Navigant Research Blog

New Technologies Boost Fuel Economy

— March 26, 2013

While battery electric and hybrid vehicles are slowly gaining in popularity, they show no signs of becoming a significant portion of vehicle sales in the next several years.  Automakers, meanwhile, are busy exploring other aspects of vehicle design that will improve fuel efficiency.  Below is an update on some of these approaches:

Better Aerodynamics.  At speeds of 30 mph or less, aerodynamic performance has a minor impact on fuel efficiency.  Once freeway speeds are achieved, though, the energy needed to push the vehicle through the air dominates other factors.  Because drag is proportional to the vehicle cross-sectional area, the coefficient of drag (Cd), and the velocity squared, less energy is needed to maintain speed of smaller and smoother cars.  Significant improvements were measured on VW’s new XL1 hybrid when the conventional door mirrors were replaced with tiny cameras that projected the rear side view on to a small screen on the door where the mirror would normally be.

Reduced Mass. The energy required to overcome inertia and accelerate a vehicle is a function of its mass, so heavier vehicles need more energy to get them moving.  They also have to dissipate more energy to slow down and stop, which means bigger and more powerful brakes.  Electric vehicles with large and heavy battery packs suffer particularly in this department.  Automakers seeking to produce lighter vehicles face two big problems: alternative, lighter materials such as aluminum and carbon fiber are more expensive and often harder to work with, and lighter vehicles have to be stronger to keep the occupants safe from impact with heavier vehicles.

ICE Technology. The internal combustion engine continues to get incrementally more efficient.  Turbocharging and supercharging are now used for economy as well as performance, and features such as direct injection and higher compression have migrated from diesel engines to gasoline.  Downsizing the engine’s volumetric capacity without sacrificing performance is now a realistic option, and cylinder deactivation allows fuel saving when cruising while maintaining full power for acceleration when needed.

Stop-Start. Sometimes labeled “micro-hybrid,” the ability to eliminate idling while the vehicle is stationary has the potential to save a lot of money for drivers in heavy traffic.  Stop-start technology requires other vehicle systems to be electrified, which in itself can improve fuel efficiency.  New stop-start systems in development will add an electric “crawl” mode to extend the fuel savings in slow-moving traffic jams.

All these technologies are being introduced as new models come to market, but the challenge for automakers is to incorporate features that offer customer benefits without the steep price premiums that hamper EV sales.

Some of these innovations face regulatory hurdles.  To launch its XL1 hybrid in Germany and Austria, Volkswagen had to get special government dispensation because it lacks conventional external mirrors. The XL1 is illegal to drive in other European countries and in North America.  For some new technologies to take hold, lawmakers must revisit certain existing restrictions on vehicle design.

 

Reborn, A123 Eyes New Battery Tech

— March 8, 2013

What is the proper mythological metaphor for A123 Systems? Some might conjure up Icarus for the venture capital highflier whose business model melted in the heat of competition.  Or maybe Sisyphus, for being asked to perform a series of impossible tasks, each ending in failure.

Now, however, the most apt myth would be the phoenix—the bird that regenerates from its own ashes.  A123 is now officially a subsidiary of Wanxiang America, an Illinois-based auto parts supplier and the American arm of the Wanxiang Group of China, and has officially risen from the ashes of bankruptcy.

What will the new A123 look like? The company hasn’t declared any official moves yet, but here are a few of the things I’ve heard from industry participants about the strategic directions that a re-born A123 will likely take:

More cash.  Wanxiang isn’t just giving A123 a lifeline.  It is injecting a significant amount of capital into its new U.S. subsidiary.  That capital will go toward qualifying for new projects (sometimes vendors have to show a certain amount of financial health to be able to bid on large capital-intensive projects).  It will also help to underwrite a new research and development project.

New chemistries.  A123 will work on developing the next generation battery chemistry, though its nano-engineered lithium iron phosphate chemistry will continue to be produced and supported for the applications it is best suited for.

Emphasis on systems integration.  A123 will continue to be a player in the automotive sector, where its batteries are already scheduled to go into several Chinese models and the Chevy Spark EV, as well as developing a technology solution for the microhybrid segment.  On the grid storage side, the company will emphasize its systems integration capabilities.  Rather than just be a manufacturer of cells, the company wants to provide complete systems, including controls, inverters, voltage regulators, fire suppression systems, and transformers.  It’s a smart move considering that cells are quickly becoming a low-margin commodity.

So where does the new A123 Systems fit into the newly transformed energy storage landscape? Actually, it fits pretty well.  During the bubble years of the energy storage  industry (2010 to 2012), many companies crashed and burned— literally.  A spate of fire events spelled doom for a handful of startups that had otherwise promising technologies, and the expected flood of utility orders never arrived.  Batteries are still too expensive to make sense for most applications.  Now the lineup of vendors active in the area has been winnowed while at the same time manufacturing capacity has been dramatically enlarged, leading to cheaper batteries thanks to economies of scale.  A123 is re-entering a market that appears to be opening up, and it is doing so in an environment with fewer competitors.  A123 couldn’t have picked a better time for its mythic rebirth.

 

High Capacity Chargers Target Europe’s Luxury Market

— February 20, 2013

Source: DaimlerThis spring Daimler will introduce the third generation of its smart fortwo electric drive (ED) vehicle to the North American consumer market.  Technically, the electric version of the vehicle has already made landfall through Daimler’s carshare program car2go in San Diego and Portland; however, this year’s introduction is especially important, as the vehicle will be the lowest priced battery electric vehicle (BEV) on the market at $25,000 MSRP.

The vehicle entered mass production in June of last year, and sales to various European markets have begun over the last few months.  In Europe the automaker offers an optional on-board 22 kW charger for its 17.6 kWh battery, which can charge the battery from a high capacity AC power supply in around an hour.  This gives the ED the potential to charge from AC power at a rate 3 times faster than all other BEVs.  Daimler has yet to announce whether the 22 kW onboard charger will be an option in North America, but it probably won’t since the standard outlet in North America can supply far less power than outlets in Europe.

The onboard charger capacity determines the amount of time it takes to recharge a vehicle’s battery.  The first generation Nissan LEAF used a 3.3 kW onboard charger, but 2013 versions are being outfitted with 6.6 kW chargers.  This upgrade allows the LEAF to be charged twice as fast when using Level 2 charging equipment.  High capacity chargers generally require a lot of space and therefore most BEVs have a max capacity charger of 6.6 kW.  Daimler’s integration of a 22 kW onboard charger is a leap forward.

Low Power Solution

However, in order for individual and fleet EV owners to use the higher capacity onboard chargers they must first install the infrastructure capable of delivering such a charge.  This is much easier in Europe, where the standard electrical outlet is 230V, whereas outlets in the United States and Canada are 120V.  The difference means that (depending on amperage) standard outlets in Europe can theoretically deliver around 19 kW whereas standard North American outlets max at 1.8 kW.  In North America, 230V outlets are usually for high power appliances like washers and dryers, but they can also be installed with the addition of a circuit from the electrical panel to the outlet.

Installing the necessary infrastructure to deliver such a high power charge is not necessarily expensive in comparison to the purchase price of the BEV; however, the cost may be unnecessary as charging at lower power capacities is proving sufficient for many early BEV adopters.  A survey of 3,703 fleet EVs administered by Fleetcarma measured vehicle rest times and states of charge (SOC) at the end of the day.  The survey found that charging at 1.3 kW could meet the needs of 88% of the average fleet BEV.   The 22 kW onboard charger would be an intriguing option for the North American market, but its incremental costs will make it of interest to only a few early adopters.  Like the 35-hour work week and real Champagne, it will likely remain a European luxury.

 

Automakers Straddle the EV Charging Chasm

— February 10, 2013

Source: Gurdjieffbooks.wordpress.comThe emerging competition between the fast EV charging standard CHAdeMO and the Society of Automotive Engineers’ new “combo charger” technology took another twist last month when Tesla Motors said that the version of its new Model S released in Japan will include an adapter that makes it compatible with the CHAdeMO charging system.  Tesla, which uses its own proprietary “Supercharger” technology for fast direct-current (DC) charging, has also produced an adapter to go with the SAE’s enhanced J1772 specification.  Tesla thus becomes the latest automaker to attempt to straddle the divide between charging protocols in this fast-evolving sector.

The SAE’s new system, officially called the “J1772 SAE Electric Vehicle and Plug in Hybrid Electric Vehicle Conductive Charge Coupler,” augments the original J1772 technology to enable charging with AC Level 1 and 2 charging infrastructure, or with fast DC systems.  Finalized last October, it is expected to become the de facto worldwide standard – except in Japan, where the major Japanese automakers including Nissan, Toyota, and Mitsubishi have all already adopted CHAdeMO, which first became available in 2010.

Tesla’s decision to produce a CHAdeMO-compatible sedan when it already has an in-house fast charging system highlights the period of market confusion and standards competition the plug-in EV industry finds itself in.  “This is exactly not what plug-in vehicles need,” commented Danny King, on Autobloggreen.  The name-calling has already begun: Japanese officials scoff at the SAE spec as “the plug without the cars,” while GM executive Shad Balch effectively called for an embargo of CHAdeMO chargers during a public hearing in California last May.

The major U.S. and German automakers have all lined up behind the combo charger, and new models compatible with the technology are expected later this year.  Given the hype over slower-than-expected sales of EVs, both in the United States and abroad, it’s unfortunate that the industry would allow itself to be sidetracked over what is, at bottom, an argument over the plug.  It will likely take 3 to 5 years for this standards confusion to work itself out.  The only bright side is that motorists, unlike smartphone users, rarely transport their vehicles to other continents.

 

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