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Journal » Profiles of SFC Research Projects: The “Eliica” Electric Vehicle Development Project

With 100-hp motors in each of its eight wheels, for a total of 800 hp, the electricity-powered car created by Professor Shimizu and his team provides stiff competition to its gasoline-run counterparts, and stands poised to be the first vehicle of its kind to bridge the gap between mere concept and mass production. However the car and its development team still have several substantial obstacles to overcome before they reach their goal.

“Seeing is believing, or, as we prefer to say in the auto industry, ‘driving is believing’,” said Professor Hiroshi Shimizu of the Faculty of Environment and Information Studies, as he spoke about the super eco car that his team at Keio University developed. Called the Eliica, the vehicle runs completely on electric power and has an impressive array of revolutionary technology under its hood, including a high-energy lithium-ion battery, in-wheel motors and a state-of-the-art inverter.

Although the term “electric car” often brings to mind the image of a motorized golf cart, the Eliica completely dispels this stigma with its ability to accelerate to 100 km/h in four seconds, and power on to a maximum speed of 370 km/h. The sleek contours of the vehicle add to the sensation of gravity slipping away as it accelerates – something that is hard to imagine in a gasoline-powered car.

“The feeling of acceleration is intense . . . no shifts or interruptions… just smooth acceleration all the way through,” Professor Shimizu continued, “Drive it, and you’ll understand. The car brings the future to your doorsteps. When we were little, we all dreamed about our ideal future . . . the Eliica makes your heart race in exactly the same way as when we were young.”

The effortless speed of the vehicle is the result of a vision that took 30 years of painstaking dedication for this self-professed car devotee to realize. It all began with one basic question: how can daily life be improved?

As an engineering student at Tohoku University, Professor Shimizu dreamed of becoming an automotive engineer. However, he was one of the many baby boomers who joined the work force when Japan’s driving culture was drawing considerable criticism for its high number of traffic accidents and heavy pollution output. He consequently hesitated to enter the automotive world and instead studied applied physics. In graduate school he studied laser technology, which was, at the time, considered to be a revolutionary field. Upon graduation he joined the National Institute for Environmental Studies in the Ministry of the Environment, where he supported and participated in the development of a system that used laser light to measure air pollution, invariably referred to as the Achilles heel of gasoline-powered cars.

While carrying on his analysis of environmental pollution, Professor Shimizu realized that measuring air pollution was not the same as finding solutions to reduce it. Unfortunately, although most experts in the automobile industry were aware that eliminating CO2 emissions would significantly improve the environment, few were ready to take the next step. This led him to the enterprising idea of overcoming air pollution by developing an emission-free electric car. However Professor Shimizu knew that an abstract concept alone was meaningless, and that for his idea to succeed, the car would have to demonstrate concrete benefits to both people and the environment. “There’s no point in switching to electric cars unless they’re better than gasoline cars in some way. All developments in manufacturing are driven by this very process of industrialization,” he said.

Professor Shimizu’s dream gained a firm foothold in 1997 when he joined the Faculty of Environment and Information Studies at Shonan Fujisawa Campus (SFC), and became the technical lead for what would become the Eliica Electric Vehicle Development Project. The intellectual culture of SFC, combined with its dynamic educational infrastructure, provided the perfect setting for Professor Shimizu to develop an advanced electric vehicle from concept to fruition. He and his team brainstormed a medley of ideas and considered many possible scenarios. Understanding that diverse physical principles would be required in such a revolutionary undertaking, they experimented with numerous conceptual forms and designs, at times eliminating work that was groundbreaking, but essentially unusable for the project itself. Gradually the framework for an eco car called the Eliica emerged.

Professor Shimizu initially thought the project would be completed in five years. Five years passed, and then another five years. Before long, the Eliica project had taken up almost three decades. Throughout those years, Professor Shimizu and his team remained acutely aware of the history of failure for ambitious university ventures. They were particularly apprehensive about the seemingly unbridgeable gap between basic and developmental research, called Devil River. However they remained confident that their efforts would eventually pay off. In 2004, after developing seven prototypes, Professor Shimizu and his team finally succeeded in making the Eliica a functional reality.

The Eliica is an undeniable breakthrough in electric vehicle technology, but Professor Shimizu stated that the achievement is small in light of its unrealized possibilities: “In what way do cars need to change? What kind of car would achieve that result? Once we have this advanced car, how do we persuade people to adopt it?” These questions expand the boundaries of the project far beyond the elementary pillars of conception, motor development and design of core components.

Professor Shimizu and his team are determined to conquer the notoriously demanding challenge known as Darwin’s Sea, which stands between limited commercialism and mass production. But to even reach this final phase, they must first face Death Valley, the dauntingly named rift that has prevented countless concepts from transitioning into commercial products. The Eliica team must prove and sustain the reliability, durability and safety of the vehicle’s technology to bridge the gap; failure to do so would relegate the Eliica to the ranks of one-off prototypes, along with Professor Shimizu’s dream of creating a viable, eco-efficient replacement for gasoline vehicles. Despite these considerable odds, the members of the Eliica project are confident that they will succeed using the same relentless dedication, and breakthrough research and development that produced the working Eliica prototype. Professor Shimizu echoed their resolve: “I will walk slowly on the edge of the valley, and I will manage to cross it.”

About Hiroshi Shimizu

Professor, Faculty of Environment and Information Studies
Professor Shimizu served as the director of the Regional Planning Research Office, and also as director of research for the Regional Environmental Research Group, at National Institute for Environmental Studies, where he formed a lifelong interest in developing electric vehicles. In 1997 he joined the Faculty of Environment and Information Studies at Keio University SFC, where he specializes in research that involves developing technology for analyzing and solving environmental problems. Professor Shimizu’s current projects include the expansion of the Eliica project and a database of environmental technology.