Navigant Research Blog

Fuel Cell Vehicles Set to Arrive – with Fueling Stations

— September 5, 2014

Heading into the 2015 launch of commercial fuel cell vehicles (FCVs) from Toyota and Honda (Hyundai’s is already out), California and Japan appear to be leading the race to build infrastructure.  In the past 12 months, the governments in California and Japan have each made a firm commitment to support extensive refueling networks.  Japan set a target of building 100 stations by March 2016.  California has committed to providing up to $20 million annually in support of a 100-station network.

Those timelines are aggressive given that, up to now, hydrogen stations have taken 18 months or more to build.  In California in particular, the timeline for building a hydrogen fueling site has been very lengthy, 24 months and even more.  This is one reason that the state has lost its leading position as a first market for FCVs.  A year ago, it looked like Europe was going to step up, with the United Kingdom announcing its own H2Mobility program to follow on the one that Germany established to develop and execute a hydrogen roadmap.  However, both of these programs are moving rather slowly.  By contrast, California secured a funding commitment from the state of up to $20 million per year in September 2013.  Now, the state is moving forward at a much faster pace.   In May, the California Energy Commission (CEC) announced awards for 28 stations, to be built by November 2015, for a total of around $46 million.

New Entrants

Of course, being first also means being a guinea pig for this market, which still faces a good deal of uncertainty in terms of potential demand.  I’ll be outlining FCVs sales prospects through 2023 in my upcoming report, 2014 Fuel Cell Annual Report.  Participants in the buildout of California’s first nine stations learned some lessons that are now being implemented.  One of the most critical differences is that the CEC is using its funding to provide support for operations and maintenance in addition to station construction.  This represents a tacit admission that the stations will be a cost center for owners and operators for the first years of the market.  The CEC awarded $300,000 to four current stations to support ongoing operations.

Another striking difference with the new 28 stations is that only 3 of the 28 awards are going directly to industrial gas companies (IGCs).  In place of IGCs, new entities have sprung up specifically to build and manage retail hydrogen fueling; these entities were given 23 awards.  Startup FirstElement Fuel received awards to build 19 stations.  The company was launched with funding support from Toyota and IGC Air Products but is open to working with any IGC that wants to use a third party to operate a retail station.  The company plans to become an operator of hydrogen fueling networks, similar to electric vehicle (EV) charging network operators.  FirstElement secures a retail gas station where there is real estate available to add a hydrogen pump and takes responsibility for the station once it’s up and running.  This removes risk from both the gas station owner and from the IGC providing the hydrogen.

Quite a bit of risk remains for the CEC in placing much of the responsibility for stations needed in 2015 on one company.  But the good news for the FCV market is that some early lessons learned are paying off in terms of new ways to tackle the problem of providing fuel to potential FCV drivers.

 

Automakers Add Gears for Better Fuel Efficiency

— September 3, 2014

Automakers are pursuing many options to improve the fuel efficiency of their cars and trucks.  Most recently, the emphasis has been on reducing weight by changing to less dense materials even though they’re more expensive.   There is also ongoing development work with electrification to recover and reuse kinetic energy.  The latest change to help manufacturers comply with tightening fuel economy targets worldwide is revamping the automatic transmission.

Historically, automatic transmissions were inherently less efficient than manual gearboxes, and convenience was the tradeoff for the loss of a few percentage points in fuel economy and acceleration. Some of the latest automatic gearboxes, though, are actually more efficient than a manual gearbox with a clutch.  Today, the desire to retain complete manual control over gear selection means, in some cases, slightly higher fuel consumption and longer 0 to 60 mph times.  However, a stick-shift generally still saves money off the new sticker price and in North America is sometimes regarded as an anti-theft device.

On Up to 10

From the late 1960s, three speeds was the standard automatic configuration, and it wasn’t until the early 1980s that overdrive and lock-up top gears were added to help improve the efficiency, leading to more four- and five-speed automatic gearboxes.  In 2002, gearbox technology began to get a lot more attention when BMW put the first 6-speed automatic into production, followed by Mercedes with its 7-speed in 2003 and Toyota with an 8-speed in 2007.  Recently there have been a number of transmission announcements:

  • GM is crediting its new 8-speed automatic for making the 2015 Corvette Stingray faster and more efficient.  More gears allows for a lower first gear ratio for better acceleration, as well as a higher final drive ratio to reduce engine speed at highway cruising speed.  The 8L90 transmission will also feature in GM’s range of pickup trucks and SUVs.  Careful packaging and internal design features means that the new gearbox fits the same space as the 6-speed 6L80 – even though it can handle higher torque and power in addition to weighing less.
  • ZF introduced its revised 8-speed transmission in the 2014 BMW 5 Series.  This second-generation 8HP gearbox (the first was introduced in 2009) offers revised gear ratios to take advantage of the latest engine efficiency improvements that deliver more torque at lower rpms.  Advanced torsional vibration dampers improve smoothness, and a new shifting design has reduced internal energy losses.  Other users of the 8HP for rear-wheel-drive cars are Audi, Jaguar Land Rover, and Chrysler.
  • Chrysler is building a 9-speed transmission under license from ZF.  It went into production at the end of 2013 in the Jeep Cherokee.  ZF also supplies the 9HP for the Range Rover Evoque.  Chrysler is planning to implement a version in its minivans and smaller front-wheel-drive cars, as well.  Although the wider ratios provide better fuel economy and acceleration, concerns have been raised about erratic shifting.  These are being addressed via a software update.
  • In September 2013, Mercedes launched its 9G-TRONIC transmission on the E 350 BlueTEC diesel saloon car.  Despite two additional gears and a higher maximum torque, the new automatic transmission requires no more installation space than its predecessor and is also lighter.  The torque converter housing is made of lightweight aluminum, while the transmission housing with plastic oil pan is made of an even lighter magnesium alloy.

Ford and GM have already announced that they are planning to develop a 10-speed gearbox together.  It seems that manufacturers have figured out how to get more ratios in the same space and, at the same time, reduce internal energy losses so that efficiency is higher while maintaining or improving performance.  The key is integration with the latest engine characteristics to optimize the driving experience.  This topic will be covered in more detail in our upcoming report on automotive fuel efficiency.

 

Time for Automakers to Get Real on Vehicle Security

— August 21, 2014

Recently, the annual Black Hat and DefCon computer security conferences took place in Las Vegas, and this week the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) announced a notice of proposed rulemaking regarding vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communications.  Hacking cars was once again one of the hot topics at the two security conferences this year, in part because automakers don’t appear to have done much to improve the security of the vehicles we drive.  Each year researchers announce some newly discovered vulnerability that gets blown out of proportion by the mainstream media.

Fortunately for drivers everywhere, none of the issues discovered so far have actually amounted to anything worthy of concern.  However, as vehicles continue to get increasingly advanced in the coming years, the potential for attackable flaws will only increase.  Automakers are notoriously quiet when it comes to publicly discussing anything that might potentially be deemed a flaw in any of their products, but it’s time to change that attitude when it comes to electronic security.

Calling All Cars

Over the past half-decade, advanced driver assist systems such as adaptive cruise control, automatic parking systems, and lane departure warning and prevention have rapidly migrated down-market from expensive European luxury models to mainstream, high-volume family cars, such as the Toyota Camry and Ford Fusion.  With the addition of just a few extra sensors and a lot more software, these are the building blocks for tomorrow’s fully autonomous vehicles.

One other piece of that puzzle is the V2V communications that the NHTSA would like to mandate.  Along with vehicle-to-infrastructure  communications, cars will be able to send and receive messages that can influence the behavior of the vehicle.  Initially, the plan is to send these alerts only to drivers.  However, it’s only a matter of time before that expands to include autonomous vehicle capabilities like automatic braking or steering to avoid a collision.

Anyone who’s ever worked on software will acknowledge that it’s virtually impossible to write absolutely perfect and bug-free code, and the task gets exponentially more difficult as systems get more complex.  Automakers often like to brag about how many millions of lines of code are in the latest and greatest new vehicle and how many gigabytes of data are processed every second.  They neglect to mention how every additional byte of code means more potential for mistakes or security flaws.

No Such Thing as Bug-Free

Companies with vast software engineering expertise, including Google, Facebook, and Microsoft, have acknowledged that they cannot possibly find every potential issue in their products.  The impact of a Facebook or Google breach can be annoying, and potentially expensive, but not life threatening.

It’s time for automakers to follow suit and acknowledge that despite their best efforts to secure vehicles, the potential does indeed exist for security vulnerabilities.  Tesla Motors started on the right track this year with the hiring of security expert Kristin Paget away from Apple.  The company also sent a team of recruiters to the Black Hat and DefCon conferences to find more talent.

Each automaker should also set up a bounty program similar to those established by the big tech firms, which pay researchers cash rewards for disclosing security vulnerabilities to the companies.  The corporate lawyers might not be crazy about the idea, but with the recent flood of vehicle recalls from General Motors and other manufacturers, the increased focus on safety and quality might actually make this an ideal time to do this.

 

E-Bikes Gear Up in North America

— August 20, 2014

While Tesla, Nissan, and BMW get most of the headlines around electric transportation, the electric bicycle (e-bike) market is quietly gaining momentum in North America.  E-bikes are simply traditional pedal bikes with a battery pack and electric motor for propulsion.  Usually a throttle or user control module is attached to the handlebars to allow the user to adjust the power levels of electric assistance.  E-bikes offer a unique market solution for the transportation problems many cities in North America currently face: traffic congestion, fatalities from road accidents, local air quality, climate change, and the economic burdens associated with car ownership.

While the e-bike market has historically been strongest in China and Western Europe, emerging trends have helped position the industry for increased growth in North America.  Combined throttle-control and pedal-assist models, electric cargo bikes, all-in-one retrofit kits and wheels, an aging baby boomer population, and the use of e-bikes in police patrol and various security industries have all contributed to a growing market with strong potential.

Battery Prices Fall

As is the case with the broader electric vehicle market, the increasing quality and affordability of lithium ion (Li-ion) batteries is attracting new customers.  Most Li-ion e-bikes in North America range from $1,500 to $3,000.  While not as cheap as traditional bicycles, this is a relatively small upfront cost to adopt electric transportation.  If the plan is to reduce car trips or ditch your car altogether, your investment will be recouped within a few years of reduced trips to the pump and avoided insurance, parking, and vehicle maintenance costs.  Not to mention the health benefits that come with increased exercise and the avoidance of traffic jams.

Automakers Climb On

Several automotive manufacturers are joining the e-bike party.  In the United States, Ford recently partnered with Pedego Electric Bikes to design a throttle-controlled e-bike, the Ford Super Cruiser.  Daimler AG’s smart unit is one of the most aggressive automotive brands in e-bikes, partnering with GRACE GmbH to deliver an e-bike sold through dealers in Europe.  BMW recently released its pedal-assist Cruise e-bike 2014, which features a Bosch 250 W motor and 400 Wh battery.  Audi, Opel, and Volkswagen have also shown e-bike concepts, though these vehicles have not yet been announced for production.

Navigant Research’s upcoming report on e-bikes, scheduled for publication in the third quarter of 2014, will contain a detailed analysis of global market opportunities, barriers, and technology issues, along with market forecasts for e-bikes, e-bike batteries, and overall sales revenue by region.

 

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