Panel discussion 2017

When will electrification break through?

Panel discussion at the US Transmission Symposium 2017: Electrification makes powertrain development more complex, especially when general parameters cannot be planned long term. At the 11th CTI Symposium USA, experts discuss when electrification could achieve its breakthrough.

At the 11th CTI Symposium at Novi, Michigan, the podium discussion reflected the fact that the automobile industry still has plenty of eventualities to deal with. Under the chair of Larry Nitz, General Motors, experts discussed how much electrification is needed to meet regulations up to 2025. It’s not yet clear whether the CAFE standard will remain as planned by President Obama. Under the new EPA administrator Scott Pruitt, the midterm review scheduled for 2017 has been postponed to early 2018 and the fleet consumption target of 54.5 mpg in the USA may not be set in stone.
In the discussion, Brian Harlow, FCA, summed up neatly what the industry needs to do: on the one hand, meet legal requirements; on the other, invest in products and technologies, drivers will actually want to buy. Since reliable framework parameters can help with this difficult challenge, it was only logical that Larry Nitz steered the discussion in a global direction from the outset. The industry is now so globally interwoven that discussions at national level can easily fall short.

When will we reach the tipping point?

There are plenty of other variants out there that influence how much electrification makes sense and when the pendulum will start moving towards electric powertrains. As Anand Sankaran from Ford pointed out, it will be a long time yet before the industry can offer, say, 60 kWh batteries at a price consumers are prepared to pay. He said prices in 2012 to 2013 were still 500 dollars and predicted prices of 200 dollars for 2020, adding that they would actually need to drop below 100 dollars for long-range batteries to become affordable. He does not expect that to happen before 2025.
Peter Kuepper, BMW, was optimistic on several fronts, not least because he believes some regions have reached the tipping point for personal mobility already. He said Bejing, for example, simply had no space for more private cars, and driving to the outskirts sometimes took eight hours. Mr. Kuepper sees carsharing models as a logical consequence that will reframe issues such as range and infrastructure, since these vehicles would not need big batteries and the infrastructure would be easier to plan. Mr. Kuepper thinks new services can drive e-mobility by as early as 2020.

Blending power sources

But how will things develop in the interim zones? Larry Nitz recalled the plenary talk by Robert Fascetti, Ford, which addressed the blending of different power sources, meaning variable combinations of internal combustion and e-motors. Dean Tomazic, FEV, joined Kevin Bolon, EPA, in pointing out that internal combustion engines still have potential in terms of CO2 emissions, citing examples such as the Miller Cycle and variable compression ratio. Mr. Tomazic also believes that an adequate charging infrastructure is still even further off than affordable battery technology.
So is partial electrification the right way, including the 48 volt hybrids mainly anticipated for Europe? Anand Sankaran introduced an aspect that may have surprised many people, saying batteries for 48 V systems were sometimes harder to manage than high voltage batteries, for instance with regards to cooling. Kevin Bolon noted that 48 V hybrids do reduce CO2 emissions, but are still a comparatively expensive solution. Ultimately they would need to offer a tangible consumer benefit too – for example improved launch performance from the e-motor – and hence would need enough power to deliver that too.

How will tomorrow’s customers drive?

All participants saw customer acceptance as a key requirement that does not exactly make things less complex. It remains to be seen whether new business models will really drive e-mobility, or whether drivers will still want to own their own automobiles. Dean Tomazic painted a broad arc of requirements, saying that on the one hand the industry needed to offer mobility without local emissions in cities like London or Paris (i.e., not just megacities in Asia) but also questioning how practical electric or autonomous vehicles would be if you decided to take a trip to the mountains.

As the discussion showed, the challenges are complex. The right degree of electrification has still to be defined, and we may need multiple blends longer term. This means complexity will remain high for the foreseeable future. As a headcount confirmed, few developers in the powertrain and transmission community would be in favour of abandoning the global network that connects the auto industry. The 11th CTI Symposium drew 710 participants, 50 more than in the anniversary year 2016.

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