Making Electric Cars Work

June 16, 2014

Engineers identify specific research and development goals we need to achieve to make electric cars work.

This is the second of at three part series on the state of play of the electric car industry. In part one, Are Electric Cars Ready?, engineers and researchers identified obstacles to widespread electric vehicle adoption. In Part Three, we talk about what skills and training are in demand.

Nobody’s denying that the modern EV is, technically speaking, in its infancy. In practical terms, they’ve only been on the roads for less than 20 years. There’s still a lot to learn about how to design and build electric cars, but we will undoubtedly see rapid technological advancement across this entire sector once the industry really embraces the challenges.

Improve Battery Technology to Make Electric Cars Work

Making Electric Cars Work Engineer Jobs

Credit: Power Japan Plus

“You’ve got to start by looking at drag,” says Christian Okonsky, CEO of Austin’s KLD Energy Technologies. “EVs really benefit from having a low coefficient of drag. The Volkswagen XL1 shows you what can be done – it has the lowest Cd in the world, just 0.15, compared to .30 or .40 for most cars.”

Jean M. Redfield, President and CEO of Michigan non-profit NextEnergy, kicks off with a more immediately obvious aspect of the problem. “Reduce weight, of both the battery and the vehicle. At the DOE-funded Joint Center for Energy Storage Research (JCESR), they’re working on improved energy density of the battery through new chemistry and pack design. Their goal is to create batteries with five times the energy density of today’s batteries at one-fifth the cost within five years.”

Design engineer Travis Owens, from Aegis Power Systems, identifies a key battery technology that could revolutionize the electric car market. “The introduction and development of solid state batteries is something that has been missed by many non-engineers.” Earlier this month, Power Japan Plus announced a new carbon battery. Designed by Dr Kaname Takeya, the mastermind behind the batteries in both the Prius and the Tesla Model S, the company claims that the Ryden dual-carbon battery will charge 20 times faster than lithium-ion batteries and last for more than 3,000 charge/discharge cycles.

That’s enough to deliver 300 miles of range for most EVs, a substantial improvement over existing batteries, and charge in around a minute, which is about as fast as filling up a gas tank. It’s also completely recyclable and uses no metals, rare earths, or heavy metals, which cuts down the manufacturing cost.

Redfield continues: “There’s a lot of battery work going on right now. Firms like Sakti3 are working on the next generation of battery that might be able to improve battery longevity, safety and charge acceptance. There’s also research into micro hybrid battery technologies to optimize power output of batteries from companies like Advanced Battery Concepts, Inmatech, and Navitas, and wireless vehicle charging technologies from Delphi and Qualcomm Halo.”

Darren Hammell – Co-Founder and Chief Strategy Officer of Princeton Power Systems – sees charging systems as equally important. “Faster charging will make a huge difference,” he says. “Even just shaving a few minutes off the charge time will change the way people feel about that wait. Better chargers will allow drivers to recharge much quicker than plugging into their domestic wall outlet.”

“But more importantly,” he continues, “we need to get charging points in place wherever people need them. We need them in rest stops, in parking lots at malls, at people’s places of work, everywhere. That’s a huge investment in infrastructure that needs to happen. But with that scale of investment, we need to find ways of bringing down the costs, and that takes more technical work to reduce the manufacturing load. We also need to consider the impact on the grid, if we have millions of people charging their cars every night. That’s not a small problem.”

Could Electric Cars Go Off Grid?

“Of course,” Hammell concludes, “there’s an obvious way around the grid – solar. That’s the holy grail for many of us. Cars powered by nothing but sunlight. The tech is there. There’s literally no show-stopper to making it happen. In San Diego Zoo, right now, you can go and park under a solar canopy and charge your car for free while you walk around the zoo. Look 10 or 15 years into the future, and that’s the way we’ll all be doing it. It’s just the cost.”

Making Electric Cars Work Engineer Jobs

Credit: Argonne National Laboratory

Okonsky grins. “Last month at KLD, we started providing all our employees with free solar recharging at work via specially designed car ports. They’re totally off-grid. Part of the problem with solar is the batteries. Charging lead-acid batteries with solar doesn’t work well. The lithium-ion batteries we use charge 2.5 times faster. So all of these solutions have to come together. Ford and Audi are doing a lot of work with integrating solar charging stations into their cars, but really, the tech work has been done, enough that solar could be fully commercial in a few years.”

Redfield sets out an even more ambitious vision, but hedges her bets slightly. “Solar charging directly from the vehicle is coming. It’s probably a ways off, though there are plenty who are looking at PV paints and glass materials so that the auto itself may someday generate PV. Given the 7 to 10 year design and development cycle for the automotive industry, it’s likely to be at least another decade before PV is incorporated into the vehicle itself, and that’s only if the economics favor incorporating PV materials directly into the auto rather than using charging stations. Similar to other challenges, the business model and costs for this technology remain a key issue and is one of the reasons solar charging remains a niche.”

In other words, by 2025, we could easily be driving vehicles that aren’t just powered by the sun, but which don’t even need to be plugged in – ever. They’re absorbing and storing free energy as they’re parked on your drive, while you’re at work or shopping, or while you’re cruising down the highway at 60mph. That’s a complete game-changer for the entire industry.

Making Electric Cars Work Engineer Jobs

Credit: NextGen Solar

Most of the solar enthusiasts are based in states such as Texas, California, or Florida, but up in Lansing, Michigan, Nigel Francis (Senior Vice President of the Automotive Industry Office, Michigan Economic Development Corporation) makes the obvious observation. “Solar is a solution that may only enjoy limited global deployment due to the need for a reliable and continuous source of sunlight. But over the coming years, we’ll see further improvements that increase efficiency of energy capture, and there’s a lot of work going on in academia and industry within Michigan to address it.”

Redfield points out other areas where EVs will become more efficient, allowing range to be increased. “We’re going to see advances in power electronics to improve power conversion efficiency and provide better performance at higher temperature ranges, again allowing weight reductions, since less heat sink and less cooling will be required. Onboard, we’ll see better management of ancillary loads so more of the power can be used in power train rather than supplying ancillary needs. Power electronics firms, such as Infineon Technologies and Dow Corning are working to improve the efficiency of the electronics equipment through improved semiconductors and the use of wide band gap materials for power electronics.”

The biggest challenge, however, may not be in the technology. To be truly successful, the EV industry needs to find ways to reduce manufacturing cost. “It’s all about value engineering,” says Hammell. “The Tesla Model S is affordable for some people, but as an industry, we need to bring the price down to where anybody can afford to go electric or hybrid if they want to. It can’t be a luxury option. That’s where the real work will happen. It won’t be glamorous or exciting, but it’ll be what drives the future of the industry.”

Tesla, for one, has embraced that challenge. In 2015, they plan to launch their next model, priced at around $40,000. They’re even talking about an SUV, the Model X. That takes the brand out of the pure luxury car market and squarely into the mainstream. As prices continue to fall, we can expect EVs, with their simplicity and lower materials costs, to become cheaper than ICEs, offering consumers a real choice in the showroom, not based purely on long-term savings.

What if Range Anxiety is the Problem?

Okonsky takes a different attitude. “What it’s really going to take,” he suggests, “is for everyone to start thinking about cars and transportation differently. Manufacturers, drivers, policy-makers, everyone. EVs aren’t just conventional cars with different motors, and it doesn’t help to think about them as if they were the same.”

Making Electric Cars Work Engineer JobsHe starts with the manufacturers. “Gordon Murray, the great McLaren designer, used to ask why we needed such heavy cars to propel someone at 200mph. Those race cars are way too big and bulky. It’s the same with today’s EV road cars. Too many people are stuck in old ICE ways of thinking. Some of them – Tesla, Via Motors, Audi, and Volkswagen, for example – they get it. They’re designing EVs from the ground up, coming up with completely new ideas and concepts. The body, the materials, the size, and the performance criteria. Parallel hybrids have to go. That’s just clinging to the old idea of using the ICE to drive the car. Series hybrids are far more efficient in every way, and they’re going to win the technology race, but someone has to design a new ICE specifically for charging a battery, not for driving the wheels.”

But perhaps the greatest change will have to come from consumers. “Range anxiety is mostly in the mind,” he says. “Most Americans drive less than 30 miles a day. My electric BMW I3 only has a range of 100 miles, but that’s plenty for my 15-mile drive to work. Sure, it takes a little planning. I have to remember to plug my car in at night, but that’s no different to remembering to charge my phone. If you need to make a long trip, then rent a car, take a train, or fly. Most people won’t have to do that more than once or twice a year, and the overall cost saving will pay for it. And if you’ve got a hybrid, then you really don’t have a problem at all.”

Redfield nods in agreement. “The data from the Department of Transport’s 2009 National Household Travel Survey (NHTS) shows that 95% of journeys are under 30 miles. That’s well within the range of EVs. Once you add the improved convenience from more widespread availability of charging stations, you’ll see that range really isn’t an issue for many, many end users.”

Long-distance all-electric journeys are already possible. In April, Norman Hajjar completed the first trip across the USA and back in his Tesla Model S, charging almost exclusively at their dedicated Supercharger stations. However, they’re not convenient. Hajjar’s route was largely determined by the location of the charging stations, not by where he wanted to go.

Making Electric Cars Work Engineer Jobs

Credit: Energy Design

It’s the same problem faced by any new fuel. Horatio Nelson Jackson, the first man to drive across the USA, in 1903, had to plan his route around where he could get fuel. Gas stations were rare, so couldn’t simply rely on filling up whenever and wherever he needed it. Early diesel owners had the same experience until gas stations started carrying diesel as well as gasoline. And today, LPG stations are mostly conspicuous by their absence. Fortunately, electricity is already widely available almost everywhere: it’s just a matter of letting people connect to it on demand.

“Urban planners and shops really need to start thinking about where to put chargers,” says Hammell. “They can’t just have a couple here and there to placate activists and show that they’re doing something. They need to be everywhere, as ubiquitous as gas stations, or maybe even more. So you need to think about how they fit in. You know people have to wait 20 minutes to charge their cars, so put one outside Starbucks or McDonalds, and let them charge while they have their latte or Happy Meal. It would be a worthwhile investment for shops and malls, encouraging drivers to come there and stay awhile. At 25c a charge, they could easily subsidize that as part of their marketing cost, just like free wi-fi. More businesses should do like KLD and offer free charging to their staff as a perk. When solar comes, it won’t even cost that much.  That changes the whole economics of transportation.”

The future for EVs is truly exciting. Within a decade, we could have low-cost, high-speed, lightweight, quiet, non-polluting cars with a range of over 300 miles, fueled by nothing but the sun, and able to charge anywhere, anytime, for free in a matter of minutes. Now that’s a future that benefits us all.

Next week, we’ll talk to working engineers and managers in the field about finding a job in the new electric vehicle industry:  what skills you’ll need, who’s hiring, and which disciplines will be in demand.

Featured Image Credit:  General Motors