VoxSolaris: The Voice of the Sun
Electric Vehicles For All

Tesla Motors has opened the gate. The rest can now follow.

To date there is only one car manufacturer that can be taken seriously when it comes to electric cars - Tesla Motors. After decades of the electric dream, the herculean efforts of thousands of individuals and billions of dollars of R&D funding by other car manufacturers, Tesla motors made a simple step and finally the electric car arrived in a form that is here to stay. Consumer electronics, most notably the mobile phone, had already driven battery research to the point where it was physically possible to build an electric car that matched the performance of those with internal combustion engines and with a reasonable range. The problem was that the batteries were still way too expensive.

Tesla's founder Elon Musk made his money by founding Paypal. In a rare example of a rich man putting his money to good use, Musk had noticed that while lithium ion batteries were too expensive the price trend was downward and it was possible that the price could fall to the point where lithium ion would be viable for high end cars. What he needed to do was persuade a battery manufacturer to supply his company batteries at this future lower price.

No manufacturer was ever going to do this without guarantees the volumes would ultimately justify it. And to see this they would have to be blessed with considerable foresight. Luckily Panasonic had the foresight to see that Tesla could sell enough high end cars to create the demand that would justify a multi-billion dollar bet. Panasonic bet a lot and Musk bet everything on two things. That there would be a demand high end electric cars which were unheard of at the time. And that lithium ion would remain at the forefront of battery technology for long enough. A new technology could have left Panasonic with a lot of spare lithium ion manufacturing capacity.

Today Tesla is a top selling brand and are the world's largest purchaser of lithium ion cells, and Panasonic are the leading supplier. And with the volumes that have been realized, the unit price of the batteries has halved and halved again. It is no longer $1,000 per kWhr it is $250. And Musk is claiming that with his forthcoming 'gigafactory' the prices are heading lower still. There are claims by industry observers that in the end, prices of $100 per kWhr will become the norm. We have looked into the engineering issues behind lithium ion manufacturing and have concluded that it is economically viable to produce lithium ion cells at this price. We are not expecting any miracles though and consider a more likely price would be around the $200 level at the point when the factory opens. At these prices lithium ion is economic in much smaller all electric cars and is particularly so in hybrids.

Hybrid Vehicles - More electric miles

The basic principle behind the hybrid was to run the IC engine for a greater proportion of the time within its optimum power range, giving us more of the efficiency the engine is actually capable of, typically 35 to 40 percent. In a non hybrid, at very low power outputs this can be as little as 10 or 15 percent and if an engine is just ticking over, it is effectively 0 percent efficient. Avoiding the operation of the engine outside its optimum range, is where the increased MPG comes from. This saving almost always outweighs the fact that the battery never gives back all the energy it took in and the fact that the battery adds weight to the car.

We at VoxSolaris were disappointed by hybrid vehicles at the outset because of the obvious missed opportunists in the early designs. One observation one can make of the car manufacturers is their extreme reluctance to start with a blank sheet of paper. And true to form, instead of designing hybrids from scratch, the models came with the standard engine and drive train but with an electric motor bolted on the side. Fast forward to today and the thinking has changed. Hybrids are finally becoming what they so obviously should have been to begin with - purpose built electric cars with a fully electric drive chain but with an IC engine serving only as a range extender and connected by wire rather then shafts. The advent of properly designed hybrids is a game changer as from an environmental standpoint, as the real issue isn't the replacement of gasoline cars with electric cars, it is the replacement of gasoline miles with electric miles. A large proportion, something like 80 percent of our total mileage is made up of short journeys of say less than 30 to 40 miles return, so the overall impact of this is huge.

The hybrid model is of value on the assumption that batteries will more of less stay as they are and that the $100 target prices will be a long time in coming. Predicting the future of battery technology is a risky game, particularly when it comes to large scale investments such as the gigafactory. That though is a problem for Tesla Motors, Panasonic and any of the other big players being drawn into the game. If you are a smaller player in the car/truck business, the odds are you will just buy what is available. And when a better battery comes along you will simply switch to that. And if that battery is actually good enough to drop the range extender, well that can quietly disappear too. If you have a range of 300 miles and a charge time of 30 minutes a range extender is pretty much a white elephant. A range of 300 miles in a small car would require something like 75Kwh which with current lithium batteries would weigh something like 375 Kg. For a full size vehicle that is more like 120Kwh and 600Kg. The weight is 'uncomfortable' but acceptable. At $200 the price would be $15K and $24K. That puts all electric within reach of more consumers but not by any means the majority. At $100 all electric for all cars is viable but since we would need many times the envisaged output of the gigafactory, the price will be $200 for a long time yet. Hence hybrids are not dead yet.

More Radical Designs

However the price/performance of batteries are not the only design factor in an electric car even if they are the largest one. There is the not insignificant matter of the car itself. While batteries have gone a long way to meet the demands of an all electric car, could the car design help get us over the line? In short, can we get to a low end all electric car with the 200Whr/Kg and the $200/Kwh that we can expect when Elon Musk cuts the ribbon outside the gigafactory gates?

At VoxSolaris we ran a brain storming session to come up with a design outline for a car that would meet this criteria. We began by noting that even with range extension, the replacement of connecting shafts with wires offered better trade-offs between factors such as internal space and aerodynamic efficiency and opened the door to considerable savings in manufacturing cost. Without range extension, these advantages would be enhanced further. Instead of needing capital in the hundreds of millions to enter the mainstream market, the sums involved would be in the millions. It was noted that a bulky engine, when placed at either the front or the rear leads to an imbalance that has to be compensated. The mid-engine design eliminates this imbalance but only appears in high end sports cars and there are good reasons why. Noise is the obvious one. Difficulties in heat extraction another. Accessibility for maintenance would be yet another. The engine is a nice problem to lose. With the batteries under the flooring in the cabin you get the mid engine advantage without the cost which is why many electric cars use this arrangement. It also lowers the overall center of gravity into the bargain. It was quickly agreed the design would adopt this approach.

We noted the current vehicle safety laws in the EU, US or elsewhere, are based at least to some degree on assumptions about classes of vehicles and are still largely rooted in the ICE era. Such laws commonly ignore peripheral technological advances, for example by insisting on mirrors instead of accepting web-cams. So for the purpose of this exercise we decided designs did not have to comply with the letter of current safety laws but they must achieve the level of safety those laws have brought about. Safety is a matter both of accident prevention and then in the event of an accident, of reducing harm to the occupants primarily but also to persons the car has hit. Of all the safety features introduced over the years to that end the crumple zone has to be the top winner. So in spite of the absence of the engine and the possible advantages of easier parking in cities we were not tempted by a shorter front end. It was suggested the front end could be filled with bubble wrap so we asked an expert in vehicle safety to give us ball park estimates of how well a front end filled with bubble wrap, with a collapsible steering wheel not fitted with an airbag, would perform in a head on and/or partial overlap collision compared to the standard arrangement of engine filled front end with non-collapsible steering wheel fitted with an airbag. After the eye-brows returned to their normal position he said liked the idea. We have fleshed out quite a few sketches since then and he still likes it. This is an area in need of a lot of research and field tests but our calculations show that in a 20mph (9m/s) brick wall collision, peak G-forces as low as 8g are achievable with long front designs. Most accidents have an impact velocity of less than 20mph as in most cases, the break is applied before impact. You stand a very good chance of walking away with the bubble wrap front end.

With the bubble wrap idea a number of other factors slotted into place. Factors such as ease and cost of production. We want designs if possible, that can be assembled as a kit at home, preferably with minimal skills. Inherent in the home kit approach is the ease of maintenance and hopefully a greater 'freedom of supply'. Such designs would probably comprise a light frame that is easy to bolt together and fit with panels readily printable with a 3D printer. This approach wins on cost but tends to lack the enhanced strength (and thus safety) of the monocouque structures that dominate the mass market - so the bubble wrap approach was a welcome mitigation. Then came the weight considerations. Weight is always implicated in the energy consumption of a vehicle but other advantages arise from weight reduction, most notably reduced peak power requirements. This widens the choice of battery to include those of moderate C values or to reduce total battery weight with higher C values. With the front end problem solved we found it quite easy to design 3D printable chasis components with internal honeycomb structures allowing a kerb weight of 1000Kg for a full size car with 500Kg of that available for the battery. And there are plenty of people out there who are far better at car body design than we are. Of course there is a lot that can be done with reproducing the great shaps of past cars - the standard kit car approach. Plastic versions of many very mouth watering retros would by and large, achieve the figures we are talking about. So perhaps the idea isn't so radical after all. All our design session really added was bubble wrap!

The Self Driving Revolution

It looks like we are are in for a twin revolution. Electric cars are slowly going mainstream but it will probably be another five or so years before we see sales of electric cars with or without range extenders overtake sales of non-electric cars. And on a similar time-line is the self driving car. It is more or less a given the electric car will come but there are more technological bridges yet to be crossed with autonomous vehicles.

The challenge is significant. We humans have highly evolved eye to hand coordination and navigation skills built in, computers don't. It has to be programmed in. The problem is what to program? The rules of the road are easy. And most of the envisaged irregular events are easy. The research has already lead to enhanced safety devices that can detect children running onto the road and apply the brakes with effectively zero thinking time. And it has brought us automatic parking. The hard part is knowing what real drivers do in real situations. This is analogous to pilots in planes. When pilots do such things as belly flop a stricken plane in the Hudson river, they often lose the detail of exactly how they managed it in all the excitement. Black box examinations often reveal quite different responses from those described in debriefing. An autopilot system can take off, fly the plane and land - if all goes as expected. But if an engine falls off it can't belly flop it in the Hudson river. And it not going to be able to until researchers work out how exactly it was done and alter the program accordingly. It will be much the same for the autonomous vehicle. That said, it is already clear that a roll-out of a semi-autonomous vehicle technology, one that could drive automatically on the highway for example, is already doable.

There is a lot of very understandable inertia. The car manufacturers are looking for an edge on their competition but not at any price. Progress being made in the research is slow and steady but still fast enough to render devices obsolete quickly. Until it becomes clear exactly what sensors and solenoids will be involved and exactly how autonomous vehicles will communicate with each other and such entities as traffic management agencies - nobody can move beyond prototypes.

But whoever does what and when, the big money says it will happen. This is a brand new gold rush. There are too many interested parties in favor and not too many vested interests against. Accidents which are expected to fall, are too expensive to keep on having. And people who cannot drive are too much of a liability! Countries that facilitate autonomous vehicles on their roads will move ahead of those that don't. It never pays to bet against something this. It would be like going back to the early 90s and betting against the mobile phone and the Internet.

The Social Impact

To state the obvious, the advent of autonomous vehicles would end the divide between those that drive and those that don't. This divide is both economic and one of ability. The poor may be able to drive but cannot afford a car. The blind, those with epilepsy and the young cannot drive no matter how much money they have.

The bus drivers are as good as dead and the only remaining use for taxi drivers will be to help disabled passengers get in and out of their vehicles. And the British government is going to look very very stupid having just spent £50 billion on HS2. Who is going to pay the absurd train fares in the UK when they can go door to door, exactly when they want and do exactly what they want in the greater privacy afforded by a car. As critics of HS2 have pointed out, shortening journey times from London to Birmingham by 30 minutes doesn't make much difference to anyone armed with a laptop. And that is a key advantage of autonomous vehicles. Surf the Internet, get your emails, make Skype calls, have a shave, have a sleep. Can you do all that on a train? Can you do it easily? Not always. You need a thing called a seat for a start. And not all of us can argue with our spouses in complete oblivion of those around us.

But the unemployed bus and taxi drivers will find themselves eagerly awaited by a vibrant job market. All sorts of hospitality services will enjoy a boom as drink driving woes become a thing of the past. The UK will probably be a laggard in introduction of the self driving car. It has too conservative an outlook. But in the end it will go for them if for no other reason than space. For reasons not altogether clear the UK is still building houses with nowhere to park and creating a serious quality of life problem as a result. Self driving vehicles offer a lot of options that can mitigate this problem. They can be placed in the public domain by local councils or former taxi companies or simply be shared among neighbors. Mostly cars sit parked with their engines off. Local car sharing will cover most eventualities with much less than one car per household.