Brussels, 25 Apr 2006
An EU consortium has developed a new vehicle suitable for the clean, green urban jungle, funded under the European Commission's Fifth Framework Programme (FP5). The CLEVER (Compact Low Emission Vehicle for Urban Transport) car is a three-wheeled device with room for a driver and a passenger. It has a tilting frame for added manoeuvrability when cornering, and an engine running on compressed natural gas (CNG).
Heiko Johannsen from the Technical University of Berlin coordinated the project. 'When we looked at the current situation, the needs of consumers and the need for individual mobility, the answer to us was clear [...]. What we need are new vehicle concepts. Up to now, few real attempts have been made to introduce alternative vehicles onto the market, and those attempts have been largely unsuccessful, not to mention ugly, and no fun to drive.'
Until now, the most famous or possibly infamous three-wheeled 'green' vehicle was the Sinclair C5, developed in the 1980s in the UK, which was an electric vehicle, running on motors developed for washing machines. The vehicle handled poorly and could travel at speeds not much faster than walking pace. Financially, the project was a disaster. However, three-wheelers have been in production since the French motorised 'Velocar' in the 1930s.
The CLEVER is a different beast entirely. To start with, the car had to look good and perform well. Designer Peter Naumann drew inspiration from the aerospace industry, from nature and even science fiction. 'We wanted to create a concept that is light and open, with new lines that would give us a completely new aspect and tell a new kind of story. The result is an enclosed space that does not feel enclosed,' he said.
A 213cc single-cylinder, 15 horse-power engine gives CLEVER the ability to accelerate from 0 to 60kph in less than seven seconds. Perhaps more importantly, the vehicle emits less than 60g/km of CO2, a figure well in line with the EU's long-term emissions targets. As many EU countries have yet to develop a viable CNG infrastructure, the CLEVER carries two removable cylinders that can be refilled externally.
The hydraulic turning system is highly innovative, responding to cues from the driver, and giving high stability around corners as the vehicle tilts. The team had to develop entirely new tyres and chassis for the system to work. The chassis came from the mechanical engineering department of Bath University in the UK. 'The control system takes measurements from the driver, such as the steering angle and speed, and tilts the vehicle to the required angle to go round the corner,' explained Ben Drew, a research officer at the university, speaking to the BBC. 'It takes a little while to get used to, but once you do it feels bizarre to get back into a normal car.'
Partnership has been the key to the success of the project - ten partners in Germany, Austria, the UK and France developed key components independently. 'We could not have achieved the CLEVER vehicle on our own,' said Dr Johannsen. 'We needed specialists in a variety of areas and the European Commission was very supportive, putting us in contact with potential partners and helping us to find the expertise we needed.'
The next step for the project is to implement a small number of improvements needed in the performance, handling and safety areas. 'This is the culmination of a six-year effort,' said Volker Schindler of the Technical University of Berlin. 'Our goal was to develop a new vehicle with the smallest possible footprint for European cities, showing exemplary environmental, energy and safety performance, and that is what we have achieved. This is a good example of the potential of cooperative research at European level.'
The CLEVER will not go into production in its present form, but the team believes that the concept is sound, and that the working prototype could in theory trigger a fleet of similar vehicles which would all be approved by traffic systems and thus avoid the congestion charges in place in some cities - a strong incentive for consumers should such schemes spread.