Navigant Research Blog

Volvo Adds Electrons Across the Board

— July 6, 2017

Volvo Cars isn’t the biggest player in the premium automotive landscape, but it seems to be one of the smartest in the years since being acquired by China’s Geely Group. Sweden’s sole surviving volume automaker has moved aggressively to reinforce its safety-oriented heritage with the development of automated vehicles. And the company just made the news, as CEO Hakan Samuelsson announced that the brand was going “all electric” from 2019.

Read Past the Headline

While this was an important announcement about Volvo’s environmentally friendly intentions, it also illustrates the importance of reading past the headline. Readers would be forgiven for thinking that Volvo wants to transform itself into the next Tesla. The reality is that between 2019 and 2021, all products from the Volvo Car Group will transition to having some degree of electric propulsion. That includes three new battery EVs (BEVs) from the main Volvo brand and two other BEVs from the high performance Polestar sub-brand.

But the internal combustion engine isn’t going anywhere just yet—it’s just getting an assist from electric motors and batteries. In 2015, Volvo introduced its Twin-Engine system, a plug-in hybrid (PHEV) propulsion system, on its large XC90 SUV and has since expanded availability to the other 90 series models, including a sedan and station wagon. The new midsize 60 series that shares a platform architecture with the 90s will also get this system.

Based on an animation released by the automaker, Volvo’s baseline setup from 2019 will be a 48V mild-hybrid that will utilize a belted starter-generator configuration. Along with a likely lithium ion battery with a capacity in the 0.5 kWh range, this should boost fuel efficiency by about 10%-15%. Navigant Research’s Low Voltage Vehicle Electrification report projects nearly 9 million global sales annually of 48V systems by 2025.

Engineering Made Easy

For a company that only sold a bit over half a million cars globally in 2016, this might seem like a lot of complexity. But Volvo only has three model lines going forward with several body styles, the compact 40 series and the larger 60 and 90. The larger vehicles share the scalable platform architecture and the 40s will use a new smaller platform. Across this range, Volvo is only using one engine family that currently has gas and diesel four-cylinder engines with natural aspiration, turbocharging, and combined turbo and supercharging. With a single engine family, engineering 48V capability should be straightforward. Even the PHEVs utilize this same engine with a through-the-road hybrid architecture that uses the engine with a conventional automatic transmission at the front axle and electric drive for the rear axle.

With a limited component set on only two core platforms, this transition should be manageable for a company of Volvo’s size. Geely can also leverage the technologies developed by Volvo, just as prior owner Ford did for many years. Numerous Ford vehicles, including the Taurus, Flex, and Explorer, still utilize a platform originally designed by Volvo in the 1990s. Geely can take both the powertrain and automation technologies developed by Volvo for its domestic brands, including the new Lync & Co. EVs.

For Volvo, utilizing light and strong electrification across its premium vehicle lineup will help it to meet increasingly stringent efficiency and greenhouse gas emissions standards in Europe and China, where it has seen significant growth. All automakers are looking at varying degrees of electrification as a strategy to meet these standards in a cost-effective way, as noted in Navigant Research’s Automotive Fuel Efficiency Strategies report. The difference is mostly in degree and configuration. As a premium brand, Volvo’s customers are also more likely to absorb the added cost of these technologies.


Despite Volkswagen Scandal, GM Remains Committed to Diesel

— November 17, 2015

In the wake of the ongoing revelations about Volkswagen (VW) deliberately manipulating powertrain control software in order to pass emissions tests in Europe and the United States, it would have been unsurprising if General Motors (GM) and other automakers immediately cancelled all future diesel engine plans. Instead, GM remains fully committed to a broad portfolio of fuel efficiency technologies that include diesel engines in a variety of vehicles.

In June 2015, Dan Nicholson, GM vice president of global powertrain development, announced that “GM wants to be considered the leader in North American passenger car diesels.” The same month, Nicholson also spoke to the media and to analysts at a Chevrolet technology forum where the second-generation Cruze was revealed. In North America, the new Cruze will be offered with two four-cylinder powertrain options, a 1.4-liter turbocharged gasoline engine, and a 1.6-liter diesel.

Diesel on Schedule

Barely 2 months later, the automobile leader that Nicholson wanted to dethrone began imploding from self-inflicted wounds and proceeded to take an entire class of fuel-savings technology down with it. Despite the acknowledged illegal actions of VW and unconfirmed reports that other manufacturers may have cheated in a similar fashion, Mark Reuss, GM executive vice president for global product development, is staying the course.

Reuss told a group of North American Car and Truck of the Year jurors in early November that the next-generation Cruze diesel remains on schedule for production in 2016. That announcement came as GM revealed that the diesel-powered 2016 Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon had officially been certified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as the most fuel efficient pickups in the United States with an estimated 22 mpg city, 25 mpg combined, and 31 mpg on the highway.

The certification of the new trucks was due right around the time that the VW scandal went public and was held up for several weeks as the EPA decided that these should be among the first vehicles to undergo additional road testing in order to validate the results of the usual lab tests.

Unlike VW’s four-cylinder diesel engines, the GM trucks and the Cruze utilize a urea-injection system to control emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx). During development prior to the launch of the Cruze diesel in 2013, Chevrolet did test the same lean NOx trap technology used by VW, but found it inadequate to meet EPA and California Air Resources Board standards.

During a weeklong evaluation earlier this year, a 2015 Cruze diesel returned 39 mpg in combined driving with the older 2.0-liter engine that was then in use. The 2017 Cruze diesel will be powered by a new 1.6-liter engine that debuted earlier this year in several Opel models in Europe. In the Cruze, the new engine is expected to easily beat the 33 mpg combined rating of the old model.

Navigant Research’s Automotive Fuel Efficiency Technologies report projects that diesels will only account for about 3% of North American light duty vehicles sales in 2025, but GM wants a big piece of that market as the company takes advantage of every technology in its portfolio. GM is already aggressively slimming the mass of its new vehicles and adding automatic stop-start as a standard feature on many models. In the next year, the company is set to launch new conventional and plug-in hybrid electric systems, the 200-mile Bolt electric vehicle, and by 2020 plans to launch fuel cell electric vehicles. No stone—including diesel—will be left unturned by GM.


Upcoming U.S. Fuel Economy Standards Achievable

— August 6, 2015

In July, the International Council on Clean Transportation released a new technical briefing paper entitled Hybrid vehicles: Trends in technology development and cost reduction. It is a good read and covers a lot of interesting information about light duty hybrid vehicles. The document points out that the two current hybrid vehicle market leaders, Toyota and Ford, both use a system that has two large electric motors and a planetary gear system in place of the conventional transmission. This is known as a power-split hybrid system. Most other manufacturers with recently introduced hybrid models have chosen to go with variants of a single-motor, twin-clutch hybrid system, commonly referred to as a P2 hybrid.

There are also other approaches in production today. A third option was chosen by General Motors (GM), which has implemented a simpler mild hybrid technology based around a powerful belt-alternator-starter. Honda has its Integrated Motor Assist and Mazda has i-ELOOP in production, which uses ultracapacitors rather than batteries to capture regenerative braking energy.

The message from the paper is that the incremental costs of adding hybrid drive are expected to continue falling as the systems are refined, by as much as 5% per year, thus making the technology more affordable. Some examples of how small changes have produced these improvements in the past are shown (for example, replacing a separate hybrid cooling system by expanding the existing engine cooling system). OEMs and suppliers are also expected to be able to improve efficiency in increments so that the return on investment (ROI) becomes more attractive for buyers.

Also mentioned are some of the topics that Navigant Research has covered in recent studies, such as 48-volt systems and fuel efficient technologies such as lightweighting and turbocharging. There is a lot of incentive to improve fuel economy as new government regulations on the horizon will require tough targets to be met or fines will be assessed.

Not All Gloom and Doom

But it is not all gloom and doom. The National Research Council has also recently published a report on the Cost, Effectiveness and Deployment of Fuel Economy Technologies for Light-Duty Vehicles. One interesting chart shows that many manufacturers already are selling vehicles that meet future standards. The Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standard sets targets for fuel economy based on vehicle footprint so that the mile-per-gallon number is higher for smaller vehicles.

Some vehicles available today already exceed the targets for 2021 and 2025, including hybrids from Toyota, Ford, and Hyundai. The conventional 2015 Mitsubishi Mirage with a 1.2-L engine and continuously variable transmission (CVT) is close to meeting the 2023 target. Already close to meeting the 2021 target are non-hybrid vehicles such as the Volkswagen Golf diesel, Honda Civic HF, Toyota Corolla LE Eco, Mazda3, and Dodge Dart.

As Navigant Research’s Automotive Fuel Efficiency Technologies report discusses, there is no single quick solution for meeting emissions targets. The goals will be met by a combination of lower weight, better aerodynamics, and more efficient powertrains. The challenge for the automotive industry is to accomplish this at the lowest cost.


Google Glasses Best Use: Safer, More Efficient Driving

— March 28, 2013

A West Virginia legislator recently called for the use of Google Glass – a new consumer electronic device about to be launched by Google – to be banned while driving cars. The politician claims it is an attempt to avoid distracted driving. Unfortunately, he’s got it backwards. The use of Google Glass while driving should be encouraged, not forbidden. It offers a safer and more efficient user interface than we have today.  It also opens up possibilities for better control of the car, which means better mileage and less consumption of gasoline society-wide.

The fact is that the current practice of looking down to scan instrument panels or change the radio station is inherently unsafe. The Air Forces of the world realized that long ago and now the use of the head-up-display (HUD) is widely used by fighter pilots. HUDs were first developed for fighter pilots as a means to keep their line of sight pointed straight ahead while still being able to scan their instruments. The first HUD’s projected instrument displays onto the cockpit glass. Unfortunately, researchers found that this led to the pilots’ committing the sin of cognitive tunneling – the act of focusing on an item in the near field of vision instead of keeping their eyes focused at infinity on the wide field of vision (a good thing to do when you’re in the middle of a dogfight). Subsequently, HUDs were redesigned to give basic information in as visually simple a fashion as possible. By keeping only a few key readings on the windshield and displaying the data in simple geometric forms, the pilots soon found themselves permanently focusing on the wide field while subconsciously absorbing the information that was being presented to them – the ideal way to use an HUD.

A Google Glass-type device, likewise, is an ideal form factor for presenting limited but crucial information to a driver without interrupting their line-of-sight. The limitation of data is key: the answer to cognitive tunneling is limiting the amount of data being presented. The driver isn’t there to read a book, after all. By using an intelligent device like Google Glass, the car can present only the information the driver needs to see at the present moment (an unsafe speed warning, an upcoming turn to be made, an empty gas tank, etc.). The device can also bring advanced safety systems into play by broadcasting lane drifting warnings or other cars approaching that might warrant defensive maneuvers. Google Glass, all in all, has the potential to significantly add to the safety of the driver and riders.

Another key element that Google Glass can deliver is useful voice control. Although voice control is improving in automobiles, it is far more difficult to yell a perceptible command at a device that is 2-feet away from the driver’s mouth (ask anyone who has used Ford Sync about this issue) than it is for a device that the driver is wearing. Additionally, Google Glass is rumored to have bone conduction capabilities, meaning that it always detects when the wearer (and not an inconsiderate passenger in the backseat) is speaking.

The utility of Google Glass doesn’t have to end there. If a driver wants to save more fuel, a Google Glass app could provide an icon that provides persistent feedback on their driving habits. Simple changes to driving habits can easily lead to significant fuel savings. Too hard on the brakes? The icon could vibrate. Accelerating too quickly? The icon could glow yellow. That sort of persistent feedback is not possible from a smartphone or an instrument panel on the dashboard, but it could be easily processed by the wearer of a Google Glass device. This kind of driving would be especially advantageous for drivers of hybrids and pure electric vehicles, since optimization of regenerative braking habits is one of the easiest ways to improve mileage.

With all of the good things that Google Glass can do, it needs to be emphasized that it, like any consumer electronics device, must be limited while the user is driving. There needs to be a “Drive Mode” that shuts off visual text alerts, emails, and movie streaming while the wearer is driving. If that happens, and if the price drops considerably from its current $1,500 peak, it will be the norm for drivers to buckle in, adjust their seatbelts, and turn on Google Glass.


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