Europe's largest electric vehicle show eCarTec, that has just taken place in Munich Germany, was an excellent place to see the latest trends and dead ends in electric vehicles. Like all major exhibitions, it was strong on the past and present but opaque on the future of EV components and systems (they want to sell what they have today) though there were a number of concept cars.
There was a weak 1.5 day eCarTec conference attached - too many niceties, repetition and statements of the obvious though Porsche and Siemens were among those few that were interesting. The exhibitor's sessions in the exhibition seminar areas were more consistently meaty and they were free of charge. However, this event was all about the superb exhibition with about 600 stands in three easily accessed halls and the large number of vehicles and components on display.
It was a particular delight to see stands from companies in recovering nations such as Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovenia and Hungary. What they offered was often very sophisticated technology.
Here come EVs beyond cars
Unusually for such shows, we saw a large number of EVs beyond cars and met many component suppliers concentrated on other vehicles too. Although the mis-named event event did not have over half the stands concerned with the market beyond cars, reflecting the true market segmentation by value, there were five or so stands concentrating, partly or wholly, on marine vehicles and their parts and some light coverage of agricultural, police and military vehicles.
Commercial vehicles and two wheelers were everywhere but electric aircraft, underwater craft and the main types of industrial electric vehicles such as forklifts and earthmovers were notable by their absence. Nonetheless, it was clear to everyone that there is more to it than cars and many other sectors have much more compelling consumer propositions than the typical pure electric car with an unacceptably high price for most people, reliance on government incentives that can be withdrawn at any time and poor range of 120 km or so in almost all cases. When it comes to on-road vehicles, we are in the decade of the hybrid car of course and they are very successful already. Oddly, eCarTec had very few on display. Almost everything was pure electric.
As is typical in EV shows in the West, charging stations were massively over-represented with a huge number of companies, most of them having yet to achieve sales of 60 units. We asked the charger companies for their uniqueness and 90% of them told us they could not think of any. Expect them to go to the wall.
A few, such as Siemens and Schneider Electric offer comprehensive systems not just the box and a very few seek to have an attractive charging station, most of the ones displayed being ugly boxes thrown together by engineers. Only a few of the charger manufacturers offer a full suite of AC and DC, Levels One through Three chargers. Those that do claim it as unique. In the conference and the exhibition, it was universally accepted that there is no business case for public charging stations anywhere in the world, but good money can be made by a few of the manufacturers because of the funding by Nissan, power utilities, some site owners and governments not seeking a payback - only a green image and success with pure electric car sales.
In Europe, the laggard in standardisation, we all await the battle between the Germans and the French on which plug will be favoured but that is not a primary market impediment because almost all charging is at home, the public charging being mainly an antidote for range anxiety -a fall back in emergency for pure electric vehicles.
Battery shakeout now
Almost all traction batteries in use in the huge number of demonstrated vehicles were wet lithium iron phosphate LFP, not the lithium polymer (solid polymer electrolyte with gel) with a different cathode favoured only one year ago.
The universally proffered reason is safety - notably temperature tolerance - not the prospect of lower price, though that will be hugely important if it happens to a significant extent at battery pack/BMS level. What jarred with this safety argument was the popular use of Chinese batteries. In China, explosions have taken place due to poor battery quality including, most recently, a violent LFP fire in a taxi.
Safe Chinese batteries will emerge, not just cheap ones, but great care is needed in the meantime. One suspects that many new vehicle makers are buying lithium-ion batteries on price and preaching safety. Some have limited knowledge of quality control and of the correct BMS design for safety, we suspect. Wait for the bang.
Although lead acid batteries are certainly on the way out, though they may dominate in Chinese e-bikes and most forklifts and vehicles for the disabled for another decade, the lithium-ion replacement in most other vehicles is set for further rapid change. For example, many large car makers dismissed third generation (affordable, safer, higher energy density) lithium-ion batteries as more than ten years away. Yet, third generation lithium-ion batteries with inorganic solid state electrolytes are already being used in some electric aircraft and they are about to appear in microcars, motor cycles and tests of family cars. Watch Oxis Energy etc. They may or may not succeed in providing the right combination of price, life, performance, safety and better energy density but eCarTec did not reveal this type of debate, the leading battery manufacturers and the most innovative ones being absent .
Meanwhile LFP cathodes will remain very popular but not all-conquering and there are lots of improved anodes, electrolytes and other features coming along with second generation batteries. The big battery shows expose those issues.
Styling and design dead ends
There were many very stylish Chinese two wheel scooters in evidence, some with European branding. The Europeans sometimes said they are deeply involved in the production procedures to make sure only the safe units with acceptable life gets through. We have to hope they are telling the truth.
One nonsense much in evidence was retro-styled electric cars and scooters - surely a narrow market and no answer to products with excellent styling from East Asia in the case of scooters or from the best Western companies in the case of cars. For example, with two wheelers, the is the visually unique and attractive styling and function of the Elmoto German two wheelers and one or two other western, Korean and Japanese brands were impressive.
In-wheel motor enigma
A surprisingly large number of new suppliers of in-wheel motors for four wheel vehicles were in evidence. Most will go under because the only successful use of in-wheel motors remains in e-bikes for a while longer.
Putting them in larger vehicles is technically extremely challenging and no one seems to be offering a cost advantage over single motors, the consumer proposition of better performance and more space being a more difficult sell, given that most putative purchasers prefer cost and range to improve.
Most of the major automotive companies are treating in-wheel motors rather like fuel cells - stay aware, adopt slowly if at all. All the same, at some stage, there will be spectacular winners in supply of in-wheel motors and there was some evidence at this event that they will be commercially successful in trucks and buses before cars.
Vital components ignored
There was huge activity in telematics in evidence, even a special conference on it. Many players in vehicle electronics in general were in evidence. However, in the decade of the hybrid, range extenders and ultracapacitors are also key enabling technologies as is energy harvesting.
The range extenders in most of the hybrids exhibited were merely adapted piston engines. Perhaps that is reassuring to those developing second and third generation range extenders such as designed-to-purpose piston engines, Bladon Jets mini turbines, Wankel engines and "fuel generators" that do not need a separate generator, such as fuel cells (virtually absent from this event), Clarian Labs, Huttlin and free piston generators. With many millions of modern range extenders needed yearly, the field may be undersupplied - very nice for the 30 or so companies intending to supply them.
One range extender supplier that was present was Lotus, known as a sports car manufacturer but also legendary in design and technology development. For example, it designed most of the Tesla Roadster and sources its components. It was exhibiting its very impressive three and two cylinder designed-to-purpose range extenders that can be mounted in any orientation.
They are being designed into several cars but not its own magnificent sports cars which, they told us, will stick to conventional engines, sometimes with stop/start/torque assist micro-hybrid capability and maybe adding a pure electric C class city car to the Lotus range. Lotus
range extenders are not monoblock as originally conceived because there have been concerns about reliability in use of these complex castings and, anyway, more weight is saved with high-pressure die casting of more pieces but with thinner walls. Indeed, Lotus has recently disposed of yet more weight by creating an integrated inlet.
Lotus is not concerned about the single piston range extenders of some competition such as Polaris Industries efficiently addressing the sweet spot in the market of around 30 kW and it thinks that the more radical range extenders with no pistons will not hit the volume to get price advantage in the market within the decade because car manufacturers need to be very conservative. We shall see.
Energy harvesting under-emphasis
Photovoltaics were seen fairly often through the exhibition but almost always in the bendable polycrystalline silicon form familiar thirty years ago.
The Protoscar Lampo3 sports car on demo had an envisaged amorphous silicon PV on the car port. Wabasco demonstrated a more efficient crystalline silicon car roof patch than that on the Fisker Karma on display, itself a record, but we are still only talking of little more than 100 watts peak because of the small area covered.
What is needed is transparent or translucent PV over the whole vehicle, even windows. lights and underneath and harvesting heat as well as light. Such technologies are in the laboratory. Then there are the big inputs from the energy harvesting shock absorbers being developed by about six companies not at this show. Of course, for energy harvesting, regenerative braking is now commonplace but the future of electric vehicles lies in many small improvements and multiple energy harvesting needs to come to the fore as part of this. Add the use of ultracapacitors (supercapacitors) doing more of the work of the battery.
IDTechEx will again present this fuller picture at its Electric Vehicles Land Sea Air event in San Jose California in March 2012.
Shake out in motors begins
Brushed motors are now rarely encountered in EVs beyond hobbyists, converters and startups with limited technical skills. Permanent magnet brushless motors attract most of the money spent on vehicle traction motors because they are compact, efficient, reliable, almost maintenance free, do not emit a lot of electromagnetic interference and can work at high speed and, for efficiency, high voltage unlike brushed motors. They provide reverse and regeneration without major extra parts.
However, magnet price has sextupled lately due to that pesky neodymium cost and permanent magnets can degrade with time and temperature. Often these designs have catastrophic potential failure modes forcing undue reliance on external safety infrastructure. Some exhibitors said this is now more of an issue as motor manufacturers try to sell to the big car companies. Most of this is true whether the PM motor is BLDC (trapezoidal waveform) or PMAC (sinusoidal waveform). Indeed, at this show, neither had a unique market positioning, both being in evidence in many vehicle types.
The big question therefore is not which PM motor will win but whether motors without magnets, notably asynchronous (AC induction) motors, will attract most expenditure by the end of the decade, even if they do not totally displace ones with magnets.
Look at the evidence. At this show, there was no supplier of asynchronous motors moving into synchronous ones. There were several doing the opposite and asynchronous motors were not just in many of the commercial vehicles, they were in the expensive Tesla designer car and, ominously for PM motor people, also in the other end of the car market in the low cost three seat Mia microcar from Italy, the Tazzari two seat microcar from Germany and the four seat VW LUPO experimental car of Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands (MES motor from Switzerland) and even boats and outboard motors in some cases, these being largely new developments.
Both of the companies showing their electrifications of the Smart ForTwo had chosen asynchronous motors. Even from China, where they control the world's output of neodymium for now, GreenWheel EV nevertheless showed a small people-mover car and a jeep, both using asynchronous motors. The Taiwan Luxgen SUV on display nearby incorporated an asynchronous motor. In short, there is a global trend towards asynchronous motors in cars but from near zero only two years ago and still only representing small production output.
When it comes to deliveries, PM synchronous motors rule the roost almost everywhere, particularly in all the small EVs, where they also dominate in future models such as the two wheelers and vehicles for the disabled that were on show. The trend to asynchronous is there with cars and upwards but how far and how fast the market moves to asynchronous is still hotly debated. All those moving to asynchronous cited cost. Some also cited superior safety, high temperature performance, reliability and life.
Switched reluctance motors (synchronous motors without magnets) were not in evidence but they did get designed into two John Deere agricultural hybrids this year. Emerson, SR Drives and a few others seek to supply these for vehicle traction.
Crazy statistic of the day - we were told that Tesla has sold 150 of its gorgeous $100,000 sports cars in Germany but 10% of them are used as nothing more than notice boards in events such as this one. Companies buy them, spray them in their colours, draw their logo on the side and exhibit them.
For more attend Electric Vehicles Land, Sea & Air 2012 where a large number of electric vehicle manufacturers not seen in conventional EV events will present including WheelTug aircraft electrification, Pipistrel aircraft, MotoVolta, LLC motorbikes, SolTrac farm tractors, Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute Autonomous Underwater Vehicles AUVs and manufacturers of industrial, commercial, military, e-bike, cars such as Mitsubishi Motors North America and other EVs.