Archive for category how the hybrid system works

The future of electric cars and hybrids – aluminum or copper wire?

The new Audi TT moved its battery to the rear and connects it to the engine compartment with aluminum battery cables.  The marketing materials in the press release said using aluminum wire reduced weight and moving the battery to the rear improves the weight distribution front-rear.  Normal cars use copper wire for the battery.  This got me thinking – are there any other possible benefits/drawbacks of moving the battery to the rear and using aluminum instead of copper?

First, are their claims true?  Yes.  Most cars are front engined and moving it to the rear balances the car better.  the heavy battery also takes up space.  Moving it to the rear also frees up underhood space.  European pedestrian impact laws dictate a minimum space between the hood and any hard spots and this requirement has hit sports cars especially hard by raising their hoods and making the lose their low sporty hoods.

One downside is that it takes up rear room and it requires some kind of access compartment to seal it off from the cabin.  This is because batteries contain lead and acid which can give off toxic fumes. I hope that the trunk is not electrically actuated or has an easy to find manual release because if the battery dies, how are you going to open the trunk to get access to charge the battery?  Before you say who would implement such a stupid design, Porsche sports cars are well known for this.  The trunk cannot be opened without electricity and the manual release is behind the wheel well plastic which requires wheel removal and trim removal.  The trick is that you have to connect a special fuse in the fusebox to a charger to get enough juice to pop the trunk.  German engineering, lol.

Another downside is that the battery must transmit the juice all the way to the engine compartment instead of just a short distance from the battery to the starter.  I’m just using the starter as an example because cold engine starts are  one of the most strenuous things the battery will be subjected to.  There’s a reason batteries have CCA or cold cranking amps stamped on them and not “turn on the radio” amps.

This brings me to the reason I typed aluminum or copper wire in the title.  Which do hybrids and EV use? I’m not sure but I just got a great idea for my next article, lol.  Could switching to aluminum wires save weight and increase fuel economy?  Since so much energy flows through the electrical system on a hybrid or EV, would it make a difference?

Aluminum saves weight but copper prices have been high recently and most importantly, copper has a lower resistivity than aluminum!  I realize the Audi TT will save a few pounds and gain a tiny bit of fuel economy by that weight loss with aluminum battery cables.  However, the greater resistance of aluminum also wastes electricity which will result in a tiny (really tiny) loss of fuel economy and moving the battery to the rear will cause a voltage drop which might require the use of a larger (and heavier) battery.  The actual cables have to be thicker but because aluminum is lighter than copper, it saves 6 pounds according to Audi.

I assume the engineers have done the math and the benefits outweigh the drawbacks.  That said, are aluminum battery cables in the marketing brochure really a selling point?  Does the average car buyer care, know the different, or will ever see the battery cables?

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Why all electric and hybrid cars now – part 2 – the background of electric cars

To understand the current climate for hybrid and electric cars, you have to look at the background story.  This is part 2 of “why all electric and hybrid cars now”.  See part 1 here

Electric cars were actually more popular than gas cars at the beginning of the 1900s.  The infrastructure for electricity was in place and gasoline stations were not available everywhere.  Roads and highways were in very poor condition and the rough conditions meant crossing the country by car was an adventure that you probably wouldn’t finish vs. today where it’s easier to fly.  Check out Horatio’s Drive, the story of the first cross country drive in 1903.  Most drivers used cars locally which meant the limited range of electric cars wasn’t such an issue.

Electric cars were also much easier to use.  You unplugged the car, turned on the juice and went.  No smoke to stink up your clothes and leave you covered in soot, no noise to startle horses, and no gear changes.  This was before electric starters so gas cars required you to fill them up with gasoline (the vapors are highly flammable in open air), hand crank the engine, then adjust the engine running once it started.  Hand cranking is difficult and dangerous because if the engine kicks back, the manual crank at the front of the car can violently jerk back and break your hand.  This was also before synchronized manual transmissions so shifting required double clutching and matching engine rpm.

By the 1920s, cheaper gas, better roads, and the model T all helped bring about the decline of electric cars.  By the mid 1930s, electric cars had effectively disappeared.  Fuel economy was not a concern because gas was cheap and the economy healthy.  The 70s gas crisis, economic decline during the 70s, and the rise of imports changed the car landscape and attitude towards fuel economy.

In 1990, the US passed the clean air act and California mandated a move towards some sales of zero emissions cars by major car manufacturers.  While there were a few random cars made, the GM EV1 was the most visible one and became the poster child for the 90s EV.  You could only lease them starting in 1996 but GM discontinued the program and repossessed, then destroyed the cars.  Check out the movie “Who killed the electric car”  for some additional reading.  While there were reasons to believe GM self-sabotaged the car, a company is in business to stay in business and no definitive proof was ever found.  The movie took it one step further and suggested that the oil industry helped kill the car.  California’s zero emission mandate was killed in court by the major automakers and that was apparently the end of that.

Enter the Prius.  Toyota laid out plans in 1992 and started work in early 1994 to create a hybrid.  The concept car that would later become the Prius was presented at the 1995 Tokyo auto show.  In 1997, the first generation Prius went on sale at a loss in Japan only.  The revision of the first generation car went on sale in the US in 2001, also expected to sell at a loss.  Then something happened – people actually bought the car in large numbers.  Today, the Prius is the only major sales success for any hybrid.  While there have been minor success and you could define success as making inroads into a market occupied by your competitor, the Prius is the standard by which other hybrids are measured.

What does this mean for pure electric vehicles?  Stay tuned for part 3.

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Why all electric and hybrid cars now?

Simple question, complex answer.  This will be part 1 of a multi part series on why you’re seeing a bunch of electric vehicles now and not 10 years ago or 10 years from now.  To start, I think the electric and hybrid questions have separate but related answers.  Let’s start with the hybrid question first.

The Prius has the most to do with why hybrid cars now.  Simply put, it was a huge success and the only huge success.  No other hybrid has captured the sales success of the Toyota Prius.  It’s not to say that no other hybrid car is better or worse, but for whatever reason, only the Prius has been successful.  Everyone wants to make a profit and even the Prius was projected to be a money loser when they started work on it.  Nobody wants to put out flops like the Chevy Impala light hybrid and Lexus hs250h but they all want to catch the elusive success of the Prius.

The government mandate for average fuel economy will increase to 35 mpg and hybrids are the easiest way to increase corporate average fuel economy (CAFE).  For a company like Ford which sells lots and lots of low mpg vehicles like the F150, it really helps.  On a side note, the new F150 now uses an aluminum frame and lost a lot of weight!  Pound for pound, aluminum is much stronger than steel and it doesn’t rust :)

Future tech – it seems like an obscure and rather abstract reason but it’s actually pretty important.  It’s much cheaper in the long run to use in house technology vs. licensed technology.  The first generation Nissan Altima hybrid used a modified Toyota Prius powertrain.  You can bet Toyota wasn’t giving them out for free and if you own the technology and patents, you control your competition.  Just owning the patents and not a finished product is enough to derail your competitors.  For example, if you have a battery that works 50% better because of some exclusive technology, you have a major advantage in the marketplace.  If your competitors want to use it, they have to pay you to license that technology.  Additional profits for you, variable expense for them.

If manufacturers don’t want to be caught flat footed in 20 years when the competition has significantly more fuel efficient cars and in about 10 years (2025) when the CAFE standards will make it much more expensive for manufacturers to not build fuel efficient cars.

Stay tuned for part 2 which will discuss the recent history of fuel economy standards since 1990, when California introduced their EV mandate.

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Less rare earth metals in the Nissan Leaf

Long story short, 99% of rare earth metals are mined in China so automakers are trying to use less of it in their electric motors. Here are some previous posts about rare earth metals and why they’re important to hybrid cars: http://www.evwaudi.com/2011/06/how-a-diplomatic-spat-between-china-and-japan-is-shaping-electric-cars-and-hybrids/ and http://www.evwaudi.com/2012/03/case-against-china-over-control-of-rare-earth-element-vital-hybrid-car-ev/

Nissan just started a new motor for their Nissan Leaf that uses 40% less dysprosium (used in the magnet) but has made something called grain boundary diffusion to replace it. Below is a video showing more:

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US files WTO case against China over control of rare earth element market

As discussed in my last post about rare earth element components in hybrids and electric vehicles, the Obama administration filed a challenge with the WTO against China’s restrictions on export of  rare earth elements.  Why should you care about rare earth elements?  A Prius battery contains 20-30 lbs of lanthanum.  Other components like the motor and electronics systems also use these.  This is only one reason why companies are switching from NiMH to Lithium ion batteries.

Why did China restrict exports?  Long story short, to move their domestic production from raw materials to finished products like electronics and automobiles!  While their explanation is that they are motivated by environmental concerns, this is only half true.  Their laws are already looser than the United States and there appears to be many illegal mines in China which violate existing regulations.

This has been on the US’s radar for a while.  After some disputes between China and Japan, they block imports to Japan, maker of the Pris and many other electronics.  The US Department of Energy has started to give millions for research to reduce or eliminate rare earth elements.  While  supplemented by private capital investments, the amount of money invested in what could become a national security issue is tiny compared to federal expenditures.

Before rare earth elements become an area of conflict, raw science research funding needs to be restored.  Here’s a list of some recent projects funded by the DOE

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Dodd-Frank, conflict mineral provision, and electric cars

Dodd-Frank, electric cars, and hybrid batteries

The Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act is intended to protect consumers by increasing oversight of wall street.  Unfortunately, many of the provisions are still unfunded years after its passing – that’s how Washington politics works.  Another aspect of how Washington works is the addition of provisions.  Sam Brownback, the current Kansas governor, then a senator, included a provision that requires companies using potential conflict materials in or near the Congo to asses whether they are assisting armed groups in the area.  This could be an interesting aspect on electric car production and cars in general.

It’s good that there is accountability of raw materials but ironic that Brownback’s provision doesn’t fit with the stereotypical pro-business low tax Republican as this requirement will add millions to compliance and business costs.  Some companies like Apple have simply stopped sourcing materials from the area since they don’t want to be seen assisting armed rebels.  While it’s certainly good to cut off funding to African warlords, it also hurt legitimate industry in Congo, the very people it intended to protect.

Are conflict materials used in electric vehicles and hybrid cars?

The question is: what companies are still sourcing conflict materials and minerals from the area and are they making their way into cars?  In my last article on rare earth elements and China, I discussed how 99% of rare earth elements come from China, sometimes under illegal conditions.  Are illegal conflict materials used in electric vehicles and hybrid cars or parts such as batteries, electronics, or other subcontracted materials?

Compliance with Dodd-Frank does not just mean buying directly from a warlord, there are indirect ways to support warlords as well.  Does a legitimate smelter have to pay tolls to a warlord to pass through their territory?   Are legitimate mines owned by a warlord through a shell?  Are the workers at a legitimate mine working under duress?  All interesting questions and I don’t know how far down the supply chain these things are investigated by car companies.  Car companies do not make many of the components that go into their cars-they are subcontracted out.  Does your radio support an African warlord?

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Why a hybrid or electric vehicle should get window tint

Electric vehicles or hybrids should have window tint to reduce strain and the load on the battery pack

The reason why is because less light means the climate control system doesn’t have to work as hard to bring the cabin to comfortable temperatures and stay there.  However, one strange thing about motor vehicle law in the US is that trucks and SUV are allowed window tint on the rear and back windows but passenger cars aren’t.  Laws vary by state regarding window tint on the front windows (not the windshield) and the darkness of aftermarket tint.  One loophole is that many states restrict the darkness of aftermarket tint in allowed areas even though a SUV could have factory tint that is darker.

What does this mean for the future of state regulation of window tint?  As electric vehicles and hybrids start to become more widespread, could states loosen the regulations on window tint in allowed areas for passenger vehicles?

On a side note, light colored cars put less strain on the AC than dark colored cars.  Is the next step a ban on dark colors?

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How a diplomatic spat between China and Japan is shaping electric cars and hybrids

You may have noticed a number of posts in this blog regarding Chinese EV and hybrid development.  It’s simply because they are a huge market for cars and will shape the development of EV and hybrids.  Here is the other side of their role – they control 97% of the rare earth market which is leading to the development of induction motors for the Prius.

So what do rare earth elements have to do with hybrids, electric cars, and what are they anyways?

First off, rare earth elements aren’t that rare!  When they were first discovered, they were very hard to extract from ore so they were thought to be rare.  In fact, most of them are common elements.  The biggest difficulty in mining them is that they do not occur in very concentrated deposits like coal.  There are 17 rare earth elements and most of them are used in everything from LCD screens to magnets. For more specifics on rare earth elements, look them up on wikipedia.

However, their rare name is becoming more appropriate as the auto industry ramps up bigger and stronger motors.  The auto industry consumes about 40% of rare earth element production.  China has a near monopoly of 97% over the sale of rare earth elements due to lax environmental controls and illegal mines.  The recent spike in rare earth element prices, ironically due to their monopoly, has led to the re-opening of mines in places like the United States.  However, mines can take 10-15 years to bring up to capacity.  Japan is also seeking development of more mines in other Asian countries.  Although China is beginning to introduce better environmental regulation to their mines, there are still plenty of illegal mines or mines whose inspectors are paid to look the other way so it will be a while before the market becomes more stable.

Because many critical components in consumer and industrial products rely on Chinese imports, it’s not only in Japanese car companies’ interest for more availability and stability of these elements..  It did become a problem for Toyota when an officially denied Chinese export ban to Japan of rare earth oxides during late 2010 resulted in a shortage of motors.  Each Prius uses about 25 lbs of rare earth elements in the battery and motor alone.  It’s not something that can be easily or quickly substituted so this ban became an immediate problem.

This led Japan to do more research into induction motors for automobile use.  Induction motors use electromagnets, motors that rely on an electric current to produce an electric field, instead of the permanent magnets used in current motors.  Permanent magnet motors are still far more efficient.  The question is when will they become enough of a liability to seek another source of propulsion?

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VW Group head of research says it’s time for electrification, but progress has been extremely low; “We need more”

In the keynote address at the 4th Symposium on Energy Storage: Beyond Lithium-ion, hosted by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) in Richland, Washington, Jürgen Leohold, head of Volkswagen Group research (and 2009 EUCAR chairman), said that one of his key messages was that although the automotive industry is really at a turn in time toward electric mobility, the progress compared to other technologies made in the 111 years since Ferdinand Porsche introduced an electric vehicle at the world exposition in Paris has been extremely low.

That car, Leohold noted, had a lead-acid battery pack with about 24 kWh of energy, was propelled by wheel hub motors and had a range of about 50 km—“not that much different than today. We definitely need more for electromobility to become established in the market.

In the 1970s Volkswagen had put two electric cars on the market, but sales figures were in the two-digit numbers, Leohold said.

So what has changed? What has changed the business mainly is that Li-ion batteries have come around and finally supported an energy density that allows you to build a halfway decent car.

—Jürgen Leohold

Leohold cited a number of drivers for the current movement to electromobility (that were largely echoed by other speakers during this first day of the symposium):

  • Climate change and emissions;
  • Urbanization and megacities; and
  • Shortage of fossil fuels.

For an industry like ours, where products are dependent for more than 90% on oil derivatives, this is a very critical situation. We are very much convinced that we must initiate a change. Any change in the drivetrains will take a long time, so we have to start now to address these issues.

—Jürgen Leohold

To limit warming to 2 °C, the annual emissions reduction has to move from a 20% target in 2020 to a 2050 target of up to a 95% reduction in developed countries. It will not be enough to improve the efficiency of conventional engines or to launch alternative fuel concepts, Leohold said. To fill the gap to sustainable and zero emission mobility, clean drive technologies, such as the electrification of the drivetrain, will be required. However, he stressed that “new forms of mobility cannot be separated from the question of where the energy is coming from”—a reference to the need to widely deploy low-carbon sources of electricity.

Electricity used to charge plug-in vehicles should come exclusively from renewable energy resources, such as wind and solar power, he suggested—otherwise, there is no greenhouse gas emission advantage over a conventional vehicle with optimized fuel consumption.

Volkswagen is taking a three-step approach to address these challenges, he said.

  • Increasing the efficiency of existing drivetrains, usually the fastest approach and a very effective approach.
  • Convert to new types of fuels that are fairly CO2 neutral such as biofuels, although Volkswagen thinks the potential of biofuels worldwide is limited to 10–20%. “But nevertheless, that’s something.
  • New technologies, and electromobility part of this.

Based on well-to-wheel projections factoring in improved conventional technology and electricity sources over the next 9 years, Leohold noted that:

The electric vehicle is not really that big an improvement compared to conventional engines if you consider technical progress. The only way to get real drastic improvements in terms of energy use and greenhouse gas emissions is if you change the energy supply. Meaning that either with fossil fuels you go to biofuels, but that potential is limited as I mentioned already, or we go to renewable resources…with the electric drivetrain.

…This is not enough. If you look at 2050 and 2 degrees, this cannot be reached by any fossil fuel approach or conventional drivetrains. It requires electrification of the drivetrain. Since the ideal battery is not around yet, we have to introduce hybrids.

—Jürgen Leohold

The range issue. The biggest challenge for electric vehicles, reaching back to 1900, is the limited range. Today, actual range could be as low as 80 km out of a theoretical 150 km given cold temperatures or other adverse conditions or behavior, he noted. By contrast, the Golf diesel BlueMotion has a 1,447 km range.

The big question is how will the customer react to this change in performance? Will they accept cars with this limitation? We think many will change, especially those with second cars.

—Jürgen Leohold

While vehicle-level approaches such as lightweighting can squeeze out some additional range—dropping 100kg could increase the range by 3.5% on an EV, Leohold said—modifications such as that are “not really significant. The main challenge is the battery.

Requirements for future electrical energy storage system. Leohold said that Volkswagen was confident that by the end of the decade, there be commercially available Li-ion batteries with an energy capacity in the range of 200 Wh/kg, perhaps a little bit more, up from the approximate 120 Wh/kg of today.

However, the industry needs a technology change to deliver the next stage of batteries, with capacity on the order for 400-600 Wh/kg. And “to build a decent type car”, the industry needs capacity on the order of 1,000 Wh/kg.

There may a 150-mile range in a regular [electric] car by the end of the decade, but we doubt we will reach more as long as we are limited to Li-ion…A mass market [for EVs] depends on the range of these cars. This is where we put much hope on future technologies.

—Jürgen Leohold

Source: Green Car Congress

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Fastest way to charge up an EV battery

That’s one way to do it!  Just have it towed with the car in regen mode.

There are English subtitles in case you don’t speak Dutch.

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