Test halls for electric cars

Electric cars are already an attractive alternative for many. The revolutionary drive technology raises new questions both for researchers and commuters alike.

An über 500 Prüfstellen bundesweit bietet DEKRA Hauptuntersuchungen an. Foto: Thomas Küppers

DEKRA offers general inspections at 500+ German inspection stations. Photo: Thomas Küppers

When will we see electric mobility oust the internal combustion engine?” For Thomas Reimer, Head of Vehicle Mechatronics and Mobility at the Research Institute of Automotive Engineering and Vehicle Engines Stuttgart (FKFS), it’s a question he hears all too often. It figures then that he has a response at the ready: “Why do we need to oust the combustion engine? Petrol and diesel engines have coexisted for decades, and we haven’t been asking which will replace the other all that time.” Riemer and 240 of his FKFS colleagues tackle such questions concerning the automotive sector. Key areas include the functional safety of a vehicle’s electrical components.

Software is replacing the mechanics

“What happens in the electric drivetrain if individual electric components malfunction?”, “How can unwanted acceleration be prevented in multi-motor concepts, in which each wheel has its own electric motor?” and “How can I regain control over assistance systems in order to avoid an accident?” are just a few of the questions they currently deal with. These questions give an inkling as to the array of new topics surrounding electric vehicle motorization that were not asked for conventional drive technologies. Research results flow directly into the development of new vehicles, as the Institute – initially started as a foundation – acts as a nexus between university and business. The FKFS addresses inquiries from the business world, providing firms with results from university research. The FKFS has also worked together with DEKRA for many years. Collaborative projects include expanding the scope of general inspections using vehicle diagnostics interfaces, as well as accident reconstruction using diagnostic information. For now, however, the task is to subject one of the Institute’s test vehicles to a general inspection. Riemer drives the test vehicle – a Mercedes B Class laden with analysis technology, cameras and measurement sensors – into the test hall at DEKRA’s headquarters in Stuttgart.

For DEKRA Test Engineer Peter Chromik, the inspection process of an electric vehicle is similar to that of a vehicle with a conventional motor. After checking the headlights and other lighting elements, it’s on to the brake testing rig and the hydraulic lift. “Now the emissions test,” jests Riemer, as Chromik slowly raises the lift. The visual inspection of the brakes doesn’t identify any issues. The car has no exhaust muffler or dripping pipes. “No leaks,” chuckles Chromik in reference to the absent parts, such as the oil reservoir and fuel tank, before adding: “There’s less and less mechanics, and more and more software involved.” The general inspection of electric vehicles also sees a vehicle diagnostics adapter employed to identify faults, for example in the electronic assistance systems. Similarities end beneath the hood; it is hard to draw any parallels between electric and conventional vehicles here. Stickers warn of high voltages, and all cables and lines have been extensively insulated. Again, the DEKRA engineer carries out a visual inspection, checking whether any cables have loosened, or if any insulation has been damaged. No problems are found with the battery. “The battery presents no more or less of a hazard than liquid or gaseous fuels,” informs Riemer.

Private infrastructure

One challenge to the wider acceptance of electric drives is their practicality, Riemer suggests. It isn’t the number of publicly accessible charging stations and Superchargers along major routes that present an issue, rather infrastructure on a private level. “Electric cars are likely to be overlooked by city-dwellers – who would want to drive an extra two blocks in the hope that the charging station is working and available, then returning hours later to collect their vehicle?” Buildings containing multiple dwellings also face infrastructure issues: “If 30 vehicles are to be charged simultaneously, the mains connection to the building is likely to be overwhelmed,” adds Riemer. The engineer considers the virtually untouched grant money that was set aside in Germany to incentivize electric vehicle buyers as a sign that the consumer’s readiness to “go electric” presents the greatest challenge. “There is limited demand currently,” says Riemer. This can be attributed to the general perception that electric cars’ ranges are very limited. “Many believe that they are long distance drivers, even if they actually predominantly drive short distances.” Such people would stand to gain most from electric drive technology.

One approach to increasing consumer acceptance is through the diversification of electric vehicles’ performance classes. Conventional drives offer customers a choice of motor performance classes. Electric vehicles tend to grant the customer only a single “choice.” Introducing models with a range of battery sizes could allow manufacturers to offer various performance levels and vehicle ranges. The general inspection will also be altered as vehicles change. “Vehicle technology is developing rapidly, and the general vehicle inspection needs to adapt to current vehicle developments. It is increasingly becoming a mechatronic assessment,” explains Test Engineer Peter Chromik, as he carefully affixes an inspection sticker to the FKFS’ Mercedes B Class. The electric vehicle then leaves the DEKRA test hall with a faint hum, ready to collect even more valuable driving data.

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