Automotive engineering

Back to the future

Putting a car’s propulsive systems directly into its wheels is a century-old idea whose time may at last have come

AT THE DAWN of the motor industry one of its pioneers, Ferdinand Porsche, caused a sensation at the Paris World Fair in 1900 with a vehicle driven by a pair of electric motors incorporated into its front wheels. This arrangement allowed the Lohner-Porsche (pictured above) to dispense with cumbersome belts, chains and gears. It was thus able to nip along at a heady 35kph for up to 50km after its lead-acid batteries had been charged up.

Porsche, like other carmakers of the time, eventually turned to the internal-combustion engine for greater range and flexibility. His eponymous firm went on to build some of the fastest sports cars around. But despite the fact that electric vehicles are now returning to the road with a vengeance, the idea of using “in-wheel” motors of the sort Porsche pioneered has failed to follow suit. Some vehicle manufacturers and their suppliers, including Michelin, a French tyremaker, and NSK, a Japanese component-producer, have developed modern versions of in-wheel drives for cars, but these have yet to make it into production models.

There are two reasons for this reluctance. One is that an in-wheel motor’s components and wiring are exposed to the elements rather than being snug inside a vehicle’s body.…