Navigant Research Blog

At Nissan, Progress Looks Backward

— March 4, 2013

The second generation of the Nissan Note will be launched officially at the Geneva Motor Show this week.  B-Class “supermini” vehicles are the biggest segment in the European market, and competition is tough.  Styling and technology features get a lot of attention, as well as performance and fuel economy.  Ford was the first to introduce advanced safety systems to this segment with its 2013 Focus model, offering features such as adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning, blind spot detection, and automatic emergency braking.

One of the new options on the updated Note is the Nissan Safety Shield package, which is composed of lane departure warning, blind spot warning, and advanced moving object detection.  While Ford uses the increasingly popular forward-looking camera along with the latest low-cost radar sensors, Nissan has chosen to implement a similar suite of functions via a camera that faces to the rear.  The camera also contributes to the Around View Monitor feature that gives the driver a bird’s eye view of the car as it is being reversed, thanks to additional cameras at the front and sides.

Warning: Obstacles Ahead

What makes the Nissan system significant is that the rear-looking camera is not simply a passive sensor projecting an image on the screen for the driver to look at but an active monitor that warns the driver if something is not right.  When reversing, a warning beep will sound if an object is detected in the path of the vehicle, thanks to the rapid analysis of the images many times per second.  The same technology is used to monitor the blind spot on either side when the car is traveling forward.  The camera can also track the lane markings to alert the driver of inadvertent drift.  The camera itself has a convex lens that gives it a vision sweep of a little over 180 degrees, and because of its importance to the safety systems it has an automatic cleaning system built in.

The Note’s Around View system confirms that advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) are now available on mass market vehicles.  It was only a few years ago that such features were offered only on the most expensive luxury models.  It also demonstrates that camera technology and the analysis software has advanced to the point where it can replace the more expensive radar sensors in safety systems, thus accelerating the adoption of similar functionality across all vehicles in the near future.

Widespread availability of ADASs on the majority of vehicles is an important stepping stone toward intelligent transportation systems and autonomous driving.  Well-tested software and sensors are critical to more automated driving, and once individual cars are more aware of their surroundings the value of linking them via wireless communications to share data about traffic and potential incidents also goes up.  Pike Research will be taking a closer look at this technology later in 2013.


Synthetic Natural Gas – The Missing Link?

— March 1, 2013

Synthetic natural gas (SNG) has been around for a few decades now, primarily using coal as an input, but SNG version 2.0, being developed in Germany by companies including Audi, is different.  It is not renewable natural gas (RNG), which is made from biogas; SNG is made from the methanation of renewably produced hydrogen.

My colleague Mackinnon Lawrence explains that RNG is produced by collecting raw biogas from anaerobic digesters, landfills, wastewater treatment facilities, etc., then stripping out the CO2 and other trace gases.  This yields pipeline quality, purified methane.  The new form of SNG, on the other hand, uses excess wind power to produce electrolytic hydrogen, which is then combined with CO2 (the methanation step) to produce another stream of pipeline-quality natural gas.

So we have one process of producing natural gas that has as a by-product CO2 and one that requires CO2 to produce natural gas.  Handy! But why could SNG be so important in the coming decades?

Out of Love

Europe is falling out of love with natural gas – at least the stuff that is extracted from the ground and tends to be imported from outside the EU.  However, one legacy of the continent’s 30-year love affair with natural gas is a very substantial natural gas infrastructure.  At the same time the European Commission has stated, without yet forming a concrete policy plan, that the entire 27 nations of the European Union will decarbonize by 2050.

EU GHG Reductions Compared to 1990 (% Reductions; 1990 = 100%):  2005-2050


(Source: Pike Research)

Long term, the European economy could well be hydrogen-based.  A recent report from the H2Mobility grouping in the United Kingdom, for example, shows that there could be 1.5 million hydrogen fueled cars on the road in the United Kingdom by 2015.  But any significant energy transition takes decades to accomplish, and there is no black and white switch approach to this.  We must move step by step and plan for the transitional steps.

Although in 2013 electrolysis is not new technology, the storage of large volumes of hydrogen, in any size and scale, is still tricky.  There are research and pilot schemes to store hydrogen at volume in salt caverns, but the scale of inter-seasonal hydrogen that could be needed to store and balance out seasonal demand is beyond the levels that we can currently achieve – that’s where SNG could come in.  Producing large volumes of hydrogen, cheaply from electrolysis using excess wind power, and then turning this into easy to store and transport natural gas, could well be the key stepping stone from the 2013 fossil fuel-based economy to the 2040 hydrogen-based economy.


EVs No Solution to Traffic Dilemmas

— March 1, 2013

Small plug-in electric vehicles (PEVs) are typically said to be designed for use within cities where commutes are shorter and pollution is high.  These vehicles are targeted at large urban areas, and our analysis of PEV sales by Metropolitan Statistical Areas confirms that big cities are indeed seeing the highest sales.  This urban focus, however, raises the question: How many more cars can cities absorb?  I have broached the subject of peak cars in the past, and I stand by my assertion that the United States hasn’t yet hit that magic number, beyond which car sales will fall steadily over time.  Even more intriguing is a related question: Will PEVs actually cause traffic congestion and bring the point of peak cars sooner?

Texas A&M’s Transportation Institute released its annual study on traffic in the United States in early February.  The headlines are unsurprising: traffic is bad and getting worse.  Another recently released U.S. study, authored by Chris McCahill and Norman Garrick and published in Urban Design International, shows that once all these cars arrive at their destinations, cities that provide ample parking may not, in fact, be places where people want to be.  The amount of space required for parking cars (regardless of drivetrain) makes destinations less desirable.

More Lanes, More Traffic

As cities grow, one thing becomes clear: this is an interesting conundrum for city and transportation planners who don’t want cars but want the people that cars bring.  Often public transit is pointed to as a key solution and it does serve the purpose.  However, as I pointed out in my peak cars post, in the United States transit passenger trips and the number of vehicles sold actually correlate surprisingly well (they both grow at similar rates).  Similarly a 2011 study from the American Economic Association demonstrates that, regardless of the increase in public transit and in the number of lanes of roadways, traffic tends to always clog the available roads.

In sum, traffic is getting worse (and perhaps more concerning is that it’s becoming less predictable), resulting pollution is significant, building more roads doesn’t reduce traffic, and when all that traffic arrives at its destination, if drivers can easily find a place to park, that likely means they don’t want to spend much time there.  To find the solution to this challenge, a number of different strategies for congestion mitigation have been attempted, including congestion pricing, banning vehicles from roads on specific days, increased public transit, and carsharing.

Since congestion mitigation is almost always centered on the environmental impact of traffic, it makes sense that PEVs would be excluded from mitigation schemes.  PEVs greatly reduce or eliminate the environmental cost of traffic.  Of course, the fly in the ointment is that many of the other indirect costs of driving a vehicle remain ‑ particularly time lost to traffic congestion and increased parking space requirements.  While this won’t matter for the next decade because of the low number of PEVs on the roads, as the market matures expect to see PEVs increasingly getting lumped together with traditional vehicles.  This distinction matters because city and transportation planners talk in terms of decades in future plans … much to the bicycle industry’s glee, no doubt.


Honeywell, Opower Marry Demand Response & Energy Efficiency

— March 1, 2013

Surprisingly, only a handful of utilities have combined demand response and energy efficiency into a unified program.  Some examples of combined programs include: Georgia Power, Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD), Austin Energy, Kansas City Power & Light, and Long Island Power Authority.   

However, efforts to merge DR with energy efficiency are rising as utilities realize the benefits of achieving synergy between them.  Better coordination and tighter integration of DR and energy efficiency would lead to greater cost effectiveness, mainly because of more efficient allocation of resources among program providers.  Consumers would likely welcome a packaged approach to manage their energy use, so they don’t have to deal with two different programs.  An integrated program with a coordinated marketing and education effort could also increase DR market penetration.  In fact, when DR is coupled with behavioral-based energy efficiency programs to raise customers’ awareness of energy use, participation in DR programs tends to improve.  Similarly, by blending DR with efficiency utilities can deepen their energy efficiency initiatives.

That’s why the recent announcement by Honeywell and Opower that they will team up to provide an integrated Energy Management platform is worth noting.   This platform combines Honeywell’s two-way communicating, Wi-Fi-enabled thermostat (built on the VisionPRO platform) with Akuacom’s demand response automation server (DRAS), embedded with a demand response management system (DRMS), and Opower’s interactive, cloud-based software tool to help consumers manage their energy use via the Web or a smartphone.   Jeremy Eaton, vice president and general manager of Honeywell Smart Grid Solutions, explained in a statement:  “We’re bridging the gap by providing mobility, relatable energy information, precise control, and other features customers want so utilities can reach deeper levels of connectivity and participation.”

The platform is designed to enable automated DR (ADR), using the OpenADR 2.0a specification, for almost all residential heating and cooling systems through Honeywell’s Wi-Fi-enabled thermostat.  All thermostats are fully programmed upon installation according to the consumer’s preferred temperature set points and schedules, driving energy conservation and reduced air conditioning or heating use.  In addition, the platform uses measurement techniques to demonstrate ongoing energy savings that utilities can use in meeting their required annual efficiency goals.   Five utilities are piloting the platform, including Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), which is currently testing it with about 500 residential consumers.  Its success could help blur the sharp lines between DR and energy efficiency.


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