Hong Kong EV automotive design may be just the ticket for a new urban runabout

  • A smart design team at PolyU, led by international car designer Urs Stemmler, is building the prototype of an original electric vehicle conceived in Hong Kong
  • The project was timely even before Russia invaded Ukraine, but has become especially relevant in our new era of global energy insecurity

Occasionally, I come across a design story which gets my attention and captures my imagination – typically something that either flies, floats, or has four on the floor.

This may be because I come from a family of engineers. On my mother’s side of the family, my grandfather and great-aunt built HRG sports cars in Tolworth, England. My father’s side was full of electrical engineers, with dad being instrumental in the development of text and data over telephone lines. I was the black sheep who went into finance.

With HRG long since gone to the great Grand Prix in the sky, and dad having hung up his soldering iron, I still think about what I may have done if I had stayed in the family tradition – designed cars, perhaps?

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Amid the mess that Hong Kong is in right now, and the difficulties our universities have faced over the past few years, I came across a design project which was a delight to my eyes and ears: an original electric car design by an international team at PolyU. The project was conceived and is led by none other than Urs Stemmler, one of the Lantau-living Swiss petrol-heads I wrote about recently.

Urs is a real-life car designer, hailing from the senior team at CitroEn Design in France, and arrived in Hong Kong via Milai Corp, a top-notch design consultancy in Japan. He is a graduate of Switzerland‘s Art Centre Europe, earned his MBA from PolyU’s graduate business school and has built an international presence in the highly competitive world of automotive design.

Urs’ team is made up of PolyU undergraduates studying automotive design and engineering, in a new unit called “SD+” of the School of Design, led by Professor Tak C. Lee. They are among the best and brightest in the field, taking on a challenge that has never been attempted before in Hong Kong.

An interior view of the prototype electric car Biomega. Photo: EV Enterprise Limited/Handout

© Provided by South China Morning Post
An interior view of the prototype electric car Biomega. Photo: EV Enterprise Limited/Handout

The project is not just about drawing pretty pictures of slick concept cars, or wacky electric ones. His team is working from the ground up on the design of a new electric car, and have promised their local investor to build the first prototype by hand. “They were sceptical at first,” Urs told me. “I just passionately replied: we will build you one.”

However, to make it commercial, they are not trying to literally reinvent the wheel, but rather use a tried and tested platform from Japan’s Mitsubishi Motors, which integrates the wheels with the electric motors that drive them, freeing up a lot of space inside the vehicle.

“It’s an easily adaptable platform,” Urs tells me. “We decided to build around that, with the final manufacturing in China at an affiliate of Mitsubishi.”

An artist's impression of the EV, showing its inner workings. Photo: EV Enterprise Limited/Handout

© Provided by South China Morning Post
An artist’s impression of the EV, showing its inner workings. Photo: EV Enterprise Limited/Handout

The Hong Kong-based start-up behind the EV is called EV Enterprise Limited with the car dubbed “Biomega”, and they are on a mission to create a fashionable and affordable fully electric vehicle. The design uses the most up-to-date lightweight composites including carbon fibre, an aluminium substructure and a one-piece transparent roof and windscreen. The very uncluttered design, which features oversized windows, is going to give a very roomy and open feel. And by fitting the motors inside the wheels, the car’s interior is deceptively voluminous.

The manufacturing process promises to be somewhat innovative too, using the latest carbon fibre technology available wherein pre-moulded segments of composites can be joined together to form the large side panels that the car requires.

The original objective of many elements of the design was to reduce CO2 emissions, and while folks can argue over whether EVs are truly green if the grid they charge from is powered in part by fossil fuels, the low cost to drivers of EVs is all the more compelling in light of the skyrocketing price of oil.

Oil goes ‘berserk’: Asia braces for fallout of Russia’s Ukraine invasion

Car owners that have switched from petrol or diesel to electric are sure to have discovered several things:

  • The cost of running an EV is significantly lower than a petrol or diesel vehicle. Even if the purchase cost is somewhat higher than a regular car, and that premium is likely to rise along with the price of lithium and other metals used in batteries, the tightness in car supply will underpin EVs’ second-hand market value.

  • EVs are very efficient for short rides in an urban environment, and not as good for long journeys at high speed. This balance has been where hybrids excel, though the problem with those is that you end up with the worst of both worlds in these times of shortages of electronic components, palladium for catalytic converters, and the high cost of petrol.

  • In most developed nations, the availability of electric charging points is now acceptable. And unless you own an EV that’s very energy hungry, many can be comfortably charged at home. Range anxiety is no longer an issue for an electric runabout – and certainly not in Hong Kong where Tesla EV charging points are prolific.

All new cars in Hong Kong could be electric by 2030, environment official says

With the prices of petrol and diesel at historic highs, and likely to climb on the back of crude oil prices, the pace of the shift to battery-powered vehicles is likely to accelerate. Although the rising price of lithium and nickel will make batteries more expensive too, if the world stays away from Russian oil, we may have to favour short local journeys in cars like the Biomega.

Production of the car by a mainland manufacturing partner was originally planned for the end of this year, or early next, with deliveries due to start in 2024. However, Covid-19 has taken its toll and postponed the target date for mass production of the vehicle.

Despite the difficulties Covid-19 has presented, and the limited budget they have to work with, team members have been passionately supporting the project by tightening their belts and knuckling down to work hard and keep it going in the belief it is worth the effort to put Hong Kong on the map as far as the automotive industry is concerned.

Hong Kong could boost subsidy scheme for EV charging facilities at private premises

Amid tales of an impending brain drain, perhaps more should be done to support the hard work and creativity of the young and bright that remain in Hong Kong before it’s too late. With so much of the focus on making fast money in finance and property, investments that support what little is left of Hong Kong’s design and manufacturing industry are key. It is necessary if we’re going to encourage a revival. After all, it was not so long ago that Hong Kong made all manner of machines.

The Biomega project was timely even before Russia invaded Ukraine and set off a chain of events that will completely upend our notions of energy security, testing our belief that a tank of gas is just a petrol station away. But now, as the era of cheap and plentiful energy appears to be hitting the wall, perhaps the Biomega is timelier than ever.

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This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (www.scmp.com), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.

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