At the Frankfurt auto show in September, a group of scientists and engineers at the prestigious Technical University of Munich will unveil the fruits of a project they have been working on for the past four years — an electric car designed specifically to meet the driving needs of those living in sub-Saharan Africa. They call their creation the aCar.
Back To Basics Mobility
For many people in Africa, an automobile is not an air conditioned, leather lined, autonomous driving status symbol. It is an appliance for meeting basic transportation needs — getting goods to market, accessing medical care, and participating in a regional and national community. Much of Africa does not have paved roads so ruggedness, durability, and all wheel drive are needed for any vehicle meant for wide use on that continent.
Professor Markus Lienkamp, chairman of automotive technology at TUM, says, “The aCar is an off-road capable vehicle that is affordable for people there and is capable of transporting heavy loads.” The Bavarian Research Foundation is also a partner in the aCar program. “An electric drive is not only greener, but is also the better solution in technical terms, since it is low maintenance and can apply its full torque directly to accelerating from a stop,” says Martin Šoltés, one of the project leaders. The battery can also serve as a source of local power for charging cell phones, LED lights, or a winch.
The aCar has a total passenger and cargo capacity of one ton. A number of different modules have been designed for the rear of the vehicle. In addition to carrying goods, it can serve as a mobile doctor’s office or local water treatment and distribution facility. Range with the standard 20 kWh battery is 80 kilometers. Solar panels on the roof help with recharging and optional flexible solar collectors can be unrolled to provide more electricity for the battery. Fully recharging a depleted battery can be accomplished in 7 hours by plugging in to any 220 volt outlet.
Building Cars Locally
The ultimate goal is to build the aCar in Africa but first they will be manufactured in Germany by Evum Motors, a company founded by Sascha Koberstaedt and Martin Šoltés, “We’ll have to master all the technical procedures before the car can be made in Africa. Then we can train people from Africa who can in turn pass on their knowledge there. Of course we’ll have to import high tech components such as the battery and the electric motors in the beginning,” says Šoltés. But in the future, as many components as possible will be manufactured locally.
“Cast nodes and simple bolted construction enable simple manufacturing processes with very low investment costs,” says professor Wolfram Volk, who heads the metal forming and casting department at TUM. The plan is to keep the price of the aCar below €10,000 so it will be affordable for the indigenous population. Another goal of building and assembling the aCar locally is to provide new employment opportunities for Africans and bolster local economies.
Passing The Tests With Flying Colors
The first prototypes were field tested in Germany starting in 2016, then earlier this year, a completed vehicle was shipped to Ghana for testing in the actual environment is was designed for. It performed beautifully. “It spent six weeks in a container on its way there. We unloaded it, switched it on, and it functioned perfectly all the way to the last day of testing,” says Sascha Koberstaedt. The team also asked locals to drive the car and the feedback was uniformly positive.
Driving around Bavaria is one thing. Operating a vehicle in the heat and humidity of Africa is something else entirely. “We gathered a lot of data which we now have to evaluate,” says Koberstaedt. “But we can already say that the aCar fulfills all the necessary requirements and has even exceeded our expectations.”
Optimizing The Design
The electric car on display in Frankfurt will feature some of the lessons learned from the Africa trials. The development team has focused on reducing weight and optimizing electrical systems, software, acoustics, ergonomics, and visibility. “The challenge was to develop an appealing, functional and high quality vehicle, while at the same time maintaining simple production methods and low manufacturing costs,” explains professor Fritz Frenkler head of industrial design at TUM. “Reducing everything to the essentials resulted in a modern and thus long lasting design.”
The aCar is a modern day, all electric version of the Citroen 2CV, the charmingly antiquated go anywhere, do anything Quonset hut on wheels that brought mobility to all those people in France who lived outside Paris and needed basic transportation after the ravages of World War II. The aCar may be just what people living in sub-Saharan Africa need most — efficient, reliable, affordable transportation. It could also find a receptive audience in Europe, where tiny trucklets based on motor scooters still represent mobility for millions of people.