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UK-developed wheel motor system wins $84m of funding to enter production in China

10 July, 2012

A British-developed technology for driving electric vehicles (EVs) via in-wheel motors is to enter production in China, following an agreement on $84m of funding. Production of prototypes of Protean Electric’s in-wheel motors, which promise fuel economy improvements up to 30%, will start in early 2013, with volume manufacturing planned for 2014.

“There`s tremendous interest around the world in adopting Protean`s in-wheel electric drive systems, which enable breakthrough cost and performance advantages, including high power and torque directly to the wheel, as well as integrated power electronics and unparalleled regenerative braking efficiency,” says Bandel Carano, managing partner at US-based Oak Investment Partners, which bought Protean in 2009 and has contributed to the latest round of funding.

“China, in particular, presents a compelling near-term opportunity as it seeks to reduce its reliance on petroleum imports,” he continues. “In mature markets, such as North America and Europe, I believe Protean`s electric drive system will be embraced as one solution to help these countries address fuel economy and emissions challenges.”

“With this round of investment in place, Protean Electric is now positioned to move aggressively to production and into the market,” adds Bob Purcell, Protean’s chairman and CEO. “All of our investors believe in our technology and share in our vision to make Protean Electric the world leader for in-wheel electric drives. We will have the capability to supply our motors directly at lower volume levels, while providing licenses to our higher volume customers and partners.

"We can create hybrid and electric drive vehicle options, on the vehicles that people like to drive," Purcell continues. "We can provide more power, better fuel economy, easier integration, and lower cost. The Protean Electric drive system is probably as close as the industry will ever get to a bolt-on solution.”

The Protean system is based on pancake motor technology originally developed in the UK by PML Flightlink, whose own origins dated back to 1963 when a company called Printed Motors was set up to manufacture flat armature motors. In 2007, Oak Investment Partners invested £10m in PML Flightlink and two years later, following various legal disputes, the business was split into two: US-headquartered Protean Electric, owned by Oak, which continued to develop the in-wheel automotive drive systems in the UK, and Printed Motor Works, which focuses on pancake and brushless DC motors for non-automotive applications.

Protean claims that its in-wheel motors offer the highest torque density of any electric propulsion system. The 31kg motors produce 81kW and 800Nm and fit in the space of a conventional car wheel. They provide regenerative braking, allowing up to 85% of the available kinetic energy to be recovered during braking

Protean has been awarded 21 patents for its technology and design, and it has filed for more than 70 other patents. The company has developed several demonstration vehicles, including a Ford F150 pick-up truck, a Volvo C30, and Brabus electric and hybrid vehicles, based on the Mercedes-Benz E-Class. Protean has offices in the US, the UK, Hong Kong and Germany.

The latest $84m round of funding has been led by GSR Ventures, a venture capital firm based in Beijing and Silicon Valley, which focuses on building world-class technology companies in China. As well as Oak, funding is also coming from the Chinese city of Liyang, where the Protean factory will be built, and the Chinese investment company, New Times Group.

GSR’s managing director, Sonny Wu, describes the Protean drive system as a “a disruptive technology” that has “great promise for the Chinese automotive market and potentially building a global EV platform”.

The development marks Protean Electric`s entry into China, which is the world`s largest automobile market. In 2011, more than 18.5 million vehicles were sold in China, with passenger car sales reaching about 14.5 million and commercial vehicle sales exceeding four million. There are more than 100 million vehicles registered in China.




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