Monday, October 28, 2013

Low Cost Electric Fast Charging

I am excited about the Chevy Spark EV and the BMW i3 for one simple reason: they will use the new "SAE combo" standard for charging, that allows for standard AC charging as well as fast DC charging. But as I have mentioned in many posts, this transition from fossil fuels to electricity is a complex and messy process with multiple variables and changes in infrastructure, car technology and not least, consumer behavior and perceptions. So what is new in the complex chicken-and-egg story?

A Repurposed Inverter?

As the market for fast charging is in its inception, the cost of the charging stations has been extremely high, leading many to wonder how any fast-charging business model would survive scrutiny. Fast charging has to be ubiquitous in shopping areas, restaurants and movie theaters for people to change their idea of what "range" means and where they can drive without any stress.

So I was pleasantly surprised to come across Ideal Power at the Solar Power Conference that I attended last week. In essence the inverter can take 3-phase 480Vac and deliver it as DC to any car with an "SAE combo" socket, namely the two cars mentioned, and hopefully a lot more. Combined with the proper network connection to notify availability, this could prove to be the affordable solution for many small businesses.

So will this change the landscape for electric car fast charging? It is certainly a step in the right direction.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Community and Personal Safety

With smartphones displacing conventional applications and tools, it was only a matter of time before new mechanisms for calling for help would emerge. I have been a big proponent of ways to augment public safety infrastructure, but nothing as simple as 911 had surfaced so far. This is changing, however.

A Perfect Storm

The power of crowds and technological innovation are the two forces converging to create a new model for personal safety. We have seen crowd sourcing, crowd funding and even crowd voting, so crowd- or more correctly, community safety would happen with the right ingredients. The technological force in this storm is Bluetooth Low Energy, a recent evolution of the Bluetooth standard that allows for devices that can stay on for up to a year.


At the forefront of this wave is, one that I have a personal connection as CTO.

I am convinced that making safety as simple as pressing a key-fob is a game changer in how we view our personal safety. There have been many niche solutions for the elderly for quite a while, but nothing that had such broad applicability. Consider the panic button on your car key fob, which we are all familiar with, but rarely, if ever, gets used. Now imagine the fob pictured on the right that can be used anytime and anywhere, that transmits your location via your smartphone to friends, family and the authorities. This is the promise of SafetyLINK, and I think it looks very promising.

A New Public Safety Model?

The idea of private-public partnerships is not new, and I think services like SafetyLINK will accelerate them. Location services was the sole purview of the FCC when they started looking at ways to integrate cellphone GPS into the 911 infrastructure more than 10 years ago. It didn't quite turn out that way!

Thursday, March 7, 2013

The Obvious is Hard to See - The Case of MPGe

After dissecting the window sticker in my last post and puzzling over some of the esoteric elements I did not see the obvious solution. A post by John Voelker for Green Car Reports proposes the winning answer: measure the range using a unit of energy consumed, in this case kilowatt hours. So very simply the range of a car would be miles/kWh or for those looking for a more elegant answer: kWh/100miles.

As in all new business models (in this case new infrastructure) the answer often lies in out-of-the-box thinking.

Hopefully the EPA is reading this.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Electric Car Window Sticker

As electric vehicles (EV) enter the mainstream, one of the biggest challenges will be what language and terminology we use to talk about them. Not only are they different than internal combustion engine (ICE) cars, but they are much more varied: from simple hybrids to plug-in hybrids, all the way to pure electric. Arguably a plug-in hybrid is different than an EV with a range-extender.

In fact EV's don't even have engines, they have motors, and power is normally measured in kilowatts, not horsepower (although equivalent). Just when you need William Safire!

Since the good folks at the EPA decided that this confusion needed to be sorted out, we now have a new (and mandatory) format for the window sticker for cars that have an electric component. Lets deconstruct it and see if it will make sense to normal consumers.

The Plug-in Hybrid EV Sticker

The first thing to note is the MPGe which stands for Miles per Gallon equivalent. Although not explained anywhere, it simply creates an equivalence between the energy stored in gasoline and electricity. In fact, 1 gallon of gas has 33.7kW-hrs of electric energy. However, now all of us need to get our heads wrapped around this one.

So why does the EPA give us two numbers? 98MPGe and 34kW-hrs/100 miles? This is not different than Europeans measuring gas mileage in liters/100km, which to them is totally intuitive, but I usually stare at my in-laws as if they were using some alien unit of measurement. Similarly the EPA gives us 2.5gal/100 miles in the next box, which may make some Europeans happy (but they may ask: what is a gallon?).

Buried in the first box is also the Charge Time, which will make even less sense as 2014 model year EVs get the "combo inlet", which accepts both AC and high voltage DC for fast charging. What if your car can accept a 6.6kW charger, but is plugged into a public 3.3kW charger?

Looking further we see the bar underneath that shows the electric range. This makes some sense for "range-extenders" but little for PHEV's that may go 10 miles in electric mode. In fact some cars allow the driver to switch between electric and gasoline (to conserve electric range for city travel), so how does one account for that?

Given that many drivers strive to stay in EV range, what are we to make of the schedule that the EPA has modeled of typical city driving?

Suffice it to say that this label will probably get an overhaul in a few years as new behaviors are better modeled. In fact, given the imminent arrival of DC fast charging, this sticker may already be obsolete.

The Pure EV Sticker

For completeness lets us also examine the pure EV sticker, as this should be a breeze.

This is at least presented in a nice way, but five numbers to show Fuel Economy? We can certainly get rid of 34kW-hrs/100 miles! Most un-American. If I were shopping for an EV the range would be the most important number. The EPA website has some nice mouse-overs to explain the stickers.

New Business Models?

My analysis only raises more questions than answers. What is clear is that this is an area of rapidly changing technology which is not amenable to neat stickers. In fact one can argue that the EPA's idea of a "schedule" will need to be updated as all sorts of public chargers sprout that are not paid by the kW-hr, but by monthly membership or even free as long as you buy something, have dinner, watch a movie.....

How will that be measured?

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Podcast with Yi-Tan on Electric Vehicles

I had the pleasure of discussing electric cars, their history, prospects and how the shift in infrastructure could come about with my friend and Wharton classmate Jerry Michalski. Some things I mention in the podcast that are worth a look:

Jay Leno's Garage and the history of the Baker Electric

Envia Systems, which is attempting a much higher energy density of 400Wh/kg

Sakti3 which won't say much other than they are working on a new kind of "solid state" battery technology

From Jerry's post: Someone killed the first electric cars, but they're making a comeback. Slowly. Issues abound, from cost and range to refueling strategies and (lack of) installed infrastructure. Did you remember to plug your car in last night? Who wants to wait for batteries to charge? With Tim Meyer, let's discuss: What's the state of the EV (electric vehicle) market? How are the different business models faring? What's catching on best? What's holding the industry up? Whom should we watch?

Yi-Tan Tech Community Call #379 - Electric Cars - summary version - Jerry Michalski
Yi-Tan Tech Community Call #379 - Electric Cars - - Jerry Michalski

Friday, January 25, 2013

Is fast charging the cure for range anxiety?

Electric cars launched with much fanfare late in 2010 with the promise of transforming the landscape of American transportation and creating the next growth sector of the economy. Innovation in battery and electric drivetrain technology would be our new core competence. In Feb 2011, no less than President Obama set a goal of one million electric vehicles on the road by 2015.

After two years of sales in the US Nissan has sold 18,000 LEAFs and GM has managed 31,000 Volts.

What happened?

An Alphabet Soup: BEV, HEV, PHEV and EREV

Although hybrids were well understood by consumers with Toyota selling Prius' at a nice clip for many years, we were wholly unprepared for a shift in charging technology, driving range limits and complex operating modes. Lets take these in turn:

Charging Technology. Not only were most people surprised to discover the added cost of a 240V home charger ($1500-$2000) but they also found that you needed to make a trip to City Hall to get a permit for the new circuit. It also did not help that the cord that came with the car was effectively a 110V trickle charger that was nearly useless for overnight charging. To cause yet more confusion the LEAF had an optional fast charging socket using the proprietary Japanese CHAdeMO interface. It was rightly claimed in their literature and website that you could get 80% charge in 30 min. Of course the number of public CHAdeMO chargers in California (the largest EV market) could be counted on one hand, and still can!

Driving Range. The range of an EV has been a fluid concept from the beginning, with varied claims from the carmakers, EPA and consumers with real-world numbers.

Who to believe?

Lets take the case of the LEAF which was originally supposed to go 100 miles on a charge. But then the EPA assigned a range of 73 miles based on a "2-cycle" test. Recently reports of reduced range in hot weather (45 miles reported in one instance) started surfacing, causing Nissan to buyback any cars that  had such as claim. Adding insult to injury, this buyback is covered in Arizona under the Lemon Law.

"Range anxiety" is no longer a funny phrase.

Extended Range. Range extension is perhaps the most elegant yet misunderstood idea. Best implemented by the Chevy Volt, it neatly sidesteps the either/or debate and weans us off pure ICE transportation.

So what is there not to like?

In its simplest form a small engine kicks in after the battery is depleted and starts charging the battery via a generator. The battery of course turns the drive motor. In effect a series system, compared to the more complex "parallel" transmission of a pure hybrid such as a Prius. Perhaps most exciting, the BMW i3 will be getting a motorcycle engine as a range extender. Lets call them EREV's as no one has settled on a name yet!

Enter the SAE DC Fast Charger Standard and Combo-Coupler

After much debate the SAE upgraded the 120/240V AC coupler standard to also accept high voltage DC, thus making fast charging possible. Perhaps not to everybody's liking, it eliminates fragmentation from CHAdeMO or the proprietary Tesla fast charger. At least for the US market this should reduce uncertainty and accelerate EV adoption.

Only now are we getting a dribble of news from automakers on their plans to launch EVs with combo couplers. Notable ones for late 2013 and 2014 are the Chevy Spark and the BMW i3.

Brute force or build an ecosystem

With this backdrop, what is the future of the EV? And is the combo-coupler the harbinger of new business models.

Carmakers face some strategic choices:

  • Make EREV's as a transitional technology and wait for battery energy density to improve
  • Use brute force and put a large battery in the car
  • Build EV's with fast charging and actively create a charging ecosystem

These are not mutually exclusive, but for the most part form three clusters. How are the current players doing so far?

Make Transitional EREV's. The Volt will continue to lead the pack with a 40 miles electric-only range which covers many basic use-cases. Compared to this the Plug-in Prius has a range of 11 miles in electric mode and the Ford C-MAX Energi a range of 21 miles -- both are non-starters. In reality they are hybrids with a small band-aid battery bolted on. This will only confuse consumers who will wonder why they should even bother with a plug.

Brute Force. This may seem obvious, but no one but Tesla had the insight to go down this path. Taking a page from the Apple playbook by obsessing over essential features, Tesla has shown that a pure EV can have a range of 300 miles (265 miles according to EPA). The result may be a pricey car, but absolutely everyone raves about it including Motor Trend which named it 2013 car of the year. More kudos to Tesla.

Build an Ecosystem. It may be an old chestnut, but any shift in energy infrastructure from fossil fuels to electricity is a chicken and egg problem, and will require some new business models, good timing and luck.  In short an ecosystem has to develop around fast charging, which of course depends on the number of combo-couplers in circulation.

The astute marketing folks at Tesla clearly saw a PR opportunity and wasted no time in hyping their new Supercharging Network. Never mind that this business model does not scale, as surely a Tesla owner is not waiting around for 30 minutes to get his turn to fast-charge. However, it does show us possible business models for movie theaters, shopping malls and even supermarkets. In short, anywhere you could spend 30 minutes or more. The payment would show up on your electric bill, with a commission going to the operator.

So who will make a move in this nascent market?

Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Hotel Receptionist

Traveling this summer, we stayed at a concept hotel called Aloft, an experiment of Starwood Hotels. It had a vaguely Euro/Scandanavian design with a trendy, hipster sort of ambience, but what intrigued me was their idea of dispensing with a breakfast area in favor of a self-serve lobby all within view of the receptionist. You simply pick up whatever you want and the receptionist rings it up.

So what does this have to do with business models?

A lot! In the age of smartphones which can act as your door key, wallet, concierge and passbook what will be the role of the receptionist? This experiment seems to be a way to re-allocate resources (receptionists, to begin with) as tech-savvy consumers demand more services that are seamlessly integrated with their gadgets and gizmos.

Microsoft Takes a Stab

A futuristic video developed by Microsoft sketches the story of a business traveller 5-10 years in the future, as she lands and checks into her hotel. Some notable ideas are hyper-location, translating AR glasses and an embedded digital room key. The one technology that will appear well before five years, and has the potential of creating the most disruption, is the smartphone as door key.

Phones as door keys

The idea of using a phone to unlock a door has shifted from an interesting research curiosity to working products that you can buy in a store. Although NFC seems the obvious answer, as seen in the video below, it misses the point that it only works with a small set of smartphones, thus limiting its usefulness.

WAN Connected Doors?

You know there is something going on when digital locks attract the attention of an established company such as Schlage. They are certainly taking a conservative approach and not trying to replace a real key. In fact their value proposition is to simply allow remote access for babysitters, workmen, etc. It thus becomes part of a broader home security and automation need, rather than a gimmicky "internet lock".

It is worth noting that the phone is simply a secure remote control that accesses the lock through a specific LAN gateway.

Not to be outdone, Zipcars can be unlocked by a smartphone. No NFC needed, an ID number and a cellular modem will do quite well, thank you! Of course they wisely kept a backup of a card-scanner behind the windshield that unlocks the car when presented with the right barcode.

Is Apple's Passbook the Answer?

It is certainly part of the answer. As Phil Schiller of Apple noted in a recent interview on The Verge, "Passbook does everything customers want". With little NFC infrastructure and a long slow upgrade of terminals, door locks, etc. over the coming years, NFC seems to be the proverbial hammer looking for a nail.

The other part of the answer is simply using location and visual information as a way to authenticate a person. Square seems to have gotten it right with Pay with Square, certainly Starbucks thinks so! No need to take your phone out of your pocket.

So is our receptionist out of a job? Lets say she has new tasks to take care of while the need to hand out card-keys slowly shrinks.