Electric propulsion is now “inescapable”

  • 13-Apr-2016 09:41 EDT
JackieBirdsall Toyota 2016Congress.jpg

Toyota engineer Jackie Birdsall addresses a vehicle electrification issue at the 2016 SAE Congress audience as GM's Larry Nitz and Kevin Layden from Ford look on.

Though battery-powered vehicles haven’t yet met predicted sales levels, leading OEMs are bullish about the future, saying that newer generation vehicles now provide features and prices that will attract buyers.

“There will certainly be an electrified vehicle in your future, it’s inescapable,” said Kevin Layden, Director Electrified Programs & Engineering at Ford Motor Co. “When you look at global CO2 regulations, the industry can’t meet the goals without electrification.”

Members of the “Why it’s likely that there will be an electrified vehicle in your future?” panel at the 2016 SAE World Congress went beyond fuel and environmental benefits, citing drivability as a key reason that buyers will turn to electrified vehicles.

“Education is the key, most customers don’t understand the benefits of cost of ownership,” said Larry Nitz, Executive Director at General Motors. “We’ve been bad at explaining that to customers. When people get into a car, a light bulb goes off and they realize these vehicles are fun to drive.”

Panelists all observed that consumer opinions change once they drive an EV and see benefits like good torque and quiet cabins. They noted that range anxiety, another objection that’s slowed acceptance, is declining as performance increases.

“In the fall, the second generation Prius plug-in vehicle will come out, offering twice the range of the previous generation,” noted Jackie Birdsall, Executive Engineer, Toyota Engineering and Manufacturing North America Inc.

Automakers are also attacking another roadblock: high costs of EVs compared to similar vehicles with internal combustion engines. They’re leveraging the declining costs and increasing capabilities of semiconductors and batteries. At the same time, some are using modules across many product lines to increase volume and decrease engineering time.

“The Malibu’s electric drive system is 98% common with the Volt,” Nitz said. “Its controls are about 85% common with the Volt and the modular battery pack has about 80% common controls.”

Panelists acknowledged that electrified vehicle sales have not lived up to predictions, especially in North America. However, they noted that will change as 2025 and its 54.5- mpg CAFE regulations kick in. They also noted that sales could rise faster in undeveloped countries.

In the U.S., easy access to gas stations highlights the shortage of electric charging stations. In countries where vehicle ownership has been low, market development for electrified powertrains may come faster if charging stations are set up.

“The acceptance of electrified powertrains is a matter of when and where,” said Yasuyuki Sando, Senior Chief Engineer, Honda R&D Co. “India and China have a very small scale gasoline infrastructure.”

Toyota noted that fueling stations are a challenge for its fuel cell vehicles. Birdsall said that a huge infrastructure is not needed, partially because drivers can fill vehicles up with hydrogen pumps designed for homes.

“It’s not essential to have a hydrogen station on every corner, we only need about 60 stations in California to support hydrogen vehicles” she explained. “However, it’s incredibly challenging to get the infrastructure ready.”

Ease of use and cost are critical elements for replenishing both battery packs and hydrogen tanks. Though high voltage (220-V SAE Level 2) chargers offer shorter charging times, many users have not adopted them.

“We expected 80% of customers to use 220-V home chargers, but we’re surprised that half the customers charge with 110 V even today,” Nitz said. “The key is that it has to be convenient and cost effective.”

Though panelists were unanimously bullish about the future for electric propulsion vehicles, they didn’t shy from addressing their shortcomings. Range anxiety remains an issue for vehicles that don’t rely on internal combustion engines for many conditions.

“Battery electric vehicles, have shorter range and longer recharging time, so another car will, be needed for people who take longer drives,” Sando said. “With plug-in hybrid EVs, people can use them for every day.”

Panelists agreed that the industry could benefit from standards for rating mileage and distance ratings for electrified vehicles. Ranges will vary widely depending on the test techniques used. Another marketing problem is that it’s difficult to compare the mileage ratings of ICE and hybrids with statistics for pure electric vehicles.

Both Layden and Nitz suggested that SAE could serve the industry by attempting to set standards that make it easier to compare mileage performance.

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