Alternative powertrains must survive the 'hype cycle'

  • 13-Nov-2012 07:57 EST

“Goodwin Assist” turns Hummer H2 into fuel sipper by adding plug-in battery packs so it runs virtually as an electric vehicle.

OE and performance aftermarketers both are in a race to innovate in an era of complex regulation, facing such “givens” as “cars that don’t crash, devices that don’t distract, powertrains that don’t pollute,” and in the end, the product still has to be “cool.” This was the broad theme laid out by John Waraniak, SEMA Vice President of Vehicle Technology, at the 2012 SEMA (Specialty Equipment Market Association) Show forum, "The Race to Innovate."

But there are two types of innovation: the incremental type that people accept readily and the emerging technologies that excite the early adopters but often are held back, perhaps just initially, by lack of cost-effectiveness and real-world functional limits.

'Hype cycle' explained

Waraniak told the audience that emerging technologies such as alternative powertrains follow a “hype cycle,” a five-step process. “The first phase is the technology trigger—a breakthrough, product launch, or concept vehicle that generates significant press and interest.” Next is the rise to a peak of inflated expectations, where the publicity generates over-enthusiasm and unrealistic expectations. This is followed by a drop into “a trough of disillusionment, where the technology fails to meet the over-hyped expectations,” he continued, and in which it falls out of favor.

But if innovative companies perceive its value, they continue to experiment and understand the practical applications, Waraniak said, describing this stage as “a slope of enlightenment” where SEMA members live and the aftermarket shows its prowess. Finally, he said, the technology matures, is mass-commercialized, deployed, and accepted—“the plateau of productivity.”

He described the plug-in electric vehicle as an example of a much-hyped product that at this time seems to be in the trough, while “incremental” changes such as gasoline direct injection and turbocharging reach high volumes.

However, “race” applied to automotive engineering innovation may be an overstatement. Forum panelist Patrick Reininger of R.L. Polk, the automotive data analysis firm that includes the CARFAX vehicle history reports subsidiary, noted that smart phones reached 50% of the phone market in just eight years and personal computers had a similar penetration of the consumer market in just 20 years. And 102 million tablets were sold in just two years, he added.

A key part of the innovation process is to maintain the “cool” while participating in the industry’s “other” race: against U.S. EPA regulations that lead to a Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) average of 54.5 mpg by 2025. That time frame is just three new model cycles away, with at least one of those likely to be almost “locked in.” The higher degree of regulation of the auto industry and cost concerns do slow the pace of innovation in many areas while regulations mandate it in others, particularly fuel economy and safety.

One of the most important considerations, however, is maintaining capability, said Dr. Mircea Gradu, Vice President of Transmission, Powertrain and Driveline Engineering at Chrysler. “You can’t compromise on towing and off-roading,” he said.

Diesel 'excitement' cost-effective

Excitement has to be built into the powertrain in a way that has consumer acceptance and includes a high-volume choice that is cost-effective, Dr. Gradu said. That combination, he told the SEMA meeting, leads to the diesel engine, with its inherently high launch and low-end torque. Dr. Gradu also serves as Vice President, Automotive Sector of SAE International.

There is a potential limit, however, to the diesel from the worldwide crude oil supply, said Dr. David Cole, industry engineering analyst who now heads, a non-profit organization formed to create collaborative groups to spur innovative development. Dr. Cole noted that a significant percentage of the U.S. gasoline supply actually is “surplus” production from refineries that produce diesel fuel for European cars, about half of which have diesel engines.

Dr. Gradu agreed but said U.S. refineries could increase diesel fuel production somewhat, so that increased U.S. passenger-car diesel production would be supplied with fuel. In addition, some industry observers have said that home heating oil, produced from the same type of crude as diesel fuel, could be diverted to diesel automobiles as home conversions to more economical natural gas continue. Bio-diesel is another source, but its present cost is an issue.

Fuel-sipping Hummer

Dr. Gradu said that like other engineers from OEMs, he had come to the SEMA Show to see what the aftermarket proposed as solutions. When it came to the combination of fuel economy and performance, he was greeted by a Hummer H2 hybrid displayed by controversial Johnathan Goodwin. He is the El Dorado, KS, mechanic whose H-Line conversion kits for installing General Motors Duramax turbodiesels into Hummer H1s and H2s ($30,000 installed) gave him a celebrity status, which he raised to a next level: marketing hybrid-electric assist kits—“Goodwin Assist”—that could be installed in large vehicles, otherwise gas guzzlers, to produce “feel good” fuel economy numbers.

Goodwin has promoted the idea of using his hybrid assist system (conceptually similar to the Honda Integrated Motor Assist) with a lithium-ion battery pack that is charged by plug-in to a 120-V outlet and by regenerative braking. The pack is modular, so the more modules, the more assist and range the system can provide. The motor-generator is a modified Ford DS (dual stator), which Goodwin considers a universal motor for EV conversion use. He also has a four-stator version (longer shaft) for a greater amount of assist.

Goodwin told AEI he has Hummer H2 road test results that are in the 60-mpg range and other, similar-size vehicles that average 100 mpg if the electric assist is maximized. Of course, the more assist the shorter the electric assist range (requiring more frequent plug-in) unless the battery pack is much larger. In effect, a Goodwin-assisted H2 becomes virtually an electric vehicle with the engine making an increasingly modest contribution as assist percentage and time are increased. And those fuel economy numbers, of course, are not based on the EPA driving cycles.

But for well-heeled drivers who want big vehicles, do short-trip driving, and want the kind of fuel economy numbers of a Toyota Prius, Goodwin is offering an answer. Rock singer Neil Young is one of Goodwin’s fans and is financing a hybrid-electric conversion of his 1959 Lincoln Continental convertible.

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