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Autonomous Vehicles, New Mobility & the Built Environment Smart Driving Car Summit

Energizing Tomorrow’s Electric Drivetrains

Michael Sena at the Smart Driving Car Summit
Michael Sena at the Smart Driving Car Summit

There is no simple answer to the question, What Will Power Safely-driven Cars, which is also the name of the April 1st, 2021 Smart Driving Car Summit session. One takeaway from this excellent session is that, as society looks to reduce the impacts of C02 emissions and other pollutants, it must do so in the context of a bigger picture that also looks at factors such as safety, productivity, resiliency, and redundancy of energy supply from multiple sources.

It goes beyond cut and dry technical decisions, however, as national and geopolitics will play a role in the energy choices that are made, as well as public perception and the influence of tech companies outside the traditional auto industry supply chain.

Understanding the positive and negative impacts of the entire lifecycle of a given energy source was a common theme of this online forum.  Taking a holistic source-to-sink view of energy was illustrated by Michael Sena’s example of how electricity derived from coal will generate 66.3 pounds of C02, compared to 49 pounds of C02 for a 40 mpg ICE (Internal Combustion Engine) vehicle.

Sena, the panel’s moderator, explained that he took care to select panelists “who have no skin in the game; they don’t mine coal, pump fuels, or build batteries.”

Competing in Tomorrow’s World, Not Today’s #

Adam Jonas at the 2021 Smart Driving Car Summit
Adam Jonas at the 2021 Smart Driving Car Summit

According to Adam Jonas, Global Head and Managing Director, Autos and Shared Mobility, Morgan Stanley, Even though strong technical arguments can be made for hybrid and alternative fuel-powered vehicles as greener solutions, there are many non-technical reasons legacy carmakers are leaning towards a battery-electric future including:

  • Public and political sentiment
  • It is easier to raise capital for an EV-focused company as compared to an ICE-centric one
  • To attract talent
  • Competition from tech giants

The tech giants, whether Apple, Google, or Tencent, are competing, in some sense, in a future market where the grid is greener than today, ICE vehicles might be banned in some markets, and autonomy creates new revenue opportunities.  As an example of the shift in industry thinking, Jonas predicts an announcement from Toyota regarding a shift towards battery electric by the end of 2021.

As much as the OEMs desire to, Jonas does not believe that they can get to 100% electric sales by 2030. Jonas predicts electric vehicle market share of sales in the high twenty percent range by 2030 and at 60 to 70% by 2040. Because of the long lifecycle of automobiles, this still means the share of electric vehicles on the road will amount to 7 to 8% in 2030 and 30 to 35% in 2040.

Fred Dryer at the 2021 Smart Driving Car Summit
Fred Dryer at the 2021 Smart Driving Car Summit

In an email exchange after the session, Dr. Fred Dryer points out other advantages to battery-electric drive-trains, such as:

  • Allows for a common platform for multiple types of vehicles (e.g. Canoo’s work with Hyundai)
  • Does not have to deal with regulatory issues surrounding the pollutants associated with internal combustion engines
  • Simpler design equals easier to manufacture equals lower cost and, potentially, higher profits

Delivery companies see competitive advantages to decarbonization, including building political goodwill and lowering their operational costs. Governments, with their fleets, such as USPS, can also be drivers of volumes. Jonas suggests that these early adopter segments could help accelerate cost reductions for the consumer electric vehicle space.

Perception Is Reality #

Karin Olander at the 2020 Smart Driving Car Summit
Karin Olander at the 2021 Smart Driving Car Summit

Speaking from a European perspective, Karin Olander, Automotive Journalist at Dagens Industri, cites Volvo as an example of a company that is reinventing itself around electric drivetrains and that Volvo’s CEO believes it necessary to meet climate goals. More generally, Olander points out that the climate movement changed everything in terms of the push for electrification.

Olander states that the industry cannot be deaf to public opinion. And, the market seems to be responding, as in 2020, according to InsideEVs, 14% and 9% of cars sold were BEV and PHEVs, respectively.  Of course, some of this demand is driven by policy, as Sena points out that the tax for an ICE vehicle is a thousand times more than a battery-electric in Sweden.

Still, public opinion may be the most important long-term factor in what will power the vehicles of the future.  As Olander points out, there is a certain status, particularly among the younger generation, associated with the purchase of an electric vehicle. At the same time, the electric drivetrains satisfy those who value performance, such as torque and speed, argues Dr. Stanley Young of the NREL.  Still, the uptake for people in rural areas and those without access to chargers in urban areas may not have the same demand as those in suburban areas with a garage and an outlet.

Huge Opportunities to Reduce Energy Wastage #

Stan Young at the 2021 Smart Driving Car Summit.
Stan Young at the 2021 Smart Driving Car Summit.

Dryer points out that the 2019 U.S. Sankey chart from Lawrence Livermore Lab is a good tool for viewing  energy production and energy consumption by source and application (see the 2020 chart here).  More energy is wasted than produced (64% of electricity and almost 79% in the transportation sector are rejected). By doing things, such as using more efficient gas turbines combined with carbon capture, recycling, and storage, Dryer states that we can turn the rejected heat into useful energy while reducing the negative impacts of energy production.

A similar issue of energy wastage exists in the world of 5G networks, as highlighted in this interview with PowerRox’s Brian Zahnstecher. Zahnstecher states that 99% of energy is wasted in the 5G Power Value Chain (PVC). As he points out efficiency is critical to reducing energy needs, as “The best Watt is the one that isn’t consumed.”

Even with relatively fast growth rates, solar and wind combined for less than 4% of the total energy production and 10% of electricity generation, respectively, in 2019. The energy production figure is important as that includes, for instance, the transportation sector, which accounts for approximately 28% of total U.S. energy use. As transportation moves to electric drivetrains, the share of energy from renewables will have to increase even faster to meet environmental objectives.

Dr. Fred Dryer explains the Sankey diagram.
The Sankey diagram from Lawrence Livermore Lab with Dr. Dryer’s commentary.

Young states that petroleum accounts for over 90% of transportation use and that “we are talking a transition [to electricity] over a few decades.” Citing the 2021 US EIA Annual Energy Outlook, Dryer points out that approximately 60% of energy production in 2050 is projected to be from coal, natural gas, and nuclear.

Dryer says that there are also opportunities to use e-fuels that can be produced from renewables, such as methanol, hydrogen, and Ammonia, in hybrid-electric vehicles. These types of e-fuel powered vehicles provide the benefits of zero-tail-pipe emissions, relatively fast fueling, and the performance of an electric drivetrain.

In the 2007-2009 timeframe, Dryer led a research team that investigated an approach for creating synthetic jet fuels using Coal plus Biomass to Liquids (CBTL) and Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) that would yield low, zero, or negative net carbon emissions. He states that the combination of recession and the public perception of such a facility as a chemical plant prevented it from moving from paper to reality.¹

Interestingly, in late 2020, Princeton-led Net-Zero America (NZA) research examined five scenarios to get to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 (PDF). Although carbon capture and storage were part of those scenarios, coal use is assumed to be eliminated in the NZA modeling and, thus, coal-to-liquid nor natural gas to liquid solutions were apparently not examined.

The Electric Drivetrain & Autonomy – Tools to Help Improve Energy Efficiency & More #

The common denominator moving forward is the adoption of an electric drive train, according to Young.

“It is the electric drivetrain that enables regenerative braking and higher fuel efficiency. It enables, some of the concepts that Fred brought in, combustion cycles that are extremely highly efficient; the e-fuels and things like that.”

MEP explained in a graphic.
MEP Metric – Image courtesy of NREL.

Young says that the combination of automation and electrification are tools that promise to help improve several issues that include:

  • safety,
  • urban air quality,
  • Global warming/greenhouse gas emissions
  • equity of access (whether due to income, ability quality of life),
  • and productivity.

As a way of capturing a community’s progress in measuring and improving these factors, NREL’s MEP (Mobility Energy Productivity) metric, provides a measure of the ease of moving and goods. It is a comprehensive measure as compared to mode-specific metrics, such as the walkability index or vehicle miles traveled.

Energy Sources – Flexibility, Resilience, and Independence Are Critical #

Dryer has been looking at the challenges of efficiently converting energy to movement since before the energy shortages of the 1970s. As a baseline, Dryer indicates that the relatively high-energy density of liquid fuels or compressed gas relative to batteries is the reason these fuels have historically been the favored choice for vehicles.

Dryer’s concern is that limiting energy resources and limiting distributing forms (replacing pipelines with electrical grid) reduces energy flexibility, decreases energy independence, and creates single points of failure. He states that carbon capture and storage are essential. He points out that the replacement of coal with natural gas is responsible for much of the carbon emissions decline over the past decade.² Additionally, he asks whether society has thought through the limited raw material resource issues surrounding volume battery production to get to a 100% battery-electric fleet.

The blog post Batteries don’t grow on trees provides a good overview of some of the negative externalities of one element of battery production, which is the extraction of cobalt. Further, the article makes the case that right-sizing vehicles for a given task will have greater positive spatial and environmental impacts than just converting standard vehicles from ICE to electric, as, for example, “Electric cars have 100-500x the batteries and toxicity of Ebikes/Etrikes/Escooters.” Of course as pointed out by Sena, depending upon the source of electricity, an electric vehicle can be a worse emitter of C02 and other pollutants than an ICE vehicle.

What are the geopolitical ramifications of the electrification of transportation? Image courtesy of S. Young.
What are the geopolitical ramifications of the electrification of transportation? Image courtesy of S. Young.

Speaking to the importance of having a diversity of power sources, Young gives the example of the onboard generators of the 2021 F150s that served as backup power sources during the recent Texas cold snap. Speaking of the importance of system redundancy and reliability he compares the energy system to broadband and how it needs to evolve in a manner similar to broadband.

“I almost think of it as 20 years ago when our telecoms were highly monolithic from a few sources and now, 20 years later, somehow, we connect to the Internet and everybody does it slightly differently through some system or wireline, or fiber-optic or 5G, or 4G or 3G.”

Dryer’s guidance is that solutions should be driven on technical reasons, instead of politically driven motivations. At the same time, as Young suggests, there are geopolitical and economic implications around energy sources. The U.S. is the world’s largest producer of petroleum and natural gas, while China leads in both the production of EVs and controls over 80% of the global supply chain of rare earth elements.  Electrification allows China to challenge the U.S energy dominance.

[Added 04/21/21] SAFE makes a compelling argument for resource and supply-chain independence in the production of batteries and other renewables to assure U.S. energy independence, which is consistent with their mission. 

Stay tuned for the April 8th session, as Professor Kornhauser will be moderating a panel deals with politics at the state and local level. They will be discussing how to create a welcoming community for the rollout of electric and autonomous vehicles in those areas that often have few good mobility options.


Footnotes #

¹ Even though it was only 13-years ago, it is easy to forget the apprehension about the potential for disruptions in the energy supply. As such, there was a great deal of work on biomass and coal to liquid fuels, such as described in this 2008 Princeton paper on the topic.

One of the conclusions is that “An appropriate new public policy might be needed to overcome the institutional hurdles,” of power companies not wanting to get into the fuel business and multinational oil companies’ lack of interest in the electricity generation business.

Additionally, it also recommended “Having a carbon policy in place characterized by a GHG emissions price ~ $80/t CO2eq would give CBTL-OT-CCS plant investors powerful insurance against the financial risks of oil price collapse that will threaten investments in capital-intensive synfuel plants.”

² The Energy Information Administration reports a decline from 0.851 C02 metric tons per megawatt-hour (MWh) in 2005 compared to 0.645 C02 mt/MWh in 2019. “This 24% decrease in the carbon intensity of fossil fuel generation played a large role in the energy-related CO2 emissions decline in the past 15 years.”

Author Ken Pyle, Managing Editor

By Ken Pyle, Managing Editor

Ken Pyle is co-founder of Viodi, LLC and Managing Editor of the Viodi View, a publication focused on independent telcos’ efforts to offer video to their customers. He has edited and produced numerous multimedia projects for NTCA, US Telecom and Viodi. Pyle is the producer of Viodi’s Local Content Workshop, the Video Production Crash Course at NAB, as well as ViodiTV. He has been intimately involved in Viodi’s consulting projects and has created processes for clients to use for their PPV and VOD operations, as well authored reports on the independent telco market.

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