What's the Fate of the Electric Car?
By Bill Moore
It seems more electric car companies have failed than succeeded. What does that bode for the future of EVs?
Coda has filled for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Fisker's utlimate fate is still unknown. Th!nk sank months ago, uncompleted chassis collecting dust in a shuttered plant in Elkhart, Indiana. Aptera collapsed, starved for funds. Bright Automotive was forced to close its doors, its state-of-the-art, plug-in delivery van a victim of what some question was an overly cautious Energy Department, stung by political partisanship
And yet for all these disappointments, we continue to see a steady stream of electric-drive vehicle projects being born both in the United States and abroad: from Via Motors plug-in hybrid conversions to the BYD-Daimler partnership on their new Denza electric car brand in China, to BMW's i3 and Volkswagen's E-Up! battery EVs.
Nearly everywhere you look, carmaker after carmakers, global giants to hopeful start-ups, continue to enter the lists with technologies that range from relatively simple automatic engine start-stop systems (Buick LaCrosse) to hybrids (Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid) to plug-in electric hybrids (Volvo V60 PHEV) to fully battery powered (Tesla Model S). It's being predicted that in the approaching 2014 model year, carmakers will add an additional 14 new e-drive offerings, in addition to the current list, which is dominated by Tesla, Nissan and Chevrolet in the plug-in vehicle category.
Maybe I should stop for a moment and briefly clarify the four major categories of e-drive vehicles:
• Light hybrids - These are gasoline engine dominant vehicles which use a relatively modest-sized battery, typically less than 1,000 watt hours or kWh of energy storage capacity, to either instantly restart the engine and/or provide additional engine torque via an electric motor or starter-alternator arrangement.
• Hybrid - Still largely dependent on its internal combustion engine, the electric motor and 1+ kWh battery not only provide torque assist, but over a short distance can also provide traction force to the wheels.
• Plug-in Hybrid - 5-15kWh battery pack provides from 10-40 miles of electric driving range, after which, depending on the vehicle, the gasoline or diesel engine provides either traction force or acts as an electrical generator keeping the battery charged.
• Battery Electric - Entirely battery-powered with all its energy coming from off the vehicle, either from the power grid or stand alone sources like solar panels. which recharge the battery.
There's also a fifth class of vehicles: fuel cells, which are, in effect, 'refillable' electric cars. Hydrogen in either a gaseous or liquid form, or a fuel rich in hydrogen like methanol (CH4) is electrochemically converted in the fuel cell into electrical current to spin the vehicle's electric propulsion system. Where a conventional chemical battery must be recharged, a fuel cell 'battery' can be refueled, provided you have a convenient source of hydrogen.
So, in effect, what automakers are offering is a spectrum of electrification, but the question can be asked is, Why bother? Adding all that complexity surely just makes cars more expensive than they already are.
Several key factors are driving the industry.
Government mandated fuel economy standards in the USA, or in the case of Europe and increasingly in Asia, carbon emissions is the leading factor. The Obama Administration successfully negotiated with carmakers to raise, by early in the next decade, fuel economy to 54.5 miles per gallon. As former General Motors senior executive Bob Lutz told the recent SAE Congress in Detroit, the only way to reach that number is by increased electrification of the powertrain; tweaking the IC engine to make it more efficient won't even get the industry close, though it too will be needed, at least as an interim bridge to fuel cells or some form of plug-in hybrid or all electric car, any of which already exceed the 54.5 mpg standard. For example, the new Chevrolet Spark EV is now EPA-rated at the equivalent of 119 mpg, the Honda FIT EV is 118.
In Europe and Asia, ever-lower carbon dioxide emissions are the driving factor, rather than miles per gallon. The fewer a vehicles CO2 emissions, the more efficient it is. The new Volvo V60 PHEV, the first production diesel plug-in hybrid, is rated at less than 50 grams of CO2 emitted per kilometer of mile traveled. Most standard-sized vehicles in Europe are in the 150-300g/km range. This takes into account, by the way, the fuel source powering the grid, be it nuclear, renewables, Russian natural gas or coal.
As should be obvious, the focus on vehicle CO2 emissions outside the North America is directly tied to efforts to slow and reverse global warming. Anthropomorphically-accelerated climate change is an accepted fact in Europe and regulations there have been implemented to tackle it. Not only are cars taxed on the amount of CO2 they produce, but in cities like London and Stockholm, drivers pay a heavy congestion charge to take their cars into the central city.
Next, car companies have to a take a very long view, even though they also are driven by short-term trends from their quarterly stock report to the next model year. They recognize that to limit their technological options to a single fuel source like petroleum is unwise, especially given the energy industry trends towards ever-harder to extract and refine fossil fuels, be they heavy Venezuelan crude or Canadian tar sands. The oil industry long ago acknowledged that the era of cheap oil is behind us. Now they have to drill in remote, difficult environments that are expensive and increasingly return little if any profit. At one time during the heyday of the oil industry, the ratio revenues generated from capital invested was 100:1, every dollar invested in a well or a field produced one hundred dollars in revenue. Today, we're being told it's more in the range of 10:1 on some projects.
As a consequence of both geophysical and geopolitical realities, car makers are looking at a range of other energy options: compressed natural gas, biofuels, hydrogen, electricity. All have their shortcomings, so auto engineers are trying various combinations: hybrids fueled by natural gas, ethanol and methanol flex fuel vehicles.
For the time being, the most promising pathway forward appears to be a blend of internal combustion engine and electric drive system from the Prius PHV (10+ miles of EV range) to the Ford Fusion Energi (20 miles of EV range) to the Chevrolet Volt (35 miles of EV range). Giving drivers a gasoline or diesel fueled back-up with a modest amount of electric drive eliminates concerns about running out of battery charge, it's thought. And clearly there is a market for this type of e-drive vehicle. Volvo sold out its initial production run of 1,000 units of its V60 PHEV and has a waiting list in Europe for the next run.
However, the chief criticism for PHEVs is the cost and complexity of managing not one, but two drive systems: a familiar IC engine system plus an electric drive system with motor, battery, controllers, etc., all which has to be harmonized by software. GM boosts that the Chevrolet Volt has more lines of computer code than Boeing's 787 Dreamliner: 10 million versus 6 million, respectively.
The beauty of the pure electric car is its relative simplicity with just one moving part, the electric motor, though in actually, they're a bit more complicated than that. Still, what you have is the automobile equivalent of a computer, whose only moving part is the electric motor on its hard drive: the Tesla Model S being the epitome of that trend at the moment. Its 85kWh battery pack gives it an effective range of 265+ miles, at least when being driving responsibly.
Then there is the technological "arms race" of sorts that also is propelling the auto industry as companies jostle for dominance in new markets like China and India, as well as established ones like Europe and North America. This too effects the type of vehicles they develop: and over the last several years the focus has been on EVs.
So, has slower than anticipated sales of electric vehicles the last year or so taken some of the luster off electric-drive vehicles? It would be easy to conclude that based on where we're at in the product adoption cycle. It's my view that we're in the very predictable technology 'valley of death.' Hype has been replaced by reality. The Fisker Karma for all its sleek lines and slick advertising was too heavy and too quickly rushed to market, even after all its delays. Bad karma in the way of failed batteries (a problem caused by their supplier A123), a couple of car fires, and Superstorm Sandy that drown 300 brand new models awaiting shipment on a pier in the Port of Newark, dealt the company setbacks from which it likely will not be able to recover, not to mention having the feds cut off their access to loan funding in 2011.
While companies like Coda and Fisker and Aptera will become footnotes in the annals of automotive history -- and they aren't the first, nor will they be the last -- the future of the electric car is bright. Carmakers know that, even if it's taking the general public longer to recognize. Yes, EVs need to be made more affordable, but we, the people, also need to realize that most of us drive only 30-40 miles a day, anyway. Why pay a premium for a car with 300 miles of battery range when we only use a one-tenth of that any given day? If you need to drive further, well, guess what, BMW, for example, will arrange for its i3 owners the use of one of their gasoline models, at a price, of course.
As more of humanity re-urbanizes back into cities, there becomes less and less of a need for the automobile as we've known it for the last century or so. An entirely new spectrum of mobility options are evolving from electric car share programs like the AutoLib in Paris, France to one-and-two place urban runabouts like Toyota's i-Road, yet another type of electric vehicle designed with cities in mind.
Who will be the players in the world of personal mobility in 20 years is impossible to predict -- look at where Tesla and Pontiac are today -- but the future of transportation in the next 20 years will, inevitably, be electric drive. That much is certain.
This piece originally was written in May 2013 for another publication and since that time, Coda has re-emerged as an 'energy storage' company. Fisker is still on life support, its fate unknown as various entities -- including its founder Henrik Fisker -- vye for its assets, and Aptera announced it too would be returning, this time with a gasoline model, later to be followed by an electric version. Also, Better Place declared bankruptcy, only to have its assets picked up by an Israeli and Canadian consortium for $12 million. It seems there is life after death for electric vehicle technology.
Originally published: 12 Jul 2013
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