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Watts Next: Hybrid Vehicle Sector Looks to Lower Emissions Future

Electric vehicles, whether fully battery-powered or paired with conventional internal combustion engines, are becoming something of an irresistible force, at least according to exhibitors at Detroit’s Electric & Hybrid Vehicle Technology Expo.

Photo: Wheel breakthrough: Protean’s all-electric in-tyre power unit.
Wheel breakthrough: Protean’s all-electric in-tyre power unit.
Photo: Wheel breakthrough: Protean’s all-electric in-tyre power unit.
Wheel breakthrough: Protean’s all-electric in-tyre power unit.

Predictably, perhaps, exhibitors at Detroit’s Electric & Hybrid Vehicle Technology Expo were united in the view that electric and hybrid vehicles were soon set to overtake their carbon-belching counterparts. Largely, this growth spurt was attributed to the increasing capabilities of such vehicles, although stiffer emissions regulations have also played their part. In addition, the various grants and incentives on offer have helped restore much of the credibility lost due to the Volkswagen emissions scandal.

Understandably keen to highlight this coming ascendency, Jaya Adithya Kadagalla, a Program Engineer with Borg Warner, a Michigan-based automotive components supplier, said: “There is definitely an increase in electric-vehicle production and plans. I used to work for FIAT-Chrysler and, for every internal combustion engine model we made, we also offered an electric and a hybrid model.”

While much of the attention in the electric / hybrid vehicles sector has been on the road-going consumer market, the majority of exhibitors at the event were actually more focused on the commercial and industrial sector. A prime example of this was John Deere, an Illinois-based manufacturer of agricultural and excavation equipment, which was showcasing its general-purpose electric drive technology for the first time this year.

Highlighting the evolution of the system, Business Development Manager Kerry Koisti said: “We’ve undertaken considerable internal development during the past eight-10 years with regard to the electrification of our own vehicles. It’s technology, however, that has turned out to be useful for other OEMs and we’ve put together an offer for those that don’t compete directly with us.

“From our point of view, as with the consumer market, commercial customers are most interested in emission reduction. Essentially, it’s being driven by the kind of people who provide trucking services to the port of Los Angeles. That’s a big source of emissions, so they can use electric drive technology to reduce that.”

Another exhibitor targeting the industrial and off-road market with a hybrid system was Virginia-based Inmotion. Maintaining that electric power offers benefits way beyond lower pollution, Key Account Manager Michael Labarre said: “In the case of the materials-handling industry, for instance, electrification provides far greater driveability and controllability when compared with a pure internal combustion engine.

“Then there are also the overall efficiency improvements. You run the diesel at a point that delivers the greatest efficiency for that engine, which ultimately optimises your total generation level.”

When looking to produce a hybrid or a pure electric version of an existing model, finding space within a current design has proven to be a problem for many manufacturers. Michigan-based EMP, however, believes it has overcome this particular challenge, at least in the bus sector, due to its streamlined cooling system.

Outlining how this works in practice, Kevin Puszczewicz, the company’s Director of Sales and Customer Service, said: “Our gearbox cooling solution is more of an integrated unit – you can remove all the hoses and connections and replace them with this one contained module. This sees you create more room, allowing you to pack more batteries in, while lightening the overall load of the vehicle and reducing the complexity of the required hoses, wires, copper fittings…”

UK-headquartered Protean Electric, meanwhile, had on offer an electric motor small enough to be installed within a standard car wheel. Detailing the practicalities of this, Project Director Mark Potter said: “Our new unit – the Protean Drive – is an 80kW 1,250Nm electric in-wheel motor. It comes with an integrated inverter, integrated control system and it’s designed to bolt on the end of your suspension, just where you’d normally find a brake disc. Basically, it allows you to do away with the need for drive shafts, prop shafts and differentials.

Photo: Borg Warner’s onboard charger.
Borg Warner’s onboard charger.
Photo: Borg Warner’s onboard charger.
Borg Warner’s onboard charger.
Photo: Transfluid’s sea-going diesel hybrid.
Transfluid’s sea-going diesel hybrid.
Photo: Transfluid’s sea-going diesel hybrid.
Transfluid’s sea-going diesel hybrid.

“Typically, when you’ve got an existing chassis, it’s quite difficult to change the whole layout of a vehicle. With our motor, though, you can create an instant hybrid – all you need to do is find space for a battery and put our unit into the wheels.”

While adapting existing vehicles has been of immediate value to many of Protean’s clients, another product on offer from the company – the Protean 360 – appeared to open up the possibility of a whole new mode of urban transportation. Offering in-wheel electric propulsion with a 360-degree swivel assembly, the system basically gives vehicles the facility to move in any direction – switching from forward travel to lateral movement for parking in the tightest of spaces.

Keen to highlight its potential applications in the small urban public transport sector, Potter said: “It’s a market that needs a big vehicle – it also needs one with a low floor for accessibility for wheelchairs. So, it’s large vehicles, capable of accessing small spaces with flat floors, such as this product, that makes all that possible.”

Nor was electrification seen as limited to wheeled transport, with Georgia-based Transfluid having already found success in the maritime market with its diesel hybrid system. Detailing the readiness of this sector, OEM Sales Manager Kenny Aulbert said: “Overall, marine has to be the quickest to pull the trigger on electric. We have already installed our system in a number of pilot boats, passenger vessels and ferries, as well as a couple of yachts.

“While we’re also getting a lot of enquiries from fishermen, they’re taking it slow with the diesel as it can reduce catch levels. The best thing for them is to set sail using diesel and go back using diesel, but switch to electric while actually trawling.”

Greater efficiencies aside, much of the impetus for the switch to electric power stems from the ‘carrot and stick’ approach taken by regulators. Typically, this has involved a combination of emissions restrictions and grants / incentives for low-pollution vehicles.

Noting that customers were under pressure to hit vehicle emission targets in certain sectors, Inmotion’s Labarre said: “Basically, many of them are trying to drop below the Tier 4 emission treatment threshold. In order to achieve this, you boost capability from an electric motor, which allows you to shrink your diesel usage, while still meeting your peak hydraulic requirements. In the construction industry that’s a big issue as many clients there want to keep their diesel footprint below the specified limit.”

According to Transfluid’s Aulbert, some localities are forcing the change more keenly than others. Citing a specific example, he said: “In Milan right now, buses and taxis cannot have a conventional engine. It has to be hybrid or wholly electric.”

The road towards an electric future, however, still has a number of bumps in the way. While the majority of exhibitors at the event were focused on commercial and industrial vehicles, resistance from experienced engineers unwilling to be the first to switch to electric power was seen as a problem by many. The cost and performance of batteries was also frequently mentioned as blunting the appeal of electric propulsion.

With experience of both problems, Aulbert said: “Overall, the biggest problem is the batteries, which account for 60% or more of the cost. We use lithium iron phosphate, which is the best we have right now. It’s about US$1,000 to $1,100 per kilowatt hour. So, if you want eight hours of battery power, you’re spending about $8,000-$10,000.

“A lot of times it’s also persuading that one engineer to change their mind. Often, they don’t want to put their name on it and be the one to say that they tried it and it was unsuccessful.”

Photo: Diesel-dissing: The 2019 Detroit Electric & Hybrid Vehicle Technology Expo.
Diesel-dissing: The 2019 Detroit Electric & Hybrid Vehicle Technology Expo.
Photo: Diesel-dissing: The 2019 Detroit Electric & Hybrid Vehicle Technology Expo.
Diesel-dissing: The 2019 Detroit Electric & Hybrid Vehicle Technology Expo.

The 2019 Detroit Electric & Hybrid Vehicle Technology Expo took place from 10-12 September at the Suburban Collection Showplace.

James O’Donnell, Special Correspondent, Detroit

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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