Future of Electric Vehicles conference a buzzing success
By Ben Coxworth
December 9, 2010
This week saw the Future of Electric Vehicles USA 2010 conference take place in San Jose, California. Billed as “the world's only event that covers all forms of electric vehicles – land, water, and air,” it included a series of presentations on new technologies, an exhibit hall, and master classes that featured trips to nearby Silicon Valley tech development firms. Gizmag was one of the main sponsors of the event, and we were there to learn more about what’s happening in the world of EVs. Here’s a quick look at some of what we took in (many of the presenters have been featured in Gizmag in the past couple of years, so go ahead and click on the links to learn more about each one).
Future of Electric Vehicles is run by research, analysis and events firm IDTechEx. The conference opened with an address from company Chairman Dr. Peter Harrop, who gave an overview of the present state and future of the EV industry.
First of all, despite how much we hear about vehicles like the Nissan Leaf and Tesla Roadster, Harrop pointed out that cars make up only about half the market for EVs. This will likely continue to be the case, with two-wheelers such as scooters and e-bikes constituting a significant portion of the other half. His company predicts that about 5 to 18 percent of cars will be pure electric or hybrid by 2020, and that the advent of technologies such as smart skins and energy-harvesting components will greatly enhance their performance – smart skin technology proposes that multi-layer materials making up the outside of the vehicle serve as its battery and/or photovoltaic system. Not all the new tech will be brand new, however... Harrop also spoke of a sense of déjà vu within the EV industry, in which some hundred-year-old ideas (such as wheel-mounted pancake motors) have been making a comeback.
Building the right kind of cars
Prof. Pietro Perlo, Senior Director at Research Center Fiat, hit upon a point that was echoed by other presenters. “A vehicle has to be born electrical,” he stated. “We used to say, ‘A vehicle has to be born smart,’ because if you’re born stupid, you can go to university, but at the end you remain stupid.” In other words, throwing an electric motor and battery pack in a car designed for a combustion engine is not the way to go. He said that such cars could take advantage of smart onboard photovoltaic systems, along with an “Internet of Energy,” that would link producers, suppliers and consumers of energy in an electronic smart grid system.
Even then, Perlo said, practical electric cars are going to remain small in size for years to come – the batteries required to power a larger vehicle will simply be too large and heavy.
That brings us to BMW’s upcoming 4-seater compact all-electric Megacity, previewed by that company’s Dr. Anton Lesnicar. He also gave the goods on the all-electric MINI E and Active E, along with the just-announced Vision EfficientDynamics extended-range EV, a 2 + 2-seater that will deliver approximately 360hp.
The question of range
While the Vision will extend its range via a 3-cylinder turbodeisel engine, it’s possible that other EVs in the not-too-distant future may use a micro gas turbine... like the ones made by Bladon Jets. Executive Chairman Paul Barrett provided information on his company’s product, which he said is considerably smaller, lighter and more efficient than conventional internal combustion range-extending engines. He explained that past attempts at incorporating similar devices into cars failed, because the engineers had tried to drive the wheels directly with the turbines, and there simply wasn’t enough torque. His product, however, uses gasoline (or theoretically any other fuel) to generate electricity, which in turn powers the car’s primary electric motor.
Barrett expressed the opinion that electric cars will require some sort of range-extending capability before they will ever achieve mainstream acceptance. Other speakers, however, felt that what needs to change is drivers’ perception of how much range is really necessary – if you only drive 50 miles a day, what does it matter if your car is limited to a maximum range of 100 miles?
Extending battery power by harvesting energy from the vehicle was the principle behind some of the other developments that were presented. Zackary A. Anderson of Levant Power Corporation described his company’s GenShock, an electro-hydraulic shock absorber that generates electricity with every compression. In a rather impressive video demonstration, he showed a GenShock attached to a row of lights, which it lit up every time a shock-simulating rig gave it a wallop. While its energy production might not be phenomenal in a small, individual car, he said it would be well-suited to heavier fleet vehicles, where all the little energy savings could really add up. It will be launched for use in buses and military vehicles in 2012.
Anderson said that although similar products had been developed in the past, none had proven to be cost-effective. That brings us to the Direct Drive Active Suspension, presented by Dr. Johan Paulides of the Eindhoven University of Technology. Paulides and his team have developed a coil-sprung strut, with an electro-magnetic central cylinder. As the cylinder slides in and out with each compression/expansion, it generates electricity through magnetic force. The GenShock, by contrast, mechanically converts the shock’s lateral motion to horizontal motion, which it then uses to spin a turbine.
AFS Trinity Power corporation’s Chief Technology Officer Donald Bender described his company’s Extreme Hybrid System, which combines batteries and ultracapacitors for energy storage in plug-in hybrid electrics. The system was demonstrated recently in the company’s XH-150 prototype vehicle.
Undoubtedly one of the crowd’s favorite presentations was that of the highly personable and entertaining Bill Dube and Eva Hakansson, the two owners of the KillaCycle electric racing motorcycle – the bike itself was a big hit in the exhibit hall. Being able to accelerate from 0-60mph in under one second, KillaCycle is billed as being the world’s fastest electric motorcycle (not to mention the fastest EV of any type). Among other things, they advised other aspiring E-crotch-rocket-makers to use heated lithium-ion phosphate batteries in a well-designed pack, implement a good battery management system, and to use parallel power flows instead of gathering the current.
While KillaCycle and their other racing bikes are purely extremist one-offs, Dube spoke of the need for high-performance EVs for winning the public over to the idea of buying mass-produced electric cars for everyday use – look no further than the Tesla.
Graham Hawkes, founder of Hawkes Ocean Technologies, brought what was definitely the show-stopper in the exhibit hall – one of two Deep Flight Super Falcon submersibles in existence. Like almost all of his company's submersibles, the thing is more like a plane that is flown underwater than a traditional submarine. We got him to give us a little one-on-one video explanation of how the sub “flies,” which will be posted in coming days.
In his presentation, Hawkes talked of the extreme importance of high-capacity batteries for submersibles, as they don’t even have the option of using combustion engines. His vehicles might well end up using a new lithium-water battery being developed by PolyPlus, as described by CTO and founder Steven Visco. These unique batteries would create energy via a reaction between lithium and seawater, for an energy density that would reportedly rival that of hydrocarbon fuel cells.
Underwater ROVs (Remote Operated Vehicles) currently require large surface support vessels, in part to handle the thick and awkward umbilical cables that are fed out with the ROVs as they descend. These cables, needed for relaying instructions and data to and from the submersibles, create a huge amount of drag as they are pulled through the water, greatly taxing the ROVs’ batteries. Jonathon Epstein, President and CEO of Hawkes Remotes (an affiliate of Hawkes Ocean Technologies), presented what may be the solution: super-thin fiber optic umbilical cables, that spool out from the ROV itself instead of the deck of a boat. Called Spider Optics, this system could conceivably mean smaller support vessels and much less cable drag, which would in turn mean more battery power left for exploring the depths.
On a more recreational note, Tamarack Lake Electric Boat Company president Montgomery Gisborne related his experiences of cruising three North American waterways using primarily solar power, and described his solar-powered leisure craft which are now available for purchase.
In the sky
In order for electric aircraft to become practical, according to a previously-recorded presentation by PC-Aero President Calin Gologan, batteries must become lighter, and options such as solar power need to be further developed. He also referenced his Green Village Airfield concept, which is similar to NASA’s Green Flight Challenge, an initiative that is being hosted by the CAFE Foundation. CAFE President Brien Seeley described how his group is seeking designs for Suburban Air Vehicles (SAVs) – small, quiet electric airplanes that could take off and land at neighborhood “pocket airports.” The winning design group could end up with US$1.6 million to develop their aircraft.
Michael R. Dudley, of the NASA Ames Research Center, also “weighed in” on the limitations of heavy batteries in electric planes. As was previously noted with cars, he said that smaller aircraft would be the ones best suited to pure-electric propulsion, as batteries large enough to power bigger aircraft would simply be too heavy. While fuel cells would offer better energy density, he said that the tanks for traditional hydrogen fuel cells would weigh too much. Instead, he sees promise in the emerging field of solid-oxide fuel cells, or SOFCs.
Getting charged up
What’s been covered here is only part of what was on offer, with other presenters including the likes of Nissan Motors, ETH Zurich, Kleenspeed Technologies, Siemens AG, and the NASA Ames Research Center. Their presentations and those of others ventured into more technically-complex areas (such as self-powered piezoelectric and piezoresistive microsensors) and into topics such as demographics and electric-car-user psychology.
It was definitely an inspiring, energizing event, both for potential EV-makers or buyers. As Dr. Harrop said to the audience, “Things are coming along, people are thinking outside of the box. We’re at a very exciting tipping point with amazing new technologies.”
Stay tuned for upcoming in-depth articles on some of the key developments presented at the conference.
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