Navigant Research Blog

Trucks Largely Overlooked in Emissions Targets

— October 15, 2014

In the transportation sector, trucks are a bit like offensive lineman in football: the heftier bodies do the hardest work, but they don’t get the same amount of attention as the smaller and more nimble players.  But trucks will need greater recognition for their impact on fuel consumption if goals for signification emissions reductions are to be reached.

Most of the discussion (and efforts) around improving fuel economy and reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions is centered on light duty (LD) cars and the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) ambitious Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) requirement, while neglecting the first rules for medium and heavy duty (M/HD) truck emissions reductions that the EPA implemented in 2011.  M/HD trucks and buses are expected to represent 32.6% of the total fuel consumption in the United States, according to Navigant Research’s report, Transportation Forecast: Global Fuel Consumption. Considering that light trucks (including minivans and SUVs) represent 51% of LD vehicles sold in the United States (according to Automotive News), trucks are the clear majority in the opportunity to reduce emissions.

Energy Consumption in Transportation by Vehicle Type, United States: 2014-2020

John truckblog chart

(Source: Navigant Research)

The alternative fuel truck options on the market (including electrified, natural gas, and propane vehicles) are insignificant in comparison to the numerous alternative car choices.  According to Navigant Research’s report, Transportation Forecast: Medium and Heavy Duty Vehicles, alternative vehicles (which also include buses) are expected to represent just 3.3% of all new large vehicle sales in 2014.

PEV Gap

Because of the surge in fuel production and the low price, natural gas vehicle development and sales have the greatest momentum among alternative fuel trucks.  Global truck and bus manufacturer MAN will be adding compressed natural gas (CNG) trucks to its offerings, while GM is adding a CNG bi-fuel option for its 2015 Silverado and Sierra pickup trucks.  Westport recently launched an enhanced spark-ignited (ESI) natural gas system that the company claims offers a 10% improvement in power and torque over a baseline diesel engine.  For the conversions market, Skygo Fuel Systems now offers a bi-fuel system that continuously blends natural gas and diesel based on performance requirements.

Natural gas has the advantage over full electrification in the truck market, as it can provide similar driving range to diesel without being weighed down by batteries, and the bi-fuel option provides a safeguard if a natural gas refueling station isn’t conveniently accessible.

A significant draw for electrification of utility vehicles is the ability to provide exportable power. Pacific Gas and Electric, which is one of the largest truck fleet operators in the United States, has partnered with EDI to develop a Class 5 utility truck that can be used to provide temporary power when an outage occurs.  Electric power takeoff (ePTO) trucks can operate equipment throughout the day without having to run the diesel engine, which can result in much greater reductions in fuel savings than using battery power when the vehicles are in motion.

The gaping hole in the truck lineup is in the lack of hybrid and plug-in pickup trucks. Truck manufacturers such as Ford are focused on lightweighting via aluminum rather than electrifying the drive train.  Nissan created a pickup version of its LEAF battery electric vehicle (BEV) but has no intention of commercializing it.

 

Autonomous Vehicles Coming Sooner Than Predicted

— October 14, 2014

Recent developments in the automotive industry indicate that semi-autonomous vehicles may be coming to market sooner than previously expected.  In early September, General Motors announced that it will introduce a 2017 Cadillac model equipped with advanced driver assist technology – allowing drivers to travel at highway speeds without touching the steering wheel or pedals.  Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors, stated that the company plans to introduce self-driving technology in the next 3 years with the new Model 3 electric sedan (due for release in 2017).  Musk also gave some longer-term forecasts: “Full auto-pilot capability is going to happen, probably, in the 5- or 6-year time frame.”  Additionally, Audi became the first company to receive the newly established autonomous driving permit, issued by the state of California.  As discussed in earlier blogs by my colleague David Alexander, the United Kingdom, China, and South Korean company Hyundai have also been active in the autonomous vehicle space.

New Market Entrants

Israel-based technology company Mobileye has recently received considerable media attention and market interest for its advanced driver assistance technology.  The company went public on August 6, 2014 at $25.00 per share.  Since the IPO, Mobileye’s share price has more than doubled to $51.23 as of September 24.  The company’s products are integrated into vehicle models from global automakers, including BMW, Ford, General Motors, Honda, Nissan, and Volvo.  Mobileye also works with several Tier One suppliers, including Autoliv, Delphi, Continental, Magna Electronics, and TRW Automotive.

Too Big to Ignore

Growing interest in autonomous vehicles can be attributed to the fact that the benefits of the technology are simply too large and far-reaching for policymakers, investors, and analysts to ignore.  In the United States alone, 33,561 people died and about 2.36 million people were injured as a result of traffic accidents in 2012, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.  The majority of all auto accidents (75% to 90%) are caused by driver error, distraction, or impairment.  In theory, fully autonomous vehicle traffic would prevent nearly all of these driver-related accidents.  Self-driving vehicle technology also has the potential to drastically reduce CO2 emissions, traffic congestion, and the stress of driving.

Navigant Research expects the global market for fully autonomous vehicles to average about 4.6% of new vehicle sales in 2025, rising to 40% in 2030 and reaching nearly 75% by 2035.

 

California Reaffirms EV Leadership

— October 13, 2014

California Governor Jerry Brown has doubled down on the Golden State’s commitment to electric vehicles (EVs) by enacting six laws aimed at promoting EVs.  The package of legislation includes two laws aimed at making EVs available to a broader audience of individuals – one for people who live in multi-unit dwellings and another with incentives for getting EVs into carshare programs.

Landlords in California now cannot block the installation of EV charging equipment through restrictive leases if renters agree to pay the costs.  This law will help California’s large renter population join the EV crowd and could help the state reach its goal of 1 million EVs on the road by 2023.  Most purchasers of EVs to date live in single-family homes, and this law removes one potential obstacle for broader adoption.

According to Navigant Research’s report, EV Geographic Forecasts, which was produced before these new laws were passed, California was likely to have approximately 820,000 light duty EVs on the road by 2023.

PEVs on the Road, California and the United States: 2014-2023

(Source: Navigant Research)

Smoggy and Dry

California is home to 7 of the 10 cities in the United States with the worst air quality, including smoggy Bakersfield, and has endured 3 consecutive years of drought, which is motivating Governor Brown to continue efforts to promote emissions-free driving in the state.  Some of those afflicted communities might breathe a little easier in future years, as another of the new laws targets incentives for placing EVs in carsharing programs in lower income areas with air quality problems.  EVs make sense in carshare and rental programs, as users don’t have to refuel the vehicles, and motorists who have a good experience could later become EV purchasers.  However, even after federal and state incentives, higher priced EVs are still out of reach of many consumers.

Incentives for plug-in vehicle drivers, such as HOV access, have proven critical in increasing EV adoption.  States such as California, Georgia, Oregon, and Washington that offer financial and other incentives are also the top sellers in EVs per capita.  According to HybridCars.com, sales of plug-in hybrids are up 44% over last year, while sales of battery electric vehicles are up 20%.

 

Autonomous Vehicles Will Work Best Within Limits

— October 1, 2014

About the only way your next car has much chance of driving itself is if you live in a gated community or on a college campus where it won’t have to deal with too many variables like other traffic.  Just as voice recognition systems work best with limited vocabularies, autonomous vehicles will probably be limited to such constrained environments for the foreseeable future.  That’s the conclusion from the recent ITS World Congress 2014 in Detroit.  Increasing levels of vehicle automation were a major topic of discussion during the annual conference on intelligent transportation systems.

Google has been pushing the idea that self-driving vehicles will hit the road within the next 5 years.  Google had no official presence at the conference, but a lot of companies that build cars, parts, and infrastructure systems were there, and no one that I spoke with was in agreement with Google’s timing projections.  The general consensus is that we won’t see widespread use of full operating range autonomous vehicles until closer to 2030.

Not Street-Ready

That’s not to say that no one believes in automated driving; quite the opposite.  It’s just that in engineering circles, there’s a rule of thumb known as the 90/10 rule.  That is, 90% of the technical challenge of a project takes about 10% of the time and effort.  The last 10% takes the other 90% of the time.  In the realm of self-driving cars, we have just begun that last 10% phase, where the basic hardware elements are all worked out but a lot of software decisions have yet to be made in order for autonomous systems to be truly robust.

Much of the on-road development by Google and other companies has been occurring in places like California and Nevada, where environmental factors like snow and even rain are a rarity.  In order for autonomous vehicles to be both commercially and legally viable, they’ll have to work reliably under any weather and road conditions.

General Motors (GM), Volkswagen, and other automakers have been working on autonomous technology much longer than Google, and they understand these limitations.  When GM rolled out a two-seat self-driving pod car known as the Electric Networked-Vehicle, or EN-V, at the 2010 Shanghai World Expo, program leader Dr. Chris Borroni-Bird acknowledged that, while this type of vehicle would eventually be an ideal way to deal with the congestion problems of megacities like New York, Shanghai, and Mumbai, the first feasible real-world applications were likely to be in restricted environments, such as campuses and gated communities.

Say Again

As powerful as computers have become, they still don’t deal with the nuances of the real world very well.  That’s why voice recognition systems still struggle to understand what should be simple natural language commands on a smartphone.  The most successful applications of the technology have been for tasks like medical transcription, with limited and specific word vocabularies and little ambient noise.  Similarly, automated vehicles function best in constrained spaces, such as buses over fixed routes or the aforementioned commuter pods.

Google hasn’t actually made any major breakthroughs in the technology that we know of.  It just jumped into field relatively recently, hiring many of the engineers and scientists that worked on the autonomous vehicles fielded by automakers in the DARPA Grand Challenge and Urban Challenge competitions of 2006 and 2007, and leveraging the cost declines of the required sensors.

Where Google has outdone the incumbents is getting the technology media to talk about their efforts – but that’s unlikely to put full-function self-driving cars into consumers’ hands any sooner.

 

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