Saturday, December 20, 2008

North American Auto Bailout is a huge opportunity

Hi-Pa Ford 150 Conversion
The beauty of a crisis situation is that it tends to concentrate attention on emergent issues. Our most emergent issues are three-fold and interlocking - the climate crisis, the economic crisis and the energy crisis. There is one single aspect of that problem that can and must be addressed to improve our chances on all fronts.

That aspect is individual transportation. The humble automobile. In North America, it's the glue that holds our economy and our culture together.

The last two Bush administrations proved that the people responsible for maintaining the Status Quo had too much personally invested in petroleum infrastructure and far too little understanding of the fragility of that system. And ultimately, they found it to be personally and financially more comfortable to prosecute war for the control of oil reserves than to risk exploring alternatives. The risk of exploring new ways of doing things, of course, is the risk of losing control of the system as a whole. But that presupposes that the current situation permits any degree of control in the face of emergent circumstances.

What does not yet seem to be obvious to those in charge of making these large decisions is that they really are not in the position to dictate and control the emergence of a lean, green, widely distributed economy. They can interfere with it. They can try to advantage some players, discourage others - but in fact, despite all the gloom and doom, this situation is fraught with opportunity.

This is one of those times, when people start to cast around for new ways of doing things, only to find that the technologies exist. This article is about just one such technology; the in-wheel electric motor, an established technology that has been proven in existing designs. Hold on to that thought, that's the key to this entire post.

The real key to making a practical electric vehicle is not making a practical electric vehicle.. That has been achievable for many years, and they have even established themselves in many niche areas. The combination of zero emissions, high efficiency and ease of maintenance are overwhelmingly advantageous any where the issues of range and energy density can be easily addressed. Consider the electric golf cart - or the ubiquity of the electric shopping cart in malls and supermarkets.

One of the huge problems is that people designing electric vehicles tend to have preconceived notions about how people "should" use their cars and "should" feel about transportation, rather than designing electric vehicles that actual, real consumers could afford and would actually buy.

To some extent, that's been because of technology and materials constraints; old-fashioned battery packs and the problems inherent in hand-building prototypes. But a great deal more has to do with social engineering trumping good automotive design.

The problem of energy density and range is being addressed but while the price of advanced batteries is plummeting, the price point is still not quite there for full-up pure electric vehicles that can replace standard gas an diesel vehicles.

But this can be addressed right now with Serial Hybrid technology, a technology that can, right now, promise a better car than a conventionally powered equivalent. Hy-Pa has demonstrated this with an off-the-shelf incarnation - the hybrid-electric Mini.

Now, I don't know what the cost of the four wheels is compared to the stock engine - but since an electric motor is a far simpler thing to build, it should be a lot cheaper to make at equivalent production levels. Given the small size and engineering simplicity of a small, constant speed generator, the entire system should offer substantial savings over comparable IC technology. Not right this second, of course. But not in the distant future, either.

Because the wheels are high performance motors, ABS comes as a standard function built into each wheel’s software. Now anti-skid can also be applied to acceleration since the motor can smoothly control torque delivery to/from the road in both cases. Flooring the brake or accelerator hard merely results in controlled maximum torque, giving the shortest possible stopping or acceleration time.
Clever wheels

The technology eliminates the need for crude differential gears to share power between left and right sides. The wheels are in constant communication with each other deciding 1000 times each second how much torque share is optimum for the current driving conditions. Should one wheel detect a slippery surface and take appropriate anti-skid actions, the other wheels are aware of this instantly and adopt an appropriate compensating strategy to keep the vehicle as stable as possible.
640 brake horsepower – for life!

Each wheel develops 160bhp - 640bhp in total. The original Mini One develops less than 100bhp with an engine that weighs nearly double the weight of the four electric wheels! Apart from wheel bearings there are no wearing parts in the electric wheels; this means the horsepower stays for the life of the vehicle - and beyond.

As the battery level reduces, the rear mounted ICE/generator starts to automatically top up the battery. So when you arrive at your destination you can simply park the vehicle knowing that when you return the battery will be replenished. Alternatively you can take advantage of lower cost mains electricity and plug in to recharge. So you never need to worry about battery capacity or how to recharge. During operation, as the battery level falls the generator cuts in, enabling an average speed of 60 – 70mph to be sustained with no further battery depletion.

In creating the Serial Hybrid mini, they actually created a vehicle that can perform better than the original vehicle. Zero to Sixty in 4 seconds truly demonstrates the head-snapping power that can be developed by electric motors; by putting the motors in the wheels, Hy-Pa has done something that they probably were not setting out to specifically do - make it possible to convert an existing, already designed and tooled vehicle into a product that could be delivered within a year or two as a finished product - or right now if you have an existing vehicle and a well-equipped shop.

Now, combine this with the news that it is inevitable that several auto-plants will have to be closed and all those jobs will be lost. Would it not make more sense to pick one or more of those plants as flagships for this new technology?

The gas-hogging Hummer for instance, is almost surely gone, but it would be hard to think of a more ideal existing chassis for a heavy-duty general service vehicle. By simply adapting the line to turn out Hummers that literally hum when you press the button, it could be a symbolic and marketing triumph. The advantage of using the Hummer is that it's large and has a lot of potential for specialty conversions, allowing a much more immediate implementation using stock parts that would have to be specifically engineered for smaller vehicles. But honestly speaking, the major value here is in the badge and it's potential to seize the public imagination.

I would start with an initial model line that featured a flex-fuel on-board generator. There should be several standard configurations for fuel tankage, but the "standard" version should be natural gas. (Re the Pickins Plan and common sense). Ideally, the various fuel tankage alternates should be designed into modules that can be interchanged simply and with few or no tools, making them extremely attractive to fleet operators and creating a design standard for aftermarket parts makers.

One thing I'm seeing is a general reluctance to go to market with something that isn't a perfectly seamless, self-contained product. Consider the Chevy E-Flex system.

Note that this has a single electric motor driving two wheels by means of a conventional trans-axle. It is a dedicated unit and must be assembled from scratch, using a battery pack that I assume to be specifically made for this platform. That strikes me as making little sense; what we need is a standard battery pack to design products around, rather than designing a product that demands a totally unique battery. And of course, it has something that in-wheel designs allow us to avoid to a far greater extent. - moving mechanical parts.

I can't tell if the E-Flex platform makes use of electromagnetic regenerative braking, but if it does not, the Chevy Volt is an inferior system to what can be done with Hy-Pa wheel-based designs, and it's inferior because it's been designed as a proprietary, closed architecture system.

Furthermore, the Hy-Pa wheel-based design does not require re-tooling. It can be applied directly to existing chassis designs - as the F-150 and Mini demonstrate. This would be true of any other system of this type. Zap Motors is pursuing this path aggressively, acquiring their own in-wheel motor technology.

I should point out the obvious - that a common Honda Generator converts any of their all-electric vehicles into a crude serial hybrid; it would be trivial to design an after-market generator that would fit any Zap! EV as a drop-in range extender. However, as useful as Zaps are, they still don't appeal to the consumer as a primary vehicle, nor does their light motorcycle design lend them to heavy field usage.

What we need is something that can roll out tomorrow, works as well or better as it's gas equivalent in critical target markets right now and has an upgrade path. In other words; when that better battery pack comes out, you will be able to put that battery in your existing vehicle. When a more efficient generator is available, it will be able to accept it. And of course, if you don't happen to need the on-board generator for a particular task - why not leave it in the garage and free up all that weight and space?

The issue is not a question of technology - it's far more a question of reconsidering what it is that we are doing and how we are doing it. That is Detroit's problem - they are trying to use their existing design philosophy to design electric vehicles from the ground up. Meanwhile, EV designers are trying to design a new automotive lifestyle. I wish to grab them by the ears and slam their heads together.

It's hard to understate the economic potentials here. By putting just a little thought into the fuel and generator module specifications, we have the potential to create entirely new industries. For instance, a vehicle that will be operating in a remote logging area could be configured to burn wood waste to run a sterling cycle generator. Flex-fuel generators capable of using bio-diesel and ethanol are ideal for agribusiness. And of course, anything working the "oil patch" should be running off flare gas.

Electrical Vehicle technology is particularly attractive for northern climates because it's just so much simpler to engineer electric vehicles for low temperatures. There are no coolant fluids, no, oil sumps and a lot more wiggle room regarding critical tolerances. In Canada, we could easily assign this a national security priority.

No doubt there are several platforms and plants other than the Hummer that will become suddenly available, addressing every market niche there is, but if it were me (and I wish it could be), I would start there.

But I doubt that PML can deliver enough motors and drive systems right at this moment. Furthermore, they are UK based, so we have to add transportation costs and delays.

It would make a great deal of sense to build these motors in Canada for the North American market; it's the sort of technology that we have the people to build. The Canadian financial sector is in better shape than most, so we are in a better position to take that step. I'd strongly suggest that the Canadian Government should smile broadly upon those looking toward building such a facility with an eye toward driving the cost of this technology down.

This general technology is being explored all around the world, by every major automaker. Someone - several someones - are going to be cashing in on this sea change. The North American market is still critical, and still dominant, and this technology is so obviously superior to conventional drive-trains technology that it will go forward, with or without us.


George Lewis said...

I really appreciate such a well though-out article. Having been in sales for over 24 years though, I know that what huge car companies build is something that is unique only to them - and that has to be serviced by their "specialists"...

What we need to do is to organize a grass-roots nationwide network of auto repair shops and train them to do electric conversions - where all the small repair companies join together to develop and buy-in-bulk a standard kit where anyone with a car with say 150,000 miles can get upgraded to electric for $15,000 (the key is to develop the network to keep the kit cost down. I have more information and ideas at:

Bob King said...

That's some damn fine blogging, George. If you are being paid for it, clients are getting their money's worth by the best means - buzz that means something and informs the consumer. If you are not being paid for that writeup about Zap's 2009 metal-body Xebra - you deserve to be; pointing it out as a really great business vehicle for small companies in terms to appeal to small business people is brilliant.

So's the idea of offering free opportunity charging to customers. I mean, seriously, how much would that cost compared to the draw?

But let's address the idea you express here - a national network of auto repair shops doing electrical conversions.

I'll double down. You may be sales; I'm graphic arts and design, and I've got a brilliant place to start that's ideal for robust serial hybid conversions.

Greenwood is a small town that is blessed with a good deal of weather. Right now, I'm keeping my gas engined sedan off the road; it's just too damn slippery out there. But most people have a need to leave Greenwood for shopping runs of over 50 miles on a monthly or bi-monthly basis, and during the winter, reliable all wheel drive is a must. As cool and as fun as a Zap is, you nail it as a natural second car. What is needed is a natural FIRST car.

What I'd like would be a natural gas generator/fuel pack that could be horsed into the back of a covered vehicle by one person that would extend my range to 100 miles. Normally, I'd leave the generator behind. And remember, if you have a generator, you can take it to a remote location, where it can power more than just your car. This is cabin country, so the synergies are obvious.

The real trick to such an enterprise is the fact that such conversions are likely to be highly individual; the ideal combination of fuel, generator, ideal platform and therefore required technologies are likely to vary greatly. But as you put it, if you could put down ten to fifteen grand to turn an old pickup into a new Serial Hybrid EV, you would be into a huge sweet spot. There are so many of those beasts just parked due to fuel prices right now, parked when they could be working.


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