The little electric car presented by the University of Hong Kong in 1982 might look somewhat forlorn next to the screaming muscle of the “Gen2” Formula E machines. But the stunning track cars of the all-electric racing series, which returns to Hong Kong tomorrow, owe a debt of gratitude to engineers of the 1980s who transformed electric vehicle (EV) technology from dreary drays towards something people might actually want to drive. Even as an undergraduate in the 1980s, professor KT Chau had a vision that electric cars could be better. Now head of HKU’s electrical and electronic engineering department, Chau has worked on EVs his entire career, and maintains a passion for cutting-edge EV technology. Today, he is working on encrypted energy for wireless vehicle charging, and magnetic differentials to enable magnetic steering and true all-wheel drive … a long journey from building the first EV battery metre for Hong Kong’s Mark1 electric car. “People in the 1980s didn’t feel electric vehicles had a future, they considered they’re slow, the range is short,” Chau said. Many people associated EVs with the milk float, he said, talking about the ponderous electric wagons which plied predawn British streets delivering milk. “Nobody was going to buy that.” Short on product, manufacturers went long on marketing. The Bedford electric van trialled by Hong Kong company China Light and Power in the early 1980s was endorsed by two of the fastest drivers on earth: motorsport legend Stirling Moss and then-world land speed record holder Richard Noble. Even with Moss and Noble behind the wheel, the Bedford had a top speed of just 30 miles per hour and took about 11 seconds to get there. HKU’s team, led by Professor CC Chan, was working on an entirely new electrical system to power the machines. “At that time we were among the first to explore the alternating current [AC] system,” Chau said. “Direct current [DC] motors were not reliable, the efficiency was low. So even though it’s much more complicated to use an AC system – we need to convert the DC battery power to AC – we prefer to use it,” Chau said. What the AC concept added in complexity, it more than made up for in performance: the 11kW motor of the Mark1 outperformed the 40kW motor in the Bedford and provided a platform for serious future development. Today, all EVs, aside from the occasional golf cart, are using the AC system pioneered in the 1980s, a system offering better regenerative braking, defter speed control, lighter weight and being almost maintenance free. But the HKU EV was still too heavy. The Mark1, built from a donated Suzuki Alto shell, had “long stopping distances” according to Chau, thanks to the half-tonne of batteries packed into the fuel-tank area. “The Mark1 had some drawbacks, no doubt,” Chau said. “Our project really let others know the electric vehicle cannot be converted. It needs to be built from the ground up, designed starting from scratch.” After graduating, Chau stayed with the department to develop the Mark3, built from scratch by a yacht maker in Tsing Yi and becoming one of the first electric cars in the world to use a permanent magnet motor (the favoured technology of the Gen2 Formula E cars and almost all Japanese production EVs, according to Chau). The Mark3 was no racing car either: a top speed of around 19mph and 0-12mph in eight seconds. But it ran on just four 12V batteries and had a range of 70km, eking out every amp-hour of juice in a remarkably efficient package. It may well have been this “academic” hunt for efficiency, which hampered commercial development of the machines. “Manufacturers were really trying to optimise the EVs to make them affordable: and that meant reducing the number of batteries, because that’s the major cost,” Chau said. “So they sacrificed performance, range, they tried to make everybody happy and of course nobody is happy!” Chau’s favourite electric car is GM’s mid-1990s EV1. “It was very similar to the Tesla [Model S] to drive,” he says. Auto critics praised the EV1, but GM abandoned the project as unprofitable, with GM recalling all the leased cars and crushing them to avoid future liability. The commercialisation problem wasn’t solved for decades, until Tesla arrived with a fresh paradigm: high performance at a high price. “Tesla was very clever. They give you what you want ... provided you pay what they want,” Chau said. The Lotus-based Tesla Roadster was quick, fun and expensive, and, despite only a handful sold in 2011, its wealthy clientele was a powerful lobbying force for building a charging network, according to a Tesla insider at the time. In Hong Kong, the EV floodgates finally opened with Tesla’s high-performance Model S, a luxury car with a starting price of HK$579,000 which became the bestselling sedan in the city in 2015. Today, as the 22 Formula E teams line up to race this weekend, there are over 11,000 EVs in Hong Kong, up from just 100 in 2010, and 84 models to choose from. Despite this, and despite Chau’s advanced work with wireless charging and magnetic differentials, he says there’s still a perception gap which holds EVs back. He sees Formula E as important for raising public awareness on the power of EVs. “We still need to let people know about the performance of the EV, some people still have some misunderstanding on this point,” he added.