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Smart aims to electrify the future of urban mobility

Marc Young · 7 May 2010, 15:25

Published: 07 May 2010 15:25 GMT+02:00

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It’s taken twelve years for the world to catch up with Daimler’s tiny Smart car.

When the Stuttgart-based carmaker behind luxury brand Mercedes launched its tiny two-seater back in 1998, no-one was seriously discussing ditching petroleum-powered vehicles for ones with more environmentally friendly electrical propulsion.

But the soaring price of oil and the threat of climate change mean the now ubiquitous Smart Fortwo will soon be available as it was originally envisioned – with a battery instead of a fuel tank.

“The Smart should have been born electric. That’s its true nature,” said Marc Langenbrinck, Smart’s managing director, said when he introduced the latest incarnation of its Fortwo model last week in Berlin.

But Langenbrinck and his colleagues in Germany’s car industry realise they’ll need a lot of help to make the historic shift from the combustion engine to automobiles running solely on electricity. Aside from the huge investments in infrastructure needed to make the widespread use of electric autos a reality, people will need to rethink urban living and mobility.

Click here for a photo gallery of the new e-Smart.

Accordingly, Smart has decided to couple the marketing the introduction of the electric Fortwo in 2012 with a multidisciplinary roving discussion. Over the next year, the “Smart Urban Stage” will roll through Berlin, Rome, Zurich, Paris, Madrid and London looking for answers to the questions facing the “City of the Future.”

The carmaker has also commissioned exhibitions exploring the topics of mobility, design, technology, architecture, science and society with the aim of promoting creative solutions to city living.

“It’s all about optimising urban landscapes with sustainability in mind,” said Langenbrinck. “We want to spark something here.”

To encourage creativity, Smart will award the person with the best idea in each city a €10,000 prize. The overall European winner will win their very own electric Fortwo.

In Berlin, the Smart Urban Stage will feature everything from practical suggestions like urban gardening to whimsical conceptual musings about robotic “harvesters” that would gather up a city’s wasted energy.

Hermann Weizenegger, a professor at Potsdam’s University of Applied Sciences and curator of the exhibition’s design section, welcomed Smart’s inclusive approach to promote its new electric car.

“It’s great to see more support for such pilot projects,” he told The Local. “Companies often just plop a product down in front of consumers. But this type of discussion ideally means the product ends up more closely matching the needs of society.”

Facing the reality that purchasing an electric car is likely to put philosophical principles ahead of economics for years to come, it’s certainly a more nuanced approach than simply rolling the e-Smart into showrooms and expecting people to line up to buy them.

And since many people have never been behind the wheel of an electric car, Smart is also giving the public a chance to drive the new Fortwo at each stop the Urban Stage makes across Europe.

Smart driving

The Local managed to get its hands on a spanking new e-Smart convertible for a quick spin around Berlin’s Mitte district on a recent sunny spring day, and the overall experience was an enjoyable one.

In fact, for short urban trips, there’s no compelling argument against the electric Smart from the driving perspective. Accelerating from 0-60 km/h in just 6.5 seconds, it’s as zippy and responsive as its gasoline-powered cousin. And given it can be driven 130 kilometres before needing a charge from a normal household socket, the e-Smart will have a range suitable for the vast majority of city dwellers.

Granted, the car’s gauges on the dash are bit gimmicky – why, for instance, do you need to see the needles bouncing back and forth as you drain the battery by accelerating and replenishing it while braking?

But otherwise the 30-kilowatt electric motor offers a satisfying boost when the pedal is put to the metal. For those not familiar with the torque offered by electric drive, the experience can best be described as gunning a bumper car at the county fair. However, while the throttle on the electric vehicles used for dodgem carnival rides quickly cuts out so you don’t flatten the seven-year-old in front of you, the e-Smart will keep accelerating up to 100 km/h.

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This is fun, but poses a potential hazard for pedestrians not accustomed to the near-silent running of electric cars. Until cities are filled with the significantly quieter vehicles, the transition phase could be challenging for both hard-of-hearing grannies and e-car drivers.

Langenbrinck would not be drawn on how much the e-Smart will cost when it goes on sale in 2012, but he said Daimler would ensure it was “affordable” for average folks and not just rich, urban tree-huggers.

But you might not have to buy one if Smart’s successful car-sharing project is expanded from the southern German city of Ulm and Austin, Texas.

The innovative scheme lets registered users hop into any e-Smart they find scattered around the city and drive them for as long as they like without worrying about special parking spots or membership costs. Modelled on popular bike-sharing programmes, it also eliminates the issue of recharging because there are maintenance teams to make sure the cars always have enough juice.

Such pilot projects could certainly help increase the acceptance of electric cars in German cities, and one day might even help Daimler make its luxury Mercedes saloons fully electric alongside the tiny Smart.

The Smart Urban Stage exhibition is open to the public as are free test drives of the Smart electric drive model from May 8 to June 13 in Berlin at Oranienburger Straße 59-63.

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Marc Young (marc.young@thelocal.de)

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Your comments about this article

02:00 May 8, 2010 by harrylatour
ALL problems with E.Vs will be either solved or other means of providing a viable power network will be found.It is not a case of how,,,but only when.Failure is not on the table,,,,,there is so much tech out there it is really only a case of investing in the right option.Tel Aviv is making a start also on E.V. infrastructure and believe me all you nay-sayers will be proved wrong in the next ten years.The only thing needed is the will to just make the start and once that happens it will be great (just make sure that we don't buy in all our cars from China,,,,make our own or we WILL lose out)
16:58 May 9, 2010 by mixemongpete
why can't we simply force companies to build smaller cars, remember the messerschmitt? that small i mean, with current gas engine technology or battery we would save incredible amounts of pollution being dumped into the environment, the answers are here now. the problem is '' we cant make $ building those ''
00:46 May 10, 2010 by rfwilson
As an engineer, it pains me to read some of the absurd predictions of those who make some of these baseless claims.

One person claimed that "Honda has produced an electric car, using H2 fuel cells. They proved H2 can be safely distributed and stored". Dream on... Honda proved nothing of the sort! It is well known that there are only 3 ways to store hydrogen: 1) As a high pressure gas, 2) cryogenic liquid hydrogen, 3) metal hydride storage. All of these 3 methods have very serious problems. Method #1 requires heavy high pressure cylinders and cannot store enough for a practical range. The drawbacks of method #2 are obvious. Method #3 requires extremely heavy containers full of powdered metal, and heat is required to extract the H2.

As for the nutty claim that in 10 years there will be massive numbers of electric cars, we have heard all this before. Ten to 15 years ago, fuel cell companies like Ballard and (at that time) Daimler Benz (in cooperation with Ballard) claimed there would be fuel cell cars on the road by 2005 - 2010. So where are they? Reality bites! The reality is that fuel cells fell flat on their face and no fuel cell cars are presently in development.

To those dreamers that claim hydrogen is a "fuel", it is in fact not a fuel at all. It is an energy storage medium, acting much like a rechargeable battery.... input energy to make the H2 at one location, and recover it somewhere else. Hydrogen must be manufactured, and there are only TWO practical ways to do it, and both have huge problems.... 1) Electrolysis of water and 2) reformation of hydrocarbon fuels. Method 1 is VERY inefficient and power hungry, and method 2 puts the lie to silly claims that hydrogen is a clean fuel.

As far as the absurd claim that an electric Smart will have a carbon fiber body, there is not a shred of evidence for this claim. The smart already exists as a viable car that can relatively easily be modified for electric power. Why on earth would they develop a totally new car made from hideously expensive carbon fiber, and spend billions getting it through regulatory approvals including impact and crash testing, when they can simply modify the existing car?
17:54 May 14, 2010 by Prufrock2010
Let's just say it will be the most expensive golf cart in the world and move on.
11:45 May 17, 2010 by harrylatour
You younger people make me weep!! Oh the irony!! ,,You ALL have water,gas,electric in your houses don't you?? the trash is collected is'nt it? and who do you all think laid all this stuff on that you all use eh? Well it was'nt the trolls was it,,,,it was people from previous generations of course (I am 70 and when I was very young some houses where I lived still had GAS lights!!) and someone has to try out ideas for cars. Of course the EV infrastructure WILL be built and other complimentry services too,hydrogen for longer journeys away from charging points,,,etc,etc, a highway will have many services just like a house,,,just make sure that we don't buy ALL our cars from the Chinese,,or we will be done for!!
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