I watched an interesting podcast from Autoline.tv on a flight back from the UK. The main guest was MaryAnn Wright, a VP at Johnson Controls (JCI) who manufacture and sell one third of all lead acid batteries in cars globally. They have also signed an agreement with Mercedes-Benz and a couple of other US built brands to supply Lithium Ion batteries for hybrids.
The focus of the podcast was what did the future hold for electric cars – the industry today doesn’t make any money when a fully electric car sells – such as a Nissan Leaf – even Tesla is struggling to make anything and Karma have already collapsed once and been reborn.
Ms Wright asked John McElroy, the long time presenter of the program, whether he meant fully electric or semi-electric? In the industry, semi-electric has two meanings:
1. a hybrid petrol/electric or diesel/electric,
2. the ability to remove more components from being powered by the engine.
Lets look at these as separate topics.
Full Electric Cars
It is logical to think that more fully electric cars will come on the market and as the sales grow, so will some profit per vehicle. One of the initial reasons that these cars have not sold well is price – it is hugely expensive to develop new technologies and bring them to market. Secondly, the earlier cars had low ranges and despite many people not driving very far each day, there was “range anxiety” even though the range was often greater than the daily drive!
Several manufacturers make full electric vehicles and have to discount them to sell or have Government payments to encourage purchase. As battery technology improves, many of the buyer objections will be covered and we will see more on the road. There are now several types of battery that are being brought to market – some evolving from consumer goods like laptops.
With the charging infrastructure growing with new home based systems, it makes owning an electric car much easier to manage – the next step is to standardise on plugs and other core systems so that an owner isn’t locked into one manufacturer and doesn’t have to buy different (and expensive) charging units each time they change vehicles.
Some 3-5% of all new cars sold in the US today are a form of hybrid technology where a smaller engine is coupled with an electric motor so the car can run on electricity only, petrol/diesel only or a combination of both. Again, the new developments in battery performance is helping these cars to be more popular. New concepts like KERS from auto racing – the regeneration of an electric current under braking – allowing the Lithium Ion battery to recharge on the fly makes these cars financially worthwhile with the fuel savings that are made. Interestingly, the diesel hybrids were not that popular, however the European manufacturers have spent considerable amounts of cash and time to make them work smoothly.
This is a subject that interests me because it is all about the evolution of the internal combustion engine and its associated components. Forty odd years ago, you could buy electric fans to help cool the engine. This took away one of the big drains on an engine because the fan was connected directly to the engine by a belt thus consuming a portion of the power that the engine produced. Removing this meant that the engine could provide more power to the wheels for less fuel.
Now, other components are being developed and Ms Wright spoke about a 48 volt battery that JCI was developing to take away some of the load from the normal 12 volt battery that is used to power many items in the vehicle. This means that the alternator doesn’t have to take power from the engine as the fan used to do. In a similar fashion, turbochargers are being developed to run from a battery and this means that the exhaust can be extracted like normally aspirated engines are and this can help the engine run cleaner and get more efficiencies.
The Original Internal Combustion Engine
Interestingly during the podcast – despite wanting to be about electric vehicles, Ms Wright stated several times that the petrol/diesel engine still had plenty of life in it and cited a study that suggested that there was potentially a further 30% increase in efficiencies to be had that would exceed the current Government emissions requirements. Apart from applying some of the technologies described above, research has improved stop/start functionality and there are new lubricants being developed to reduce friction with even better direct injection units to reduce consumption as well.
Despite many organisations wanting to stop the sale of internal combustion engines, I can see them being used for decades into the future – with a wide range of fuel sources.