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A shared vision

A small Auckland company may be the next big thing in the electric car service market.

Blue Cars is the brainchild of Carl Balev, an electrical engineer and ardent promoter of electric vehicles.

He opened his electric car rental business (Blue Cars Ltd) in 2014 to entice people into trying and then buying an EV. A year ago, he took on partner Bill Alexander, an engineer who was looking for a way to expand beyond his business of supplying parts for classic 4x4s, particularly Land Rover.

Together, they are building a company to sell and service the budding EV fleet in New Zealand.

“We sell charging cables and have broken down several Leaf cars into parts and this is a growing part of the business,” says Bill.

Taking apart the cars has also given the pair a better understanding of the technology which has led to them researching and developing techniques to refurbish Nissan Leaf batteries.

About half the EVs coming in to New Zealand are used Nissan Leafs but there is no one to take care of the batteries as they age, or need replacement. “Nissan is not importing them and there is no aftermarket for batteries as yet. Although I have heard Nissan will be offering replacement batteries in Japan soon, but it’s not clear just what this will mean,” says Bill.

blue car battery close up

Exciting future

Bill and Carl have a research project underway, partly funded by EECA, to find a way to replace the cells in a battery and are hoping to eventually commercialise their idea.

“There are 192 cells set within 48 individual modules that make up a Leaf battery. Each cell should charge to same voltage – within milli-volts of difference,” explains Bill.

Cells can be damaged if the battery is over-charged or fully run-down. The Nissan Leaf is designed to charge between the safe level of the highest and lowest voltage cells. So if the voltage difference between cells is too great, most of the cells are not fully charged or discharged and this affects the batteries capacity. The car is designed to automatically re-calibrate the cells, but this doesn’t always happen.

Bill says “We have noticed that cars with poor battery balance have often not been driven for a few months – so it’s a particular problem for imports which can be several weeks on a ship and in a sales yard.”

He believes Blue Cars is one few companies able to rebalance batteries in New Zealand and as far as he knows, they are the only company making new modules for the Nissan Leaf batteries. “It takes us about two days and costs $1,000.

Carl sees a possible future in this type of work. “Maybe we become the company that starts making new modules and selling them internationally.” He says Blue Cars buys new cells (batteries that are slightly bigger than an AA size) from a third party and installs them into modules for use in Nissan batteries.

“Nissan and most other car manufacturers doesn’t [sic] use these particular cells but Tesla does, and they are very common in laptops. They are proven technology and we can set up a module using them that will work within the Nissan Leaf. Our modules have the same voltage profile but through our set up we can increase the car’s battery capacity by about 45 percent.”

Bill also sees Blue Cars building up its diagnosis and repair work. “We take on jobs that others have not been able to fix. I think we bring a different way of thinking to the problem and, because we have so many parts here we can test out our theories, whereas other repairers may have to send overseas for a new part.”