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Lamborghini’s long-shot mission to take its supercars into the electric age

by Ace Damon
Lamborghini

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Lamborghini not only makes supercars, it invented them.

Certainly there were fast and expensive cars before the Lamborghini appeared. But nothing was like a Lamborghini. The Italian automaker's creations were low and made to slip into the air. The engines were big and tall and were just behind the two seats. The doors opened in the air.

Now, the Italian automaker is taking on a new challenge: developing a way to make supercars emission-free without using the lithium-ion batteries that other automakers rely on.

Current battery technology just doesn't fit, insists Maurizio Reggiani, technical director of Lamborghini. The batteries are very heavy, very bulky and cannot operate at a high level long enough. After one or two laps on a winding race track at speeds up to 160 kilometers per hour, where rapid acceleration and strong braking are repeated several times, a battery may begin to sag. In addition, the batteries are bulky and heavy and weight is the enemy of high performance.

Lamborghini has worked with researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology since late 2017 on two possible solutions. One is a new form of carbon battery that can actually make up some internal parts of the car body, so they don't add size or weight. The other is a completely different type of energy storage: a supercapacitor.

"A supercapacitor with the same power is three times lighter than the normal lithium-ion battery," Reggiani explained. "This is important because, in terms of packaging and weight, it gives me a big advantage in a super sports car."

If you've ever walked on a shag rug and given someone an electric shock, you've acted like a capacitor. Her body stored an electrical charge and released it quickly.

The main advantage of supercapacitors is that they can deliver a greater shock of energy, pounds per pound, than batteries – without heating or degrading. This is great for supercars where power and speed explosions are required.

But today's supercapacitors aren't as good at storing power as batteries. The supercapacitors were used to power the city buses that recharge at each stop. In the time it takes passengers to get on and off, the bus can load enough to reach the next stop and reload again. However, this is not the ideal solution for a car.

Lamborghini and MIT are working to resolve this issue. They announced this week that MIT researchers have invented new material that could allow the creation of supercapacitors capable of holding two to three times more energy than the supercapacitors being produced now.

It's significant progress in just a few years, but it still puts technology at about half the energy density – or energy storage per unit volume – of lithium-ion batteries, said Riccardo Parenti, head of concept development at Lamborghini.

It's an insane sound technology shot, but this technology can dramatically change the world of high-performance cars – if this team of college scientists and car company engineers can figure it out.

The default bearer

Lamborghini has a proven track record for long shots.

There are several stories about the company's inception, mostly involving a dispute between founder Ferruccio Lamborghini and a haughty Enzo Ferrari, founder of Ferrari. The gist of the story is that Lamborghini, a Ferrari customer at the time, loved the way cars drove, but was dissatisfied with its durability and refinement. Based on his experience running his tractor company, Lamborghini had some suggestions on how Ferrari could improve its cars. According to stories, Ferrari told Lamborghini where he could put his good ideas.

Undeterred, Lamborghini decided to make his own cars. He built a factory in Sant'Agata Bolognese, Italy, not far from Ferrari's headquarters in Maranello.

The company's first models, the Lamborghini 350GT and 400GT, were beautiful classic-sized touring cars with long hoods and strong 12-cylinder engines. So someone had a radical idea. It was the 1960s and the Ford GT40 race car was racing in the 24 hour Le Mans. The car's design, with its large V8 engine behind the seats, caught the eye of Lamborghini engineer Giancarlo Dallara.

"Why don't we make rear-engine cars?" Dallara reminded Lamborghini. "And Mr. Lamborghini immediately said," Yes, do that! "

Turin-based design firm Bertone and its new designer Marcello Gandini were chosen to create the body. The result was the beautiful Miura and it was a sensation. With the Miura, Lamborghini has captured the attention of the world.

But it was the next Lamborghini supercar, the Countach, that would have an even bigger impact.

The Countach's engine was mounted backwards instead of back and forth. This meant that the seats had to advance further, almost to the front wheels. That alone gave the car unique proportions. Gandini also gave the car a body covered with sharp, aggressive angles and lines.

While the team worked on simulating the car, a very large and rude craftsman was surprised by what he was creating, Gandini told CNN Business. "Countach!" the man kept saying over and over while they worked, he remembered. At that time, in that part of northern Italy, many people still spoke the local Piedmontese dialect. "Countach" was a soft curse word, the approximate equivalent of "damn!" Gandini thought that would be a good name for the car.

Introduced in 1973, the first production version of the Countach, the LP400, was not the best – its numerous performance and handling failures were addressed in later upgrades – but it is still considered the prettiest version of the car.

An almost perfect double-ended wedge, it looked like the Countach would cut through the air like an ax blade. The roof was so low that instead of a rearview mirror, there was a kind of periscope built into the roof, allowing the driver to see behind the car. It was so wide that the doors couldn't open out, so they climbed.

The Countach came to define not only Lamborghini – almost every Lamborghini model since Countach was an inspiration – but all kinds of high performance supercars.

New Lamborghini SVJ Aventador It is very descended from the Countach, with its V12 engine mounted approximately in the middle of the car. It relies on technologies invented by Lamborghini to harness airflow over the car to improve cornering and acceleration. On a recent ride down the hilly roads north of New York City, the Aventador SVJ felt glorious as it shifted through its seven-speed automatic transmission and easily turned corners at impossible speeds.

But it also consumed a lot of high octane gasoline. With growing concerns about global warming and the industry moving away from internal combustion engines relying on hydrocarbon burning, Lamborghini knows that future Countach descendants will need to change radically.

A less traveled road

The batteries, which power most electric cars today, appear to be the logical solution to powering Lamborghini's next generation of supercars. Other automakers, including some closely related to Lamborghini, have had some success in designing battery-powered supercars that can achieve high speeds.

Lamborghini's sister brand Volkswagen – both companies belong to the Volkswagen Group – recently set a record back for a electric car on the challenging race track of Nurburgring, Germany, with its electric ID.R. The same car had set the fastest time record of all cars at Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, Colorado.

Outside Volkswagen, Rimac, a Croatian company, produces all-electric supercars that cost millions of dollars, with top speeds claimed to be well over 320 kilometers per hour. But in terms of performance, their cars are more like a big, heavy car. Bugatti than a Lamborghini. They are fast when driven straight, but they are not the best in sharp turns, admits founder Mate Rimac.

Rimac admits that current battery technology has serious limitations. But he believes many of the problems, such as overheating, will eventually be resolved, he told CNN Business in an interview earlier this year. He simply couldn't say when that could happen – just as Lamborghini doesn't know when supercapacitors can have energy storage capacity to replace batteries or when smaller, lighter batteries can be incorporated into car body parts.

Capacitors and their stronger siblings, supercapacitors, have been used for things like camera flashes and for powering electric motors in industrial environments. A supercapacitor started the starter on that Aventador SVJ I, but the car had the V12 engine to drive.

As a next step, Lamborghini recently launched a hybrid supercar called Sián which uses a supercapacitor instead of batteries to store energy used to add power to the car's 12-cylinder engine.

If the supercapacitor's energy storage cannot be improved enough, another MIT lab is working on the new form of battery that can store energy in the car's structural components. These new batteries, made of carbon nanotubes, would free up all the space that batteries normally occupy.

In 2017, Lamborghini introduced the Terzo Millennio, a concept car that the company envisions using both technologies, Parenti said, with structural batteries storing energy and powering it with enhanced supercapacitors.

Reggiani still doesn't say when he thinks a car like Terzo Millennio might be possible. But for him, the usual approaches to making an electric car don't work for Lamborghini.

"The complete electric vehicle for us must be like this," he said. "Otherwise it can't be a Lamborghini."

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