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Piecing together the EV puzzle

Piecing together the EV puzzle

To make electrification really work for our customers – and that means our customers and society attaining the maximum value of this alternative fuel in a sustainable, affordable way – collaborations between automakers, utilities, integrators and governments will be key.” –Nancy Gioia, director-global electrification, Ford Motor Co.

There’s a lot of differing opinions out there about whether it’s even worth our national collective while to try and replace a good portion of ubiquitous internal combustion engine cars and light trucks we drive with all-electric vehicles (EVs).

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The arguments are legion: EVs are just too costly; they don’t have nearly enough range; and their “zero pollution” reputation is actually a falsehood, since the electricity they’ll use will still largely come from coal-fired plants.

Me, I see things differently. If the average car commuter in the U.S. drives just 60 miles a day, like the studies say, then the EV is a perfect fit. There’s no complicated refueling needed; just hook it up to a home charging station every night (we do this with our cell phones, you know) and you’re good to go. Even better: wider use of EVs leaves more gasoline and diesel available for the vehicles that REALLY need it – freight hauling trucks, fire and rescue equipment, cop cars, military vehicles, you name it.

But the big question is how to make all the EV pieces fit – which is actually a series of smaller questions that roll together. How do you make recharging EVs not only simple for the consumer, but also easier on the electric grid? How do we get batteries that are lightweight yet store more power for longer vehicle range? And what sorts of vehicle options are we going to get with all of this?

Ford Motor Co. is one of many OEMs blazing along several trails to answer these and other questions. For example, Ford recently partnered with Microsoft to tweak its “Hohm” energy management software program to include EV re-charging needs. [You can see how this works in the short animated clip below.]

The spiel is that “Hohm” helps homeowners determine when and how to most efficiently and affordably recharge EV and plug-in hybrid (PHEV) vehicles, while helping utility companies manage the added demands of electric vehicles on the electric grid. “This is a needed step in the development of the infrastructure that will make electric vehicles viable,” stressed Alan Mulally, Ford’s president and CEO.

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He added that effective management of the energy ecosystem is critical for electric vehicles to be successful and for consumer interest to grow. In a recent Accenture survey, 42% of consumers said they are likely to buy a hybrid or electric vehicle in the next two years, but the concern (rightly placed) is that increasing numbers of electric vehicles, however, will have a significant impact on energy demand – because the addition of an electric vehicle to a household could effectively double home energy consumption while the vehicle is charging.

Ford, by the way, is getting pretty aggressive in an effort to kickstart a “global electrification” plan. The automaker is putting five new electrified vehicles on the road in North America and Europe by 2013, including – for the North American market – the Transit Connect Electric later this year, Focus Electric in 2011, a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle and two next-generation hybrids in 2012.

[LeftLaneNews recently conducted an interview with Ford’s Ed Fleet about all of this – including the "Hohm" software connection – which you can view below for further insight.]

Ford currently has four hybrids on the road and another coming this year, including: the Fusion Hybrid, Ford Escape Hybrid, Mercury Milan Hybrid and Mercury Mariner Hybrid. Also coming this fall is the Lincoln MKZ Hybrid, touted as a more fuel-efficient luxury.

Bluntly put, life with electrified vehicles – with EV and plug-in hybrid (PHEV) vehicles needing to be recharged daily – will require consumers to change how they think about personal transportation and energy use. It’s also forcing EV technology to improve rapidly, especially where batteries are concerned.

At the end of the day, you see, it comes down to range and performance for EVs – and the battery is a big piece of both of those factors.

The automobile battery was an essentially static technology for decades, but no longer. From heavy 12-volt lead-acid batteries, vehicle manufacturers quickly moved on to nickel metal hydride (Ni-MH) models that deliver twice the power output. However, the cost of Ni-MH batteries is high – four times that of lead acid – and Ford’s engineers among others believe they have tapped most of the potential of Ni-MH technology, so are now moving rapidly toward Lithium-ion technology.

Lithium-ion batteries are commonplace; lighter and more energy dense than other types of batteries, they power laptop computers, mobile phones and other portable devices.

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Yet Ted Miller, Ford’s senior manager-energy storage strategy and research, stressed that major technical challenges remain in making lithium-ion technology work in high-volume automotive applications.

“There isn’t just one type of lithium-ion battery and several hold promise for automotive use,” Miller explained. “That’s good because we know that the variant of lithium-ion battery used in laptops and other mobile devices is completely unacceptable for use in cars.”

That’s because automobile batteries must survive and work in huge temperature extremes, stand up to more shocks and vibrations and a much higher energy throughput than consumer electronics goods. Also, an automobile is expected to have a 10-year lifespan, something most laptop or cell phone owners don’t expect of those devices, said Miller.

“The battery industry is really focused now on creating lithium-ion batteries specifically for cars and this is going to result in a great new generation of automotive batteries,” he explained.

Yet another piece of the puzzle that needs to be ironed out in order to make EVs a practical reality for the modern world.