Pale Reflection or Hopeful Dawn?
By Bill Moore
It was with a sense of profound disappointment that I stepped into a corner exhibit hall of the 2004 EDTA conference held this week in Orlando, Florida. I recalled the halcyon days of EVS 14, also held here at another nearby resort the winter of 1997. I was immediately struck by the contrast between those two events when battery electric cars were kings and exhibitors flush with excitement and investor's money or government grants.
Now in fairness to the Electric Drive Transportation Association, it had only 9 months to pull off this event from its major Electric Vehicle Symposium (EVS 20) in December 2003. And historically, these off-year gatherings typically don't attract as many exhibitors or conference goers. And few organizations have had to deal with the impact of four hurricanes in a row.
Yet, I still feel compelled to report that the annual meeting seems to me a pale reflection of itself. Strangely though, this could actually be a reflection of progress rather than regression.
I sensed that something had changed this year when I arrived at the Gaylord Palms Resort. Landing at 1 AM in the morning after a "red-eye" flight on Southwest from Omaha through St. Louis (the last leg of the trip had only 14 passengers on board), my first chance to get a sense of the conference came early next morning as I pulled my equipment bag through a domed enclosure of restaurants and swimming pools, towards the adjoining conference center. Where there was usually lots of signs welcoming EDTA (formerly the EVAA) members, instead there were InBEV and SuperCut banners for the beverage industry and hair stylist conventions being held at the same time. For the first time at an electric drive conference, beauticians outnumber engineers.
It was after the opening plenary that I finally got to see the exhibit area... 'hall' would be stretching the dimensions a bit. Where EVS14 had had all the drama and excitement of the North American International Auto Show with splashy exhibits, celebrities and lots of really cool cars of all shapes and sizes, this year there were two electric car exhibitors, GEM getting the cherry position at the entrance to the room and being the sole exhibitor representing DaimlerChrysler. A Florida firm that sells a modified version of the Yamaha golf cart upgraded to FMVSS 500 standards occupied a similar position at the far end of the exhibit.
My initial impression was reinforced by the opening plenary session. Instead of occupying the main ballroom, which another conference was utilizing, EDTA conference goers had to find their way, with the help of a hotel staffer, down a narrow hallway and into a smaller side room that held maybe 600-700 chairs; eventually only two thirds of those would be filled. I estimated the total number of people attending the opening session on Tuesday at about 400. The closing plenary session at EVS 14, at which Robert Kennedy, Jr. gave one of the most eloquent and moving speeches I've ever heard, had to have been attended by three times this number. You'll be able to listen to the opening presentations in the coming weeks.
I was able to ask one of the panelists representing Air Products a question about the economics of hydrogen. I wanted to know which made more sense profit-wise for a company like Air Products, to sell hydrogen as a chemical feedstock to enrich Canadian tar sands into higher grade liquid fuels or as a cheap automotive "fuel" for fuel cell engines? He deferred the question to a colleague, whom I never got to meet. My guess is that the former will be more profitable than the latter, but that's only an uninformed hunch.
Thankfully, Ford, Honda and Toyota had their latest and greatest on view, though the displays were pretty bare bones. I got my first look at Accord Hybrid and Lexus Hybrid, and lobbied Ford to let me drive the new Escape Hybrid to Mount Rushmore in the
Also on display was Honda's FCX and Ford's Focus-based fuel cell and hydrogen ICE, H2RV research vehicles. Hidden under a mysterious canvas shroud was supposed to be the new Toyota Highlander SUV hybrid, only a couple of which actually exist in North America. Unfortunately, the one intended for display at the conference was sitting somewhere in Texas on its broken-down transporter. So, Toyota grabbed a conventional Highlander off a local dealership's lot and hid it under the shroud, hoping the real thing arrives in time for its unveiling before the end of the show today.
I am pleased to report that it did arrive, but a bit too late to make the splash Toyota had hoped for.
GM put in an appearance bringing its fun but definitely immobile Silverado 42-volt cutaway pickup, as well as one of its GM Allison diesel-electric hybrid buses, newly arrived from transporting Democratic and Republican conventioneers in Boston and New York.
I am always reluctant to call GM's pickup a "hybrid" because while it does have auto stop-start capabilities, it's biggest consumer draw, according to GM representatives, is its four 110v AC outlets, two in the cab and two in the bed of the truck. GM had a halogen shop lite, small table saw and contractor-grade electric drill plugged into the bed outlets to demonstrate the system. Of course, the actual power was being supplied by the convention center and not the inoperable, cutaway IC engine and generator. Most people get the idea, though not all.
Strangely, Nissan was absent for some reason.
There were a handful of "regulars" like UQM and Enova which has apparently discovered a promising niche in Asia with new contracts in Singapore, Malaysia and China for hybrid-electric bus and monorail drive systems. My friends at Wavecrest Labs had a raft of their electric-bikes on hand and Gary Gloceri hinted that there were some big announcements coming soon. Relative newcomers included Raser Technology, which made its first EV industry debut at EVS 20 in Long Beach last year . Both displayed their competing electric motor technology.
TM4 Technology out of Quebec continues to move forward. Like Wavecrest, it's been working on hub motor technology, which currently drives the Quark fuel cell four-wheeler concept vehicle just unveiled at the Paris Auto Show. Along a more fruitful development track, the company is developing a range-extender electric-drive for a new French electric car being developed in a joint effort between Dassault, the jet plane builder and a French bus maker. The new company is called SVE and appears to be picking up where the Renault Kangoo Electric leaves off.
One of the largest displays of two-wheeled EVs was that of Top Electromobile, a Chinese electric bicycle and scooter maker, ablely represented by Zonglin Ye, a former governor in the central government of the People's Republic of China in Beijing, who now resides in the Chicago area. Mister Ye, who speaks English far better than I speak Chinese and is the director of Huanyu USA, stressed repeatedly to me that Tops is the only one of more than 200 e-bike makers in China using his firm's Lithium Polymer Power battery. I am not sure how a lithium polymer power battery is different from lithium polymer, but ECD's Robert Stemple, whom I inadvertently roped into an introduction with the earnest and likable Mister Ye, seemed suitably impressed, even if Ye's technology represents a serious threat to his firm's own NiMH battery chemistry.
Ye urged me to lift the Top mountain bike, which boasted a small, 180-watt front hub motor. I have to say I too was impressed. Compared to my Tidalforce 750, which weighs 65 pounds, I'd guess the Top bike, with motor and Lithium polymer power battery weighed less than 30 and probably closer to 20 pounds. At Ye's insistence I rode two of the bikes, which had nowhere near the torque or smoothness of much bigger -- and heavier -- Wavecrest motor at 750 watts or nearly 1 hp. But taking into consideration the significant weight advantage and what Ye claims is a 50 mile range on just 8 amps hour of current at 24 volts, as well as a really low retail price, the Top bikes would be an affordable entry-level machine for someone wanting to add a little electric assist to their bike riding experience. Besides, 250 watts is the maximum allowable in Europe to be classified as a bicycle. The company also has two Italian-styled electric scooters, which I didn't get to drive due to convention center restrictions.
But what Ye and his Chinese colleagues represent is a potential game changing technology from an up-and-coming nation of repressed entrepreneurs, including even high-level government and party officials, like Ye. If Huanyu's lithium polymer technology proves reliable and affordable, we're talking about the potential rebirth of battery electric cars, which can come temptingly close to that elusive 300 miles range.
According to Frank Ingerselli, who moderated a conference workshop on international electric drive developments and opportunities, China plans to purchase thousands of electric and hybrid buses, as well as taxis for the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. The games and the need to clean up the city's terrible air pollution in advance has become a catalyst driving cleaner mobility technologies across a nation, which, at times, can appear as schizophrenic as the US or Europe. While China races to build electric-drive buses for the Olympics, Shanghai bans bicycles and Beijing forbids the sale of electric-assist bicycles like those offered by Ye's former Chinese colleague, the president head of Top Electromobile. Meanwhile the sale of gasoline cars in the country booms, further polluting the air and sucking increasing amounts of oil out of the global market.
It was the aging, part-time security guard, hired to insure that only registered attendees got to enter the exhibit hall, who made perhaps the most cogent summary of why the conference is and will continue to be important to America and the rest of the world. I asked him what he thought of all the technology inside. He remarked something to the effect that he thought it was the direction we needed to go, as a country. The sooner we stopped being dependent on Middle East oil, the better. Let the Chinese and others have it, he said. Let's show them that we don't need it anymore.
Well said, but how do we convince 300 million people and the world's largest economy to end our addiction?
I asked a number of acquaintances like Toyota's Bill Reinert and Maxwell's Richard Smith what they thought of the conference and the obvious lack of exhibitors and attendees. While some of the blame can be attributed to the disastrous train of hurricanes that continue, even now, to assault Florida, both suggested the reason why the event has scaled back has more to do with the maturity of the industry than with a lack of interest.
Since the introduction of the first Prius in 1997, the marketplace has shifted and California's regulations with it. Companies like Toyota and Honda and Ford now have established business relationships with electric-drive component suppliers. In the early days, vendors large and small competed for the major carmaker's attention, and evolution's dictum of only the "fittest" survive has pretty much narrowed the field to a handful of survivors and still-hopeful hangers-on.
For the moment, at least, gasoline-electric hybrids dominate the spotlight, offering power and efficiency improvements over competing gasoline cars without the limitations of the battery-only vehicles of the late 1990s. In addition, for good or ill, the hype about hydrogen has sucked a lot of the "air" -- as Joe Romm put it during his lunch-time debate with Dan Sperling -- and funding out of alternative fuels and vehicles development effort, including battery electric cars.
While its easy to get discouraged that there are no highway-capable EVs available today -- unless you find a used one or convert one yourself -- there is also a quiet consensus among many delegates that we've not seen the last of battery electric cars. A good example is the new 2005 model GEM, which increasingly is featuring more and more automotive-grade components and options that give it all-weather capability, as you'll learn in an upcoming "from-the-exhibit-hall-floor" audio interview I did with GEM's Lenny Szabo.
Assuming the US -- in an enlightened or perhaps desperate effort to keep the country rolling in the wake of peak oil -- would adopt a standard similar to Europe's "quadracycle" initiative where a small, street-legal vehicle can have a top speed of 45 mph instead of the current 25, it would take little effort on GEMs part or many other NEV makers like Dynasty and Kewet and ZENN, which is already a legal quadacycle in Europe, to upgrade their technology. Of course, we'd expect these vehicles to meet safety standards in keeping with their operational speed and environment, but let's also bear in mind that every day millions of people ride in vehicles such as buses, trains and subways that don't require seatbelts, much less airbags and side-impact barriers.
Of course, the argument may be moot one if carmakers can exploit future breakthroughs in fuel cell technology, though at the current pace of advancement, it could takes not years, but decades. In the meantime, battery and ultracapacitor chemistries continue to advance including the introduction of mass manufactured lithium polymer in electric bikes like those manufactured by Top Electromobile. Mister Li informed me, through Mister Ye, that in addition to their two-wheeled product line up, his company will be rolling out their first prototype 40-foot battery electric intercity-style bus powered by Huanyu lithium polymer power batteries this November. And, more promising yet, they are beginning design work on an all-electric car.
From what I see happening in China and Malaysia, it now appears increasingly likely, that it will be Asia that paves the way in modern electric vehicle development, pioneered by aggressive entrepreneurs like Ye and Li. Part of the reason should now be obvious to everyone that there simply isn't enough oil in the world to power the cars of China and India's growing middle-class. Other fuels and technologies are needed to provide these nations of over one billion inhabitants each with suitable mobility options. Battery electric vehicles recharged by solar, wind or hydropower would seem to be the most logical direction to go, a fact now being demonstrated by Reva in India.
Chetan Maini, who was at the conference, told me that in a recent issue of India's most prestigious automobile magazine, the Reva electric car was rated number one overall in performance, reliability, operating expense and resale value of all the cars made and sold in India. That's quite an achievement and statement to which US carmakers should pay close attention in their rush to build more Buicks and Jeeps and Focuses in China. What the world needs now is transition technology not more fossil fuel dead-ends.
EDTA 2004 may be a watershed event similar to EVS 14 back in 1997. While the glitz and glamor are clearly gone, the presence of three new production gasoline-electric hybrids bodes well for the future. It would be interesting to calculate the total amount of battery electric power now on the road in the current trio of hybrids (Prius,Civic and Insight) and compare that to total number that might have been on the road in pure BEVs had California enforced its 10% ZEV mandate. It wouldn't surprise me if, in fact, there are or shortly will be more Watt hours of energy powering cars in Japan, Europe and North America, than at the height of the battery EV era in 2000 in California.
Even more encouraging is the serious talk of plug-in hybrids, both in a pre-conference workshop dedicated to the subject and in conference workshops and even during the Romm-Sperling debate. The momentum is starting to build for this technology that combines the best of the internal combustion engine and battery electric cars. Trips under 20 or 30 miles would be on battery power only for mere pennies per mile, while beyond that the IC engine would engage, resulting in 85% of vehicle miles traveled (VMT) on non-polluting electric power. The sticking point is the cost and weight of battery technology, but as that Top Electromobile mountain bike I picked up demonstrates, lithium polymer may well be the game changer.
If it does, this old planet may yet become an EV World.
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