Navigant Research Blog

Making Sense of the Apple iCar

— March 23, 2015

Since early February, evidence has been piling up suggesting that Apple may develop an electric car to launch by 2020. Apple has yet to verify that it’s developing a car, but that has not stopped many from speculating what the Apple car might look like or how Apple might enter the automotive industry. Dan Akerson, the former CEO of General Motors (GM), weighed in on the subject, saying that instead of building cars, Apple should team up with automakers to develop operating and entertainment systems for vehicles.

As Akerson pointed out, the auto industry is dealing with heightened regulatory and safety standards alongside low profit margins in comparison to Apple’s other product lines, creating a grim outlook for any company looking to enter the auto industry. It should be noted, though, that Apple would be entering an auto industry that is significantly different than the one Akerson has known.

Beyond ICEs

For the last 100 years, the light duty vehicle hasn’t evolved much beyond the conventional internal combustion engine (ICE) with four wheels and multiple cup holders. To be sure, the established auto industry has made drastic improvements to this basic concept. But in the next 100 years, vehicles are going to look a whole lot more like smartphones, a category in which Apple has some expertise.

While plug-in electric vehicles (PEVs) represent only a small fraction of the vehicle market now, their numbers are growing quickly and will continue to increase, as electricity is clean and cheap and batteries are getting cheaper and better. Already, automakers are displaying fully electric vehicles for the mass market with 200+ mile ranges, to be sold within the next 3 years. Much of the established auto industry’s expertise and capabilities still center around making cars with ICEs. When that technology becomes obsolete, space will open for new competitors to emerge, such as Tesla and, yes, Apple.

Connected Future

Even more quickly than vehicles are becoming electrified, they’re becoming connected. A white paper published by the Continental Automated Buildings Association (CABA) outlines the advantages of connectivity for motorists, primarily around safety and autonomous driving. Additionally, vehicle connectivity can lower the cost of electricity for PEV owners and help create a more efficient and cleaner grid infrastructure. These developments are detailed in Navigant Research’s new report, Vehicle Grid Integration.

Though Apple would encounter struggles entering the established auto industry, the war chest Apple has should be more than enough to overcome those struggles. Further, there is, arguably, no other non-automotive company better positioned to provide an electric/connected vehicle than Apple. In fact, if Apple isn’t planning to develop a car, it could be missing out on a big opportunity to enter the fastest growing segment of one of the largest global markets.

 

Energy Storage Leaders Stumbled, Then Survived

— March 20, 2015

At a time when the major electric industry players were either unwilling or not nimble enough to develop energy storage systems integration expertise, four growing energy storage players with four distinct technologies took a risk to develop this expertise. Over the last few years, each of these companies failed financially and was subsequently acquired, in some cases more than once. In nearly every case, private equity firms stepped in, seeing an opportunity to invest in a maturing technology company with specialized expertise in the market.

Citing Tesla founder Elon Musk’s determination to build a massive Gigafactory to manufacture batteries for his vehicles, E Source Senior Fellow Jay Stein has argued that company failures like these indicate the shortcomings of the overall market. This is a logical fallacy.

Number of Deployed Systems Market Share by Top 10 System Integrators, Excluding Pumped Storage and CAES, World Markets: 1Q 2015

(Source: Navigant Research)

Detours Behind

The chart above is derived from Navigant Research’s Energy Storage Tracker 1Q 15, a global database of energy storage installations that includes 808 projects. This specific graph charts the top 10 systems integrators of energy storage in terms of number of systems deployed globally. Four of the 10 market leaders for systems integration have gone bankrupt and been acquired in the past several years. NEC Energy Solutions, formerly A123 Energy Solutions, was acquired following a bankruptcy filing, and the grid business was subsequently spun off and sold to NEC Corporation for approximately $100 million in 2014. Beacon Power was acquired by a private equity firm following a bankruptcy filing in 2012, and Xtreme Power (now Younicos Inc.) was acquired by Younicos AG in 2014, also after filing for bankruptcy.

All three firms were focused on a core grid storage technology (lithium ion batteries, flywheels, and advanced lead-acid batteries, respectively), but all spent a great deal of resources in the earlier days of the market learning how to integrate complete systems. Ultimately, all three firms developed this expertise, and NEC Energy Solutions and Younicos repositioned themselves as systems integration companies, offering software, controls, and integration expertise as opposed to pure-play battery suppliers. Beacon Power is a market leader in flywheels and flywheel systems integration and has developed a modular flywheel product with built-in power electronics for simpler integration and installation.

Managers, Not Markets

Finally, Coda Energy repositioned itself as an energy storage integration firm in 2013 after filing for bankruptcy. The company rebranded and shifted its product offering to target stationary energy storage using a battery management system, battery thermal management, and a sophisticated power source controller.

Together, these four companies account for 21% of the global market share for the top 10 systems integrators (although part of this market share is attributed to Younicos AG). These companies and others like them are challenging incumbents such as ABB and S&C Electric, demonstrating that their earlier stumbles arose out of flawed management and/or strategy, not failed markets or futile technologies.

Equating a management failure with a market failure ignores the value of the technology. Whether the Gigafactory will be Musk’s Waterloo or Austerlitz has less to do with the technology and much more to do with Tesla’s strategy and execution—and Musk has proven he can accomplish both in the automotive and the financial services worlds.

 

Fuel Cell Makers Seek an American Foothold

— March 18, 2015

In the United States, the topic of fuel cells is very often greeted with skepticism. One prominent fuel cell skeptic, Tesla founder Elon Musk, recently called fuel cell cars a silly idea.

So it’s interesting to compare that to the respect still given to fuel cell technology in Japan, where the 2015 FC Expo recently took place. The FC Expo is one of the largest fuel cell conferences in the world and attracts attendees from around the world. But the audience is predominantly from the Asia Pacific region, and the level of interest in the potential of fuel cells is dramatically different than in the United States. Japan and South Korea, in particular, are two of the biggest markets for fuel cell deployments to date.

Japan’s ENE FARM program has supported the deployment of 100,000 fuel cell combined heat and power systems in Japanese homes. At the Expo, companies like Toshiba, Panasonic, and Aisin Seiki spoke about their commitment to the Japanese residential fuel cell program, which aims to sell over 1 million fuel cell CHP units in Japan by 2020. South Korea’s POSCO Energy has developed the 59 MW Gyeonggi Green Energy fuel cell park and built a 200 MW capacity manufacturing plant for the molten carbonate fuel cell that utilizes FuelCell Energy’s technology.

New Beachheads

What’s most interesting is that these Japanese and South Korean companies are focused on expanding to new markets—in particular to the United States. Ironically, though skepticism toward fuel cells persists in the United States, the American market remains one of the most attractive in the world. That’s why South Korean companies have been buying up North American fuel cell companies, and their technology, over the past few years.

LG became a majority investor in Rolls Royce’s fuel cell business in 2012. In 2014, Doosan bought ClearEdge’s assets, and POSCO has continued to strengthen its relationship with FuelCell Energy. These companies bring significant resources and a long term outlook to the fuel cell sector, using their U.S.-based fuel cell businesses as a beachhead into the U.S. market.

Got a Match?

The U.S. market has many characteristics that make it a good market for fuel cells. The shale gas boom is driving interest in electricity generation that can take advantage of plentiful supplies of natural gas. High value markets, such as data centers, are growing in number and in energy demand, and companies like Apple and Microsoft are exploring using fuel cells to bring down those costs. Energy services companies are exploring ways to meet the growing demand for distributed energy resources (DER) , and are using new financing instruments to support  deployment of DER. Incentives and programs to promote fuel cells in states like California and New York are helping to bring down the costs of today’s fuel cells to where the cost of the power approaches grid parity.

It’s not certain, though, that the fuel cell market in the United States will grow beyond early niche markets. Fuel cell companies need to drive down costs and utilize financing schemes like power purchase agreements to reduce the risk to end users. What the fuel cell industry needs is a matchmaker who can bring together the companies working to develop a successful fuel cell market with the right energy company or financing partners in the United States so they can work together to expand the market for fuel cells in this country.

 

Volvo Pioneers Autonomous Vehicles

— March 17, 2015

Volvo has long sold cars that are considered among the safest in the world. Since the 1940s, Volvo has been at the forefront of introducing innovations that include laminated safety glass, crush zones, three-point seatbelts, and more recently, pedestrian detection with automatic braking. As Volvo prepares to launch its first all-new production vehicle since being acquired by China’s Geely Group, the company has announced plans for a test of highly automated vehicles on public roads near its Gothenburg, Sweden headquarters.

Self-Driving Cars a Reality

Self-driving vehicles from automakers, suppliers, and technology companies have become commonplace recently on Silicon Valley roads. However, all of those vehicles are under the control of the engineers trying to refine the complex control software required to make them work reliably. Beginning in 2017, Volvo plans to put a fleet of 100 autopilot-equipped XC90 SUVs into the hands of regular Swedish drivers.

Reiterating its oft-stated goal of achieving sustainable mobility and a crash-free future, Volvo has worked to design the autopilot system it is building into the XC90 to be robust enough to let ordinary drivers give  complete control.

“Making this complex system 99% reliable is not good enough, you need to get much closer to 100% before you can let self-driving cars mix with other road users in real-life traffic,” Erik Coelingh, technical specialist at Volvo, told me. With that in mind, Volvo has recognized the limitations of current technology, so the XC90 will be equipped with a combined array of radar, lidar, ultrasonic, and camera sensors.

Sensor Array on Autonomous Volvo XC90

(Source: Volvo)

Coelingh acknowledges that there are some fundamental problems that cannot be overcome. For example, lidar sensors cannot see through fog or rain and cameras cannot see lane markers that are obscured by snow. In addition to using multiple sensor types, Volvo is taking care in packaging the sensors to minimize the risk of obstruction from the elements such as snow and salt buildup.

The goal is to allow drivers to spend time on secondary tasks without constantly monitoring the system. The vehicles will be able to execute automatic lane changes and enter and exit a limited access highway. Soft degradation of the system will extend the time between the driver being alerted and when they have to take over. If the driver does not respond by taking over control in a timely manner, the vehicle will attempt to pull over and come to a safe stop.

Fully Autonomous vs. Self-Driving

Despite all of that, there is an important distinction between vehicles that are capable of fully autonomous operation and those that are entirely self-driving. The Volvo falls into the former category, with the ability to handle the driving when conditions permit, while reverting to human control in many scenarios. Google’s prototype pod car, which was designed without a steering wheel or pedals, is in the latter category. For the foreseeable future, driverless vehicles are likely to remain restricted to closed environments where they don’t need to interact with traditional vehicles.

As detailed in Navigant Research’s report, Autonomous Vehicles, 40% of new vehicles will have some form of automated driving capability by 2030. The bulk of those are likely to be similar in concept to what Volvo will be testing on Swedish roads in 2017. Although consumer surveys have indicated strong interest in autonomous vehicles, it’s too early to tell how much of that interest will be retained as consumers become aware of the real-world limitations of autonomous technology. Volvo’s test program in Sweden might give the first real feedback on this topic.

 

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