By Glen Hiemstra
Prediction: The next 15 years will see a transition in automobiles far faster than imagined today. The vehicle future includes:
This is the strategy behind the GM Volt. While current hybrid vehicles use an electric motor to supplement a gasoline engine, in a plug-in hybrid the concept is reversed. A small gasoline motor is used solely to run a generator to recharge batteries when needed, while the drive train is all-electric.
GM is working with two different companies on next generation batteries aiming for high power, fast charging and long life cycle performance that will tip the scale toward an electric future. The question for GM is whether they can survive long enough to implement this new technology. Other companies, Toyota included, intend to introduce similar plug-in hybrids in the next two years.
A decade ago it was assumed by many experts that next generation vehicles would mostly be all-electric vehicles powered by hydrogen-based fuel cells. It is an elegant idea – a car so clean it emits only water from the tail pipe. An even greater advantage is that a fuel-cell car is, potentially, a mobile private power station.
Since a car is typically driven an hour or two a day, the rest of time a fuel cell car could generate enough electricity to power most needs of a typical home.
The problem is that while hydrogen is abundant, it must be separated from other substances, ideally water, and then transported and stored. All of this is complex and expensive.
Because of these problems, most experts today have reversed course, and do not consider hydrogen fuel cells to be a significant part of the vehicle future. However, both Mercedes and Honda continue to place bets on a hydrogen future, and the state of California continues to work toward a hydrogen infrastructure.
This is the dominant play, I believe, and the one with the most critical implications for the lubricant industry. A plug-in electric is a simple solution. All you need is an electric motor (or four of them, one for each wheel), and a battery pack capable of the same high power, and fast charging time as needed in a plug-in hybrid. You also need the battery to be capable of longer life for longer distances.
The Tesla is a proof-of-concept car that can travel upwards of 200 miles on a charge. AltairNano, A123 Systems, and other “nano-battery” developers aim for life-cycles of 15,000 charges, such that a battery would outlive a car. Charge times are on the order of 10 minutes with high voltage systems that could be standard at filling stations.
The nation of Israel may be the first to go all-electric with a service station strategy of swappable batteries: drive in, replace your battery module, and drive out. Mercedes includes a plug-in electric in a reported plan to phase out gasoline and diesel vehicles by 2015.