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Mainstreaming hybrids and EVs

Will the inefficiency of the automobile ultimately doom the automobile?

Big questions like this one, posed by Ford Technical Fellow Dr. Michael Tamor, hit February’s SAE Hybrid & Electric Vehicle Symposium audience between the eyes. Nothing like challenging the long-term viability of your industry’s fundamental technology to get a room of 250 engineers engaged with the program.

Dr. Tamor’s look at greenhouse-gas reduction opportunities beyond 2025 kept returning to a key point: affordability. It was a perfect kick-off to the next two days of insights from vehicle engineers and other industry experts who are charged with enhancing HEV, PHEV, and EV battery power density and driveline performance and efficiency - while driving down cost, of course. Consumer acceptance of HEVs and plug-ins ultimately is driven by these efforts.

During this 13th annual SAE event, I spoke with a number of the presenters about the future of vehicle electrification. Nearly all agreed with my premise that in order for their companies to meet the increasingly stringent global CO2 emission requirements going forward, hybridization must become mainstream technology. Depending on the vehicle application, the experts see a mix of 12-V, 48-V, and high-voltage solutions. And for plug-in vehicles, there must be ubiquitous deployment of SAE Level 2 fast chargers and continued development of wireless charging.

“CO2 emissions can be reduced significantly if conventionally-powered vehicles are electrified,” stated Shingo Kato, who directs electrified systems development at Honda R&D. And Mats Olof Andersson, Volvo Car Corp.’s Director, Electric Propulsion Systems, asserted that “Hybrids will eventually transform into a ‘normal’ competitive market.”

Realistic or optimistic? Despite regulatory mandates in seven U.S. states requiring 15% of new vehicle sales to be zero-emitting by 2025 (representing about 30% of U.S. retail sales), the SAE presenters are acutely aware of the headwinds facing the expansion of the market for electrified vehicles. Overall U.S. market penetration dropped from 3.8% to 2.8% during the last two years, according to a 2015 Boston Consulting Group study. As of November 2015, the market penetration gap between electrified vehicles and non-electrified models was 54%, compared with a 37% gap in May 2012.

My personal household budget appreciates the drop in U.S. gasoline prices to less than $2.00 per gallon, but the factors that created such a fuel-price windfall for consumers (and strong profits for full-line vehicle manufacturers) are decidedly impeding greater adoption of advanced-propulsion solutions.

Some data presented at the SAE symposium show progress has been made, but the industry still has a long way to go in order to mitigate the $3800 to $6000 price premiums currently burdening HEVs (and the $12,000 premiums on EVs):

•    Cell cost for a power battery has dropped from an average of $700/cell in 2009, to approximately $150 today. My recent tour of LG Chem’s lithium battery factory in Holland, MI, showed how leading suppliers are innovating cost reductions across the battery manufacturing process. Experts estimate cell cost will drop to $100 by 2025.

•    Battery cost at the pack level is expected to decline from approximately $250 per kW·h today to $180 per kW·h by 2025. Engineers say chopping price to less than $180 will be challenging - and markedly more scale is needed.

•    At the retail level, there is a perceived misalignment of sales focus regarding HEV/EV and non-electrified products: many auto dealers still need deeper understanding of, and commitment to, electrified vehicle sales. Meanwhile, leasing has become vital to this segment—48% of Chevrolet Volts are leased, a hefty 79% of Nissan Leafs, 64% of Ford’s C-Max Energi, and 88% of BMW’s i3. Experts expect this trend to continue.

Commonality of systems design and engineering is critical to cutting cost. As SAE presenter Tim Grewe explains in this month’s Q&A (see page 44), his General Motors colleagues set out to make the drive systems of the 2016 Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid and second-gen Volt as common as possible. There are but five component differences between the two systems.

Perhaps the strongest response to Dr. Tabor’s opening question comes from the industry re-engineering its development approach for electrified products. GM’s recent name change of its powertrain engineering group, now called GM Global Propulsion systems, reflects the rapid expansion beyond traditional drivetrains into alternative energy systems - and new business models.   

Lindsay Brooke, Editor-in-Chief 

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