UQM Is Still Unique - Part 3
By Bill Moore
UQM has been in existence for more than 30 years and in that time, men like Bill Rankin have seen many changes take place, especially when it comes to electric drive vehicle technology. There have been the proverbial boom and bust cycles. So, we asked Rankin just how "bullish" he is today about electric vehicle technology.
With only a moment's hesitation, he responded, "Very bullish for lots of reasons. If you talk electric vehicle technology or applications, there's a whole world of existing vehicles out there [where] it's not up for debate. Invacare. Our product is in volume production for them and we see more of those types of applications in our future where we're going to be going after existing markets."
"What you're really addressing here are these emerging on-road markets or some of the off-road work with the John Deere and others. The battery part of the story has kind-of already unfolded and it's not really going to cut it. We're not going to apparently see [wider use of BEVs], at least in the near-term unless there's some battery breakthrough that's been promised every year for the last twenty-five years. . . it's unlikely to happen. So, the transitions been to hybrids."
"Hybrids are an ideal answer for improved performance in vehicles," Rankin observed, going on to explain why they represent such an important next step, especially in mild-hybrid or "mybrid" architectures.
"Most of us think of the hybrid as the sum of the engine -- in parallel, at least -- plus the electric motor. Let's say a ninety horsepower engine and ten horsepower electric motor means I can run the engine without the electric motor, the little electric motor maybe without the engine although that's kind of hard to imagine, or some combination of the two.
"Well, the real beauty of that approach where you've got an electric motor joining the engine in the drive line is that you can intelligently decide when to use the electric motor in such a way that it can relieve or supplement the engine at those instances where the engine needs the most help. For example in the transients where the engine is changing gears as it moves from launch to high-speed, as it goes through first, second, third, fourth. . . those racing up the engine and falling back is where the engine consumes more fuel and puts out more emissions. Our machines are able to interact in the drive line in milliseconds, providing instantaneous electric assist.
"The net result is the engine that you thought you had is now different because its able to operate in its regime more efficiently and avoid the peak points where it strains the most. It has implications on engine wear. It has dramatic implications on fuel economy and pollution. There are a number of programs that are on-going where that's the approach being taken on these mild hybrids."
"The other beauty of that approach or technology is that these machines aren't a whole lot different than an alternator," Rankin noted, adding that UQM has just such a program in development. They have integrated one of their "rotating machines" what is, in effect, a 42-volt starter motor/generator set that is part of the engine flywheel. "It starts the engine. It's being spun by the engine to create onboard power, but it also has the ability to provide power back into the drive line through the engine flywheel to supplement the engine's performance."
Ranking acknowledges that some may not regard this as a true hybrid, he personally considers it a "mild" hybrid because it joins electrical power with the engine to improve the performance of the vehicle.
"I think that class of hybrid is going to find its way eventually into nearly every vehicle in production because it is almost seamless," he told EV World. "It doesn't disrupt the dealerships. . ."
Besides mild hybrids, Rankin also sees a number of important niche markets for electric drive vehicles including the military who he says are very interested in high-power electric vehicles. He points out that such vehicles can operate in stealth mode with little or no heat signature or noise. "There are all types of performance benefits which some applications can justify," he said.
So, is he bullish? He says he is. "We're going to see an increasing electrification come into vehicles driven partly by the transition to 42-volts, but driven more by the opportunity to get more bang for the buck by incremental additions of electric propulsion to join the engine. And as other sources of electric power become available and economical, such as fuel cells and someday batteries, we'll see more and more of the vehicle move electric."
Rankin and CAFE
As you'd expect of most businessmen who trust in the power of the market, Rankin has mixed feelings about government imposed fuel economy standards.
While acknowledging that higher mileage standards would probably be good for his business, he said, "My net would probably be to let the cards all where they will and let this happen economically. Now it would sure help if gasoline prices were higher because then there would be a legitimate reason, an economic reason to improve the efficiency of cars that would be realized by the consumer, which would drive his buying habit. Putting in restrictions driven by the desire to have more efficient vehicles has its problems, but it also has its benefits.
"The benefits are it will force vehicles to be Œroaded', which will give consumers, the public and the automobile companies the opportunity to understand what these vehicles are capable of doing or can't do. And over a period of time it will improve them to the point of making them viable.
"But on the other hand," he cautioned, "when these types of regulations are put in place, it may cause the wrong things to happen. Companies figure out a way to not doing what people wanted [them to do]. They do something else and that's a risk. If I had to come down on it, some incentives are worth doing, maybe in the hands of the buyer to let it be a pull-by-the-buyer program rather than a push-by-the-government to put regulations on the seller."
We asked Rankin to talk about where he sees the company's future growth coming from. He pointed one more time to the fact that UQM has acquired to manufacturing companies. "Along with those acquisitions," he replied, "came some existing customers." We asked him to give us a bit more detail about these companies are. One is a precision gear manufacturer that Rankin is gradually moving away from that business "for a bunch of offshore transition reasons."
"It allowed us to put a rotating machinery manufacturing base in place, which was the start of our production for Invacare." It also allowed the company to get ISO 9000 certification.
The second business is a contract manufacturer of electronics in St. Charles, Missouri. This company builds custom electronics, some of it for Tier Two automotive parts suppliers. "Basically, we stuff boards and do wiring harnesses and complete box builds," Rankin explained. "One application alone, we do 16,000 units a day."
He went on to emphasize that UQM is no longer the little bouquet engineering company it once was. Acquiring this other businesses has, in his words, put the company on the map as a manufacturer, as well. "What was once a liability, is now an asset."
Targeting Seven Markets
Rankin and his team at UQM have identified seven target markets for their products and services. It is these he believes will provide future growth for the company. He enumerated them as follows:
- Battery Electric Vehicles -- Here the prize isn't the on-road market, but the many successful niche non-road markets like power-assist wheelchairs, golf carts and forklifts. Invacare produces 50,000 electric wheelchairs a year, Rankin stated.
- Emerging Hybrid Market -- UQM is involved in a number of projects with John Deere, AVS and UPS. Here the focus is on higher-power applications like trucks, buses and military vehicles.
- Fuel Cells -- UQM not only makes electric drives that can be used in fuel cell vehicles, but they also make the compressor for Ballard fuel cells.
- Automotive Auxiliary Units -- The company has been approached by auto manufacturers and others to build electric motors for the transition to electric air conditioning compressors and electric power steering. Rankin says this market will happen regardless of what happens with fuel cells and hybrids.
- Stationary Power
- Wind Turbines
All of these are considered stationary power applications and Rankin sees potential in these three areas. He said the company is already involved in some wind turbine projects that not only include the generator-side of the machine but also the inverter.
Clearly with all these opportunities beckoning, Rankin is confident that he has enough "chips" on the table to assure that the company will continue to grow and prosper wherever technology leads us.
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