Navigant Research Blog

New Momentum for Fuel Cell Vehicles

— December 15, 2014

Somewhat unexpectedly, fuel cell cars were in the spotlight in November, with Toyota and Honda each unveiling their fuel cell vehicles (FCVs) in Tokyo, and several FCVs displayed at the Los Angeles Auto Show.   The media responses ranged from skeptical interest to disbelief that FCVs will ever become a reality.  So let’s look at what happened and what it says about where FCVs are going.

The biggest announcement was Toyota’s presentation of the Mirai, a four-seat fuel cell coupe that will be available to Japanese consumers in early 2015 and later in the year in the United States.  Although Hyundai is first to market with a production fuel cell car, Toyota generates the most excitement, mainly because the company is assigned almost magical powers to create a market for new clean technology thanks to its launch of, and continued dominance of, the hybrid vehicle market.  Toyota is clearly swimming against the tide on zero emission technology by going with fuel cells instead of batteries, and the company’s moves attract attention.

5 Minutes or Less

Toyota’s announcements were the most positive of the recent announcements.  I’ve said before that two remaining hurdles for the fuel cell car market come down to cost (of the car) and infrastructure, as the technology has largely been proven.  Toyota demonstrated this with the Mirai, which will have a 300 mile range and will refuel in under 5 minutes.  While Audi has said it is going the plug-in hybrid fuel cell route because a pure fuel cell car would be underpowered at just 130 horsepower (hp), the Mirai will have 153 hp, in line with Toyota’s conventional vehicle line up.  Toyota announced that the sticker price for the Mirai in the United States will be around $57,000.  When tax credits are added in, the price will drop below $50,000.  That’s still a high-priced car, but at this price point, it’s at least competitive with the high end of battery vehicles.

Toyota also said that it will support infrastructure investment in the Northeastern United States.  The company is already investing in hydrogen station deployment in California, through California hydrogen infrastructure startup FirstElement.  While this move can be seen as simply supporting the introduction of zero emission vehicles (ZEVs) in the Northeast states that have adopted the ZEV mandate, it’s the first sign of real progress on U.S. infrastructure build out outside of California.

Full Speed Ahead, Slowly

Honda’s news was more mixed.  Honda unveiled a five-seater fuel cell concept car – a positive step in showing that FCVs won’t have to start small like battery vehicles did.  In addition, Honda joined Toyota in supporting FirstElement in California through a letter of intent to invest $13.8 million.  But the company took a step back by announcing that it would not release its first commercial FCV offering until 2016.  Moreover, Honda’s president, Takanobu Ito, said that his vision was of FCVs in significant numbers on the road in 30 years.

At the Los Angeles Auto Show, other OEMs that have largely stayed out of the fuel cell development path had concept vehicles on display.  The Volkswagen Group showed a hydrogen Golf and a plug-in A7 e-tron for Audi; both are still concepts so this looks more like hedging against future need for a FCV once Toyota, Honda, and Hyundai have tested the waters.

So progress continues on the two major challenges for FCVs, but it continues to be slow.  The price points are the most positive development, and may leave hydrogen infrastructure as the final obstacle for fuel cell cars.

 

Utilities Could Accelerate the E-Truck Market

— December 9, 2014

In November, a group of 70 U.S. utilities announced a major commitment to buying plug-in vehicles (PEVs), an initiative that could have a major impact on the plug-in truck market in the United States.  At a White House ceremony, a group of investor-owned utility executives committed to spending 5% of their annual fleet budgets on PEVs.  This reportedly will total around $50 million annually spent on PEVs.

It’s no surprise that utilities support the use of PEVs in their fleets, since it allows them to shift fuel budgets from petroleum to their own power.  But the reality of utility adoption of PEVs is that, while a handful of very forward-looking utilities, such as Pacific Gas & Electric and Florida Power & Light, have been fairly aggressive about integrating PEVs into their fleets, many others have tried one or two or have been looking to see the results of trials from the first movers.

Trucks, Not Cars

With this joint commitment, utilities can have a much bigger impact on the U.S. market for PEVs. But the best way to spend the money to really move the market for PEVs forward will be to spend it on trucks, not on passenger cars.  Passenger cars offer more bang for the buck, and create fewer headaches since passenger car PEVs have already been proven in the consumer market.  But for that reason, there is considerably less need for utility purchases to push the market.  $50 million would buy around 1,700 Nissan LEAFs, for example.  That is less than 2.0% of the total PEVs that Navigant Research projects to be sold in the United States in 2014 in its report, Electric Vehicle Market Forecasts.

If utilities invest in electric trucks, they could have a much bigger impact.  Plug-in trucks are still in the pilot, demonstration or very early commercial stage, as discussed in Navigant Research’s report, Hybrid and Electric Trucks.  This market suffers from low overall volumes and a splintered market, with many small niches to fill, including urban delivery vans, bucket trucks, service vehicles, and suburban or long-distance delivery.  One reason so many e-truck companies come and go is the challenge of achieving sufficient volume to bring down costs through economies of scale.  If utilities team up to place larger orders for plug-in trucks, they can have a real impact on the market.

Market Maker

For example, $50 million could buy around 250 plug-in bucket trucks with electric power takeoff, one of the more promising applications for plug-in trucks.  While that number may seem small, companies targeting this space are currently seeing orders in the tens – and these are still largely supported by government funding.  Whatever the application, a combined effort to place larger orders for plug-in trucks could have a major impact on this still-struggling market – and  could pay off for utilities that will benefit from using more fuel efficient trucks should this market succeed.

 

The Dutch Blaze an EV Trail

— November 12, 2014

With the most recent alarming report on climate change from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), governments are once again faced with the question of how to develop policies to address the climate crisis.  The IPCC says that the unrestricted use of fossil fuels must be phased out by 2100.  For some governments, like in the United States, the challenge lies in just getting the public to agree there is a problem.  But even in the European Union (EU), where there is broad consensus on the need for action, it can be challenging to convert this into policies that will successfully drive down greenhouse gas emissions.

One challenge is setting appropriate and achievable targets based on clear-headed analysis, not wishful thinking.  Another challenge is then devising the right mix of carrots and sticks to allow the goal to be met.

The Right Place

The Netherlands’ electromobility initiative is one example of how to develop and implement an environmental policy effectively.  I recently had the chance to talk with a delegation from the Netherlands about the country’s push to promote plug-in vehicle (PEV) adoption and its successes to date.  The first and most critical step was recognizing that the country had the right conditions for PEV adoption.  The Netherlands is a small country, densely populated and highly urbanized.   The Dutch tend to be environmentally conscious already, and the country has an extensive and stable grid network (fueled mostly by fossil fuels but with around 15% renewables).  The country also has some of the highest gas prices in Western Europe, thanks in part to the highest fuel tax in the EU.

Given these conditions, the government’s belief that PEVs could find success was well-founded.  The government has set a goal of having 200,000 PEVs in the Netherlands by 2020.  According to Navigant Research’s report, Electric Vehicle Market Forecasts, total light duty vehicle (LDV) parc (i.e., vehicles in use) in the country will be 8.6 million in 2020.  Two hundred thousand PEVs would be 2.3% of the total vehicles on the road.  That may seem small, but it’s actually an aggressive target, requiring PEVs to average more than 5% of annual LDV sales over the next 6 years.   According to Navigant Research’s PEV forecasts, only Norway, Estonia, and the Netherlands have broken 1% annual PEV sales as of 2014.

Tax Relief

The Dutch government offers significant tax incentives for PEV purchases, PEV leasing, and EV charging equipment installation.  The PEV purchase tax rebate amounts to around €7,000 to €10,000 ($8,700-$12,500).  Perhaps more important, however, is the income tax relief on private use of a company car.  A significant number of cars in use in the Netherlands are company cars or cars leased for company use.  PEVs were exempt from the income tax, saving drivers as much as $5,000 annually.

At the same time, the Dutch government provides incentives for EV charging station deployment, for public and workplace use especially.  As of October 2014, there were more than 9,500 public charging points in the Netherlands.  The effort to roll out infrastructure is supported by Dutch energy and grid companies.

The policies have worked: as of 2014, annual PEV sales in the Netherlands amount to 4% of total LDV sales, and there are a total of more than 32,000 PEVs on Dutch roads.  Moreover, Navigant Research forecasts that the country will actually reach the 200,000 PEV goal by 2019, a year early.

The next phase for the electromobility initiative will see it moving beyond the early PEV adopter phase and promoting further EV charging station workplace and public deployments.  The country’s next target – 1 million PEVs by 2025 – will be a challenge to reach.  But the Dutch have proven that progressive policies can truly shift the vehicle market.

 

Shakeout Looms in Fledgling E-Truck Market

— October 17, 2014

Despite significant government and private sector investment over the past 10 years, the global market for hybrid, plug-in hybrid, and pure electric trucks has been slow to grow.  Although it’s challenging to get fleets to provide numbers on how many of these trucks  they are running – many companies view it as competitive information – the Navigant Research report Transportation Forecast: Medium and Heavy Duty Vehicles estimates that, in 2014, hybrid and plug-in technologies constituted well under 1% of medium and heavy duty (MHD) truck fleets in North America and Western Europe.  This lack of progress matters, because MHD trucks account for 32.6% of U.S. fuel consumption.  Electrification could significantly reduce this rate of fuel guzzling.  Yet, as my colleague John Gartner noted in a recent blog, there is a real lack of plug-in electric vehicle (PEV) options in the trucking world.

Investment in these technologies has borne fruit, however, and will help the electric drive truck market grow.  Deployments have helped fleets determine the applications for which hybrid or plug-in trucks will work best, in the sense of both being able to meet the demands of the duty cycle and providing the greatest fuel savings benefit.  The range of MHD truck applications into which hybrid and plug-in technology can be integrated is broad, with widely varying performance requirements.

Filling the Gaps

First are vocational applications, including delivery and distribution trucks, such as refrigerated vehicles and service vehicles, especially those used by the utility and telecommunications sectors.  And within these segments, there is a multitude of usage patterns.  Delivery trucks may be long haulers, traveling at steady, high speeds; used for suburban delivery, operating with both high and low speeds; or used for delivery exclusively within an urban center, with stop-and-go driving and very low mileage.

All of these variances mean that there is no single technology that will meet all the needs of the trucking sector.  Thus, this sector will be highly segmented, with each technology option fitting into certain niches.  While hybrids have no range limitations, it can be challenging to achieve payback of the price premium unless the vehicle operates with some stop-and-go driving and accrues significant mileage – probably a minimum of 20,000 miles annually.  By contrast, while the range of a pure battery electric truck has proven too short for most applications, these trucks are ideal for deliveries within an urban center.  This application is likely to see more interest in the Western European market in particular, as cities are increasingly looking to limit vehicle access to the city center.

Winnowing Ahead

So, as the British say, it’s horses for courses for the trucking industry.  This will pose a challenge for the sector given the very high percentage of small firms supplying this market.  These are companies that may struggle to stay afloat in a market with low volumes in its early stages.

But pressure on truck OEMs and fleets to reduce the environmental impacts of their vehicles – a major theme of the Automotive Megatrends conference held by Automotive World in Brussels in September – is likely to increase.  A small company with a proven technology will find increased interest from fleets to trial new vehicles and perhaps interest from the major vehicle manufacturers in securing access to their technology through investment or acquisition.

 

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