Our special digital edition on Automotive intelligence opens the throttle on the era of anytime, anywhere connectivity. Following is one story from the special digital edition on Automotive Intelligence. -- Nicolas Mokhoff, ed.
Automakers are taking multiple routes to green cars, including all electric vehicles and various flavors of hybrids and microhybrids. But none will become mainstream anytime soon, chiefly because for the foreseeable future batteries will remain too big, heavy, expensive and underpowered. There are also a handful of design challenges in power electronics on the horizon.
The number of hybrid cars on the road will nearly double from 870,000 today to 1.5 million in 2017, but the latter figure will represent only 1.6 percent of all cars worldwide, according to cleantech market watcher Pike Research.
By contrast, start-stop cars—a category that's gotten little attention in the United States—will zoom ahead. These microhybrids have no electric motor but use a more powerful starter/alternator/leadacid battery combo to shut off when in idle, then restart when drivers hit the gas. This year, Europeans will buy nearly 3 million of these cars, and Pike projects as many as 37 million will be sold worldwide in 2020.
Nonetheless, gas-only cars will still make up nearly 90 percent of all passenger vehicles in 2017, the market tracker estimates.
Carmakers are rolling out "a little bit of everything, [but] the plug-in hybrid is a good solution for meeting most stringent emission standards and fuel economy" demands, said Philip Gott, managing director for market researcher IHS Automotive.
"I think we will continue to have quite a bit of variety in hybrids; there are a lot of different needs, and it's hard to predict what people will want," said Rich Scholer, an electronic system engineer working on standards for hybrids and fuel cell cars at Ford Motor Co.
"Ford started with regular internal combustion engines, then offered versions of them with hybrid power trains and plugin hybrids as options," Scholer said. By contrast, the Chevy Volt, Nissan Leaf and Toyota Prius were designed from the ground up, he said. "But that’s a pretty expensive proposition because it’s more cost effective to build on a platform you have." Meanwhile, startup automakers like Coda and Tesla are preparing to roll out new cars, including all-electric fivepassenger sedans.
But "a mature market is at least three to five years out," said the Ford engineer.
The biggest headache is the battery pack, which adds at least $10,000 to a car's price tag, said Pike senior analyst John Gartner. Today's best technology— the lithium-ion car battery–runs as high as $1,000 per kilowatthour. The U.S. Department of Energy's goal is to reduce battery prices to $250/kWh.
That could take until 2020 or later, said IHS' Gott, who tracks at least four lithium-ion variants and several dozen other chemistries vying for a breakthrough.
"It’s too early to make a judgment [on which will win because] there are changes on an almost daily basis," Gott said. "I'm not counting anything out, not even lead-acid."