A Futurist's Guide to the Cars of 2020 (Part 1)

September 21 2008 / by Garry Golden
Category: Energy   Year: 2020   Rating: 7 Hot

Imagine stepping into a local car dealership in 2020.

Does that new car look familiar by today’s standards? Or has it evolved in shape and style?

What powers that car of the near future in 2020?

Hybrids, plug-ins, electric motors, diesel engines, ethanol blends, biodiesel, synthetic fuels, veggie power, air power, natural gas, solar, batteries, hydrogen fuel cells, or the flux capacitor?

There are many ideas out there that could re-shape the auto industry in the next decade, but none is more important than how we power our vehicles.

If you are confused by the mixed messages you see in the media – welcome to our Futurist’s Guide to the Cars of 2020 (Part 1- Powering the Car)

Q: What powers my new car in 2020?

We have two basic choices – liquid fuels or electrons.

Internal Combustion Engines (I.C.E.) use liquid fuels such as gasoline, next generation biofuels (bio-gasoline or biodiesel equivalents) or synthetic fuels. By 2020 most combustion engine vehicles are likely to accommodate a wide range of liquid fuels- but we expect that gasoline will retain its market position.

Electric motors use electrons fed by batteries, hydrogen fuel cells and capacitors. Despite the mis-representation in most media reports, there is no fundamental difference between ‘electric’ cars and ‘hydrogen fuel cell’ vehicles – both use streams of electrons to power high performance electric motors. The phrase ‘electrification’ of the transportation sector includes electricity from batteries and hydrogen fuel cells.

Q: What are the differences?

Combustion engines

Advantages: Being the incumbent!

Combustion engines and liquid fuels have the advantage of being the incumbent and leveraging existing infrastructure, the industry’s human talent, and consumer expectations. But it is also a mature technology platform that has tremendous legacy issues associated with high costs of manufacturing and limits on new design.

Challenges – Manufacturing Costs & Design Limitations

There are severe limits on how much more we can innovate and create new value based on combustion engines. The challenge for automakers is not how we fuel cars, but how we build them.

Today, automakers use separate factories to build different vehicle chassis. In other words- V4, V6, V12 engine vehicles require their own set of suppliers and factories. As consumer tastes shift many factories become under-utilized as certain types of cars become more popular. So a multi-billion dollar factory that produces SUV chassis must be ‘re-tooled’ to produce smaller vehicles.

The industry is looking for more ‘modular’ systems to build multiple vehicle chassis on the same factory floor and using the same suppliers. This is the key advantage for electric motors.

Electric Motors

Advantages – Performance & Lean Manufacturing

High performance electric motors are very efficient, require less maintenance, and provide instant torque. So the performance is solid.

Electric motors can also be designed as ‘modular’ pieces and lower manufacturing costs. We can imagine a very different factory environment that produces multiple chassis on the same factory floor simply by using different powered wheel motors.

General Motors believes that its AUTOnomy platform could change the way we build cars. Wheel-based electric motors and ‘drive by wire’ systems could allow the company to build three basic skateboard chassis that use various top body frames.

Challenges – Cost and Real world applications

Electric motors will require tremendous amounts of capital investments to scale up as the industry’s default platform for vehicle propulsion. Outside of first generation vehicles, they are largely un-tested in real world conditions. And then there is the problem of electron storage!

Q: How do we store electricity? Will it be batteries or fuel cells that power electric motors?

Most likely both systems. Electric motors need a combination of electrochemical power systems. The key factors are being low cost, having a long life, and strong performance.

We know one thing! Cars are not iPods.

They are complicated industrial machines that have very different requirements for powering electronic control systems to power hungry electric motors accelerating from 0-60 in only a few seconds.

Engineers are likely to use a combination of batteries, hydrogen fuel cell and capacitors. Not one system is likely to dominate in the end. So while some energy gurus like to describe the decision to invest in ‘battery’ versus ‘fuel cells’ – the two systems likely share a common destiny.

Q: But I have heard electricity and hydrogen aren’t really ‘fuels’. What is an ‘energy carrier’?

If we replace the combustion engine with electric motors – there is no single ‘fuel’ of the future. No single primary fuel can dominate like oil does today.

Electric motors are powered by energy ‘carriers’ – of electricity and hydrogen. (In other words, we cannot go out and extract electricity or hydrogen from the ground like we do coal or petroleum. ‘Energy carriers’ simply put energy into a useful form.)

Q: What powers the future transportation fleet?

All sources of energy – everything from coal, gasoline, natural gas, next generation biofuels, nuclear and renewables.

The transportation fuel market will likely become very fragmented and regionally specific market based on the cheapest source of energy.

This means certain regions might use local solar power, while others tap wind or hydro-electric power. But it might mean that coal, nuclear and natural gas will be players in the transportation fuel market.

Unlike in today’s liquid fuel market, an electric motor platform allows renewables to compete.

[Remember if we keep a combustion engine platform (even as a ‘hybrid’) you cannot put electricity from wind or solar farms into the liquid fuel tank!]

Q: When will batteries and fuel cells become cost effective?

Batteries are going to launch the ‘electric’ car era, but they will eventually need help from fuel cells.

Dozens of start ups like A123 Systems and Altair Nanotechnologies have developed lithium-ion batteries for automobile applications. This means that they will be low cost, have great range, and fast recharge times.

General Motors will begin commercial production of its extended range electric vehicle – Volt in 2010-11. And other companies like Nissan and Mitsubishi expect to be producing electric vehicles beginning in 2010-12. There is growing consensus within the auto industry that the days of the combustion engine might be numbered.

Fuel cells are also closer to commercialization as companies like Honda and General Motors are moving beyond their third and fourth generation platforms. By 2010 we should be in a better position to develop more accurate forecasts of fuel cell vehicles in the market.

Q: What about infrastructure?

If we move away from liquid fuels, new infrastructure components must be built. But building this infrastructure is likely to be a very profitable market for new players in the distributed fuel industry.

Investments will have to be made, but it is unlikely that we will have to ‘convert’ corner gas stations if we move beyond liquid fuels.

The model of corner gas stations will likely be replaced by more decentralized fueling systems based in our homes and factories, or delivered through retail environments.

[Remember, we did not convert CD sale stores in shopping malls into digital music re-sellers. The CD stores have simply become less relevant to the new mode of distribution! Electricity and hydrogen offer the same distribution advantage over liquid fuels.]

‘Plug in’ vehicles, like GM’s Volt and the Prius Plug-in, will need to infrastructure extensions to tap the power of our energy grids. Shai Agassi’s vision is a network of electric charging stations and ‘battery exchange’ centers that swap out battery packets. (See Better Place) The same ‘swap out’ model can also be used for solid state hydrogen storage.

Hydrogen storage systems are also evolving quickly – and under the radar of most media coverage on energy. Solid state hydrogen storage is a wonderful storage medium for electron energy.

While ‘solid hydrogen’ sounds strange- just imagine high surface area sponges that soak up hydrogen and release it quickly – without damaging the storage material itself. Solid hydrogen storage means that we don’t have to worry about liquid or gas hydrogen tanks exploding on the highways!

Local hydrogen production will require appliances that can use electricity to split water (via low cost electrolysis). These systems are being developed by companies like General Electric – and dozens of start ups like ITM Power and QuantumSphere are developing low cost, high efficiency appliances to produce hydrogen.

Q: When will all this happen?

The future is a complicated place but we will be revealing aspects of our transportation energy Roadmaps in the weeks and months ahead!

Our next installment of A Futurist’s Guide to the Cars of 2020- Part Two will look at Vehicle Design

— Photo Image of Nissan concept car: Flickr CC/Thowi

General Motors – AUTOonomy Concept Vehicle

ITM Power – Home hydrogen system

Comment Thread (2 Responses)

  1. Hydrogen fuel cells seem the logical route to go. There are some challenges left developing the infrastructure to produce industrial-sized amounts of hydrogen for the whole country, but that should be addressed by 2020-2030….

    By then, solar should have matured too, so the possibilities of different, more efficient cars could be on the horizon. However, as of right now in 2008, the rise of the electric car seems all but established. When we reach 2020, we need to start discussing the hover/flying car, I hope.

    Posted by: Covus   September 22, 2008
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  2. Covus—Thanks for the thoughts. Agreed on all points and am also patient in waiting 10 or so years for the transportation sector to re-tool and shift to new platforms. We’ll see about the hover cars!

    Posted by: Garry Golden   September 22, 2008
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