Cruising out of the niche market and merging into the mainstream, electric vehicles now number more than 180,000 globally, according to the International Energy Agency. The electric-motor market is expected to grow 17 percent annually through 2020, according to global research firm Navigant Research, reaching US$2.8 billion. Over the same period, the overall auto market is expected to grow a measly 2 percent a year—meaning many electric vehicles (EVs) will be taking the place of gas-powered cars.
“A year ago, we were fighting tooth and nail to get interest from automakers,” says Chris Yahnker, program manager for Plugless Power, an inductive-charging manufacturer in Wytheville, Virginia, USA. “Today, we have manufacturers calling on a weekly basis saying, ‘We heard about your technology. We want to be a part of it. How do I get it?'”
To seize this surge in consumer demand, project managers must first meet the challenge of getting EVs—and the necessary infrastructure and innovations to support them—to market as quickly as possible.
With thousands of cars switching from the pump to the plug, governments need to ensure available electricity keeps pace with the rising demand for EVs. More than 1,300 demand-response programs, primarily in North America, are now underway for local grids to assess whether supply can support future demand, according to Navigant Research.
In Australia, the state of Victoria launched a five-year AU$5 million project in 2010 to improve awareness, understanding and acceptance of EVs. As part of this, a demonstration project was commissioned in June 2012. Managed by software technology company DiUS Computing in partnership with network operators United Energy and the University of Melbourne, the project investigated how EV charging on Victoria's smart grid could be managed to meet both consumer and electricity network needs.
While the objective seemed straightforward, the project team realized that in this new arena “nothing could be taken for granted,” says Kristian Handberg, project manager for the Victorian government and now a principal consultant for DiUS Computing. “The cars themselves were an unknown quantity. The tech providers were on a learning curve; the cars all behaved differently.”
Controlling a vehicle's charging load, for example, required different strategies if the device was interfacing with the Mitsubishi i-MiEV or the Nissan LEAF.
The project team also faced an early hurdle with the trial's home charging equipment. Because it had been manufactured and tested by Nissan in Japan six months before the DiUS Computing system was ready, the equipment required additional compatibility testing—but the team hadn't budgeted for a trip to Japan.
“Using the equipment required first quantifying the risk, testing it locally and assessing if there were issues with safety, product risk and commercial risk,” Mr. Handberg says.
The team determined an acceptable level of risk to safely use the cars in the test market, making up the lost time from other points in the project. While the larger project's on schedule for completion in mid-2014, this smaller demonstration project showed that not only could grid-integrated charging be accommodated on the existing grid, it would also deliver electricity-cost savings.
Ample electricity alone won't power the EV market. Governments are partnering with automotive companies to help meet the growing demand for the cars themselves.
“A year ago, we were fighting tooth and nail to get interest from automakers. Today, we have manufacturers calling on a weekly basis saying, ‘We heard about your technology. We want to be a part of it. How do I get it?’”
In 2011, the European Union sponsored a £5 million project to develop a fully electric light commercial vehicle that will be 40 percent more efficient than the current standard. As part of the DELIVER project, Liberty Electric Cars, based in Coventry, England, partnered with a consortium of organizations that includes Volkswagen, Fiat, Michelin, FKA, POLIS, SP and HPL Proto to create a car-show-ready vehicle by 2014.
Liberty is playing the chief engineering role and is also responsible for project control via a cohesive project plan. But the team struggled at the outset to collaborate.
“As we started, it became clear that with big companies it was sometimes difficult to get a decision as to which way to go,” says Colin Smith, head of vehicle engineering, Liberty Electric Cars. “We're not dealing with the normal production design. We're dealing with research departments and teams of people focused on new ideas.”
One of the sticking points among the project managers at different companies was how to make the vehicle as efficient as possible while maintaining safety standards.
“When we first looked at this, one of the best proposals was to put the driver right at the front of the vehicle over the front axle. This enabled us to create huge space in the back and make the vehicle much shorter, and therefore lighter,” Mr. Smith says. “But early analysis showed this solution wasn't feasible because there wasn't room for crash structure.”
The team went through at least six iterations, with each company suggesting different approaches. The project's university partner also performed a crash analysis, which predicted that by using high-strength steel and alloys, combined with a lightweight construction, the team could afford a smaller crash zone than with a normal vehicle.
“As we started, it became clear that with big companies it was difficult to get a decision as to which way to go. We're not dealing with the normal production design. We're dealing with research departments and teams of people focused on new ideas.”
“We ended up with a hybrid position where the driver is positioned closer to the front of the vehicle than normal, but not over the wheels as we had originally planned,” says Mr. Smith.
While it slowed the early stages of the project, this level of collaboration proved to be an advantage in creating an innovative new EV, he says. “The people in R&D departments are more used to pushing the boundaries and looking at new technology and not ‘playing it safe’ as is often normal practice in production engineering design.”
With the design phase completed, the DELIVER project is on schedule to unveil in August 2014 its car-show prototype—producing zero emissions and zero noise, thanks to 100 percent electricity.
To keep EVs from running on empty, manufacturers are exploring new ways to charge electric cars.
“We have the opportunity of not having to go to a gas station but now have the inconvenience of having to charge our cars,” says Mr. Yahnker. “You have to remember to plug it in every night.”
To minimize the hassle of daily charging, Plug-less Power created hands-free stations that let drivers pull into their garages and park—no need to plug in. The project team developed a receiver that's mounted under the car and connected wirelessly to a charging pad that is placed on the garage floor or parking space.
What the project team didn't discover until the consumer-testing stage, though, is that the radios in the wireless charger technology could be disrupted by radio waves used by other devices commonly found in residential neighborhoods, such as baby monitors.
“It wasn't a condition where someone could be hurt, but there was a possibility that if a neighbor had a radio going, the car would stop charging,” Mr. Yahnker says. “We didn't expect this.”
Changing the design required swiftly reprioritizing project team members to make the technology more intelligent. The team addressed the problem by adopting a higher transmitter power for the radio to overcome the interference and more reliably maintain a communications link between the vehicle and charging station.
”The system can't be so sensitive that you get a high rate of nuisance shut-offs,” Mr. Yahnker says.
The reshuffled project team developed the fix in only two weeks, and because it was able to borrow slack time from other tasks, the project was quickly back on its original schedule.
Plugless Power is only one of several organizations launching projects to make EVs more accessible to both daily and distance drivers. Researchers at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, Illinois, USA believe the next big thing in EVs may actually be very small: a microbattery tiny enough to fit in a wallet but strong enough to jump-start a car.
The integrated projects and programs moving EVs forward require a broad spectrum of skills and experience. But regardless of their individual goals, successful EV projects show that a combination of information, innovation and creative problem-solving is where the rubber meets the road. PM