Could Mechanics Best Power Electronics in EVs?

NuVinci CVT cutaway Credit Fallbrook TechnologiesCould smarter mechanical transmissions knock power electronics out of wind turbines, providing a cheaper and more efficient means of coupling the variable energy from ever-shifting winds to the regular waveform of AC power on the grid? They could according to my reporting in MIT’s TechReview today on Viryd Technologies’ bid to exploit continuously variable transmissions (CVTs). If mechanics reclaiming territory ceded to electronics sounds like a technological step backwards, here’s an even more heretical corollary: the same CVTs could also squeeze the power electronics out of electric vehicles (EVs).

That’s the argument put forward by Rob Smithson, CTO for Viryd parent company Fallbrook Technologies and one of the inventors of its clever CVT (dubbed NuVinci in a tip-of-the-hat to the Italian polymath who first dreamed up the CVT concept). “If you look at cost in large car-replacement type EVs today, the cost gets dominated by the battery pack and the motor controls. There’s an opportunity to knock out one of those two with an infinitely variable transmission,” insists Smithson.

Most EV elaborations today, says Smithson, rely on the electric motor to meet the entire dynamic performance envelope of the vehicle, from vehicle speed to torque demand — a feat made possible by hefty power electronics. Swap in a CVT to handle the vehicle speed, however, and the electric motor can operate as a fixed speed variable torque device. “When that happens there’s a tremendous opportunity there to simplify your power electronics and a lot of the attendant cost that goes with that,” he says. For more details, see Fallbrook’s white paper on increased power, speed and range observed in a NuVinci-equipped electric scooter. Continue reading “Could Mechanics Best Power Electronics in EVs?”

Obama Ratchets Up CAFE to Match California’s Standards

President Obama gathered auto executives, auto workers, environmentalists, and top federal and California officials at the White House this week to unveil a new consensus on fuel economy standards. His plan will harmonize the federal government’s Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards (better know as CAFE) with tougher tailpipe standards for CO2 poised to take effect in California and 17 other states.

Obama traded up, according to close Detroit observer Jim Motavalli, who writes in  the New York Times’ Wheels blog that the new-and-improved CAFE is “roughly equivalent to those proposed under California’s tailpipe greenhouse-gas program.” As Motavalli and others noted, automakers had no choice but to join Obama and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s  march to higher efficiency, with the feds holding their much-tightened purse-strings.

CAFE will start rising in 2012 and reach 39 miles per gallon for cars and 30 mpg for trucks by 2016, with a fleetwide average of 35.5 mpg. That’s quite a jump from the current standards of 27.5 mpg for cars and 23.1 for trucks. It’s quite an acceleration from the CAFE boost approved by Congress and President Bush in 2007, which would have not have reached a combined average of 35 mpg until 2020.

This is very good news for technology developers. As your author documented in early 2008, the 2007 upgrade would have required minimal implementation of next-generation technologies — such as advanced electric drivetrains and light-weight composite parts — that will be required to put personal transport on a path to sustainability.

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This post was created for Energywise, IEEE Spectrum’s blog on green power, cars and climate

Subversive Additives to Save the “Cash-for-Clunkers” Bill

Bike parking in Freiburg Germany COPYRIGHT P FAIRLEYProspects for a “cash-for-clunkers” bill to stimulate new car sales in the U.S. are dimming amid dissatisfaction with the law’s slim environmental benefits. There are some creative options available to green the bill.

As Energywise reported, representatives in the House led by Michigan Democrat John Dingell converged on an automotive scrappage bill earlier this month that would provide cash vouchers worth up to $4,500 to buyers of new cars and trucks that get at least 22 miles to the gallon if they scrap an old one that gets no more than 18 mpg. Duke University researchers estimate that the reduced energy consumption from such a swap would make up for the energy required to manufacture the vehicle. But some senators were hoping for a more.

California Senator Dianne Feinstein is leading the charge. Continue reading “Subversive Additives to Save the “Cash-for-Clunkers” Bill”

EV Hold-out Mazda Changes Its Tune

Mazda CEO Yamanouchi - Credit MazdaMazda Motor is shifting direction to make its own hybrid and battery-electric vehicles, according to a report today in Automotive News (may require subscription). The move, if confirmed, would mark a rapid retreat from the ‘trend-bucking’ EV skepticism that has been a staple of Mazda’s message.

Mazda R&D chief Seita affirmed late last month that Mazda would achieve mandated fuel economy savings by improving engines and transmissions, and by redesigning vehicles to reduce their weight. The Detroit News quoted president and CEO Takashi Yamanouchi echoing that sentiment at last week’s New York International Auto Show, promising release of a brand new engine next year.

However, Seita had also admitted that Mazda lacked the cash to finance development of its own EV powertrains. And this weekend’s Automotive News report directly contrasts the old strategy, quoting Yamanouchi as saying that hybrids and battery-powered electric vehicles developed in-house will contribute to its plan in order to “boost the average fuel economy of its cars globally 30 percent by 2015.”

Continue reading “EV Hold-out Mazda Changes Its Tune”

Mazda’s Hybrid-free Strategy of Necessity

mazda-tribute-credit-mazda-usa
Mazda's Tribute SUV uses Ford technology

How to make sense out of the bewildering differences in strategy by automakers today? In the case of Mazda, which rejects hybrid vehicles as a fad, the strategy may be one of necessity.

Mazda R&D chief Seita Kanai confirmed last week that Mazda still has no plans to commercialize its own hybrid technology, according to a report last week in Automobile Magazine. The Japanese automaker markets a hybrid version of its Tribute, a small SUV, which Automobile  Magazine writes off as a Ford engineered system closely resembling the technology in Ford’s Hybrid Escape. Kanai said Mazda will achieve mandated fuel economy savings by improving engines and transmissions, and by redesigning vehicles to reduce their weight.

But Kanai also admitted at the same event for reporters in Japan last week that Mazda couldn’t afford to field a hybrid. And he acknowledged that the resulting technology gap represented a worrisome problem for the company with buyers enamored of hybrids. Here’s how Kanai put it, according to Automotive News:

“We’re in real trouble,” Kanai said of the rapidly falling hybrid prices. “It’s a threat. We don’t have the resources to get involved in that kind of competition.”

Continue reading “Mazda’s Hybrid-free Strategy of Necessity”

Toyota’s Underwhelming Solar Prius

2010-prius-credit-toyotaThe solar roof that Toyota is offering as an option on its next-gen Prius hybrid sedean is even less efficaceous than expected, according to specialty publication EVWorld. The solar panels, reports EVWorld, will add not a nanowatt of charge to drive the Prius.

Technology Review looked at the potential impact of a solar roof on the Prius last summer when rumors of Toyota’s plans first emerged. The clear conclusion of the experts: Keep solar panels on rooftops, where they can be tilted towards the sun for maximum efficiency and multiplied to provide the kilowatts of power it takes to drive a car. A solar rooftop would be just a “marketing gimmick” said Andrew Frank, a plug-in hybrid pioneer at the University of California, Davis, and chief technology officer for UC-Davis hybrid-vehicle spinoff Efficient Drivetrains.

Toyota, it turns out, won’t even bother plugging its solar rooftop panel into the 2010 Prius’ nickel-metal hydride battery.

Continue reading “Toyota’s Underwhelming Solar Prius”

Toyota’s Secret: The Clean Air Act of 1970

masatami-takimoto-credit-toyotaHow many automotive engineering leaders from Detroit or Stuttgart would identify the U.S. Clean Air Act Amendments of 1970 as the inspiration of their engineering career? Yet that’s exactly what Masatami Takimoto did when I spoke with the Toyota executive vice president responsible for R&D and powertrain engineering earlier this month at the Geneva Motor Show.

Since Takimoto retires in June, I asked him to identify the most exciting chapter of his 39-year career with Toyota. His reply brought a smile: “You’re familiar with the Muskie law?,” asked Takimoto. I’d been asked the same question five years earlier, in Tokyo, while interviewing Takehisa Yaegashi (revered within Toyota as ‘the father of the hybrid’) for a cover story on hybrid vehicles for MIT’s Technology Review.

Thanks to Yaegashi I knew that it was Senator Ed Muskie of Maine who drove through the 1970 amendments to the U.S. air pollution law. And I knew that Muskie’s law, which required the federal government to set tailpipe emissions standards,  had inspired a lot more at Toyota than pollution-eating catalytic converters: Toyota’s engineers also began experimenting with new propulsion concepts such as the battery-powered electrical vehicle that produce inherently less pollution.

Continue reading “Toyota’s Secret: The Clean Air Act of 1970”