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Wednesday, October 31, 2007
Reinvigorating The Automotive Industries
Image:courtesy of Venturi Cars (www.venturi.fr)

All About Electricity, Hydrogen and a Bit of Sun

Not since the time of the development of the Ford Model 'T' and its introduction in 1908 have the automotive industries been so challenged as they are today. The most difficult issue for them is deciding where to spend their development dollars/euros/yen and on which technologies and automotive designs for the future. There are huge investments required for tooling and production of new automobile models these days (now as much as 1.5 billion USD), and often an automobile is designed not just as a singular vehicle, but also as an engineering base platform for many models to be built from.

The key to securing future sales success is in determining where the future marketplace for vehicles will be. The largest market in terms of global vehicle sales in the next five years is likely to be the small micro commuter and the key to winning this market will be determining the technology people want. Oil prices are likely to keep on climbing as the commodity becomes more difficult to recover in large volumes. The cleanest technologies are the full electric and the fuel cell vehicle, and as we move to a global emphasis on clean energy there will be a large global market for zero emissions cars.

For a company in distress, the key to taking the 3 to 5 year horizon micro commuter marketplace will be to continue the rationalisation and cost effectiveness of their current product line for revenue and profit, and in development, have the vehicles society wants where no other manufacturer is present. The easiest vehicle to design will be the light weight full electric that can operate in all weather conditions.

The most important thing with an electric vehicle will be battery range, battery lifecycle, and battery recyclability. People want to feel like they are driving the same comfortable car that they have in current gasoline powered cars. Additional design features to the full electric will be the addition of solar panels to provide recharge capability on the roof, hood and trunk, and this can be provided as an option to those who live in high intensity solar regions. Another option will be the back-up power recharge, that will allow for emergency charging of the batteries when you run out of electricity. This will probably be a small hydrogen or gasoline powered motor or even a small fuel cell, that can deliver motive power or just charging capability, depending upon the vehicle design. This dual energy vehicle is similar to the hybrid technology currently being sold, but the emphasis is heavily weighted on electric power in the new design and less on combustion engines.

The 100% fuel cell vehicle is the cleanest technology on the road as there are fewer batteries to recycle than the full electric. This will likely be the technology platform for the family size car, but more people will drive micro cars in the future than is the case today. Power is provided by hydrogen gas that under reaction with oxygen and a proton membrane produces electricity. Once the hydrogen refuelling infrastructure is built up in places like California and Japan, fuel cell vehicles will be on the road in significant numbers within five years. Fuel cell vehicles will start limited commercial sales in 2008 as a product being offered by Honda (FCX Concept). If the hydrogen can be produced using solar combination wind generation stations that are close to refuelling stations then the hydrogen energy infrastructure will grow significantly. One of the advantages of a fuel cell vehicle is that the driving distances on a tank are currently as high as 400 miles with refuelling and the ability to move after fuelling is immediate versus two to three hour quick recharge times for the electric. But the overall analysis is that both fuel cell and 100% electrics will have their own distinct market and both will be winners if quality and durability are included in the equation.

For the automotive company in distress, the key is to rationalise down to two base chassis types. The first is the full electric commuter car chassis, with solar and back-up power generation. This is an easy investment and carries less risk. The second chassis is a versatile one. It can act as a full electric or a full fuel cell chassis, or even a hybrid, and body types all utilise this chassis. The chassis needs to be light weight yet have occupant volume. There is much work ahead for the distressed automotive company, but if it comes together and the design, powertrain, chassis, electrical, manufacturing and quality engineers can work together with sales and marketing in an efficient team, almost anything is possible.

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