the network electric car.
This network puts the fuel cell to produce only the energy that is necessary for cruising. Only 20% of the power they generate is reverted to acceleration. The exceeding energy is stored in ultracapacitors, electrical components that also store energy, as well as batteries, but they charge much faster and release this energy also in a speedy manner. These characteristics make them ideal pieces for acceleration. Their downside is that they do not retain energy for long. Since Rasa has 4 electric engines, one for each wheel, they also work as generators in braking. And this energy is stored by the ultracapacitor. The network connects all these components and allows for a much smaller fuel cell and a much cheaper car, something that is central to feasibility. And it matches perfectly another Riversimple philosophy: everything you need and nothing you don’t.
This image has been taken from a presentation Spowers has sent us and it clearly shows the main differences between an internal combustion engine (ICE) automobile, a battery electric vehicle and the network electric car created by Riversimple. In the ICE car, you do not recover any energy in descent and deceleration. There is no regeneration and the energy is just dissipated. With aggravating circumstances: “In a conventional car, when you’re cruising on the motorway you’re usually using about 20% of the peak power. So you have an engine that is five times more powerful than you need for 90% of the time. But the engine also means you have to have a gearbox that is five times stronger than it needs to be for 90% of the time. So these are bigger and heavier. So you have a heavier structure because the structure has to hang on to these heavy components in an accident. So the vehicle is heavier so you need more power. So you go around in circles”, said Spowers.
In the battery car, there is a mild recovery. Some of it is lost because batteries cannot absorb energy at a fast pace. There is a limit to what can be recovered. This is the sort of problem ultracapacitors have solved for the network electric car. “If you look at our system, not only can we capture all the braking energy right down the bottom of that black bar, but also we don’t have any redundant capacity. We’ve got a peak power of say 40 kW, but that 40 kW is only available for 10 s. After that our maximum power is about 15 kW. And so you see there is no excess capacity in that powertrain. No wasted components and weight that you’re carrying around with you all the time even when you don’t need it. We designed the powertrain to do exactly what you want. And it can do everything you want, which the other two can’t. But it cannot do anything that you don’t need to do”, says Spowers. This allows the car to weigh exactly what it is supposed to weigh in order to get the job done. In other words, the car cannot be conceived as current cars are.
Thinking the car outside the box
Recover the image above that explains why fuel cells will demand four times more money for twice the power. This is because each fuel cell stack produces a defined amount of energy. If you need more kilowatts, you will need more stacks. And each one of them has a huge cost, due to the use of noble metals as catalysts. This is why you see Toyota selling such a small number of Mirai cars and Honda still insisting on leasing the Clarity: because these cars cost way more than their price tags. Toyota is losing money in order to be remembered as a pioneer in fuel cell cars. Will it pay off? Only if research makes these fuel cells cheaper in a very short period of time. But how to bring the technology to market without losing money? This has been the focus of Spowers MBA at Cranfield University. And this is now Riversimple.
“The industry is always talking about getting hydrogen to the infrastructure delivery point to the same price as petrol per kilojoule of energy. We say that what matters is not the equivalent price calorifically to petrol, but the equivalent price of fuel per mile traveled. But if you go much further with hydrogen, it doesn’t matter what the price is per kilojoule compared with petrol. It matters what the price is per mile. So calorifically the price of hydrogen would have to come down to about 5 pounds a kilo, about 6 euros a kilo to be the same price as petrol. But for our Mk1, compared with a normal car that does 6 l/100 km, we could afford to pay 30 pounds per kilo. And it would still be the same price per mile”, Spowers told us.
That is easy to understand. A car that manages to get a 50 mpge fuel efficiency (4.7 l/100 km) would spend around 5 pounds on a gallon of petrol at the time this chart was created. With prices in an all-time low for crude oil, current prices for a gallon of petrol in the UK are now around 4.6 pounds, according to FuelProtest. Not far from where they were before. And unless the world faces a sudden change in the need for oil, prices tend to get higher in the future. The cost per mile is 12.8 pennies, what allow Riversimple to pay 30.79 pounds for 1 kg of hydrogen. Rasa has a 1.5 kg tank and a 300 mile (483 km) maximum range. Compared to the energy efficiency presented by the Mk1, that lowers Rasa’s efficiency to 200 mpge. But that is no challenge for Riversimple’s business case.
The highest price we have found for a kg of hydrogen was US$ 12, or 8.5 pounds. So the running costs of Rasa, at 4 pennies, are incredibly lower than those of an ICE car even at the highest current cost for hydrogen. For an ICE car to match Rasa’s running costs, petrol prices would have to fall to 2.1 pounds a gallon. Or their fuel efficiency would have to be 115 mpg (2 l/100 km). Volkswagen has managed to surpass this figure with the XL1, a two-seater like Rasa. But the XL1 is a turbodiesel hybrid (yes, a turbodiesel from Volkswagen…) produced in limited numbers (only 250 units) and sold by 111,000 euros. Riversimple cars will not be sold.
“The selling of service allows you to bring new technology to market competitively with the old technology. Even though the supply chain costs are much higher. To build volume is to bring the cost down. So that is a vicious circle. Where do you start? In our case, if we can build a fuel cell vehicle, we make a car much more efficient. And we never sell the car. We sell a service contract. There’s a huge cost saving in the fuel for the life of the vehicle. But when you sell the vehicle, that cost saving would go to the customer. But, in our case, that cost saving comes to us. So we can afford to pay more for the fuel cell at the beginning. Because we will save more money further down the road in the contract”, said Spowers.
Self transportation services
Besides selling the right to use its cars, Riversimple will ask for a monthly fee that will include servicing, refuelling, and insurance. It is inverting everything we know about the auto industry. There will be no sale of spare parts because the drivers will not have to worry about them. Since the company will have to take care of maintenance, the more robust the car is, the less it will have to spend. The more fuel-efficient it is, the less money Riversimple will have to spend to keep them running. The cars will have upgrades in order to be safer and more efficient at no cost for the users apart from the fee that they pay every month. And it will not be car sharing: your car will be used by you and you only. In the future, in case you need a bigger car for the family, you can have yours changed by paying only a higher fee.
Riversimple cars will be open-source vehicles, allowing for regional specifications. While it may not seem commercially wise to feed the competition, there are good reasons for Riversimple to do so. “The two entry barriers to new manufacturers in the last 50 years have been supply chain costs and establishing distribution channels. I think open source makes a big difference in reducing those barriers. The value in car companies is its brand and there is no conflict between building a brand and open source. The one thing that partners can’t copy and use is our brand name. That’s ours. But they can use the technology and we’d be delighted. So I can see a lot of other companies developing doing this”, says Spowers. In other words, if more companies follow Riversimple’s plans and technology, there is a critical mass for infrastructure companies to see a profit opportunity. By selling a renewable source of energy: hydrogen.
This brings us back to Rasa. It is a 3.67 m long, 1.63 m wide (including mirrors), 1.33 m tall two-seater that has a wheelbase of 2.27 m. “Some of the figures you have quoted (in your previous article) are from our original design spec and we have slightly moved the goalposts. Our original spec was 55 mph (89 km/h) cruise, 9 s to 55 mph and 520 kg dry weight. We changed our goal to 60 mph (96 km/h) cruise and 0-60 in 10 s, partly because our full-size models in the wind tunnel produced much lower drag figures than we had assumed in our simulation model when specifying the powertrain, so we could easily raise our cruise to 60 mph. Our weight has turned out at 580 kg at present but we know we are going to reduce some weights. We are confident we could get to 520 kg but we may not be able to do so for a production car at the price we are targeting – the last few kg will become increasingly expensive and I expect the production car (2018) will come out between 550 kg and 600 kg”, says Spowers.
In our presentation article, we said the Rasa used XR32-11 engines produced by Printed Motor Works, which delivered 160 Nm of torque, as well as 23.1 kW of peak power. Not really. “We don’t actually work in terms of motor power. The motor torque is constant and the power is the torque times the rotational speed, so 170 Nm gives about 15 kW per motor at full speed”, Spowers told us. So we are speaking of a 580 kg car that has 680 Nm of torque and 60 kW. Wouldn’t it be something interesting to drive? “The Rasa at present has a very sporting feel, very agile and precise, much in the spirit of Lotus, but we have done no development yet on the chassis setup.” The Rasa uses aluminium honeycomb structure in order to pass crash-test requirements.
Many carmakers avoid in-wheel engines because of unsprung mass. Not Riversimple. “They do increase unsprung mass, but it is a matter of design priorities. We do not regard it as a compromise. If we were doing a racing car, we would have inboard motors, as we did in the LIFECar. But, with careful design of motors, wheels, light tyres and suspension, we can get the unsprung mass to a normal figure for an ordinary car. The sprung mass is of course lighter than normal, so the ratio of sprung to unsprung is worse, but modern dampers can give a perfectly comfortable ride. It was fine in the old Hyrban or Mk1, which was even lighter (370 kg)”, Spowers told us.
Riversimple can thank Volkswagen in at least one point: the tires. “They are 115/80 R15 Michelin tyres, designed for the front of the VW XL1, sitting on 15-inch spun aluminium wheels”, said the company founder.
Is it clear, now?
With all this we have brought you, and the little journalistic effort of researching and talking to the best sources possible, we hope it is clear that Rasa is just a new step towards not only a better car model, but a whole new way to deal with individual transportation. It involves everything, from production to daily use. From resource consumption to revoking planned obsolescence for good. It is not only about the car: if you think saying it is ugly or beautiful will help you make any sort of point, know that this point will be more about who you are, and the way you do things, than about Rasa itself. Remember Abraham Lincoln on this one:
You may not agree with what Riversimple proposes. You may even think the car is not attractive. But at least make your judgements based on more than just what you think. This text means to help you on this. If you are one of the idiots that just wanted to have a say on something about which you did not have a clue, this is your chance to change that. Help yourself.