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Electric vehicles; Everything is changing…or has it changed already?

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At last year’s IDTechEx event ‘Electric Vehicles; Everything is Changing’, we concluded everything was indeed changing in the electric vehicle sector. At this year’s event, still named ‘Everything is changing’, the question should surely be has everything changed already? 

Many commentators are suggesting that pre-orders on Tesla’s Model 3 – now topping 400,000 – have ushered in a new era of electric mobility. In response, Elon Musk has announced an acceleration of his production plans, with the aim of delivering over 500,000 cars a year by 2018 instead of 2020. Which would be an incredible achievement. It will be really challenging to produce such vehicle numbers in such a short time. It has never been done before. And Tesla doesn’t have the best track-record when it comes to delivering fully-functional vehicles on schedule. So we can only hope they haven’t bitten off more than they can chew.

There are other concerns. Tesla isn’t for everyone. Tesla cars won’t necessarily reduce traffic, congestion, and parking space requirements. We at EVE are particularly enthusiastic about cycling, e-scooters, cargo bikes, three-wheelers and other innovative, transformative vehicles. We like car-sharing and leasing; we like the sharing economy and circular business models. But when I ask myself if everything has changed, I only have to look out my window as I type, or cross the street for a coffee, and I can tell you very clearly the answer is no; everything has not changed. In fact, it might just be worse. More vehicles, more tension, more pollution, on our roads and in our communities.

So while everything might be changing, a lot more work is required. And it is not just about Tesla. Events like this one are still important to help deliver broader, cleaner, more sustainable transport solutions.  The format is scholarly, with lots of presentations (mostly ‘technical’) in meeting rooms alongside a large exhibition space.  I caught interesting talks from eMO, IDTechEx, Toyota, Daimler (representing MercedesBenz and Smartcar), Siemens, the Nuon Solar team (winners of the Bridgestone World Solar Challenge), EVX Ventures and the Hungarian PannonPorto/Moveo. After that I was ambulanced to a local hospital in an agitated, distressed state, with a fishbone stuck in my gullet. Funny how the day turns.       

The conference began with a local focus.  Gernot Lodenberg of the Berlin Agency for Electromobility (eMO) tells us Berlin is going electric, with over 100 e-mobility projects in place, and more in the pipleline. eMO estimates there are over 3000 electric cars on the roads of Berlin, with nearly 800 charging points. They specifically support many green transport start-ups in the city, in the ‘eMO club’. I’m intrigued. Maybe they can help us at EVE. Maybe we can help them.

Next, Dr Peter Harrop of IDtechEx gave us the formal introduction to the meeting, with a 20-year view through to 2036. He sees a coming together of electric vehicles and robots and boats and drones and energy independence, to create a diverse range of…errr…lets call them self-propelling (floating?) bots, for now. Readers of Iain M Banks Culture novels may have other ideas. Progress will focus on extreme light-weighting, efficiency and aerodynamics(/hydrodynamics), alongside intense energy harvesting (eg wind/solar), regeneration and storage. Some of these ‘bots’ will of course be energy-positive, contributing power back to the grid (or home battery-pack, as you prefer). Peter’s vision really is as radical and elaborate as some of the best science fiction. And that is high praise, in my book.

Toyota’s Andy Fuchs focused on their hydrogen car, the Mirai. A brave move perhaps, when Tesla’s Elon Musk describes hydrogen as ‘stupid’. He gave us a timely reminder that there is absolutely no time to waste when it comes to reducing green-house gases, if the Paris agreement for ‘under two degrees’ is to mean anything at all. They support hydrogen technology due to its broad range of sources, and its high-energy density (which as we know, gives hydrogen fuel cell (HFC) cars longer ranges then pure battery, for now at least). Andy describes Toyota’s environmental principles as embracing diverse energy sources for efficient, low-emission vehicles, and then driving real and positive change by popularising these vehicles. Which I think means selling them, one way or another. If all goes to plan, by 2050 Toyota will be emissions free, and contributing to a better society  through a net-positive impact on the environment. We can only hope.

Daimler remain open-minded about battery versus hydrogen vehicles. Dr Jorg Wind emphasises that efficiency is dependent on your energy source. Batteries are efficient if all your electricity is hydro-electric or solar, but hydrogen can be more efficient  if your battery charges from coal. So Daimler is working with both battery and HFCs, separately and in combination. Reducing the size of the fuel cell is a key aim (increasing the ‘fuel density’), so that they can then can be included in all vehicles as an auxiliary power supply. HFC needs scale effects to reduce costs and become more affordable. Lithium-ion batteries already have that benefit, due to use in a vast range of consumer products. Once you are in the 100,000s you begin to see decent scale effects, but HFC isn’t there yet. A modular strategy helps, using the same parts in a wide range of vehicles. But of course HFC requires a hydrogen filling-station network, which doesn’t exist yet. More vehicles and more competition in the market will help drive efficiencies and infrastructure. Dr Wind says all the major German OEMs are now working with HFC technology. This shift towards hydrogen must tell us something about its potential utility.

Tellingly, Daimler complained that selling the benefits of electric cars can be tough. Benefits like low-noise with rapid acceleration aren’t necessarily premium. Benefits to the local population such as low emissions aren’t big USPs for consumers, apparently. That is something EVE hopes to change of course.

After so much car talk, Manfred J Schmidt of Siemens refocused on to the future of the city bus, where they are a big player. Siemens have been working on electric ‘low emission’ traction for many years in the form of trains and trams. Urban electric mass-transport infrastructure has traditionally been both inflexible and high cost, because of all the tracks and power cables. Your average bus on the other hand is very flexible, with no tracks and no wires. But of course a bus’ diesel emissions are no longer welcome in our increasingly polluted cities. The solution is of course electric buses. But keeping then charged and moving all day, considering the weight of the average bus, is quite a challenge.  Siemens envision a combination of opportunity charging, battery swapping, on-road charging, high-battery capacity, smaller buses, or larger ones with a HFC range extender – to provide power all day long. Some of this requires not yet available infrastructure, some does not. In the meantime, hybrid ‘e-ready’ diesel buses can be delivered, ready to be converted to fully electric when the necessary infrastructure is in place. Either way, Schmidt suggests the shift to electric buses will happen much faster than with cars because its politically symbolic, and the numbers are much lower.

After Siemen’s buses, it was back to cars, but with a difference.  The Nuon Solar Team were here to tell us about their (University of Delft) solar car, and why it keeps winning the World Solar Challenge. For these students its all about a cleaner, electric future, they say.

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The Nuon team compete not only at the World Solar Challenge, but also at similar event in South African – to promote sustainable, high-end technology, and to educate young people, but mostly to win. And win they do. To succeed, the team focuses relentlessly on nine winning factors: teamwork; partners (often sponsors with ‘tech benefits’);  solar array & electronics; aerodynamics (the whole car is equivalent to a single wing mirror!); rolling resistance (low due to the carbon-fibre build); handling (eg easy to switch a tire); quality & reliability (lots of testing of components on Hank, the test vehicle); strategy (ie calculating power and performance based on sunlight, charge, gradient etc to optimise the solar car’s performance); and finally production (it takes three months to build the lightweight body). And then a whole load more testing of everything, before transporting the team and car, ‘static scrutineering’ to check for safety, time trials, and then the race itself.

Next, it’s start-up time. EVX Ventures told us about their attempts to take the academic solar car into the commercial arena, with a petrol-free Mad Max survivalist mission. As with most start-ups (certainly here at EVE), its about being lean and agile, persevering with ‘entrepreneurial grit’; a real determination to succeed. As with most start-ups, they are looking for funding.  

PannonPorto have the lightweight, range-extended electric sports car, the Amber One. It’s 1000kg, with a 45-minute charge time and a 400v battery, with an Engiro combustion range-extender. The in-wheel motor is by Protean. A sister company, Moveo, has a delightful folding e-scooter. The scooter is very lightweight at 45kg, and it folds in the middle, into a cube shape. So it’s highly transportable. And storable, at home, office, or holiday homes.

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But my favourite eco vehicle was in the exhibition hall. I got onboard and took a ride.

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There were other interesting presentations, but here I’ve focused on those that resonated with me (before the unfortunate incident with the fishbone); those that fall clearly within the scope of EVE. We certainly share Dr Peter Harrop’s vision of self-propelled vehicle/robots aiding and abetting humanity. And it’s not far off Iain M Bank’s ‘Culture’ technology, in his respected sci-fi series. But its a long way off. Electric cars, hydrogen cars, electric scooters, solar power are all great advances. Everything really is changing. But it hasn’t changed anywhere near enough yet. Just look out of the window.