Rethinking Electric Car Design
By Miguel Praca
We have been waiting for electric cars for so long we should have figured out how they will come about to replace the oil burning car. I am not an auto industry expert and I think there must be many people with deeper insights into the problems that a comprehensive transition entails. I am a creative problem solver by trade, and by nature and trained habit I like to observe and explore problems. Once a problem is discussed broadly the creative process takes hold and solutions start to pop up. The more open that process is the faster the rate of innovation. Experts in any field benefit greatly from fresh views from outsiders, who can suggest alternative perspectives independent of a linear logic that tends to constrain creativity. With that in mind I would like to share some of my thoughts about evolution in the auto industry. In particular I am concerned with solutions for the larger infrastructural problem. It is clear that refueling infrastructure requirements impose substantial constraints on how electric cars will be designed in the future, if they have a chance for success. That is the focus of my thinking, and the subject of this contribution.
First of all I think it is safe to postulate that we cannot predict how the evolution of energy sources will unravel over coming decades, and the best strategy is to keep our options open in that regard. I could step further back and question the longevity of the current concept of personal transportation, but I think that a deeper transformation of the mobility options will be a slower process outside the scope intended for this exercise.
Within the scope of my speculation hybrids are a good model for evolution. I believe they came about by virtue of their particular advantage which is the continued reliance on the existing infrastructure for refueling. Future cars may have much in common with today's hybrids, bridging multiple power solutions to a common electric drive solution.
The hybrid model can be followed independently of the evolution of future energy sources. The electrical drive platform of the hybrid may be adaptable for multiple power solutions that may vary depending on user preference, economic and geographic factors, infrastructure or lack thereof.
An electric car concept
The vision of the next generation electric car I propose is one that can be configured as a more versatile vehicle: a car with a small primary battery bank for limited autonomy (30-50 miles) and a secondary docking module that holds additional battery power. The secondary battery module can be leased long or short term as a service available in cities and along freeways. This would allow for unrestricted range without time consuming recharge.
Most people with short commutes would not require a secondary battery except as they venture on an occasional long trip. This concept would also result in a lighter car which does not have to carry battery capacity for long range use, most of the time.
One implication is that for a given availability of battery power, that capacity would become available to cars that require longer range, and not trapped in cars that do not need it. This strategy improves the economics of the battery powered option. It reduces the total battery capacity demand resulting in a market tendency for lower pricing. It results in lower vehicle cost as well since battery capacity is a substantial proportion of the vehicle cost. This concept would easily switch to accommodate alternative power sources in the event of the available battery capacity becoming scarce and expensive. We cannot predict what power storage solutions might be developed or how scarce resources for battery technology might be in the future.
The smaller primary battery would be a plug-in rechargeable battery that would be charged overnight, in principle. It might also be supplied by roof photovoltaic panels or other innovative complementary supply. Additional solutions will be developed to recharge the primary battery when the car is stationary (retractable wind generators, etc.). Its smaller size would reduce the load on the power distribution infrastructure which will need a huge upgrade before we can substantially transition to electrical powered cars. This approach would make that upgrade smoother. At least half the available battery power would be charged at service stations where we would go for secondary capacity and extended range. Some of these stations may not even rely on the distribution infrastructure. They could be off-the-grid generation centers.
In a first phase this electric car concept would probably rely on a standards interface with the secondary power source, agreed between auto manufacturers and energy suppliers. The basic battery unit might be a small module, for portability, engaging into a larger housing that would include an energy metering system so that the consumer would be charged for the energy used rather than have to pay for a battery unit whose energy capacity is not uniform and will fluctuate over its usable life. The whole module is leased for any period of time depending on the driving needs of the user. Alternative solutions to the plug-in recharge could become available; ranging from emergency power packs (small generators) to fancy high energy solutions that would provide increased autonomy relying on whatever energy source would be more appropriate or cost effective. The possibilities are limitless: home energy generation stations based on wind, solar, geothermal, etc.
I find this to be a compelling vision of an electrical car solution, different from what has been generally publicized by manufacturers, and it seems to be not far from the platform used on some of the current hybrid concepts. It enables the transition to be more incremental and possibly less costly than we might otherwise expect.
Breaking away from the integrated auto industry model
Another configuration of this concept is a hybrid solution that gets its primary battery charged by a power plant module accommodated in the space available for the secondary battery module. Basically, a module that can fit in that space integrates a fuel powered generator and fuel supply. The critical advantage of this flexibility is that a basic platform would be able to accommodate different types of power solutions which would give users a wide variety of options from gas turbines to fuel cells. Some of these options are being developed and more would become available as this approach would open the market to power solutions independent from the integrated auto manufacturer. Moving away from the current vertical integration model of the auto industry would open up the opportunity for subsystem innovation, not unlike the high-tech industry model where subsystems and components evolve independently of the products that integrate them as standardized solutions. The rate of innovation of this model is much faster and less burdensome to the auto industry. Consumers would be quick to embrace a modular solution that is more easily customizable to their individual needs.
The hybrid module would require a power connection and a data connection to interface with the power module. Intelligent controls would take care of running the power plant according to energy requirements and driver input.
An open variable is what type of power plant would become more cost effective. A design around a flexible power approach would open up the field for development of multiple technologies making it feasible to maintain a large fleet in a sustainable way, not dependent on a single energy source such as we have today. A variety of available power solutions would have many advantages in terms of adapting to supply constraints, and opening up the field to innovation. The model for servicing a fractioned market may follow the example of biodiesel production and distribution (ad-hoc networks that sprouted locally in the last decade around vegetable oil recycling centers).
In this model it is not necessary that a huge battery charging infrastructure be required - the single most daunting prospect of a complete transition to the electric car. We may never have to rely on a largely electrical fleet, and furthermore we may not have to rely significantly on a home plug-in solution, for which our distribution capacity requires huge upgrades.
With innovation stimulated in all variety of possible directions it is impossible to know where we will eventually end up, but it will certainly be a freer process, driven by efficiency and cost, unrestrained by a commitment to a complex infrastructure that would be as unwieldy as the petroleum based infrastructure that has helped to strangle evolution in the last 30 years.
I would hope car manufacturers are debating ideas like this because we are at a cross-roads and the direction they take will have huge consequences in terms of their capacity to accommodate new solutions. They must free the model to open the field for innovation on energy options leading to a world where we will not have to be dependent on a constraining infrastructure or a single energy source. Those who tie their models to an unlikely infrastructural transformation choose a dependency that leads to a high risk of failure, while competitors with more nimble models will adapt to an evolving market of energy options.
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