Frugal cars fight it out in Brighton to London road race

By Jorn Madslien
Business reporter, BBC News


Folko Rohde is in awe as he surveys the cars parked in the gloomy hotel car park at the Brighton Metropole.

"Four Teslas," he says admiringly, referring to a series of electric sportscars. "There are four Teslas here."

To Mr Rohde, an electric motoring engineer with Volkswagen, the underground car park at Brighton's Metropole hotel is an Aladdin's cave. He has never seen anything like it.

More than 60 ultra-modern cars representing the latest in automotive technology are lined up side by side for the first time, ready to go head-to-head in the inaugural eco-car race from Brighton to London.

Ultra-efficient cars

At dawn on race day, motor industry royalty, including rally driver Paddy Hopkirk, mix with celebrities, such as Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason.

Image caption,
Efficient cars must be produced in efficient factories, Mr Murray says

They are ready to take part in a competition with a difference.

The point of The Future Car Challenge is to use as little energy as possible, rather than to cross the finishing line first.

Electric cars, hybrids, hydrogen fuel cell cars and cars with conventional internal combustion engines take part, and it is far from clear which technology is the best.

But as the race gets underway, it soon becomes clear that regardless of how they compare with each other, all these cars are much more fuel efficient than cars of the past, delivering the sort of performance that drivers could only dream about until very recently.

"You almost don't need the engine on the flat road, it just coasts along like an ice skate," says Professor Gordon Murray as he steers his tiny T.25 prototype towards London.

Aston Martin chairman David Richards, meanwhile, cannot heap enough praise on the electric Mini he is driving, insisting it has enough electric charge to drive all the way to London and back again.

Low consumption

Around midday the cars arrive at the Royal Automobile Club in London's Pall Mall to have their energy consumption measured.

Many of the drivers are stunned to learn how little energy they have consumed.

Exact data that compares the participants' performance will only be released by the organisers towards the end of this week, but it seems clear that few, if any, of the cars taking part have used more than a gallon of diesel, or equivalent amounts of electricity.

The fuel bill for the winner of the conventional internal combustion engine category, for instance - a BMW 320d - comes in at £3.66, which seems good value given that it has carried four adults and TV equipment much of the way.

"An event like this is much more like the real world than the official tests the car manufacturers use," says David Ward, director general of the FIA Foundation and BBC News' fellow driver of the car, which consumed just three litres (about two-thirds of a gallon) of diesel to cover the distance.

Costly technology

Image caption,
More than 60 cars took part in the race

The Brighton to London race clearly shows that the technologies needed to substantially cut carbon emissions from cars exist already, according to Professor Stephen Glaister, director of the RAC Foundation.

"There is little doubt car manufacturers can overcome the technical hurdles," he says, "but what about the cost barriers?"

Professor Glaister points out that the most energy efficient cars tend to be more expensive than less sophisticated models, and he says "there is no guarantee that mass production will make these ultra-low carbon cars substantially cheaper".

"The cars of tomorrow might have very low running costs, but that will be irrelevant if people haven't go the cash to buy them in the first place," he adds.

Global solutions

The question of cost is particularly pertinent as the global vehicle fleet is set to more than double over the next decade, with the strongest growth in sales expected to come in India and China, according to the FIA Foundation's Mr Ward.

"It's going to be conventional technology that's going to give the greatest contribution in terms of curbing carbon emissions globally," he says.

"So a global approach to fuel economy is very important. It's about spreading the best we know about, faster, across the globe.

"We need to squeeze all the benefits out of the technologies we already have, rather than search for the silver bullet."

Such an approach should not be limited to using the most efficient engines on the market - whether powered by electricity or petrol and diesel, agrees Mr Murray, who used to work as a Formula One and road car engineer for McLaren.

"It's mainly about getting the weight down, though it is also about the manufacturing system; about polluting less while actually making cars, not just while driving them."

Jorn Madslien drove two cars in the Future Car Challenge. The cars were selected and entered by The Global Fuel Economy Initiative, a partnership of the UN Environment Programme, the International Energy Agency, the International Transport Forum and the FIA Foundation.

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