Navigant Research Blog

Why Wireless Charging Could Change the Electric Vehicle Market

— August 9, 2012

A number of factors may hinder the growth of the market for all-electric vehicles.  Surveys consistently show that people are interested in the concept of an electric vehicle, but do not want to pay a high cost premium and are concerned about the range and about getting stranded by a flat battery, as it were.  OEMs and government agencies are working to address these concerns by subsidizing advanced battery development work, encouraging the installation of new charging points, and offering financial (tax rebates) and convenience (free parking, HOV lane access) incentives.  The spread of wireless charging options could help extend the customer base for EVs, as well.

While plugging in a long cable might not be a huge inconvenience when parked at home overnight, the idea of leaving an expensive cable out in the street has understandably caused some people to express concern.  Theft and mischief are potential issues if the number of cars grows and seeing an EV recharging becomes commonplace.

All the major vehicle manufacturers have started work on wireless charging technology, although it’s seen as a practical reality for the future rather than a critical piece of the picture that’s needed now while the market is in its infancy.  BMW announced a partnership with Siemens in 2011.  Delphi has been working with WiTricity for about 2 years, and Qualcomm purchased HaloIPT in 2011.  In July 2012, Qualcomm updated progress with its plans for testing in London by announcing that Renault and Delta Motorsports had both agreed to participate.

The technology to charge batteries via induction loops and/or magnetic resonance has been around for years.  What’s needed now is some agreement and provisional standards for the hardware.  The last thing anyone needs is a unique charging system in every electric vehicle.  A few years ago each manufacturer had its own view on what the plug should look like, but now standards are emerging that means some charging stations can be used by different vehicle models.  Japan and the United States seem to have gotten their act together but Europe is still a work in progress.

In the short term, the wireless charging developers need to get together to hammer out some agreements about the basic technology so that everyone can focus on making it efficient, safe, and affordable.  Cooperation today will pay off for all in the future.  And wireless power also is relevant for many other devices in consumer electronics and industrial applications, as covered in our recent report, Wireless Power.

But the biggest payoff in the future will be the opportunity that wireless charging brings to the EV market.  The initial challenge is to develop a working system for static charging.  But Qualcomm in particular has a vision for the future of dynamic charging, in which batteries are topped up while the vehicle is moving or while waiting at traffic lights, as well as when parked.  Momentum Dynamics has developed a new business case for commercial fleets of electric vehicles based on its wireless charging technology.

This is where things get exciting.  If batteries can constantly be topped up, then the quantity of on-board energy storage can be reduced, making possible a big reduction in the initial purchase price of the vehicle as well as eliminating range anxiety.  Managing the incremental payment process for multiple short charging periods is ideally suited to a company such as Qualcomm, with its background in wireless communications.  And that also explains why Qualcomm is taking a leadership role in this aspect of the electric vehicle industry.

 

In the U.K., EV Technology Flourishes

— August 1, 2012

While the United States remains the epicenter of venture capital, and China continues to show a huge appetite for the latest technology, many smaller firms are finding the United Kingdom fertile ground in which to start and grow a business in emerging technologies such as electric vehicles.  This is where the small size of the country works to the advantage of networking entrepreneurs: it’s relatively easy to find out who is doing what and where the interesting challenges are.

One example is Delta Motorsport Ltd., which has its development headquarters next to the Silverstone motor racing circuit.  Founded as an engineering consultancy, the company has produced some interesting prototype vehicles that could help major OEMs develop new concepts.

In 2011, Delta Motorsport manufactured five EVs to demonstrate their capability as well as their technology.  Known as the Delta E-4 Coupe, the four-seat sports car features an all-carbon fiber body structure and in-board electric motors driving individual wheels.  Finding a suitable motor with the right output and physical size proved to be a challenge, so Delta turned to another recent start-up, Yasa Motors, and the companies jointly developed a new motor with very high power and torque density.  To avoid the cost of multiple step-down gearboxes, the motors had to be able to deliver the torque required via direct drive.

Most EVs on the road today are built with conventional automotive manufacturing technology, using carry-over architecture, with the internal combustion engine replaced by a single large electric motor and the fuel tank replaced by a large battery.  The mass of such a vehicle requires a lot of energy to move, and the high cost of batteries is proving to be a major hurdle to wide acceptance by the car-buying public.  A lightweight body, along with the elimination of the gearbox, differential, and driveline, enables the Delta E-4 to travel further than the competition for a given amount of stored energy.

One alternative for electric drive is the in-wheel motor, which is actively being promoted by Protean Electric, another company that developed its technology in the U.K.  Some automotive engineers say there are issues to deal with because of the larger unsprung wheel mass, a claim that Protean says is no longer valid, but that objection is removed by mounting the motors in-board on the vehicle structure.  Delta Motorsport is now fine-tuning its torque vectoring software that controls the drive to each individual wheel.  This concept makes it straightforward to develop front-, rear-, and all-wheel-drive, because all the torque distribution is dealt with in the software, and complex gearboxes and transfer cases are eliminated.

Careful development and calibration of the control systems will also deliver some of the handling and advanced safety features that use anti-lock braking to slow individual wheels.  Improved traction and stability under a variety of conditions can be built in, and as new benefits are perfected they can be introduced to existing vehicles via a simple software upgrade.

The Delta E-4 Coupe has been included in Qualcomm’s WECV (wireless electric vehicle charging) technology pilot, which is scheduled to get underway in London in November 2012.  More on that in a future blog.

 

Hailing a Cab, Smartphone in Hand

— July 23, 2012

Anyone who’s ever tried to hail a cab on a rainy evening in Manhattan at 6 p.m. knows that finding a taxicab can be a challenge, especially if you’re in unfamiliar territory.

Some new alternatives to hailing a cab in the street or standing in line at a taxi rank are becoming available in some cities.  Uber is one such service that operates in some major North American cities, including Boston, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Toronto, as well as European cities such as London and Paris.  Uber is not a transportation company as such, and does not own or operate any vehicles for hire; it contracts with existing car service companies, particularly those operating limousines and luxury vehicles, and connects them with customers looking for transport.

Uber has a website for those that can plan ahead, but it is really designed to be used via an iPhone or Android app.  Those without a smartphone can use the service via text.  The app uses the phone’s built-in GPS to identify the current location, and the nearest vehicle is dispatched for pick-up.  A text is sent to the customer with details of the vehicle and driver along with an estimate of how long the wait will be.  When the journey is complete, the cost is automatically billed to the customer’s credit card, including a tip.

Although the cost is typically higher than a traditional taxi, many people are willing to pay for the convenience and comfort.  The limo hire companies enjoy the extra business, and Uber is developing data from its local experience to identify where are the best locations for vehicles to wait when they are not carrying passengers.  Beginning with limos and luxury SUVs, Uber is now introducing hybrid vehicles in some markets to attract the more environmentally conscious traveller who also appreciates lower rates thanks to the better fuel economy of these vehicles.

The Politicians Object

Of course introducing a new service is rarely straightforward, and in some U.S. cities there has been some reaction from traditional taxi companies and local politicians.  In some large cities, a taxi license is both expensive and valuable because it prevents unauthorised drivers competing for business and maintains standards for customers.  Limo companies are typically licensed to operate on a fixed fare basis and are not allowed to charge by distance or time.  The local success of Uber led to a proposal by the city council in Washington D.C. to legislate that the company must charge a minimum fare of 5 times the drop rate for taxicabs.

Uber, understandably, then decided not to introduce its new hybrid service in D.C.  Faced with public and media outrage, the council amended the regulations to eliminate the 5X factor, but still requires that the time and distance rates are higher than those charged by conventional taxis.  Local travellers are still upset that politicians are trying to pass laws to block new, more efficient services that compete with an incumbent industry that has a reputation of not being very customer-focused.

Another U.S. service is Taxi Magic, which says it works with 85 taxi fleets in 45 cities across the United States.  A taxi can be booked via a smartphone app (or text or online) and a map shows the location of the vehicle assigned to pick you up.  Payment can also be made through the app.  The company is also launching another service similar to Uber’s.  Called Sedan Magic, it is currently only operating in New York.  Another competitor, Cabulous, has based its business on effective use of fleet telematics.  It claims to be active on three continents.

It’s not just taxi services that are looking for new ways to attract business.  The car OEMs are also developing new products, such as BMW’s joint venture with Sixt, DriveNow.  Daimler is behind car2go, a city car-sharing service in North America and Europe, and has begun testing some new features in regions around its home city of Stuttgart.  car2gether is a ride sharing service that connects people who are traveling in the same direction and can suggest that two individuals share the cost of renting from car2go.  Daimler has launched a pilot project it calls “moovel” that aims to optimize travel by calculating the best way from A to B considering buses, trains, ride-sharing, and taxis.  Volkswagen introduced its Quicar car sharing in Hannover in late 2011.

Car sharing has been around for many years, mostly with informal agreements between people who either live or work near each other.  With the advent of telematics and smartphones, new businesses are starting up to help individuals rent out their vehicles that would otherwise not be used in the weekdays if they commute using public transport.  RelayRides has been growing for the last 2 years and now offers its service to the owner of any GM vehicle equipped with the latest version of OnStar.  But there is potential for vehicle manufacturers to use this type of service as a marketing tool.

The concepts of car sharing and alternative taxi services offer an opportunity for OEMs to showcase their vehicle technology.  Whether via new in-house services, taxi companies, public car sharing, or traditional vehicle rental firms, allowing people to experience the benefits of new technology is a valuable part of the sales process.  Taxi companies can benefit from reduced fuel cost, especially in the stop-start traffic typical in most cities.  OEMs also have the opportunity to gather valuable service data as they introduce new powertrain features, and can also canvas drivers and passengers for feedback about what they like and dislike.

 

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