By John Miller, editor, The ASIA Miner

A MELBOURNE company is challenging the doom and gloom associated with the decline of the Australian motor industry with a new electric-powered off-road light vehicle for use in the punishing terrain of underground mines. Although the launch of Tomcar Australia’s LV1 also coincides with a mining downturn, it fulfils the desire of the industry to reduce costs and optimise operations while maintaining productivity and reducing environment impacts.

Tomcar

Tomcar Australia has developed an electric off-road light vehicle aimed specifically for use in underground mining.

Tomcar Australia has spent two years designing Australia’s first production electric car, with zero emission Tomcar LV1 launched in mid-May. Full-scale production is expected to begin in November 2016 and customer deliveries are expected to commence in February 2017.

There is likely to be strong demand with a number of blue-chip mining companies signing orders and intending to use them in underground operations. These companies have not just taken a stab in the dark with their orders as the prototype has undergone two years of intense development and extensive trials.

Tomcar Australia CEO and co-founder David Brim says the vehicle has been developed in close consultation with key miners. “We’ve worked with them throughout the design process. We’ve taken the prototypes into mines, and made changes to fit their use. Mining companies are used to buying off the shelf passenger vehicles and modifying them for use in an environment they are not designed for. We are selling a custom-made, zero emissions product.”

The vehicle has been designed by Tomcar Australia and is being built at Tomcar’s Melbourne production facility where it has an association with vehicle component maker MTM Auto.

The Tomcar story

In 1967 a group of airborne commandos was flown into enemy territory to carry out a mission. The unit and their six Willys MB Jeeps were parachuted deep behind enemy lines but the Jeeps were destroyed on landing, stranding the unit in enemy territory. One of the soldiers was a skilled mechanic who cobbled together two working vehicles from the wreckage and the unit completed their mission. Using this unique experience, that soldier created what was to become the Tomcar.

The founders of Tomcar Australia came across the original Israeli Defence Force designed vehicle in 2004 and the team has transformed the rough and ready car into a commercially viable, Australian-manufactured vehicle – incorporating new engines, wiring looms, braking systems and shocks, as well as more than 180 engineering improvements.

David Brim says the redesign process also encompassed how the car is put together. “We use global best practices in manufacturing the vehicles and outsource manufacturing to MTM Auto, a tier one automotive component part supplier who manufactures components for General Motors, Toyota and Ford and distributes them all over the world. They have taken what was a hand-made, batch-built product and turned it into a mass-produced vehicle of very high standard.”

Raw materials and parts are sourced primarily from Australian auto suppliers, fabricators and innovators with about 60% of all parts from local businesses. The Tomcar is built to be parachuted out of a plane and survive. All parts are easily accessible, simple to fix and handy to replace. It is the strongest vehicle in its class, with a fully welded, fully ROPS steel safety cell that is integral to the frame - not just bolted on.

Tomcar for mining

The Tomcar is an off-road vehicle. David Brim says, “Our core market has been defence but the military features also make the vehicle applicable for agricultural uses. In 2013 we were approached by some major miners who recognised that Tomcar would also be suitable in this field, but with a few changes. The transformation started in early 2014 and we spent two years developing a mining variant.

“It has fully waterproof wiring, a corrosive resistant frame, glow in the dark panels, LED lighting, along with special seating and seatbelts to suit mining applications, particularly in underground situations. We initially planned a diesel vehicle but in 2015 decided to leapfrog the diesel technology and go fully electric.

“The LV1 is our first foray into electric vehicles and we’ve designed and developed the electric drivetrain. We have come up with a robust military-grade platform coupled with a robust, fully waterproof electric motor. The connections are all IP 66 rated and it is designed to last a lifetime.

“There are 5-seat and 2-seat utility versions in the mining variant. They are primarily for operators to get around the mine easily and the larger model can carry up to 1 tonne of gear.”

The frame comprises more than 200 pieces which are fully welded by hand on special jigs. A unique coating of titanium and zinc designed to reduce corrosion gives it a silver appearance. The frame has been modified, with some parts removed to make it easier for miners to get in and out with their large belts.

Once the frame is complete all components are brought to the assembly line. At present Tomcar manufactures two vehicles a week but this can be boosted as demand increases and the electric vehicle (EV) comes on line.

“It is unique vehicle - there are hardly any plastics,” David Brim says. “Everything is robust and it is symmetrical so that parts on the left also fit on the right and vice versa. It is easy to maintain, there are grease points throughout and everything is re-buildable. The current utility vehicle has an aluminium tray but the mining version will have a stronger mine spec version.

“The mining Tomcar is fully enclosed with strong metal doors and a roof designed for strength in underground situations where falling rocks can be an issue, and air-conditioning is an option. On standard Tomcars lighting is incandescent but in the mining variant it is LED. Another unique feature is that every nut, bolt and rivet is stainless steel to prevent corrosion.

“Extensive trials in mining situations have been incredibly positive. It is the first time that an OEM has gone to the mines to develop product. We took the first prototype to a mine site for trial and operators said we needed to make a few changes, so we went away and did this. We took their ideas seriously and they were pleased we listened to them, made alterations and brought the car back for further trials. We changed the seats because of feedback, we changed the seatbelts, doors and wiper system, and we changed the instrument panel so that it is now a fully waterproof, human interface device. We do this because we are the OEM and we will offer a warranty because it is designed and made for use in mines.”

Made in Australia

“The design and manufacturing processes utilise Australian technology, including Australian developed software,” David Brim says. “Australia leads the world in software design and there is no reason why it should not also be a leading manufacturer.”

“The initial target is Australia but because Australian mining companies operate globally, we have global aspirations and these vehicles will be ideal for any mining situation. The cars will be built to Australian standards which mean that they will succeed anywhere in the world. These standards are accepted everywhere, so our turnkey solution is world best practice applicable in mines around the world. This should be an advantage for all Australian manufacturers.”

He says the car could not be made in China. “It could be attempted but the metal types are unique and there is no room for compromise. We use specific armoured steel from one foundry in France and without that metallurgical compound the car would tear itself apart. It is expensive to manufacture in Australia but we make it here because we have the capability and expertise. Australia’s future in manufacturing is making things nobody else can make – there is no point making things that can be made in Thailand or India as we cannot compete.

“These vehicles will result in mining companies saving on fleet costs but also with operating and maintenance. They will retail for A$75,000, which is the same price as standard road vehicles imported from overseas, but the zero emissions from the electric drive will cut venting costs, reduce health and safety concerns because they are specifically designed for mines, and dramatically reduce maintenance costs because the car is much simpler.

“The Tomcar LV1 is the world’s first Australian-made mining electric vehicle and the defence background stands it in good stead in the mining space because it is strong, yet simple. When they near the end of their life in a highly corrosive environment you just replace bits or add bits where needed, you don’t need to throw the car away.”

“We concentrate on direct sales channels with customers as well as on research and development. We will sell the mining cars direct to miners; there will be no dealer or middle man. In this way we get to deal directly with customers and understand what their needs are and how they are using our vehicles.”

EV technology

Electric car technology has been around for 100 years and there have been a number of attempts to successfully launch electric vehicles. “Tesla’s Elon Musk has done everyone a big favour by removing the fear of EV range anxiety,” David Brim says.

“Previously most electric cars were unattractive and could only undertake short trips, but Elon has made the EV sexy and approachable.

“You need to think of an electric vehicle like you do your phone – very rarely do you let it run out of battery and when it does you just charge it again. With EVs you continuously charge them during the day. The lithium ion batteries we use are not damaged if you keep topping them up, unlike lead acid batteries.

“The Tomcar has fast charge points enabling an entire six to eight hour shift to be charged in around 20-30 minutes. When it is not being used, we suggest it is plugged in to ensure it is always charged. We offer a variety of charging solutions and battery pack options, depending how deep the mine is, how hot it is and how far they have to drive. When the car is being driven down the mine the batteries are charging, but when coming up they use more power.

“We are used to filling up our normal combustion engine cars once a week or so, but you don’t do this with an electric car, you need to charge it every day or every few days, depending on use, and this will become habit just as it has with our phones.”

Competitive advantages

“Australia has had a mining boom for 15 years and has done very well,” he says, “but we don’t manufacture much equipment here – most comes from overseas. All light vehicles for mining and industrial applications are from overseas, but at Tomcar Australia we want that money to stay in Australia.
“There are some other small manufacturers of electric vehicles that sell into the mining industry but they are more expensive and not as robust. They also don’t have the platform that the original Tomcar offers - its toughness, strength and performance as well as being fundamentally superior maintenance wise.

“The vast majority of light vehicles used in mining applications are not built for purpose but are designed for use on roads first, modified for basic use off-road and then modified even further for use in mines. There is a large middle industry of companies who buy road vehicles and modify them for sale to mines as there is nothing commercially available off the shelf.

“Until now, that is, because we offer a complete turnkey solution off the shelf. ‘Light vehicles’ is a line item on the books of a lot of mining companies and it has never been possible for them to make savings as it is something they have to have.

“The Tomcar’s defence background makes it easy to maintain. When you are in a conflict situation and the car breaks, you need to be able to fix it very quickly, so a lot of the design that has gone into the Tomcar is with the aim of making things easy to maintain and repair. The mining industry on average spends A$7000 to A$10,000 per month on maintenance of a light vehicle, but the Tomcar LV will cost around A$500 to A$1000 per month depending on its use.

“With light vehicles the three areas that end up costing a lot are the braking system, four-wheel-drive linkages and the wiring, which ultimately kills the car. Braking systems in most modern cars are enclosed and therefore, hard to clean and maintain. At the end of each shift, the shift operator is supposed to spray the car down to clean-off the corrosive or toxic mud and slush. Standard vehicle braking systems are very hard to clean because it is difficult to access, which is why a lot of mining companies require expensive sealed wet brakes. With a Tomcar they are exposed and very easy to clean. Even if they do wear down they are not expensive, or difficult, to replace.

“Although it is two-wheel-drive, the Tomcar outperforms almost all four-wheel-drives. We don’t have complicated four-wheel-drive linkages, which eliminates that problem. The wiring is very simple and there is less to fail. With most modern vehicles you can only have so many short circuits before the wiring fails and cannot be fixed, but with a Tomcar the wiring loom is replaceable. For the first time in history the wiring loom has become a consumable part – there is no other car in the world like that.

“These aspects immediately make the Tomcar more affordable to run and easier to maintain with much less downtime.”

Future adaptations

David Brim says, “We want Tomcar to be the go-to light vehicle for underground hard rock mining situations but we aim to develop the brand further with versions for coal mines and open-cut mines. Safety requirements for these applications are different but the Tomcar is much safer than other light vehicles – they are less prone to rollovers, have a lower centre of gravity, and are much more robust. A 12-point safety harness is an option.

“The electric motor has a high range which will facilitate development of a similar vehicle for other mining applications. We are working with the coal industry to change battery use regulations as there are restrictions for lead acid batteries, which encompass lithium ion variations. We build the batteries ourselves and they are fully waterproof and spark-proof, which makes them very safe. Once the coal industry allows these batteries, this car will be a perfect opportunity to reduce costs.”

He says once the electric vehicle fleet is digitised it will be easy to add benefits. “It will be possible to create a tag-a-long situation where five or six cars can be driven down and after the people and equipment are unloaded, one operator electronically tags them together and drives the lead vehicle out with the other driverless vehicles following. Electronic vehicles can be autonomous and the tag-a-long system will be pseudo autonomous.

“Digitisation will also mean that where people are working underground, transponders can be placed either side of the work area and vehicles will automatically slow down to make conditions safer for everyone. It will know when it is underground and slow down, it will know when it is out of the tunnel and speed up – it is a very intelligent design.”

Resource Center Whitepapers, Videos, Case Studies