At Witz' End - Electric vehicle progress, prospects and challenges

2010 Plug-in Prius Prototypes – Click above for high-res image gallery

Great start, but long road ahead

I just returned from the Center for Automotive Research (CAR) Management Briefing Seminars in beautiful Traverse City, MI, and don't have much electric vehicle (EV) news to report from there. Instead, the seminars were focused on getting more diesels into the U.S. and increasing the efficiency of liquid-fueled vehicles.

The Advanced Powertrain Forum session, for example, was led off by Ford global powertrain engineering VP Barb Samardzich, who talked mostly about power and torque upgrades for Ford's new heavy-duty diesel V8...important to work-truck customers, not so much to the rest of us. She was followed by Dr. Johannes-Joerg Rueger, senior engineering VP, diesel systems, Robert Bosch LLC, who touted increasing acceptance of U.S. buyers to diesel cars.

Then came Larry Nitz, General Motors' hybrid and powertrain engineering executive director, and Justin Ward, Toyota's advanced powertrain program manager. Both offered predictions of the next 20 years of automotive powertrain segmentation, and both showed the internal combustion engine continuing to dominate, but its share gradually diminishing as gas/electric hybrids (HEV) and range extender (EREV), battery (BEV) and fuel cell FCEVs slowly grow.

Nitz pointed out that the last 37 years have seen vehicle fuel efficiency improve 180 percent for cars and 90 percent for trucks. He said that while the cost of EV batteries will come down and their energy density will increase over time, they will still carry only a tiny fraction of the energy of a tank of liquid fuel of equivalent size and weight. Ward talked at length about Toyota's soon-to-come plug-in hybrid Prius (above), which (because, like the Chevrolet Volt, it will operate for some miles on electric energy alone) will deliver better overall fuel economy than today's Prius. ( this post continues after the break)

Perhaps the most interesting EV-related display at the Seminars was a Ford F-150 pickup converted to a BEV by Protean Electric via a quartet of the company's "Protean Drive" in-wheel electric drive systems, each of which incorporates its own built-in inverter, control electronics and software yet fits easily inside a conventional wheel ( PDF info sheet). "As one of Protean Electric's test vehicles, the press release said, "the Ford F-150 BEV illustrates that vehicles don't have to be small to be green." The point was not to sell expensive, range-limited trucks but to demonstrate that nearly any vehicle of any size can be fairly easily electrified this way.

Not surprisingly, there was at lot more interesting EV discussion back in January at CAR's Vehicle Electrification seminar on the second press day of the 2010 Detroit Auto Show. CAR moderator Brett Smith led off by suggesting that Li-ion battery cost reduction would come through parallel improvements in cell chemistry, pack design and manufacturing. As we know, current costs (to OEMs) run $800-900 per kWh, while the long-term goal is $200-300.

Bob Kruse, who was GM's electrification engineering director until he left to form EV Consulting LLC, said that while the EV drivetrain is essentially complete, its early generations are too expensive and too limited in both capability and marketability. He said battery cost reductions will not be enough, that EVs will also need cost reductions in control systems and everything else, plus further optimization and integration of the vehicles themselves.

"I'm very bullish on the future of the EV," he said, "which is why I formed this company. It can offer a driving experience superior to anything else today." He added that the EVs being introduced today "are trying to be infrastructure agnostic, so the charge experience will be a differentiator. Connectivity will emerge as a key enabler, especially as the grid gets smart."

Mujeeb Ejaz, automotive director at Li-ion battery maker A123 Systems, pointed out that battery component volumes need to grow from the current tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands before significant cost reductions can be realized. However, he can see future cost reductions of as much as 50 percent from the 2010 base as his company continues to grow its business into additional segments beyond auto. He added that A123 now has seven plants around the world for cell-level manufacturing in addition to its Michigan pack-level plant.

When asked during the Q&A why A123 had invested in (potential future) customer Fisker, Ejaz replied simply that it expects an eventual return on that investment. "Electricity can be the cleanest energy on the planet...or not," he responded to another question. "We have to optimize how we generate it, and Li-ion battery materials all are recoverable."

The final speaker \was Bob Gustin, who is national program manager, utilities, at Sprint Nextel. Why? Because Sprint Nextel would like to be a key carrier of wireless connectivity to the developing smart grid. Or, as he put it in technical business terms: "information technology for the distributed utility enterprise of the future." He said:
There is no ubiquitous single wireless technology to supply the total bandwidth nationwide. All the carriers will have to integrate and work together to develop the ecosystem, including devices, networks, software and secure wireless connectivity. Cellular is one option that is both scalable and reliable.
Fast-forward back to CAR's August MBS. GM's Nitz said he drove an early production Volt the 200-plus miles from Detroit to Traverse City, and he later challenged BEVs (hello, Nissan!) to do the same. "It will take you two days to get up here, because you've got to stop and recharge and stop and recharge," he told a Ward's Auto World reporter. "Where are you going to charge along I-75?"

Nitz wouldn't reveal his Volt's real-world fuel economy on the trip, but he did share that GM is still anxiously awaiting the EPA's official fuel economy ratings for the Volt. "We don't have a label," he told reporters after the Powertrain Forum. He said:
There is no policy or procedure for the label, and that's a challenge.... But hopefully we [will] have it very soon. We're going to need it in a couple of months because we are going to be launching in November.

Award-winning automotive writer Gary Witzenburg has been writing about automobiles, auto people and the auto industry for 21 years. A former auto engineer, race driver and advanced technology vehicle development manager, his work has appeared in a wide variety of national magazines including The Robb Report, Playboy, Popular Mechanics, Car and Driver, Road & Track, Motor Trend, Autoweek and Automobile Quarterly and has authored eight automotive books. He is currently contributing regularly to Kelley Blue Book (,, Ward's Auto World and Motor Trend's Truck Trend and is a North American Car and Truck of the Year juror.

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