Navigant Research Blog

The Unsettled Future of the Electric Powertrain

— March 13, 2017

I recently attended the conference on automotive 48V systems in Berlin organized by BIS Group. My key conclusion is that the electric powertrain is far from a settled science. Many that presented are enthusiastic about 48V technology and its potential for the future. German startup company Volabo even presented the case for a 48V all-electric vehicle. Others see 48V as an interim measure primarily to help OEMs pass the 2020 European Union emissions targets in the short term, with a future going more toward all-electric and full hybrid. Even though production plans have only been made in the last couple of years, powertrain development company AVL told me that testing of 48V systems has been going on for at least 10 years.

Unsurprisingly, Denso has a less enthusiastic opinion of 48V technology than some of the other delegates. The Japanese market has firmly embraced full hybrid drive thanks to Toyota and Honda; the majority of the vehicles on Japanese roads are small cars and trucks with efficient gasoline engines.

A good portion of the engineer audience thinks that an all-electric vehicle future is coming sooner rather than later. However, others are more in line with Navigant Research’s global vehicle forecast that the internal combustion engine still has a long future.

Low Voltage EVs

Volabo is a startup company spun out of a Munich university. Its proposal is a new type of electric motor that uses no copper winding and uses power electronics to control the magnetic fields. High power is made possible by locating the battery close to the motor, connected by thick bars rather than wires to handle the high currents of up to 5,000 amps. Prototype manufacturing for this motor is at the early stage, and there is a lot of interest from other delegates.

Indian OEM Tata’s European Tech Center has examined the market for 48V systems in India and concludes that the market will only be in the C-segment and luxury due to the cost increment. The bulk of the Indian market is very low cost small cars. Typical Indian drivers do not like stop-start systems (and deactivate them if fitted) because fractions of a second delays matter in navigating typical traffic jams. Plug-in EVs are also not likely to be popular in India in the short term because of the unreliability of the local electric grid.

Higher Power Demand

Magna International agrees with one of the key conclusions from my presentation: automated driving systems will support the move toward 48V systems, with demand of up to an additional 10 kW for computing and electric controls that is simply impractical from 12V networks. McLaren Applied Technologies presented some of its development work for racing that is finding its way into volume production. Silicon carbide semiconductors, for example, are prompting performance improvements, and now development work is moving into gallium nitride.

48V Projections

48V automotive systems appear to be an immediate solution to meet upcoming stricter emissions legislation and to provide additional power for automated driving systems. In the short term, these systems will be important in large markets such as Europe, North America, and China, and less so in Japan and India. The longer-term future is somewhat dependent on the growth of high voltage hybrid and all-electric drive, which in turn rely on continued reduction in battery cost. More analysis of the market for 48V systems is available in the Navigant Research report, Low Voltage Vehicle Electrification.

 

Ford Sets a Date for Its Autonomous Vehicle Future

— August 19, 2016

Connected VehiclesOn August 16, Ford held a press conference to announce its plan to launch a fully autonomous vehicle in 2021. Even though the response at the live event was strangely unenthusiastic, there were a number of points that were important for the future of autonomous vehicles and the automotive industry in general.

The headline news was that in 2021, Ford intends to launch a Level 4 (SAE Standard J3016) fully autonomous vehicle. To clarify the nature of the car, CEO Mark Fields made it clear that it would not have a steering wheel or control pedals, even though last year Ford said it had no plans to sell wheeled pods in which people are merely along for the ride.

The company also said that it would be several years after 2021 before individuals can buy it; it is aimed at carsharing and ridesharing fleet operators. Ford Smart Mobility LLC may become one of the first customers. Ford and GM are already piloting their own systems on shuttles for their employees, as noted in a blog earlier this year by my colleague Sam Abuelsamid.

Skipping a Step

Ford also said it would continue to develop and improve its driver assistance features up to Level 2 (partial automation), but it would not be introducing any vehicles with Level 3 (conditional automation) because company researchers had concluded that there was no safe way to ensure that drivers would remain alert enough to resume control in an emergency after an extended period of automated driving. Ford vehicles in the future will either have a range of assistance features or be driverless.

This is a change from the gradual automation theme that has prevailed in the industry until now, although Ford has been saying for the past year that it doesn’t believe that Level 3 is viable. Solving the Level 3 handover issue has been an important topic at recent technical conferences, and Ford has now confirmed its position. While most other OEMs have been working on Level 3, many are now coming around to the idea that the Level 2 to 4 jump is inevitable.

Although convenience and mobility were the focus of the announcement, Ford also acknowledged that safety is a big part of the reason to promote more driver assistance and eventually fully autonomous vehicles. Providing mobility to those without access today, such as the elderly and infirm, was another of the high-level goals. There are also potential opportunities in local package delivery.

Future Investments

Also included in the press announcement were investments in a series of companies providing key pieces of the future autonomous vehicle:

  • Velodyne: A supplier of lidar sensors
  • SAIPS: An Israel-based computer vision and machine learning company
  • Nirenberg Neuroscience: A machine vision platform for performing navigation and object recognition
  • Civil Maps: A provider of high-resolution 3D mapping capabilities

However, Ford made it clear that it was not interested in simply installing autonomous driving software developed elsewhere. It sees its future as a system integrator and will keep most of the development and integration roles in-house.

When asked about powertrain for this new vehicle, Ford said that it would leverage one of its global platforms, but would not confirm whether it would be all-electric or not. The company noted that it has experience with hybrid drive as well as electric and the powertrain has not yet been chosen.

Ford intends to expand from being primarily a vehicle manufacturer to become a mobility company and has drafted a timeline for this shift. This aligns with Navigant Research’s Transportation Outlook white paper that was published in early 2016, and the timing validates the forecasts in our Autonomous Vehicle reports. It will be interesting to see how other OEMs react.

 

The Automotive Industry and Brexit

— July 1, 2016

Electric VehicleThe referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership in the European Union (EU) had been a long time coming. In 1975, the country voted to join what was then the Common Market. Despite multiple treaty changes and political promises, no referendum was offered until June 23, 2016, when the majority (52%) of voters chose to leave the EU.

The EU was established as a customs union to set tariffs on goods coming from outside the EU, with member states not allowed to negotiate their own trade deals. Every deal made by the EU is binding on all members. The EU is a tariff-free trading area among the member states.

Because of the need to wait for a new prime minister and extensive treaty negotiations, the Brexit process is expected to take 2 years or more. The biggest unknown facing business is the nature of trade after the exit. Will there still be free trade between EU countries and the United Kingdom, or will tariffs be introduced? If tariffs, at what rate? If no new deal is made, the World Trade Organization (WTO) rules mean the United Kingdom and EU would be obliged to apply to each other the tariffs and other trade restrictions they apply to the rest of the world. Other possibilities include membership of the European Free Trade Association and/or the European Economic Area, or even a unilateral free trade policy (e.g., Hong Kong). All of the options must be considered by the U.K. Government, so a quick decision is unlikely.

The Automotive Impact

A free trade deal for goods between the EU and the United Kingdom would allow OEMs and suppliers to continue business pretty much as usual. European manufacturers are likely to lobby hard for such an arrangement, both to continue selling U.K.-built vehicles in the EU and to retain access to the lucrative U.K. market for vehicles assembled on the continent. Car buyers in the United Kingdom may benefit from lowering or eliminating tariffs from countries outside the EU, putting downward pressure on pricing.

In a scenario where WTO tariffs are imposed between the United Kingdom and the EU, new free trade deals could cause changes in business processes across Europe. The United Kingdom has the potential to become a European hub for international trade, building cars mainly for local sales and export to non-EU countries. If that happens, in the longer term there will be a need for suppliers to invest in parts manufacture in the United Kingdom. No longer restrained by EU state aid rules, the U.K. government would be able to offer additional support to companies that wish to open new facilities. Factories within the EU could then focus on producing vehicles for the internal market.

An Industry in Flux

It is, however, important to recognize that this new European trading issue comes at a time when the industry is facing major changes due to other factors such as stricter emissions regulations, greater powertrain electrification, autonomous driving, wireless connectivity, and the growth of carsharing and ride hailing. The Navigant Research white paper Transportation Outlook: 2025-2050 offers more insight on these changes. The United Kingdom could become a test bed for new technology before it is rolled out globally.

While industry waits for the U.K. Government’s detailed trade negotiations with the EU, automotive companies can take advantage of the short-term business-as-usual to analyze their engineering and business processes and value chains so that they are prepared for any outcome. There is potential for increased efficiency and profitability in the long term for those companies that adapt best to embrace the future of clean mobility on demand. Brexit may turn out to be a catalyst for positive change.

 

Interest in Electric Trucks Is on the Rise

— May 31, 2016

Electric TruckElectric vehicles (EVs) have been making steady progress in technology and popularity since the Nissan LEAF was introduced in 2010, bringing all-electric drive to the high-volume production car market. Ford debuted the all-electric Ford Focus Electric in 2011, Tesla made another step toward becoming a volume manufacturer in 2012 when it launched the Model S, and a year later, BMW introduced the i3. These are just some of the highlights, and now pretty much every major manufacturer has all-electric vehicles in their product portfolio either now or planned for the near future.

Batteries and Charging

Hybrid technology is also continuing to grow in popularity, and in some regions of the world, plug-in hybrids are selling well. Lithium ion batteries have become the preferred onboard energy storage option, and demand for the batteries from automotive producers is driving investment in new production facilities and bringing unit cost per kilowatt-hour down.

Another sign of progress supporting the growth in popularity of EVs is the development of fast charging and wireless charging. This is particularly important for fleet operators with vehicles in use all day and not parked during work hours; consumer vehicles can often be recharged slowly while not in use.

A recent Navigant Research report, Transportation Forecast: Medium and Heavy Duty Vehicles, identifies which vehicle types are more likely to adopt a variety of alternative powertrains. For the first time, this report looks at the differences between buses and trucks and between medium and heavy duty vehicles. Trucks are a significant contributor to global emissions, and governments in many countries are beginning to look at tightening legislation and setting more stringent targets.

New Options for Fleet Managers

Hybrid and electric drives offer OEMs and fleet managers options to lower their emissions and run cleaner vehicles. Systems have now been tested for many years and there is a lot of data available on reliability and long-term costs, but it is also clear from these tests that the suitability of any powertrain is highly dependent on the work duty cycle and must be optimized for a particular purpose. The longevity of commercial vehicles means that sales growth of these alternative powertrains will remain slow in the short term.

More government incentives to encourage fleet renewal and subsidize the necessary infrastructure would help to accelerate the rollout of cleaner powertrains for commercial vehicles. Lower prices for conventional fuels have had a negative effect in recent years. However, future increases in oil prices are expected to produce more incentive to electrify where it makes sense. Fleet managers would be well-advised to begin planning for the introduction of new technology now.

 

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