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Charging Towards the Future


Fossil fuel-driven automobiles are on a path to extinction, along with the driver’s seat, if current trends persist.

The same automakers promising to deliver self-driving vehicles in the next few years are now also pursuing electrification, and pledge to eventually stop selling internal combustion engines (ICE) altogether. Yet consumers are not clamoring for the move to electrification. Instead, it is being spurred by government initiatives in the U.S. and abroad.

Charging Forward

According to a report issued in September by Navigant Research, sales of plug-in electric vehicles (PEVs) have grown tenfold in North America since 2011, and 2017 was anticipated to be a record-breaker, with sales growing 50 percent year-over-year. Most were sold in urban markets. California, which mandates sales of zero emission vehicles (ZEVs) by automakers, has had the greatest market penetration, Navigant says.

Worldwide, the PEV sales leader in 2016 was Norway, according to the International Energy Outlook 2017, published in September by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). Slightly more than 19 percent of new vehicles sold there last year were PEVs, versus less than two percent in the U.S., the EIA report says. EIA adds that plugin hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) accounted for 41 percent of those sales, and experienced faster sales growth than battery electric vehicles (BEVs), because the Norwegian government offered greater purchase incentives for PHEVs in 2016 than in prior years.

Overall, Norway’s PEV monetary incentives are the largest in the world, and China offers the second highest, the EIA says. In September the Chinese government announced that it’s working on a plan to ban the production and sales of internal combustion engine vehicles, like the UK, France, Germany, India and Norway — all of which aim to begin eliminating ICE vehicles no later than 2040.

Despite the Chinese government’s efforts, the populace isn’t moved. The EIA report says gasoline-powered sport utility vehicle (SUV) sales in China surged 17 percent year-over-year last May, reaching 3.78 million vehicles sold year to date. That compares with 136,000 BEV, PHEV and fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) sold in the period, for a 7.8 percent year-over-year growth rate.

And sales of PEVs in the UK and France have been as anemic as in China, accounting for less than two percent of new vehicle sales in all three countries, EIA says.

“Consumers like to have better fuel efficiency, but better is relative. It’s always secondary to what the vehicle can do for their lives and whether or not they can afford it, and so consumer demand is definitely lagging” for EVs, says Stephanie Brinley, senior automotive analyst at IHS Markit in Southfield, MI. However, “no automaker wants to look like they’re behind” in addressing fuel efficiency and making the move to electrification, she adds.

Other experts are more optimistic about the market’s reaction to EVs.

“Certainly there is some degree of consumer demand, just based on the fact that Tesla was able to garner half a million preorders for the Model 3 nearly two years before building one. And sales of EVs have been growing globally at a pretty good pace. But the biggest single factor is regulatory mandates, particularly in Europe and in China and to a lesser degree here in the U.S. — mostly driven by California and the other nine states that are following the California zero emission vehicle mandate,” says Sam Abuelsamid, senior analyst at Navigant Research.

Nevertheless, because relatively high prices are inhibiting demand for pure EVs, automakers are now “trying to get the most cost-effective technologies out there, so they get the biggest bang for the buck in terms of improving fuel efficiency and reducing emissions,” Abuelsamid says. “That’s why we’re seeing more push on mild hybrid technologies — especially 48-volt mild hybrid, which is going to be the core of what a number of manufacturers including Volvo are doing — plug-in hybrid, and more battery electric vehicles at the high end for the most efficiency improvement but at the highest cost, as well.”

Most of the hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs) on the road today, such as the Toyota Prius, are called strong hybrids and are equipped with 200- to 300-volt batteries. Traditional ICE-powered vehicles have 12-volt electrical systems. Moving to a 48-volt mild hybrid technology provides 70 percent of the benefit of a strong hybrid (equal to a 15-20 percent improvement in fuel economy) at about 30 percent of the cost ($1,000), Abuelsamid says.

Audi rolled out the first 48-volt mild hybrid, the SQ7 SUV, in Europe last year, Abuelsamid notes. The Audi A7 and A8 are following, along with models from Porsche, Mercedes-Benz, Renault, Volkswagen and Volvo, he points out.

In Europe, a consumer backlash against diesel-powered vehicles following emissions-testing scandals is encouraging the shift to 48-volt mild hybrids, and regulatory demand is pushing BEV development, he adds. “Here in North America where fuel costs are much lower than they are in Europe and other parts of the world, it’s definitely driven more by regulatory demand than by actual consumer demand.”

Even so, ICE won’t be displaced anytime soon, Abuelsamid says. “All of those mild hybrids and plug-in hybrids are going to represent the vast majority of electrified vehicles for at least the next 10 to 15 years, and all of those cars still have engines. There are still going to be vehicles running on gasoline and even diesel for many years to come, probably well into the 2040s,” Abuelsamid forecasts.

Starting with a Clean Sheet

Many automakers are transitioning to exclusively electrified vehicles regardless of consumer interest.

Volvo Cars announced that every new vehicle it launches starting in 2019 will have an electric motor, while no car will have only an ICE. These will include five fully electric cars between 2019 and 2021, all of which will be either a PHEV or a 48-volt mild hybrid paired with a gasoline or a diesel engine. “This announcement marks the end of the solely combustion engine-powered car,” Håkan Samuelsson, president and chief executive of Volvo Car Group in Gothenburg, Sweden, remarked in a release. “Volvo Cars has stated that it plans to have sold a total of one million electrified cars by 2025. When we said it we meant it.” For comparison’s sake, in 2016 Volvo sold 534,332 cars worldwide (in about 100 countries).

Two of the first five electrified Volvos will be high-performance models from Polestar, the automaker’s performance car arm. In October, the first of them was unveiled — the 600hp Polestar 1 hybrid two-door sports car, which will go into production in mid-2019. Two follow-on Polestar cars will be BEVs, including the Polestar 2 midsize sedan that will be available in 2019, and the Polestar 3 SUV.

BMW has also announced a plan to offer 25 electrified vehicles by 2025, including 12 that will be purely electric, and rolled out the Vision Dynamics concept car, a BEV four-door sports car with a range of 373 miles and a top speed of 120 mph, that accelerates from a stop to 60 mph in four seconds.

General Motors Co. says it will launch at least 20 new all-electric vehicles by 2023, both BEVs and FCEVs.

Ford Motor Co. pledged to deliver 13 new electric vehicles in the next five years, including the F-150 Hybrid, Mustang Hybrid, Transit Connect PHEV, a self-driving hybrid vehicle, a Ford Police Responder Hybrid sedan and a fully electric small SUV.

At CES, startup EV brand BYTON debuted its first drivable concept car, an SUV slated to be produced in China late next year and in the U.S. and Europe in 2020. The company says it envisions making EVs that are more than just transport vehicles, but rather more like CE devices. The focal point of its interior is a gigantic LCD screen (49-inches wide by 9.8-inches tall) atop the dashboard, used by both the driver and the passengers as a Shared Experience Display, and controlled by voice, gestures and a touchscreen steering wheel.

“The BYTON Concept SUV connects both the automotive and digital industries in ways that will deliver an entirely new connective experience for people on the move,” says company Co-founder and CEO Carsten Breitfeld. BYTON plans to launch both a sedan and a multi-purpose vehicle (MPV) in 2021 and 2022.

“If you think about it, [an EV] is a fundamentally different car,” says Steven Center, vice president of connected and environmental business development at American Honda Motor Co. Inc., in Torrance, CA. “What we do is compromise, to some extent because we have these coexisting alternatives: internal combustion, hybrid, plug-in hybrid and full-on battery.”

In fact, Honda’s new Clarity sedan — which is available as an FCEV, BEV or PHEV — did start with a clean sheet design that accommodates each of those three electric powertrains without compromise, Center says. “We planned for the batteries under the floor as opposed to stuffing them in the trunk because we didn’t have a floor plan design, or raising the car,” he explains.

Hybrids are seen as transitional technology representing the shift from one powertrain solely to another (ICE to electric), but “it takes time for people to adopt new technology when it comes to EVs” because the ownership experience is much different, says Brian Maragno, director of EVs at Nissan North America Inc., in Franklin, TN.

But while fewer than 500,000 BEVs were sold globally in 2016, the sales growth was tremendous, Maragno states. And long-term, he predicts, falling EV prices and increasing range brought about by battery improvements will “really open up the market. As you see big jumps in those things, you’re going to see huge jumps in adoption.”

Driving range of EVs already has increased markedly in the seven years since Nissan introduced its Leaf BEV in 2010 as a model-year ’11 car that offered 72 miles of range. The 2017 Leaf offered 150 miles of range. Next year, the new Leaf will go more than 200 miles on a full charge. Meanwhile, the average selling price of the car has also fallen in the past seven years.

“One thing is clear. The future of mobility is electric. The question is how the transition will look technology-wise and time-wise?” says Wieland Bruch, a spokesman for BMW AG in Munich, Germany.

BMW expects that 20 percent of the vehicles it sells globally will be BEVs or PHEVs by 2025, even if that forecast excludes strong non-plug-in hybrids and 48-volt mild hybrids. Thus, 80 percent will remain conventional vehicles, “and we think that for another 25 years the internal combustion engine will be selling in bigger numbers on a global scale than the electrified vehicles,” he says. “But then we think electrified vehicles will overtake the absolute number of internal combustion engines.”

Until then, Bruch says, “We need plug-in hybrids as a sort of bridging technology.”

Robert E. Calem

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