Navigant Research Blog

For EVs, It’s Love at First Drive

— October 29, 2013

A recent government-funded study in the United Kingdom found that 80% of consumers would consider swapping their car for an electric vehicle (EV) after test driving EVs for an extended period.  Over the trial, about 350 drivers were given EVs, more than 1.5 million miles were driven, and more than 51,000 recharges were recorded.  The study found that consumers’ attitudes to EVs shifted as they became more accustomed to the functionality of the car.

At the outset of the trial, there was typical concern among drivers about compromising their daily routine to fit in with the range limitations of the EV.  However, the average daily mileage was just 21.4 miles, which is well below the range of battery electric vehicles (BEVs) such as the Nissan LEAF and within the all-electric range of many plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs), such as the Chevrolet Volt.

At the end of the trial, 80% of participants said they could picture replacing their traditional petrol engine vehicles with an EV and half of the participants said they planned to do so.  This transformation of attitudes toward EVs suggests that consumers may be more inclined to purchase these vehicles than previously thought.

While the data shows that after an extended test drive EVs are an easy sell, auto manufacturers still have to get customers behind the wheel, as consumer awareness is still lacking.  Despite the challenges (including the higher cost of the vehicles), Navigant Research’s report Electric Vehicle Market Forecasts projects that by 2020, 7% of light duty cars sold worldwide will be electric.  There are currently three main types of EVs: hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs) such as the Toyota Prius, PHEVs like the Chevrolet Volt, and BEVs like the Tesla Model S and Nissan LEAF.   Rising gas prices, declining battery costs, increasingly stringent fuel standards, and steady government incentives will all contribute to the persistent growth of EV markets.

Annual Light Duty Electric Vehicle Sales by Drivetrain, World Markets: 2013-2020


(Source:  Navigant Research)

While the average American drives closer to 40 miles per day, the study nevertheless shows that once consumers have the opportunity to drive EVs for extended periods they are much more likely to purchase them.  Another recent study performed by German psychologist Thomas Franke shows that range anxiety significantly decreases after 3 months of driving an EV.

That is especially true for the darling of the BEV market, Tesla Motors.  Between September 2012 and September 2013, Tesla’s stock price rocketed from $29.35 to a high of $193.37.  Additionally, the Tesla Model S was the best-selling car in all of Norway last month, representing 5.1% of total vehicle sales in the country.  When the President of Audi of America calls Tesla Motors “cool,” EVs and their impact on the overall global vehicle market can no longer be ignored.


Hydraulic Hybrids Seek Commercial Users

— October 29, 2013

Hydraulic hybrid technology, which uses compressed gas as the medium to store and reuse energy, has been available for some years and has been tested in U.S. heavy duty fleets since 2003.  So far it has yet to capture the imagination of commercial vehicle manufacturers and fleet operators for widespread implementation, even though all the testing so far has reported significant fuel economy and efficiency improvements at a cost increment a fraction of that required for electric hybrids.  While some fleets are beginning to commit to small purchases, the volumes are still tiny even when compared with hybrid electric commercial vehicles.

As with all hybrids, the best ROI will come from vehicles with a drive cycle that includes a lot of stopping and starting.  Shuttle buses, delivery trucks, and garbage pickup trucks are the initial target markets.  The major selling point for hydraulic hybrid technology is its high power density, which is essential to recover the maximum energy from heavier vehicles.  Small startup companies such as Lightning Hybrids in Colorado, NRG Dynamix in Michigan, and RDS Technologies in Australia are all working with local customers to upgrade existing fleet vehicles to demonstrate the benefits of their systems in practice.

Not For Everyone

In recent years, hybrid electric vehicles have also had a hard time breaking into the commercial vehicle market, but cost has been the main factor along with the inability of batteries to handle the large energy flows in slowing and accelerating large vehicles.  The relatively recent introduction of natural gas as a clean fuel for commercial vehicles, thanks to the low-cost availability as a liquid fuel, means that attention has again been diverted from the potential of the hydraulic hybrid.  However, automakers really should get more interested in the technology because although natural gas is clean, its energy density is much lower than diesel or gasoline.  Adding a hydraulic hybrid system in parallel can allow vehicles for some drive cycles to use clean fuel without needing to increase the engine size to maintain on-road performance.

Hydraulic hybrid technology is not a solution for all vehicles.  It makes a good partner with gasoline (or natural gas) engines to deliver high torque performance similar to that of a diesel engine at lower total cost and equivalent economy while producing fewer harmful emissions – as long as the vehicle usage includes stopping and starting.  However, the 2013 project announcement in Europe from PSA Peugeot Citroën and Bosch indicates that there is potential for a new approach to efficiency in small city cars.

Navigant Research’s report Hydraulic Hybrid Vehicles outlines two quite different potential scenarios: slow incremental growth based on heavy duty fleets or a surge of interest as a way to support engine downsizing in consumer vehicles.  This segment is going to be fascinating to watch.


Dimethyl Ether: The Next Big Truck Fuel?

— October 29, 2013

I recently heard Roy Horton, alternative fuel and driveline marketing product manager for Mack Trucks, discussing the alternative fuel plans for Mack, and something new came up: dimethyl ether (DME).  DME is a gas made from natural gas, coal, or biomass, converted under modest pressure (about 5 bar, or 75 psi) into a liquid.  DME has been around for several years, often used to mix with liquid petroleum gas (LPG) to reduce LPG supply deficiencies in many Asian markets.  DuPont Fluorochemicals markets DME under the product name “Dymel A” as a propellant for aerosols.

DME is attractive for a few reasons: it’s easy to handle with low pressure tanks (75 psi vs. 3,600 psi for compressed natural gas, or CNG); it produces no particulate matter (but does produce carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide); it can be produced from multiple feedstocks; it is non-toxic and non-carcinogenic if ingested; and it has a cetane rating of about 60.  The higher the level of cetane, a hydrocarbon, the lower the temperature at which the fuel auto-ignites and the quicker it vaporizes.  Lower cetane numbers mean slower ignition in the cylinder.   Slower ignition produces more particulate matter and reduces the fuel economy.  DME’s high cetane number means that, like diesel, the fuel can be used with direct injection and auto-ignite.  Diesel has a cetane number of between 45 and 55, depending on its grade (biodiesel has a cetane number of about 55).

The Infrastructure Question

Volvo, which owns Mack Trucks, became interested in DME after a review of seven different carbon-neutral fuels in Sweden in 2007, in which DME led the pack.  Volvo began customer testing of bio-stock-produced, DME-fueled trucks in 2010 in Europe, which ultimately led to the announcement this year of retail sales of MY 2015 Volvo and Mack trucks running on DME.  In conversations, rival large truck companies, such as PACCAR and Daimler Trucks, have mentioned that they are also watching DME developments; whether that means a truck brought to market could largely depend on infrastructure.

Similar to other alternative fuels, infrastructure for DME remains a key issue yet to be worked out.  Oberon Fuels in California is the first to produce DME as a vehicle fuel in the United States, using natural gas from the gas grid.  The price for DME as a truck fuel remains high, roughly comparable to diesel.  The high cost comes, in part, because production for vehicles, distribution, and retail operations is still in the early stages.

Cost, Cost, Cost

So, are fleet managers willing to pay extra for a renewable fuel that has a significantly better environmental position?  I’m skeptical because DME will compete with CNG and LNG for alternative fuel budgets in heavy duty trucks, where ultimately cost trumps everything else.  In the near term, the incremental cost for DME trucks is not likely to be recovered by the cost of fuel since DME is similarly priced to diesel.  Since CNG and LNG are both positioned as environmental fuels with fast payback on the investment, DME will be at an economic disadvantage (and that position has not worked out for hybrids in the heavy duty market).  Whether DME can gain ground as a truck fuel in the long term will ultimately depend on improving the economics of the fuel and the trucks, and how good Volvo is at convincing its competitors to jump into the market.


In China, Smart Windows Shine Through

— October 25, 2013

Pursuing the long-held goal of turning transparent windows into energy generators, scientists at the Chinese Academy of Science said this week they have developed a window that not only regulates infrared radiation from the sun, but can also act as a collector of solar energy.

The new smart window incorporates vanadium oxide (VO2), which self-adjusts its properties based on temperature; below a certain temperature, it is transparent to infrared light and acts as an insulator; above that point, it becomes reflective.  VO2 can also scatter photons to solar cells along the window frame, which can generate power from the ambient light.  Published in Nature Scientific Reports, the work has developed a concept smart window device for simultaneous generation and saving of energy,” said co-author Yangeng Gao.

It will likely be years before the smart windows begin appearing in new buildings, but the work highlights the degree to which China is become a center for innovation in smart, energy-efficient buildings.  China’s huge building stock continues to multiply: The total area of buildings in China increased from 27.8 billion square meters (m2) in 2000 to 48.6 billion m2 in 2010, according to the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development (MOHURD).  It is estimated that China will add a further 10 billion m2 of commercial and public buildings by 2020.  Energy use associated with buildings will increase 70% by then, unless unless energy-efficient building technologies and practices become widespread.

Luminous and Low-Energy

Improving the energy efficiency of new buildings and accelerating the retrofit of existing buildings are two daunting challenges currently facing China.  These challenges will be explored in more detail in Navigant Research’s forthcoming report, Energy Efficient Buildings in Asia Pacific.

Already, western firms have begun to realize the enormous opportunity for innovative building design and energy efficiency in China’s buildings sector.  This week the American Institute of Architects awarded the Leatop Plaza, a skyscraper that forms a key part of the the Zhujiang New Town, in Guangzhou, a certificate of merit.  The 66-floor tower is sheathed in glass shingles that control the sun’s radiation, and it has a tubular structure of diagonal support braces that reduce the need for concrete in the core, adding floor space and making the interior more open and efficient.  “The building’s strong presence derives from the simplicity of its form, the clarity of its structural systems and the expressive values of the shingled façade; transparent, translucent, opaque, reflective and luminous.”

Those qualities, not synonymous with China’s buildings sector, will be critical to making China’s buildings smarter and more energy efficient.


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