With the help of powerful modelling tools, parts of the local auto industry are accelerating the transition to electric vehicles.

All cars have become smarter over the past 50-odd years, as they evolved from utilitarian tear-abouts to luxury-class land-liners, but electric vehicles are in a different league.

Although EVs may not have complex mechanical engines, the batteries, battery management systems and motors inside them are powerful and need to be controlled using software that runs complex algorithms. If EV models have advanced at a cracking pace over the past decade, it’s probably impossible to speculate how they may perform in another 10 years.

“We’re going to see the same sort of trend as we’ve seen in computing power; it’s going to increase significantly as the technology used in batteries evolves,” says MathWorks country manager Stephane Marouani, hinting at research into the possibilities of solid-state batteries that use graphene and aluminium.

MathWorks, a US-headquartered company that makes software used by engineers and scientists, has a track record for working with automakers, but the rise of EVs has seen it shift into automated driving and driving assistance systems, otherwise known as self-driving cars.

In Australia, Marouani says much of the local talent left over from the departure of a car-manufacturing industry has set itself to work on interesting ventures into commercial and industrial electric vehicles. “Diesel still has more energy efficiency than a battery system,” Marouani says, “but there is a clear trend [towards electric] from a local innovation standpoint.”

The mining and agriculture sectors are obviously suited to EVs, he says, as they are safer, non-polluting and require less maintenance than conventional vehicles.

Way down below

A batch of Bortana EVs take shape at Safescape’s facility in Victoria. all destined for goldmines.

Victorian company Safescape is working on a commercial four-wheel-drive vehicle to replace diesel-powered people-carriers in underground mines, with orders in hand from gold miners in Western Australia, South Australia and Queensland. Mines can run to 2km deep, where conditions are hot and salty. Toyota LandCruisers are the staple ride in underground mines, says Safescape software integration engineer Brendan Jones, but after three years they are typically rusted out. An electric vehicle will be far cleaner, safer and longer-lasting, he says.

Safescape’s Bortana EV is built on a chassis sourced from Brazil, with stories of the galvanised body lasting 10 years in mines overseas. “It’s not only going to benefit miners by being a cleaner vehicle, it will also last longer,” Jones tells EcoGeneration.

The electric drivetrain and batteries – two 26kWh BladeVolt units made by NSW company 3ME Technology – are added to the rolling gear in Australia. There is only one Bortana EV in circulation so far, a phototype driven for the past two years on a mine site and around Perth. “It’s had a fair bit of use,” Jones says. Six of the first 10 “beta” production units have already been sold by the Bendigo-based firm, which also specialises in emergency rescue solutions for underground workers.

The first vehicles will be sent to their owners with 1,000-volt chargers and Jones expects the bright yellow EVs will work 24 hours a day, shuffling shift workers up and down steep gradients.

The company modelled usage patterns for the Bortana EV in consultation with MathWorks and found drivers will be able to set off at ground level with a half-charge, then top up on the decent thanks to the wonders of regenerative braking. A quick top-up on the charger after doing some work down below will be more than enough to get back to the surface. There’s no guarantee the owners will charge using clean energy, but gravity – which powers regenerative braking – is the same thing.

How big can EVs get?

Converting the monstrous tip trucks used in open-cut mines to electric is an engineering feat well out of reach of today’s technology. The 24-cyclinder, 100-litre engines in those enormous beasts drain vast amounts of diesel, but hybrids are being developed where electric motors can help pull things along.

“Those trucks carry a lot of weight and consume a lot of energy; you would need to install a huge amount of batteries on those trucks and the electricity would be consumed quite quickly,” Marouani says. The risk for miners would be to have a truck run out of charge. “You can bring a diesel jerrycan, but you can’t bring a charger.” Time is money at Australia’s mines, but Marouani is confident EV solutions will on day evolve to that scale.

Lumem’s charging pad adds some va-va-voom to McLaren’s hybrid supercar.

Back on the city streets, Lumen Freedom general manager Rod Wilson expects the bowser-style charging gear that’s started to pop up here and there will quite quickly give way to wireless charging systems, which can lie on garage floors in the form of base pads or be buried in public areas – out of sight, out of mind. Lumen Freedom’s wireless electric vehicle charging system transfers power across an air gap using induction, similar to a loosely coupled transformer with an air gap.

“The way it achieves that is stepping up the frequency, modulating it around 85kH, and upping the voltage,” says Lumen Freedom software team lead Radek Pesina. A coil in the base pad creates an electromagnetic field, which is received by a pad in the vehicle. “Passing an alternating electromagnetic field over a coil generates electricity.”

The wireless solution can also be used on the move, with a “semi-dynamic” application suitable for taxi rank-style queuing and a “dynamic” model seeing the possibility of charging at 100km/h, says Wilson, with 92% efficiency making it “the same as plug-in”.

The charger has already been incorporated into McLaren’s gas-electric hybrid Speedtail Hyper-GT supercar, but Wilson reckons that’s only the start. “The major manufacturers around the world are all into wireless charging. Eventually it will take over; it just makes sense.”

Wilson expects frequent “snack charging” will lead to carmakers releasing models with smaller batteries.

Hands off the wheel

Looking beyond privately-owned vehicles, the possibilities for autonomous vehicles are “huge”, Marouani says. MathWorks has developed tools for automated driving where output from different types of sensors – cameras, lidar (a laser radar), radar and proximity sensors – is fused to present “the best and most accurate picture of the world”.

During a snowstorm, for example, cameras might not pick out a pedestrian in a white coat. But if that information is combined with lidar a car can make decisions based on a more accurate depiction of the world. “And if you combine that with AI, machine learning and deep learning, you really have cars that drive better than humans can drive them.”

All the major manufacturers are researching automated driving, he says, even though the media would have you think it’s a solo journey for Tesla.