Detroit to World: Nobody has Killed the Electric Car

September 24 2008 / by Garry Golden
Category: Environment   Year: 2010   Rating: 11 Hot

It is a great time to be a professional futurist working in the automobile sector!! We see clearly how quickly change can happen- and how the public’s most deeply held assumptions about the future can be revised in only a few years.

The recent string of announcements coming from Detroit, Japan, China and the rest of the automotive sector suggest big changes ahead. Yes, it will take years to unfold, but the shift toward the electrification of the world’s transportation sector has begun.

Between 2010-12 consumers can expect to see first generation all-electric vehicles from nearly every major automobile manufacturer. The monopoly era of liquid fuels and the combustion engine has started its descent. By 2025 the industry might be in a position abandon this 19th century propulsion platform and begin a new era of electric propulsion with the help of batteries, hydrogen fuel cells and capacitors.

What happened? Accelerating change happened. We are now adjusting our outlook to reflect a convergence of new market conditions, shifts in the regulatory environment and new consumer expectations for positive change. And of course, materials science technology changed.

Detroit (and others) seem to be saying – “Nobody Killed the Electric Car, but would someone Please Kill the Combustion Engine!!

Last week General Motors released production model details for its all-electric extended range Volt. GM now seems to believe that the internal combustion engine might best be used to power the battery not the vehicle itself..

Yesterday Chrysler announced its plans for a full lineup of electric vehicles beginning with a production model in 2010

Who else has made statements about planned electric models for 2010-12? How about Toyota, Renault, BYD (China), Tata (India) and Mitsubishi?! And what about start ups like Tesla, Fisker, Zap, and Morgan.

And that doesn’t include all the aspiring vehicle makers in China and India who might see profits ahead around leap frogging into electric power train systems. Or visionaries in Ohio and Michigan who realize that electric vehicles could be a very good thing for revitalizing the ‘Rust Belt’ around high value added manufacturing. Now we have a green light for politicians to speak confidently about electric cars. The stigma is gone.

Yes, things will take time to change. But the public tends to focus on the new growth rather than the old technologies that fade away slowly. Adoption rates for electric vehicles might surprise us!

And I don’t expect to see Who Killed the Electric Car Part Two.

[Continue—- How Nissan’s Ghosn flip-flopped, what drives the shift towards electrification, and what about hydrogen fuel cells?]

Earlier this month the same news trickled out of Japan. Nissan’s CEO Carlos Ghosn, who was until very recently skeptical of electric cars, has changed his tone. His 2005 assumptions were wrong. And now Nissan has announced plans for electric vehicles. Not only is Ghosn a reformed believer in electric propulsion, but he believes that the platform will become profitable sooner rather than later.

On Monday, news trickled out from China that entrepreneurs were moving forward with plans to extend the electricity grid for plug-in battery cars. Meanwhile lithium ion start ups A123 Systems and Altair Nanotechnologies are finding a lot of love and attention on the blogosphere.

Only a few years ago in 2005 industry leaders were very skeptical about the future of electrifying the world’s vehicle fleet. Media headlines proclaimed ‘decades’ away and bloggers turned into skeptics. But things have changed and the age of electric vehicles is within reach.

Such widespread flip flopping in only three years can be great news for professional futurists who are constantly challenging their clients and the public to reconsider their assumptions of change. It’s the perfect anecdote of the powerful dynamics of accelerating change.

Driving towards electrification
While the price of oil has certainly played a role in this dramatic shift towards electric motors, the main drivers of electrification might actually be more specific to building, buying, selling and upgrading cars. This grabs the attention of CEOs and CFOs looking at the balance sheets of an industry building its fleets around bulky mechanical combustion engines. And not making any money once the car is sold and in the hands of consumers. The industry needs a new business model.

The main push towards electrification might be based on a desire for fewer factories, lower cost manufacturing, evolution of vehicle design around wheel based electric motors and drive-by-wire systems, and after market sales and customization of vehicle performance that can only happen when the electronics industry convergences with the automobile experience.

Related Energy Roadmap Posts
GM’s Plan to Reinvent the Automobile: R.I.P. Combustion Engine
A Futurist’s Guide to the Cars of 2020-

Updating our Assumptions
Of course, it has not become easier to see the future. We understand the direction of change towards electric propulsion, but we cannot pick specific winners. Given the size of the automobile industry, forecasting the end of the combustion engine era for 2025 is actually quite ‘soon’. But we are confident that the public’s focus on new ‘growth’ of the electric vehicles will outshine our obsession with oil’s dominance today.

But before we go to far in extending our assumptions about the changes happening today, I do want to introduce a few more challenges to deeply held assumptions.

Batteries versus Fuel cells
There is a strange ‘battle’ of opinions between ‘battery people’ and ‘fuel cell’ people. Yet, the reality is that both systems are likely to grow alongside electric motors. Cars are not iPods. Engineers are going to need the performance advantages of both batteries and fuel cells to make electric power trains work. So let’s stop the verbal battles. Batteries are going to get better, but they cannot escape their chemistry. Hydrogen fuel cells have something very special to offer the world and I suspect the industry is going to have a wonderful decade ahead.

Hydrogen (Fuel cells)
Hydrogen suffers from a bad reputation on the blogosphere. Hydrogen fuel cells peaked in their ‘hype cycle’ between 1998-2001. Then because the industry did not live up to expectations, opinions and ‘expert forecasts’ turned sour. But remember that in 2005 ‘expert forecasts’ for electric vehicles were not anticipating all major manufacturers to race to 2010. So let’s temper our skepticism and learn more about fuel cell technologies. The key to commercialization deals with a few specific areas namely – membranes (MEAs) and manufacturing. We will be highlighting the potential for disruptive changes in fuel cells in the weeks and months ahead. And welcome you to join in that conversation and construction of a new Roadmap.

Infrastructure – Invest in Electricity or Hydrogen?
The electrification of our vehicle fleet includes electricity and hydrogen. Hydrogen converted in a fuel cell produced electricity. The ‘Hydrogen Economy’ is an economy based on electricity. But today batteries and electricity dominate the energy sector.

Conventional wisdom suggests that ‘plug in’ vehicles based on batteries is our best (and only) way forward. Conventional wisdom also suggests that just ‘plugging in’ is easy and that our electric grid is already there so – ‘no problem.’

But it is not that simple. If we use electricity to power our cars, we will need to spend money on extending the grid to reach consumers. It is not as easy as ‘plugging in at night while there is excess electricity’ as plug-in advocates will state. The infrastructure must be much more robust and widespread than garage or household wall sockets. Watch in the weeks and months ahead as start-ups appear to extend the electricity grid for plug-ins.

Yet it seems clear that the first decade of electric vehicles will be dominated by battery based storage systems. So we’d be foolish not to invest in extending the grid to the transportation sector. (Just don’t expect it to be free or easy.)

My position is that we should be mindful that there are other ways of storing electron energy that offer advantages over electricity and batteries. In fact, batteries might not be the best way to store electrons, and deliver them to vehicle systems.

Enter hydrogen(H2)

First a quick lesson in Energy 101

Energy is stored in chemical bonds. The energy value of fuels like wood, coal, oil and natural gas is based on its hydrogen content. The more hydrogen the better the fuel. Hence (hydrogen rich) ‘methane’ or natural gas could rule the 21st century.

The challenge with hydrogen is low cost production and storage. The good news is that nanoscale designs of catalysts, membranes and solid state storage materials is evolving both systems.

We are very positive about the role of hydrogen fuel cells in this coming century of electric vehicles.

The Race to 2010
The media has a new story to follow- the auto industry’s race to 2010 as automakers try to be first in line with their electric vehicles. But the electrification of the transportation sector is a marathon not a sprint. (Disclaimer!! I make it no secret, that my money is on General Motors)

This meme is on our futures radar and we hope that you join us in this conversation about the evolution of electric motors and all three power systems- batteries, fuel cells and capacitors. —

Image: by “ST_A_S” via Flickr – CC/REMIX License (Thank you!)

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Comment Thread (2 Responses)

  1. Like the cure for Cancer, whoever can come up with a better battery is going to be set for life.

    Posted by: martymcfly   September 24, 2008
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  2. Re: ‘better battery’

    Agreed that they’d be set for life. There is a lot of money to be made in better batteries.

    But I’m not sure the best application for these batteries will be in the automotive industry. Cars are complex machines. Delivering streams of electrons via a battery is a challenge. Doable, but you need a lot of batteries to get the job done.

    Most people are eying fuel cells that tap chemical power of hydrogen (and liquid fuels) and ultra capacitors that hold electricity via a physical charge

    Posted by: Garry Golden   September 25, 2008
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