The high cost of plugging in

  • 29-Oct-2009 01:35 EDT
Volt Drive.jpg
A preproduction Chevrolet Volt undergoes an engineering test drive along an expressway near Toledo, OH, on Oct. 13.

Automakers, suppliers, and venture-capital companies are heavily investing in the potential paybacks associated with electrified vehicles.

"Ford has placed big bets in the electric area," Bill Ford, Chairman of Ford Motor Co., told attendees of The Business of Plugging In, a conference on plug-in electric vehicles (PHEVs) held in Detroit Oct. 19-21.

Ford plans to bring a battery-electric Transit Connect commercial van to the marketplace next year. A battery-electric Ford Focus compact car arrives in 2011, and third-generation hybrids and plug-in hybrids follow later. General Motors Co. is in the preproduction validation stage with the Chevrolet Volt, an extended-range electric vehicle.

While the U.S., Europe, and Japan are flush with companies involved in hybrid and electric-vehicle development, China is also on the bandwagon. "We firmly believe China will be one of the largest plug-in electric vehicle markets in the world," said Yibing Wu, Managing Director of Beijing's Legend Holdings Ltd., the largest investor in Suzhou Phylion Battery Co.

In addition to producing large-format lithium-ion cells for garden tools and electric bicycles, Phylion supplies cells to a number of automakers for prototype vehicles. Company officials recently signed an agreement to supply cells for a production series of electric vehicles, according to a company executive summary report dated Sept. 8.

Phylion's portfolio includes two types of cells for automotive applications: an 8-A·h high-power cell with a power density of 1700 W/kg for hybrid vehicles and a 40-A·h high-energy cell with an energy density of 105 W·h/kg for plug-in hybrids and battery electric vehicles, according to a company report.

In December, Chinese government officials will provide details of a three-city pilot program for charging electric vehicles. Spurred by various national policies, China intends to produce 500,000 hybrid and electric vehicles annually beginning in 2012. "In China, one of the advantages is when the government sets a goal, there is a fairly good track record of achieving that goal," said Wu.

China and the U.S. are highly dependent on foreign oil, and curbing that addiction necessitates creativity, said Raymond Lane, a partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, a California-based venture-capital firm that has invested in Fisker Automotive and other electric-vehicle start-up companies. "Engineering must come back to be our number one priority," said Lane, former President of the business software company Oracle.

The business of innovating is expensive, especially for first-generation products such as the electric motor, traction motor, generator, and charger. Those and other components are "still too expensive, too bulky, and need to be improved," said Dr. Jochem Wolschendorf, Chief Technical Officer and Vice President of Vehicle & Drivetrain Engineering at FEV Inc.

Many suppliers being tapped for hybrid and electric-vehicle parts are new to the automotive industry, and even though many have nonautomotive experience it can be challenging to meet the automotive industry's quality, durability, and reliability demands. "We've got to develop an automotive-capable, credible supply base," said John Ferris, GM's Program Planning Manager for Electric Vehicle (Volt/Voltec) & Infrastructure.

When hybrid vehicles were first being developed, Yazaki's nonautomotive subcontractors were on a steep learning curve to meet automotive standards and go from low- to high-volume production, said Jim Romine, President, Component Business Unit, and Executive Vice President of Engineering, Yazaki North America. "What was different about the hybrid situation for us was that it was only a few OEMs that were driving the high-volume side of that equation, so the directions were fairly consistent and our technology deployment followed that pattern. If I contrast that to the plug-in business, it's a completely different situation."

Basically every OEM around the world implementing is pursuing plug-ins, Romine continued. "We have new OEMs that never even existed a few years ago that are influencing this business. We have system integrators, like FEV, influencing the business. Large component manufacturers that started off nonautomotive are also influencing it. And because we're also talking about the grid, the infrastructure suppliers also influence this."

The speed of change is not issue-free. "If I find a nonautomotive supplier that can do a certain type of an operation that I need today, and I gear them up and teach them automotive—and make a big investment—and then in two years that technology is obsolete, it becomes a very big challenge and a limitation on our ability or willingness to do that," Romine said.

Obstacles are part of the drive toward vehicle electrification. "PHEVs really have to change the game," said Tony Earley Jr., Chairman and CEO of DTE Energy. "A number of the problems that were identified in the past—battery life, infrastructure availability issues, and reliability issues—are minimized by the plug-in hybrid. Unlike battery-only vehicles, plug-in vehicles don't require that on-demand, high-power charger. PHEVs will ease the shift to a more robust infrastructure than what would be needed to service a full battery-electric vehicle program."

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