For electric drive transportation to take its rightful place as the long-term solution for personal mobility, much more innovation will be required. This will include continuing to blaze the pathways that will manage our electricity through the grid of the future, and deliver it to a host of modern transportation systems. Many believe that these innovations will come from tech companies trying to disrupt the mainstream automotive establishment. Only time will tell what the future has in store for us, but it is encouraging to see so many groups trying to enhance the way we move our precious cargoes—both people and things.
If history stays true to form, the next major breakthroughs will likely come from a collection of upstarts that are unafraid of risking it all to challenge the status quo, likely in collaboration with forward thinking automotive and technology industry leaders. Securing America’s Future Energy’s Energy Security Prize (ESP), awarded on July 31, 2015, recognizes the companies that are taking the boldest strikes in helping to break our addiction to oil. We should all celebrate and support the many companies bringing forward their boldest ideas that will enable us to finally control our energy destiny in this country. Solving these problems at home can lead to a prosperous global revolution spurred on by ingenuity, collaboration and innovation.
Electrified vehicles have finally arrived but are not yet mainstream
Tremendous progress has been made in the last decade to finally bring electric drive into the modern age. Electric vehicles have seen a rebirth that has taken well over one hundred years to realize. Today’s steady but modest EV adoption rates vis-a-vis the predominant internal combustion engine technology highlights the likelihood that it will take many more years to displace gasoline as the primary transportation fuel, following its reign of over one century. This is similar to other fundamental changes in national infrastructure—it took many decades following its development before we had electricity in all of our homes. Patience is a virtue when it comes to radical shifts in technology and infrastructure.
For the first time, customers around the world have many award-wining electric models to choose from, with many flavors of propulsion offered by traditional and new brands to the industry.
For the first time, customers around the world have many award-wining electric models to choose from, with many flavors of propulsion offered by traditional and new brands to the industry. The modern electric vehicle age was christened by serious product launches from established companies like General Motors and Nissan, which respectively introduced the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf in December of 2010. The second generation of these initial offerings is expected very soon, with many enhancements. Meanwhile, newer entrants like Tesla have challenged the incumbent OEMs and have accelerated the innovations required to fully develop the market. Customers love these new offerings, and have more to look forward to in the near term.
More innovation required, but where will it come from?
There was a time in the U.S. during the early 1900’s when electric vehicles were the market leaders.
Though the rate of technological innovation has recently accelerated noticeably, additional innovation is required in both products and business models in order to realize a future that doesn’t fundamentally require on fossil fuels to power our cars. Where will these innovations come from? There was a time in the U.S. during the early 1900’s when electric vehicles were the market leaders. Improvements like Kettering’s electric starter introduced in 1912 model year Cadillacs (eliminating the manual starter crank) and the petroleum infrastructure yielding gasoline stations for quick and inexpensive re-fueling relegated the battery powered car to a novelty position hidden in the background. Battery vehicles were fraught with some fundamental issues that remain unresolved even today. Criticisms of batteries for vehicles is nothing new: Critics argue they are too costly, too heavy, too large, too little range, too long to recharge, too little charging infrastructure, doesn’t last long enough, and more. It is believed that Edison’s famous quote, “I haven’t failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work” was directly a result of his 10,296 experiments that led to the invention of the nickel-iron storage battery.
These challenges are being attacked directly by start-ups and research efforts. Not a day goes by when you can’t read about a new battery breakthrough or development in energy storage systems, whether coming from metal-air, flow, solid state, super capacitors, nano-materials, silicon sprinkled anodes, refinements of existing formulations, or new Li-ion chemistries. It is certainly not a leap to expect continued improvements year-to-year, with possible major breakthroughs within the next ten years.
Moore’s Law recently celebrated its 50th anniversary (original publication in April 1965 Electronics magazine). It serves as an example of what is possible when engineers, problem-solvers and innovators are unleashed to attack an outrageous target of “cramming more components into integrated circuits,” and exponential growth in computing power was the result. Gordon Moore and Robert Noyce co-founded start-up semi-conductor chip maker Intel just three years after this term was coined. Do we see such breakthroughs possible in advanced traction battery systems, and will they come from traditional players or surprise entrants? While battery power capacity has not grown at the same rate as computing power, we have seen better-than-expected improvements in cost and power density for batteries (see below as compared to solar from recent BNEF conference in April 2015).
Google, at age 17, is but a teenager, but has turned into a tech powerhouse with the largest fleet of autonomous test miles logged in the industry and a large fleet of electrified vehicles accompanied by hundreds of on-campus charging stations.
Eighty-nine percent of the companies listed in the Fortune 500 in 1955 are no longer on the list today, replaced by new companies that were more innovative and had better products and/or business models. This is nearly a complete turnover of this esteemed list in a mere 60 years. The pace of change and disruption is even greater today, with transportation in the forefront. The mobility technologies of the future will focus on dramatic improvements in 1) Autonomous features, 2) Connected capabilities, 3) Electrified propulsion & 4) Shared assets business models (ACES). Innovation in these areas are coming from companies like Google, Mobileye, Tesla, Uber, Lyft and many others that were mostly born in this century. Google, at age 17, is but a teenager but has turned into a tech powerhouse with the largest fleet of autonomous test miles logged in the industry and a large fleet of electrified vehicles accompanied by hundreds of on-campus charging stations. Additionally, there are hundreds of start-ups and tech giants like Apple, alongside major efforts in China/Asia, working on connected electrified mobility. These companies not only seek to enhance the product, but also the customer experience, and are building the necessary ecosystem to fundamentally change transportation as we know it.
Even large auto industry stalwarts have realized that innovation comes from bringing in outside forces into collaborative ventures. Today, many now have outposts in Silicon Valley including the following examples:
- Audi Innovation Research Lab
- BMW Research and Technology Center North America
- Continental Silicon Valley
- Delphi Labs @ Silicon Valley
- Denso International America Silicon Valley Office
- Ford Silicon Valley Lab
- General Motors Advanced Technology Silicon Valley Office
- Honda Silicon Valley Lab
- Hyundai Ventures
- Mercedes-Benz Research & Development North America, Inc.
- Nissan Research Center – Silicon Valley
- VW Electronics Research Laboratory
Many companies also have venture arms to take new ideas and provide the necessary financial and strategic support to bring them to life. In other words, established industry players have come to grips with the need to engage the unencumbered risk takers, in order to successfully compete in this new hyper-dynamic age of mobility. The automotive industry has always been exciting and may be at its most interesting historic juncture, on the cusp of so many potential revolutionary changes.
It takes an ecosystem
We all marvel at the way the smart phone has changed our lives. It has become an omnipresent and essential platform for many of us, providing connectivity, personalized features, and computing power that fits in our pockets. We also remember the days of extremely poor reception, when cell tower coverage across the country was spotty at best. As soon as the mobile phone ecosystem was fully constructed with more and better infrastructure (4G LTE & WiFi), geographic coverage, great user interfaces, convenient apps, longer-lasting batteries, smarter software, more flexible service plans, etc… growth exploded. By 2016, we expect there will be two billion smart phone users representing about one quarter of the world’s population. We also see the integration of our mobile electronic devices with the ultimate mobile device—the automobile (see 2011 model year Chevrolet Volt MyLink mobile app example below on iPhone 3s).
With the challenge of creating a full ecosystem in mind, how can we build the required infrastructure and software to support the full development of sustainable, connected transportation for the future? Without these building blocks, the fascinating features and performance of electric drive vehicles will continue on a path of relatively modest adoption and growth. The idea of developing the complicated new ecosystem for connected and electrified transportation was first discussed in a November 2009 Inc Magazine article entitled “The Connected Car” by Bernard Avishai (see diagram below) outlining the innovators and possibilities in batteries, charging, and the smart grid.
The article’s hypothesis was that if you wanted to get into the car business (still a global growth business, projected to grow to two billion cars in the next 20 years), the technology changes driven by the electric car will not only enable but ultimately require the creation of a vast entrepreneurial businesses platform. Coupled with autonomous technologies and shared business models, entrepreneurs are striving to make a difference and create long overdue improvements. But this work is not for the faint of heart. Many daunting challenges are trying to be addressed by start-ups around the world, including the recently announced 2015 SAFE-ESP award winners who are contributing in areas ranging from 1) high-power wireless charging (Momentum Dynamics) to 2) mobile power/charging using used auto batteries (FreeWire Technologies & Spiers New Technologies) to 3) efficient and smart truck convoy technology (Peloton Technologies).
This is the transportation equivalent of building more cell towers and WiFi infrastructure for the mobile phones that are now so ubiquitous in our lives.
We continue to see new EV startups, but important work on the rest of the ecosystem—like charging infrastructure—is clearly required. This is the transportation equivalent of building more cell towers and WiFi infrastructure for the mobile phones that are now so ubiquitous in our lives. Companies like ChargePoint, eVgo (NRG division), FreeWire Technologies (Mobi Charger) and Tesla with their Supercharger network are providing a host of ambitious solutions ranging from expanding the network of fast chargers (off-board DC), to providing on-demand mobile charging. Tesla should be commended for helping develop the infrastructure to defeat “range anxiety” and allow the freedom and independence we expect from our automobiles. However, we need to connect the power supply to renewables, standardize the connectors, and make the network available to the larger EV community (which Tesla intends to do).
Other elements of the ecosystem need to be reinforced, and we continue to see progress from relatively new companies like INRIX and Cloud Car in the connected car space. The utilities play a major role as well, and must develop new business models to deal with all of the new energy storage available from electric drive vehicles. The major auto OEMs must also be willing to integrate new ideas and technologies that are not invented in their own backyard.
Telematics, software, and machine learning of transportation data must also be enabled to tap into enhanced driving features like navigation, parking, congestion avoidance, and enhanced safety—which are all critical to providing autonomous driving aids in the future. Finally, policy must continue to support research efforts like ARPA-e, a smart and simple regulatory environment and proper incentives to spur both demand and innovation, helping the leading businesses drive down the cost curve. Let’s not forget government’s role in previous technological advancements including the space program, interstate highways, the internet, GPS, and more.
Formula for the Future: Partnering prevails
The recent Walter Isaacson book “The Innovators” provides some salient thoughts towards vehicle electrification based on studying the lessons of the computer revolution. He writes, “the digital age may seem revolutionary, but it was based on expanding the ideas handed down from previous generations. The collaboration was not merely among contemporaries, but also between generations. The best innovators were those who understood the trajectory of the technological change and took the baton from innovators who preceded them.”
Take Momentum Dynamics (Energy Security Prize winner), a small company working to realize Nikola Tesla’s dream of moving electricity wirelessly through the air. Their vision would allow our vehicles to be charged quickly, potentially reducing the size of batteries. How might we collectively jump-start another wireless revolution, but for power transfer rather than data?
We have seen how companies like YouTube have changed how we consume media, and how Amazon has changed the retail purchasing experience forever. These radical changes did not come from the traditional companies.
Where will the next key innovations come from to reshape our transportation system, so that rather than running on oil, it is powered by low cost, domestically produced, and sustainable energy? Entrepreneurs are driving this revolution. We have seen how companies like YouTube have changed how we consume media, and how Amazon has changed the retail purchasing experience forever. These radical changes did not come from the traditional companies. Kodak knows how their invention of digital photography dramatically transformed their fortunes, when others moved first to bring the breakthrough to the market. Uber’s service has just surpassed the use of taxis in many cities. Could we have even imagined such an innovation a decade ago?
We should all be excited about the abundant ideas for advancing mobility in our world, a world that needs the transportation sector to participate in long-term solutions. However, courageous innovators and their teams need our collective help. Funding and financial support for some of these capital-intensive technologies is welcome, but more importantly, strategic partnering is required between everyone from major autos to tech companies to fill in the missing pieces of the ecosystem and integrate the pieces into an effective operating system. Opportunities abound for many. Now is the time to step forward and take some smart risks, betting on our future and the process of collaborative innovation. What an exciting time to be moving people!