With the Phantom Experimental Electric, the maker of gas-guzzling luxury cars signals the imminent arrival of alternative propulsion into the mainstream.
Rolls sets its venerable sights on green future
An electrically powered Rolls-Royce? It sounds as unlikely as nicotine-free Havana cigars or low-fat beluga caviar.
But the British maker of petrol-guzzling limousines has taken the revolutionary step of developing a battery-powered version of its Phantom model and plans to unveil it at the Geneva car show today.
The Phantom Experimental Electric car - 102EX for short - is still only a prototype and will be taken on a tour of Europe, the Middle East, Asia and North America this year.
Rolls-Royce owners and car experts will be offered test drives and asked to give feedback on its performance and reliability, especially its ability to deliver an acceptable range between recharges and to operate in extreme weather conditions.
The intriguing move puts Rolls-Royce Motor Cars, owned by Germany's BMW, at the forefront of the ultra-luxury car segment in terms of green engineering. The fact that such a staunchly conservative company, which has been making cars since 1904, is considering electric propulsion is a further sign that the technology is on the verge of becoming well and truly mainstream.
Technical details of the new model, which could cost from £300,000 (Dh1.7 million) if it goes into production, have yet to be revealed but the engine will have to pack a punch to match the Phantom's famous V12 engine, which is capable of accelerating almost 3 tonnes of chrome, leather and mahogany from zero to 100 kph in about six seconds.
Rolls-Royce's German ownership may well have been the driving force behind this innovation. Over the past few years, the German makers of supercars - Daimler makes Maybach limousines and Volkswagen owns Bentley - have been breathing new life into the marques by developing smaller models and fitting them with greener technology.
In the past, Rolls-Royce owners clearly did not place much emphasis on fuel efficiency and environmental friendliness. After all, the Phantom consumes about 1 litre of fuel for every 6km travelled. And the company does not seem to be entirely sure the millionaires will bite.
"I must be convinced that any alternative drivetrain we choose for the future delivers an authentic Rolls-Royce experience," said Torsten Mueller-Oetvoes, the chief executive of Rolls-Royce.
"It must be a technology that is right for our customers, our brand, and which sets us on a sound footing for a sustainable future."
The silence of an electric engine is unlikely to be a major selling point. After all, Rolls-Royce already prides itself on making cars that are so quiet you can hear the dashboard clock ticking. Rising petrol costs are not likely to persuade the extremely wealthy to go green either.
But the world's leading car makers have been busy exploring electric and hybrid solutions, so it makes perfect sense for a world-famous brand such as Rolls-Royce to go there.
And has it ever really been that important to Rolls-Royce owners what exactly goes on underneath the bonnet? Your average buyer seems unlikely to be all that interested in cutting-edge engine performance.
For a start, he employs a chauffeur and enjoys the comfort of the rear seat. Secondly, the vehicles tend to be used for short, leisurely commutes from the chateau to the yacht harbour, into the city or to the airport. Private jets or helicopters are used for longer journeys.
Besides, the tiresome process of charging the battery can be left up to the staff.
The glowing blue Spirit of Ecstasy figure on the electric prototype smacks of sacrilege, however. Replacing the steel Flying Lady symbol that has adorned all Rolls-Royce cars for the past 100 years with a form of plastic seems an innovation too far.