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Friday, January 11, 2013

In the 1950s, automobile prognosticators foretold that we would have flying cars by the end of the century, and here we are, still stuck on the ground. It's probably for the best, considering that thousands of hours of flight training are required to take an airplane off the ground. Even so, it's a pretty neat idea. For now, though, let's just stick to a few years into the future, or even just one. With all the development in the last decade, trying to get electric vehicles [EV] out of the concept vaults and into people's garages, one has to wonder where it's all going to end up. Battery and motor technology, of course, are only one half of the equation, but what of the supporting infrastructure, charging stations and repair facilities?

Tesla Motors, a leading EV manufacturer and startup company, had made great strides in making EVs more accepted by the driving public, offering industry-leading range, and even a growing network of fast-charging stations that will one day make it across the US and Canada. The Model S is now in full production, deliveries have started, and CEO Elon Musk even announced their first full week of profitability on December 3, 2012. On the other hand, some EV and EV-related companies haven't been able to hold on, including now-bankrupt A123 Systems, and advanced rechargeable battery developer and manufacturer, and flailing CODA Motors, who just laid off 15% of their workforce.

The Future…

A recent report released by Pike Research, “ElectricVehicles: 10 Predictions for 2013,” lays out their predictions for EVs in 2013. Seeing as 2013 isn't that far off, just a couple of weeks, as a matter of fact, what should we be looking forward to? Here are a few highlights from the report:

1.   Battery Components. Rechargeable battery packs are made up of a number of compnent, the most critical of which are the anode, cathode, and electrolyte. Companies developing rechargeable battery packs haven't very much success, and financing such ventures has started to wane, so we're expecting to see a shift from developing whole packs to perfecting individual components. Large chemical companies, such as Dow Energy Materials and BASF, will continue to invest in R&D of the individual components, which will still require a battery manufacturer to put the pieces together.

2.   Charging Rates. Various EV manufacturers have offered a range of EV charging stations, some as low as 7kW [LI] and take up to 8 hours to fully charge, and others, such as the Tesla Supercharger, up to 100 kW [LIII], which can charge an 80kWh Model S battery pack in about an hour. What drivers, especially commuters, are realizing, though, is that the LI chargers are a good balance between charge time and charger expense. Expect more companies to install LI chargers at workplaces, which are cheaper and will sufficiently charge most EVs in the four to eight hours they are parked, as well as more consumers opting for LI chargers at home, where they can charge overnight.

3.   Fuel Cell Vehicles. Hydrogen Fuel Cell [HFC] vehicles are the cleanest hybrids that exist, making use of an all-electric power-train coupled with an HFC that converts hydrocarbon-rich or pure hydrogen fuel into electricity with zero emissions. The expense and weight of HFCs have come down over the years, but still not quite enough for a wide distribution. Some 3,000 HFC vehicles are expected to hit fleets, government operations, and qualified trials in 2013. Depending on these trials, a wider distribution by Toyota and Honda could start as early as 2014 or 2015.

The following aren't EV-specific highlights, but still point to some advancements making it even to internal combustion engine [ICE] vehicles:

1.   Start-Stop Technology. We already know that idling costs as much as 3¢/min, but imagine if you could shut the engine off automatically. There are already a few vehicles with Start-Stop Technology [SST], which automatically shuts down the engine, even before coming to a complete stop. SST, and perhaps an extension of it, coasting technology [CT], could increase fuel economy by up to 10% according to BMW and Audi. Along with SST and CT, advancements will have to be made with larger battery packs and heavier starters, as well as electronic steering and brakes, which do not rely on engine-generated vacuum to operate.

2.   48-Volt Battery. Years ago, the 42V lead-acid battery came and failed to enter the automobile market, citing the impracticality and expense of the step-down converters required to run 12V components. Since then, converter prices and reliability have gotten better, making the introduction of 48V batteries a better option, especially in vehicles with start-stop technology. With a 48V battery, headlights and other electric accessories won't fade when the engine is stopped at 0mph. Engine restarting will also be faster. AllCell Technologies, Balqon, and others are developing 48V lead-acid and lithium-ion [Li-ion] batteries for just such an application.

The EV market is still in its infancy, and there are sure to be both successes and failures. At first, it seemed that consumers weren't willing ot accept the limitations imposed by pure EVs, but perceptions are turning around. I, for one, expect that it will continue to grow and expand, and it seems that the researchers at Pike Research agree.

Author Bio:
B. Jerew is green automotive technology expert who cut his teeth as a Toyota master technician.  He has provided this post on behalf of MyCarLender.com, a service that matches car-shoppers to lenders willing to approve them for financing.

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