Navigant Research Blog

Formula E Racing Will Showcase Wireless Charging

— November 26, 2013

Qualcomm took the early lead in the wireless electric vehicle (EV) charging race, and starting in 2014, the company will test the limits of its wireless power transfer technology on the Formula E (electric) racing circuit.

San Diego-based Qualcomm, which is primarily known for developing wireless technology for mobile handsets, will take the technology the company has been developing for 2 years, including intellectual property (IP) acquired  from the University of Auckland to the streets of Rio de Janeiro, London, Berlin, and Beijing as part of the all-electric Fia Formula E racing series.  For the first year, electric safety vehicles will be charged by Qualcomm Halo’s 20 kW charging technology, and in future years, the race cars themselves will be charged wirelessly.

From Track to Street

During a panel discussion at the recent EVS27 conference in Barcelona, Qualcomm’s Anthony Thomson said that the company will install wireless chargers at the race locations and leave the charging equipment in place after the race concludes for use by other EVs.  The 10 driving teams (7 have been announced) participating in Formula E field two drivers per team, and each driver will have two cars – one for distance driving (with reduced power) and one for sprints – and they will manage their vehicle charging for optimal performance.

The Formula E races will be a high profile platform for showcasing the latest in EV technology, as the quiet vehicles open up new possibilities for communicating with the drivers.  The racing series does not restrict the technologies used in the electric motors or batteries, and racing teams will experiment with new technologies on the track before they are introduced to commercial vehicles.

Formula E will also highlight how much quieter EVs are than fossil fuel burning cars, as the series will include interaction where selected fans will be able to talk with the drivers during the race.  Drayson Racing, which will compete in the Formula E series, announced that it is licensing the Qualcomm Halo Wireless EV Charging technology from Qualcomm, which is focusing on licensing the technology rather than making final products for sale.

The New Standard

Qualcomm is now taking a victory lap after the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) selected the 85 kHz frequency used by the company’s wireless charging system as the basis for an upcoming wireless EV charging standard, to be known as J2954.  While other companies in the nascent industry are likely to reengineer their products to operate at that frequency, Qualcomm will not have to make adjustments.

Wireless vehicle charging is still in its early days, though bus companies in South Korea and some automakers have expressed interest in replacing cabled charging with the convenience of wireless charging.  While the industry is small today (just over $1 million annually), according to Navigant Research’s report Electric Vehicle Charging Equipment, by 2020, the global market for wireless charging equipment will surpass $420 million annually.


All-in-One E-Bike Wheels Arrive

— November 26, 2013

The market for e-bicycles has historically been one of relative commonality, with bikes available in limited segments focused mainly in the comfort and commuter segments.  However, that has changed in the last couple of years, with 2013 marking a significant broadening of product segments available.  In Europe, sportive, mountain, and folding e-bikes have all grown in availability, and now the fat bike niche within a niche of the mountain bike market has also hit the e-bike market in a big way (pun intended).  In the United States, the significantly smaller e-bike market is anticipated to reach about 72,000 units in 2014, which means that companies have struggled to find one or two silver bullet-type products and are now shifting to something more analogous to buckshot to cover the market.

To wit, enter an entirely new e-bike segment spawned within the last 2 months: the all-in-one e-bike wheel.  In October and November, the U.S. e-bike market has seen three companies break into the all-in-one e-bike wheel: Belon Engineering with Currie, which is available now, and two start-ups: FlyKly’s Smart Wheel and Copenhagen Wheel, which will be available in early 2014.

Basically, these products all offer batteries and motors contained in the center hub of the wheel, allowing traditional bicycles to be easily converted to e-bikes without the necessity of running electronics or connecting separate battery packs in racks.  The all-in-one solution is designed to make it very simple for consumers to convert any old bike into an e-bike without having to go through the conversion process.

Coming Soon

The all-in-one e-bike wheel has been under development for a while.  In 2009, the Copenhagen Wheel was introduced as a concept by MIT students and acquired by Superpedestrian.  Then, in 2010, FlyKly began work on the Smart Wheel, which had a very successful kickstarter campaign.  A Taiwanese firm, DKCity, began marketing an all-in-one wheel in Europe and Asia in 2012 (while it’s supposedly available in the United States, I’ve been unable to locate one available for retail purchase).  In Italy, ZeHus has been working on a similar electric assist wheel since 2010, launching in early 2014.

Certainly the simplicity of the design is attractive, but in the end, the rear wheel designs of the FlyKly and Superpedestrian may prove frustrating for those running gears or who want disc brakes.  The front wheel design of the 19-pound Currie Electron wheel is likely to have a significant impact on the handling of the bike (though I have yet to ride one) but leaves gearing unaffected.  However, estimating the sales potential is challenging; FlyKly’s kickstarter has sold about 1,000 of the wheels starting at $550.  The Copenhagen Wheel claims to have had 14,000 inquiries since first announced in 2009 and now expects products to be available within 60 days.  Meanwhile, Currie’s Electron Wheel went on sale on November 18 for $999.

A Niche of a Niche

To me, it seems the all-in-one wheel market is likely yet another niche within a niche.  The niche of consumers who are inclined to convert their traditional bikes to e-bikes will find this attractive, and this may grow as consumers who wouldn’t normally convert a bike will consider one of these for the flexibility of reverting back to a traditional bike.  However, at the price points these wheels sell at (I’d expect the $650-$1,100 price point is potentially profitable), the market for compromise e-bike products is not likely more than a niche.  But in a small market, anything like this that can expand upon the 72,000 e-bikes expected to sell next year should be viewed as a positive.  Perhaps even more encouraging, these products seem likely a stepping stone into more costly, better riding, ground-up designed e-bikes.  If I were FlyKly or Superpedestrian, I’d be planning that product expansion rather quickly.


The Real Prize in the Arctic Drilling Race

— November 24, 2013

In early November, Russian natural gas giant Rosneft signed a memorandum of understanding with South Korean shipbuilding giant Daewoo to join with two other Russian companies to create a giant shipbuilding cluster in Russia’s Far East.  The deal represents a big step forward in Russia’s drive to create an oil and gas drilling industry in the Arctic Ocean.

It follows an announcement from Shell that it will file a new plan with the U.S. Department of the Interior to drill for oil in the Chukchi Sea, off Alaska’s north coast.  Shell, which shut down its previous Arctic drilling efforts in 2012 after a series of mishaps, has spent around $5 billion on Arctic oil and gas exploration without recovering a single barrel.  A new era of petroleum production is apparently dawning in the Arctic, possibly setting off international conflicts.  The real prize, however, may turn out to be not oil or natural gas, but the odd, carbon-containing resource called methane hydrates.

Mind the Bubble

Since Japan announced a successful pilot program to recover methane hydrates off the island of Honshu last March, my colleagues Sam Jaffe and Dave Hurst have both written about the possibility of economically recovering methane gas from the sea floor.  Methane hydrates are ice-like solids that form under high pressure and low temperatures in sediments beneath the sea.  The amount of carbon trapped in these molecules worldwide is huge, possibly equal to the amount of all the carbon extant elsewhere in nature combined.  Methane is a greenhouse gas that is far more potent than carbon, though shorter lived in the atmosphere.  In recent years, scientists have warned of a possible methane bubble caused by the warming of Arctic waters that could emit catastrophic amounts of carbon in a short timeframe – perhaps 50 gigatons between 2015 and 2025, an amount 10 times the level of methane currently in the atmosphere.

More recently, other researchers have cast doubt on those predictions.  Meanwhile, though, a small number of technologists and companies have begun to look for ways to avert a methane crisis while mining methane hydrates for use as fuel.

“Booming energy demand in Asia, which is spurring gigantic projects to liquefy natural gas in Australia, Canada and Africa, is also giving momentum to efforts to mine the frozen clumps of methane hydrate mixed deep in seafloor sediment,” reports The Wall Street Journal.

Because It’s There

In April, the U.S. Department of Energy and the Alaska Department of Natural Resources said they will collaborate on R&D for the recovery of unconventional energy resources in the Arctic, including methane hydrates.

Recovering this material, which is buried in permafrost on the seafloor dozens or hundreds of meters underwater, in some of the harshest operating conditions on the planet, is to say the least a speculative endeavor.  One proposed method involves stretching a thin film of plastic, a square km or more across, equipped with tubes of heating fluid to melt the hydrates and release the gas.  The Japanese project actually lowered the water pressure on the seafloor in order to allow the methane to escape.  These are phenomenally expensive technologies that don’t exist today at any scale, and the risk of an inadvertent release of methane must be factored into any future project.  However, if a way can be found to scoop up the vast reservoirs of methane underlying the Arctic Ocean instead of leaving them vulnerable to a mass uncontrolled release, explorers and producers will certainly pursue it.


Fuel Cell Industry Needs Products, Not Education

— November 21, 2013

For years the nuclear industry has suggested that if only the consumer were better educated then the purported benefits of nuclear would then become obvious and public opposition to new reactors would evaporate.

Worryingly, this claim is now beginning to be raised within the fuel cell sector.  At a recent industry event in Brussels, the fuel cell program director of BMW claimed that the industry needs more public education on the benefits of the technology.  This claim was mirrored a number of times during the day – in essence, reflecting the blame away from an industry that in Europe is significantly underperforming onto its potential customers.  Interestingly, of the panel of high-level European bureaucrats, each espousing of the need for the industry to step up, only one of them had actually bought a fuel cell.

Buy, Play, Break, Improve

To be sure, the consumer is a real area of concern.  Not in terms of needing better education, but in terms of needing more product that is available to buy.  Intelligent Energy, which recently announced the release of the Upp portable fuel cell charger, claims that the unit will not be available in the Europe until sometime in 2014.  This was after it was shown to millions of potential adopters via a television slot on the BBC.   There is, in fact, no commercial fuel cell product widely available across the EU28.  FuelCell Energy, an import from North America, is making large strides to being available but is not there yet.  The Horizon fuel cell recharger can be ordered from their website for most countries – but not all – and there is a long way to go before any type of residential or light commercial system is broadly available.

The theory is that if customers understand the benefits of fuel cells but have nowhere to actually go and buy the product, this will create a large pent-up demand.  But, as I have written before, the product buying cycle cannot be shortcut.  By not getting the products in the hand of early adopters, the industry is pushing out its entry into the the mass market even further.  Education and product availability go hand-in-hand.  Buy, play, show, tell, and yes, break, is all part of this.  Show and tell – and shifting responsibility to the customer – is simply not enough.


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