NUS students realise electric dream

Writer Christopher Tan with Mr Lim Hong Wee, teaching assistant in the engineering faculty of NUS behind the wheel of the FT12.

A group of engineering students at National University of Singapore has built a full-size two-seater electric car from the ground up - a feat usually performed by full-fledged vehicle manufacturers.

They built a hybrid steel-carbon fibre spaceframe by welding steel beams together and forming the lightweight and ultra-rigid material themselves.

The carbon fibre sheets are cured in a special oven. With a layer of foam sandwiched between two sheets, the carbon- fibre panels are bolted onto the steel skeleton to form the passenger cell.

Behind the seats, they bolted a direct- drive electric motor that powers the rear wheels via a single-speed transmission.

Powering the motor are eight 12-volt lead-acid batteries mounted in the front and back to achieve a 44:56 weight distribution.

Double wishbone suspension are the link between 18-inch wheels and the chassis. And the car is just 150mm off the ground.

The two-seater weighs around 1,600kg, with the batteries accounting for 608kg.

The car measures 3,900mm long, 1,740mm wide and merely 1,215mm tall, with a wheelbase of 2,400mm.

To simplify construction and keep weight down, there are no doors. A sleek one-piece carbon-fibre shell is being constructed now and will be bolted onto the frame.

But as it is, the car is ready for driving.

At the invitation of Professor Lim Seh Chun, deputy dean of the engineering faculty, Life! took a couple of spins in the FT12 (FT stands for future transportation).

The verdict? It is a truly impressive endeavour for something that took only $120,000 and about a year to build.

You climb into the low bucket seat, attach the steeing wheel and strap on a six-point safety harness.

The cockpit is austere, with a master switch on the centre console, and a start button on a bare flat fascia. But the students got the ergonomics right. Driver orientation is not much different from what something like a Lotus Elise offers.

The throttle is well-weighted. Squeeze it and the car moves off with adequate verve. Acceleration is linear and reasonably quick - characteristics of an electric drivetrain. With 120Nm of instant torque going to the rear axle, the car could even be described as a little sporty.

The steering is unassisted, reminiscent of the Italian cars of decades past. It feels better with speed.

The turning circle is pretty wide, so folks who grew up with Alfa Romeos might feel right at home at the wheel.

The ride is actually quite decent, with the suspension responding to undulations superbly and a tolerable level of vibration coming through the chassis.

On the whole, the car feels natural, connected to the road and pretty well sorted. The only small disappointment lies with the all-round disc brakes. They are a little weak and mushy.

The FT12 is still a work in progress though. It is also meant to be a mule for NUS to test a range of new technologies - from new batteries to autonomous vehicular systems developed on campus.

A set of lithium-based batteries should be ready by the middle of next year. Besides being much lighter than the lead-acid batteries the FT12 uses now, they promise to slash the current charging time of 10 hours.

They could also have a higher energy density, allowing the FT12 to extend its present range of 80-120km.

Prof Lim says the FT12 is "a culmination of know-how" the faculty has accumulated from more than 10 years of building Formula SAE race cars. It has also built three electric cars and taken part in the Shell Eco-Marathon.

The professor, a self-confessed "petrolhead", adds that the project allows students to learn by "getting their hands dirty" and also to "have some fun".

"We have always admired Elon Musk (the inventor behind Tesla) and we want to follow in his footsteps through the FT12 project," he says.

From the first impressions behind the wheel, they certainly have more than a shot at achieving that goal.

christan@sph.com.sg


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