TORONTO (Reuters) - Canadian developers are plotting a small revolution in the still-tiny market for electric cars, with a concept vehicle made from hemp set to debut at a specialized auto show next month.
The four-seat car, called the Kestrel, has an outer shell of a hemp-based composite, which developers say is lighter than glass fiber and more resilient than steel. It will debut at the EV (Electric Vehicles) tradeshow in Vancouver.
"The first vehicle comes out next year, and it will take four to five years for it to take off, but we hope that by that point electric vehicles will no longer be an 'alternative option'," said Nathan Armstrong, director of development firm Motive Industries, a small Calgary-based company that's looking at new options for the automotive sector.
The global electric vehicle industry is estimated at just $2 billion, a tiny fraction of the $1 trillion automotive sector. But consumers are open to the idea of electric cars -- if the price is right -- and developers see opportunities.
Armstrong and his partners had the option of using industrial plant fibers such as kenaf and flax, as well as hemp. They chose hemp because the crop yields more per acre and requires less water and pesticide.
Industrial hemp -- which can also be used to makes paper or textiles -- comes from the cannabis sativa plant, a different breed from cannabis indica, which is used to produce marijuana.
The Kestrel has a top speed of 90 km/h (56 mph) and can cover 160 km (100 miles) on a single charge. Drivers can recharge the car overnight.
"With the average North American commute being under 30 km, and most commutes at 4 km, this meets and exceeds all your commuting distances," said Steve Dallas, president of Toronto Electric, which is providing most of the electrical know-how for the car.
Dallas also said the Kestrel's hemp composite bodyshell passed its crash test with flying colors. And, unlike steel, the panels bounce back into shape after impact.
Hemp-based cars are not a new concept -- automotive legend Henry Ford built a car from hemp in 1941. But it never replaced the idea of vehicles made from steel.
Armstrong said there were economic reasons that the hemp cars might succeed this time. When the recession hit, fiberglass manufacturers shut down furnaces, forcing many manufacturers to look toward other composites.
Hemp, which has the same mechanical properties as glass, was a natural choice, especially as it is lighter than glass and that helps boost fuel efficiency.
"People have had interest, but it's always been a supply and demand issue. This is the first time that people are taking hemp seriously," Armstrong said.
Editing by Janet Guttsman and Rob Wilson