A friend of mine finally got delivery of a Tesla Roadster. This prompted discussion of the drive train and the fact that Tesla has had to go from two speed transmissions which were failing to a transmissionless drive train. The ultimate mechatronic challenge, the electric car, is also a challenger in terms of the precise application of electric motor technology.
But it has to be said that the motor and drive solution for the electric car is not where the problem has to be solved. Any motor can be made to run an electric car. What is critical is how you apply it. The starting conditions require high torque at low speed and the running conditions require low torque at high speed. So, typically, what looks like a small 5 to 15 horsepower running requirement at full speed, becomes a 150 horsepower starting requirement depending on how quickly you would like to start. If you want to keep up with a Corvette, it uses 450 HP to start.
And this produces a lot of confusion. Why not use at 2 speed transmission to help the situation. Fine, but the ones that are available can’t handle the dynamic response of the electric motor.
Can electronics help this situation? Interestingly, yes. There is a control algorithm generally called vector control which allows you to manage the rotor torque and stator torque separately. By varying the phase angle between the two, like advancing and retarding the timing of a mechanical distributor cap on an internal combustion engine, you get different speed torque curves out of the motor. COOL! Is there any downside to this?
Yes. You need more current to produce more torque. That doesn’t change. So you have to be able to supply the current, and you have to be able to manage the heat. The heat is transitory since you only need the high current during starting, but it is best to have sophisticated software running to keep track of the RMS temperature of the motor. Lower operating temperatures mean longer life and reduced risk of demagnetizing the motor.
So, yes, you can run an electric car with a garden variety AC motor, and with good electronics, you can make it run fairly efficiently. With higher efficiency motors, the benefit is increased driving range from a given power source. High efficiency motors are frequently smaller and lighter weigh, but a weight savings in the motor of 50 or even 100 pounds is not that big a factor in the driving range when the curb weight of the vehicle is 3000 pounds.
Basically, its F=ma. If you can reduce the mass of the vehicle, you reduce the battery payload required to power the car. Aluminum space frames, like on the Prowler, have been studied by the car industry and can reduce curb weight by 400 pounds and reduce cost by 10% at the same time. We need to bring all the mechatronic leverage to the situation that we can, if we are going to make electric cars that make sense. Before its too late for Detroit.