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Grasping the electrification of transportation

Posted: 03 Jan 2014     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Electric vehicles  EVs  electrification factor  powertrains  battery starter generator 

Electric vehicles (EVs) currently on the market signify a beneficial new direction in terms of sustainable, low-impact transportation. Yet the EV market today tends to obscure a much bigger picture as we pursue the "electrification of transportation."

My colleagues and I are focused on gradually increasing what we call the "electrification factor" in all forms of transportation, which includes passenger cars but extends to trains, boats, and planes. When terms such as "electrification factor" and the "electrification of transportation" are defined, a much bigger picture emerges.

So let's begin with definitions and their implications. Then we'll look behind the curtain at the technological hurdles we must clear in the pursuit of these objectives.

Transportation 2.0
The electrification factor may be defined as a percentage of the onboard electric power to a vehicle's total power. Let's use the familiar passenger car as an example. With no electric load onboard, a vehicle's electrification factor is zero. When all functions are accomplished electrically, including propulsion, the electrification factor is 100 per cent. Most passenger cars on the market today possess an electrification factor in the single digits. Today's electrified vehicles might register in the low- to mid-double digits, depending on the model.

To increase the electrification factor, for instance, we might replace hydraulic power steering with electric power steering. We can electrify the air conditioner. A number of mechanical or hydraulic pumps can be replaced with electrical systems. An integrated, electric starter/generator can replace discrete units, and that too contributes to increasing the electrification factor.

Stepping back, an auto has four different power transfer systems: electrical, mechanical, pneumatic, and hydraulic. Electrical systems, generally, are the most efficient. And they can be monitored and communicated with more effectively than the others, which means they can be optimised and controlled for efficiency and performance.

Electrifying non-propulsion loads raises the electrification factor in modest increments up to perhaps 15 to 20 per cent. Electrifying a vehicle's mode of propulsion produces a much greater electrification factor, reaching as high as 50 to 70 per cent in hybrid electric powertrains and near 100 per cent in all-electric vehicles. Based on back-of-the-envelope calculations, I'd suggest that the average electrification factor for new vehicles manufactured worldwide today is only about 5 to 10 per cent.

Our goal for what I call "Transportation 2.0," of course, should be to increase the electrification factor as much as possible, as quickly as possible. This is because electrification takes advantage of a highly efficient form of energy transfer and because the electrification of a vehicle's various systems increases performance, including acceleration, manoeuvring, braking, safety, and fuel efficiency.

The "coolness" factor
Increases in efficiency and performance, in turn, provide the basis for more attractive and innovative vehicle designs, which increases what I like to call the coolness factor.

Arguably, the coolness factor is what sells cars. One could argue—and some do—that everyone should immediately buy an all-electric vehicle because it's good for the planet. But, so far, that argument hasn't produced the significant uptake of EVs that supporters hoped to reach by this point.

That's why I argue that incremental increases in the electrification factor will produce a strong, tide-like pull on the market, producing cooler, higher-performing, more efficient electrified vehicles that consumers really want to buy. That in turn will produce economies of scale and, thus, lower costs, which will enable higher electrification factors across the worldwide fleet. I call the incremental approach "more-electric vehicles," or MEVs.

This market-based approach should also increase the interest in electrification by auto manufacturers, which must produce cars that people want to buy. As we've seen, simply claiming that a particular car purchase is "good for the planet" has not significantly moved the proverbial needle. A dedication to incrementally and consistently raising the electrification factor in transportation will do more in the long run to reduce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions than simply preaching about the virtue of all-electric cars.

Make no mistake about it, I very strongly believe in all-electric vehicles. However, since consumers purchase cars based primarily on emotional attachments and perception, the coolness factor in EVs is of significant importance. The good news is that electrified vehicles have tremendous opportunity to be cooler than conventional internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles. Both engineering design and marketing to consumers must be done right. We'll then see a far bigger uptake of EVs.

The long road ahead
Substantial increases in the electrification factor, however, will require us to travel a long road. Transportation 2.0 is a fundamental paradigm shift that will take years. The technological challenges are many, and we are working on them with a broad array of stakeholders. I find it far more effective to work with OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) to increase the electrification factor over time than to berate them for not moving fast enough.

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