Impressions from Plug-In 2011

July 26, 2011 § Leave a comment

Plug-In 2011 was held in Raleigh, NC, the first time ever outside California.  The attendance was just short of last year’s at San Jose.  The Public Night drew 1,300 folks, on par with the San Jose event.  So, the experiment may be deemed a success.  Next year:  Texas.  They will have tough shoes to fill.

On balance, the programming was a good mix of depth and breadth.  The competitive spirit between Nissan and Chevy was something short of collegial.  This was disappointing for a forum such as this.  At this stage, with just two entrants, the task is to get the public enthused about the genre.  The Volt and the Leaf have dramatic differences that allow choice.  Leave it at that.

One speaker made the observation that young girls were particularly enthused about electric vehicles.  This is interesting because cars and trucks used to be the domain of little boys.  When the observation was made from the floor that soon girls would be playing with zinc die cast cars, Chelsea Sexton wryly raised her hand from the podium.  OK, so Chelsea, unmistakably of the female gender, was one such, but we all know that she is unique!  The trend, if verified, holds the promise of another breach in the science and mathematics wall that young women face in today’s society.

Batteries will be the difference:  A prediction was made by a speaker that battery costs could drop to $200 per kWh by 2018.  This is in keeping with our own view.  A scant two years ago this figure was believed to be around $950.  A recent report from the UK offers evidence for Nissan batteries costing about $375.  The report cites GM, Ford and Toyota, all being bearish about numbers below $500.  Admittedly several factors are in play for this seemingly steep drop to date.  Mass production inevitably dropped the cost.  Further, Nissan, in partnership with battery giant NEC since 2007, could well have made breakthroughs in manufacturing.  This is all to the good because battery cost and performance will be the key driver for electric vehicle uptake.

Cost aside, the key attributes of batteries in play are range, energy density (size for a particular range), speed of charging and discharge characteristics as linked to ultimate life.  Depending on how these play out, the choice between hybrids such as the Volt and all-electrics such as the Leaf will be impacted.  Take speed of charging.  If a 22 kWh top up could be accomplished in say 20 minutes, Range Anxiety gets a dose of Valium.  This is because 22 kWh will give you about a 100 miles and one could envision “refueling” stations in sufficient number to allow longer drives.  Lest this sound like wishful thinking, know that at least two outfits are working on improving the lithium iron phosphate cathode to accept a blindingly fast charge rate.  If this came to pass, the comfort of the gasoline backup in the Volt could be less of a factor.  In fact, the 40 mile electric-only feature begins to look puny in terms of low cost emission free range.

An improvement in energy density helps both types of vehicles, but likely more the all-electric.  Presently the all-electric is advantaged in weight because it loses a lot of heavy equipment such as the internal combustion engine, transmission, gear box and so forth.  But the larger battery adds significant weight.  Energy density improvements will help, although the temptation may be to give more range for the same weight and volume.

Motors could be the difference:  Not in the same way as batteries, advances in motors could nevertheless have a material impact.  Shown at the conference were in-wheel motors.  Fitting in any 18 inch wheel, these allow elimination of the differential and could provide very precise four wheel drive capability.

Most of the motors today use permanent magnets with the Rare Earth elements Neodymium and Dysprosium in it.  In fact, the Prius has up to 25 pounds of Rare Earth elements.  Neodymium in particular is a problem because the price has quadrupled in the last year.  Substitute elements are being sought for the magnets.  But an entirely different avenue is to eliminate the use through the use of induction motors.  Nicola Tesla invented this back in 1888.  For proper functioning, it requires precise computer aided controls.  Only recently has it been rendered truly functional and economical.  The Tesla Roadster has one such and several companies including BMW are planning on having one.  Aside from non-reliance on Rare Earth elements, no permanent magnet means no need to cool the unit (permanent magnets do not function well at higher temperatures). This type of motor may not need a gear box, as is the case in the Tesla.

Plug-In 2011 exuded optimism.  All data to date, including consumer feedback, appears to justify it.

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