Hybrids and EVs: More revolutionary than autonomy?

Article By : Brian Dipert

Continued battery technology improvements, evolutionary and revolutionary alike, will deliver benefits not only to vehicle developers but also much more broadly.

It can be easy to equate vehicle autonomy, which I most recently covered a couple of posts ago, and vehicle powertrain electrification. After all, to the best of my recollection, all of today’s major autonomous vehicle programs (Baidu, Tesla, Uber, and Waymo i.e. Alphabet i.e. Google, plus the world’s leading existing vehicle manufacturers) are basing their R&D efforts on EVs. But the two concepts aren’t necessarily linked; after all, the DARPA Grand Challenge “robot car” competitions that jump-started the self-driving car era were based on conventionally powered vehicles, as are more recent production-ready efforts such as Cadillac’s semi-autonomous Super Cruise.

While autonomy will transform how we as drivers and passengers interact with our vehicles, I’d in fact argue that the electrified powertrain will more fundamentally transform vehicles themselves, in the process advancing a whole host of other electron-based devices. Why? Take a look, for example, at a writeup I did nearly 20 years ago (jeepers …) on General Motors’ ahead-of-its-time EV1. Many of the innovations I discussed in it, such as regenerative braking, have found their way into more successful hybrid and fully electric successors such as Toyota’s Prius and Tesla’s various models. But one quote from my 1999-era article stuck with me as I re-read it earlier today:

Because GM’s engineers didn’t have to worry about engine blocks, transmissions, mufflers, or fuel systems, they completely enclosed the underbody and lowered the ground clearance to only 5 in.

Although the materials used to construct automobiles may have evolved a fair bit since the century-plus-old Ford Model T, the fundamental construction building blocks, therefore structural design, of the automobile is relatively unchanged:

  • A fuel tank
  • A liquid carbon (i.e. petroleum)-fueled engine, located either at the front, middle or rear of the vehicle
  • A multi-gear transmission and other drivetrain elements that transform engine power into wheel rotation, as well as slow/stop that rotation
  • An exhaust system that removes fuel combustion byproducts, along with lowering the din of this removal process

While hybrid vehicles may have reduced the size and weight of the above components, hybrids didn’t eliminate the need for them. In contrast, perhaps obviously, EVs allow for more sweeping vehicle redesigns. Such ground-up renovations are already underway; see, for example, the recently published “2018’s Top 10 Tech Cars” article in IEEE Spectrum. And, as the recent “Vision 2030” writeup in Automobile points out, even more radical transformation is in the offing for the near future, as vehicle designers and manufacturers become more familiar with EVs’ new set of strengths, shortcomings, and implementation tradeoffs, and as consumers become more comfortable with the resultant form factor revolutions.

Recent studies conclude that 3.1 million EVs are now on the road, a 57% increase in just one year. Admittedly, however, that’s still well below 1% of the global car inventory, as IEEE Spectrum points out. And the potential path to EV dominance is long, twisted and unclear, in no small part because the alternative hybridization of today’s conventionally fueled vehicles can produce quite impressive mileage, emissions, etc. returns, too. One can’t ignore the technology maturity (not to mention the fuel distribution maturity) of petroleum-based powertrains, after all.

The inevitable, eventual transition to battery-only platforms will likely therefore be fueled (pun intended) first and foremost by rising carbon costs, along with increasing awareness and acceptance of the environmental impacts of carbon consumption. Simplistically speaking, a conversion to EVs only relocates the source of pollutants from tailpipes to power plants, which in and of themselves are more efficient, but there’s also opportunity for those power plants to be renewable source-based i.e. with energy generated by wind, solar, water, geothermal, etc.

Again simplistically speaking, however, whether a vehicle is predominantly (hybrid) or completely (EV) battery-powered is somewhat irrelevant to my fundamental point with this post. Regardless, such vehicles’ batteries (or fuel cells, of course) will need to continue to make notable improvements in:

And my point? Such continued technology-improvement evolutions, not to mention more fundamental breakthrough revolutions, won’t just benefit you professionally if you’re a vehicle designer. In case you haven’t yet noticed, the world of electronics is increasingly battery-based, and I’m not just talking about traditional smartphones, tablets, and laptops, either. Think, for example, what you could do with an IoT device that didn’t need to hook into the AC power grid, but was instead fundamentally powered by the combination of a high-efficiency, low-cost solar cell, and a high-efficiency, low-cost battery, with connectivity via low-power 5G cellular.

Vehicle-driven (pun again intended) battery advancements will have ancillary benefits to a whole host of other technology applications, some of which haven’t even been thought of (far from implemented) yet. I welcome your ideas and other thoughts in the comments.

Brian Dipert is Editor-in-Chief of the Embedded Vision Alliance, and a Senior Analyst at BDTI and Editor-in-Chief of InsideDSP, the company’s online newsletter.

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