Navigant Research Blog

E-Scooters Get Their Own Network

— January 5, 2015

A San Francisco-based startup with Asian roots called Gogoro announced on January 5 that it is launching a line of futuristic battery-powered electric scooters and an e-scooter charging network that, for a monthly fee, will provide unlimited battery swapping and cloud connectivity.  The concept of battery swapping for electric vehicles has been tried before – most notably with the epic failure of Israeli startup Better Place (and with a little bit more success by Tesla Motors).  But this venture might have a much happier ending.

To understand how Gogoro might succeed, let’s first examine why Better Place failed.  Although the company made a number of personnel and strategic missteps, the fundamental problem of the Better Place model was that the battery switching stations were too expensive and too complex.  Another major problem was that the financial projections didn’t pan out because battery costs were still too expensive at the time of the firm’s launch in 2012.

Swap It Out

Gogoro, which has engineering facilities in Taiwan and whose CEO, Horace Luke, was the design mastermind behind Taiwanese cell phone manufacturer HTC, solves the complexity issue with a smaller battery pack: the Gogoro Smartscooter uses two batteries, each about the size of a Kleenex box and containing about 1 kWh of energy.  The user merely takes the battery out by hand and inserts it into the vending machine-like switching station.  Six seconds later, a fully charged battery comes out of the machine and can easily be reinserted into the scooter.  A fully charged pair of batteries provides the user almost 60 miles of range in an urban driving environment.

To solve the battery cost problem, Gogoro has two aces up its sleeve.  The first is timing: we are in a period of dramatically shrinking lithium ion battery costs.  What would have cost more than $1,000 per kWh a few years ago can be had for as little as a third of that today.

Gogoro’s other advantage is its strategic partnership with Panasonic, one of the largest battery manufacturers in the world.  Gogoro will use the same battery cells, made by Panasonic, that are used by Tesla Motors for its Model S battery pack.  And if it can grow quickly enough, Gogoro will get Tesla-type volume discounts.  Navigant Research estimates that Tesla pays approximately $200 per kWh for its Panasonic cells today, and that price is expected to drop as low as $130 per kWh by 2020 once the recently announced Tesla/Panasonic Gigafactory is up to full capacity.

Cool and Clean

Gogoro has one more big advantage going for it: the world’s young people are begging for alternatives to car ownership.  They want clean, affordable, yet stylish transportation alternatives.  This trend is as true in scooter-crazy Asian cities as it is in North America.  Traditional scooters are too dirty, dorky, and noisy to provide an appealing car substitute for most young people.  But Gogoro’s scooter will be affordable enough (although pricing hasn’t been announced, it should be cheaper than most other e-scooter options because the battery isn’t part of the purchase price) and stylish enough (CEO Horace Luke is a renowned industrial designer whose accomplishments include the Xbox game console and the much lauded HTC smartphone lineup) to be attractive to young urban dwellers in many countries.

 

Have Oil Prices Peaked?

— December 30, 2014

Increasing non-Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) oil supply and waning worldwide demand has resulted in an oil price dive.  The U.S. average retail price of gasoline is now at its lowest point since 2009, and given OPEC’s commitment to maintaining current production rates, the dive has no clear end.  The far-reaching implications of this plunge are explored in the latest issue of NG Market Notes from Navigant’s Global Energy Practice.  The most likely impacts will be on energy sector job growth, oil production expansion, and the hotly debated Keystone XL pipeline.

The historic volatility of oil prices leaves little certainty that current low prices will persist.  However, increased and sustained production capacity growth from non-OPEC sources appears to provide predictable downward pressure.  Given that, OPEC expects that the U.S. oil boom will last until 2020 before declining.  By then, the shale boom enjoyed by the United States is unlikely to be an isolated North American occurrence.

A Spreading Boom

Instead, the technological innovations that have enabled the extraction of tight oil at competitive prices in the United States are likely to migrate to a number of plentiful basins in Russia, China, South America, and elsewhere.  As a result, low prices could become the new norm.  Similarly, thanks to a combination of energy efficiency technologies and tightening government policies, world energy demand is likely to remain sluggish, further sustaining the oil glut.

The BP Statistical Review of World Energy indicates that annual global production of oil was around 4.1 billion metric tons (4.5 billion U.S. tons) in 2013, while Navigant Research’s report, Transportation Forecast: Global Fuel Consumption, projects that the global road transportation sector will consume nearly 1.7 billion metric (1.87 U.S. tons) in 2014, over 41% of production.  In North America, Europe, and some developed Asia Pacific nations, demand from this sector is anticipated to drop significantly from 2014 to 2035.  The increasing use of biofuels, plug-in electric light duty vehicles, natural gas-powered commercial trucks and buses, and national fuel efficiency standards will all contribute to this fall.

The Peak Behind Us

The Navigant Research report anticipates that global oil consumption will continue to grow, despite the above trends.  But that growth is peaking and is entirely dependent on increasing vehicle ownership in rapidly growing economies that already have significant traffic congestion and environmental concerns.

All of this is likely to temper new vehicle sales and increase government adoption of alternative fuels and fuel efficiency standards.  As a result, current low oil prices may not be temporary, after all.  Peak oil price may be reached before peak oil.

 

Sensor Technology Not Yet Ready for Self-Driving Cars

— December 30, 2014

According to Navigant Research’s report, Autonomous Vehicles, some limited self-driving vehicles will arrive by 2020, but widespread adoption of full-function autonomous vehicles won’t happen until at least the late 2020s.  Over the next 15 years, manufacturers are expected to continue making incremental progress with more capable assist systems and semi-autonomous systems, such as the Super Cruise system recently announced by General Motors and the Advanced Highway Driving Assist from Toyota.

Many of the vehicles sold today already contain most of the essential building blocks to enable them to operate autonomously.  However, a new study from AAA indicates those pieces are not yet all that reliable or consistent.  Based on that, it’s reasonable to deduce that we cannot yet trust those systems for full automation, and drivers must remain fully engaged in vehicle operation.

AAA recently conducted a series of tests of blind spot monitoring and lane departure warning systems and found that the performance can vary widely among different vehicles and under different conditions.  “AAA’s tests found that these systems are a great asset to drivers, but there is a learning curve,” says John Nielsen, AAA’s managing director of Automotive Engineering.

Enhancement, Not Replacement

Automakers have always marketed these features as assist systems meant to augment rather than replace the control of an attentive driver.  For example, the lane-keeping assist that is part of many such systems can automatically provide some correction to help prevent the vehicle from drifting out of a lane.  However, these systems typically also monitor the driver using sensors in the steering wheel or torque feedback in the steering column to prevent hands-off driving.

Advanced Driver Assist Sensors: Ford Fusion

 

 

(Source: Ford Motor Co.)

Similarly, blind spot monitoring sensors don’t negate the need to check mirrors regularly while driving.  The sensitivity and field of view of each vehicle depends on where the manufacturer has positioned the sensors behind the rear bumper cover.  Each of the vehicles tested by AAA would detect vehicles or cyclists in the adjacent lanes at different times.

My own experience driving a wide variety of vehicles equipped with both types of assists has been as spotty as the results from AAA indicate.  Lane departure systems use digital cameras and sophisticated image processing algorithms to look for lane markers painted on the pavement, and all of the systems currently on the market only function at speeds above 35 mph to 40 mph.   The problem arises when the lane markers aren’t clearly visible or don’t exist at all.  On a rural road or residential street with no markings, you’re completely on your own.

Alerts and Alarms

Another problem is the lack of consistency in how alerts are presented to drivers by different manufacturers.  Vehicles can have audible, visual, haptic alerts, or a combination of these.  Sometimes, the systems are overly sensitive and trigger so many alerts that drivers are tempted to disable the system to avoid being annoyed, thus defeating the purpose.  Other times, the monitors don’t provide an alert until it’s too late to be useful.

Sensing systems will need to be robust enough to provide accurate warnings or control inputs under all driving conditions, and designers will have to develop human-machine interfaces that provide information to drivers without being overwhelming.

 

Wrightspeed Targets E-Truck Market

— December 30, 2014

The medium and heavy duty truck industry has tried for years to join the rush to powertrain hybridization and electrification with very little success.  The incremental cost has been difficult to justify for all but specific niche uses.  New market entrant Wrightspeed recognizes this situation, and it is targeting its new integrated powertrain at a specific type of fleet that uses medium duty trucks with high annual mileage (30,000-plus miles) and a drive cycle that includes a lot of stopping and starting.  The system is also suitable for heavy duty refuse trucks.  The design is essentially a plug-in all-electric drive with a range-extending engine to recharge the battery pack.

Founder Ian Wright, a member of Elon Musk’s original team that established Tesla Motors, has focused on developing a system that addresses a well-defined niche in the truck market.  Wrightspeed uses lithium ion (Li-ion) battery cells from A123 Systems to build a battery pack and installs its own thermal management system and charge management software.  Electric motors are built by a supplier to proprietary design specifications, and the control software is also developed in-house.  The system uses onboard individual wheel motors, and the software to control them is written by the company’s engineers.  Wright believes that it is important for a powertrain supplier to develop the complete system, not just improve individual components.

Weight Loss

The most dramatically different component is the choice of engine to provide charge to the battery pack.  Wrightspeed has gone with a microturbine from Capstone Turbine Corp.  This engine weighs approximately 220 lbs, about one-tenth of the mass of a typical diesel engine that can deliver similar power.  And because it runs at very high speed, the generator attached is only about the size of a 1-liter bottle.  The turbine can run on almost any liquid or gaseous fuel, and because of its burn efficiency, it does not need any exhaust after-treatment to remove toxic waste products.

Wrightspeed’s plan is to first address the replacement powertrain market for high-mileage medium duty trucks in large fleets, rather than aim at Tier One status with truck manufacturers.  Wright believes that, once fleet managers have had experience with the unique features of his system, his company will be able to move up.  Although it’s more expensive than a conventional diesel engine and transmission, the complete Wrightspeed solution of battery pack, electric motors, power electronics, and range-extending engine weighs about the same. The company reports substantial fuel savings from a combination of high-power regenerative braking and only running the engine in its most efficient mode.  Average fuel economy figures are estimated by Wrightspeed to go from 8 mpg to 10 mpg with a conventional powertrain, to 25 mpg to 30 mpg with its replacement system.  The powerful regenerative brakes also save significant maintenance costs for fleets, a major factor in the refuse truck market.

To date, Wrightspeed has reported orders for some test systems to be installed in garbage trucks, and FedEx ordered four units in February 2014, followed by an additional order for 25 more in July.  Deliveries are scheduled for the first quarter of 2015, and this new approach to hybrid trucks will be interesting to watch.

 

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