The Fast and the Eco-Friendly: Can Supercars Really Go Green?

6 mins

Conjure up an image of supercars, and you’ll likely see gas-guzzling beasts that go 0-60 in under five seconds. But, innovations are ushering in a new breed of supercar that is just as fast with half the footprint. Josh Sims reports

‘There is,’ concedes Mike Kakogiannakis, ‘a lot of scepticism about eco engines in supercars, even though obviously, there’s a need for them. Personally, I’ve owned several super-cars and I love the sound of a conventional engine, the smell and the vibration. But there are always better, newer ways of doing things.’

Indeed, super-cars – the kind of high-powered, big-engined, hard-seated, typically flash and characteristically very expensive car designed for the enjoyment of speed, rather than for doing the shopping – may, on first consideration, stand as the very anti-thesis of environmental progressive thinking. But it seems as though change is afoot.

It’s smart, it’s connected, it’s elegant, it’s powerful…and most importantly, it’s green. Image: supplied

‘Just 10 years ago to buy such an electric or hybrid-engined supercar would have been more out of passion. You’d have had to have gone out of your way,’ says Kakogiannakis, who is the co-founder of Dubuc, an electric super-car developer that aims to unveil its Tomakawk production model towards the end of next year after 12 years of research to develop the green machine. ‘Now buying is just that much more feasible because the technology required to make these engines practical is evolving at an unprecedented rate.’

The eco supercar segment might well be viewed as being as much a branch of the tech industry as the car industry. Certainly, while the big names of the super-car world – Ferrari, Porsche, BMW, Aston Martin and the like – are now investigating eco engines, the pioneers are, following the Tesla template, mostly small start-ups the likes of Acura, Elextra, Dendrobium, NIO and several other companies perhaps only petrol-heads have heard of.

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With 1,500 horsepower and a 0-60 mph time of 2.6 seconds, Vanda Electric’s Dendrobium has one big USP… zero emissions. Image: supplied

Ironically perhaps, it is not necessarily the desire to cut CO2 emissions that is driving this new segment. It’s the desire for greater performance, with a cut in CO2 being a happy by-product. ‘People are probably surprised by the amount of environmental technology development going on in the super-car sector,’ says Donna Falconer, senior manager of global product strategy for McLaren, which in recent years has launched its hybrid-engined P1 and which aims to have 50% of its production with electric engines within the next five years.

‘But the fact is that you can’t, for instance, just keep putting more and more turbos on a conventional engine to improve its performance. There are limits to the old technology. You have to look to the new to deliver performance.’

Instead, she argues, by combining an electric engine with other new technologies – ones that, for example, allow a car to be much lighter, and therefore require less power to offer the same level of engagement, ‘will be opening doors to all sorts of new driving experiences’.

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The Mclaren P1 went to retail in October 2013 and all 375 units were sold out by November. Image: Commons wikimedia

There are however, still hurdles to overcome before the eco supercar becomes the norm, for those who can afford them, not least the need for ever more advanced batteries to provide longer ranges and faster re-charging. Marco Piffaretti, the founder of Swiss car design agency Protoscar – a pioneer in the design of solar-powered racing cars – stresses that the charging infrastructure currently in place in those countries that have any is also typically geared towards 500v, not the 1000v ideal for supercars – though since the high voltage is also needed by trucks and buses, that is likely to come. And then, he says, there is the need to move sales and distribution on.

‘Conventionally-engined sports cars are perfect quality, from well-known brands, easy to sell and sold by people who know everything there is to know about pistons and turbos,’ he says. ‘Getting them to sell electric is like asking a chef who has cooked barbecue all of his career to suddenly cook vegetarian – the change in culture takes time.’

‘Conventionally-engined sports cars are sold by people who know everything there is to know about pistons and turbos. Getting them to sell electric is like asking a chef who has cooked barbecue all of his career to suddenly cook vegetarian’

The same might be assumed of the kind of person who drives supercars too: what is going to make them happy with the idea of giving up the multi-sensory appeal of a conventional engine?

Speed is not the issue: this summer NIO’s EP9 shaved 2.1 seconds off the all-time lap record at the legendary Nurburgring circuit. Nor is acceleration: because there’s no step-change between gears in an electric engine, it typically accelerates much faster than the conventional kind; when Elextra’s super-car comes onto the market in 2020, it promises to do 0-60mph in a positively terrifying 2.3 seconds.

Even image and attitude looks to be in the eco super-car’s favour. ‘The fact is that the very rich who can afford these kinds of cars are getting younger and younger and they’re less and less interested in old technology,’ argues Robert Palm, the designer and CEO of Classic Factory, the company behind Elextra. ‘They might even see it as a negative thing to be seen to be driving, say, a conventionally-engined Lamborghini. That’s one reason why even if these electric supercars had been around 20 years ago they wouldn’t have sold – the market for them wasn’t there.’

Indeed, many in the eco supercar industry argue it is just a matter of the opportunity to experience their products. ‘I’ve yet to meet someone who drives an electric supercar who then said they just weren’t interested,’ says Dubuc’s Kakogiannakis. ‘Driving one is exhilarating because of the acceleration and the smoothness, and some have said they actually like the quietness of it too.’

‘Soon for drivers of super-cars to change over from the internal combustion engine to an electric or hybrid engine will simply make sense,’ adds Piffaratti, who is currently working on developing electric supercars for a number of major Italian makers. ‘In a few years we’ll see Formula E [racing with electrically-powered cars] with better results than Formula One. The difference between a conventionally-engined super-car and an eco one and will be the difference between a black and white TV and a 4D flatscreen. And nobody wants a black and white TV anymore.’

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