Mar. 22, 2011 SDF Electric Cars

On March 22, 2011 in San Francisco at Nixon Peabody, SDForum held a Clean Tech Breakfast on “Electric Vehicles – What’s Under the Hood?” Robert Ebe of Nixon Peabody moderated panelists Matt Boyle of Sevcon, Rob Ferber of ElectronVault, Gerd Goette of Siemens, Mark Platshon of VantagePoint and Ryan Popple of Kleiner Perkins (KPCB).

Under the hood, electric vehicles can be simpler than internal combustion engines. Their basic components are motors,  controllers (inverters), gauges, steering, DC converters, batteries, chargers, and accelerators.

The principles and design of the electric motor were worked out over a hundred and fifty years ago. They are ninety percent efficient and well understood. Batteries, on the other hand, tend to lose their energy density over time. Their efficiencies continue to improve with better materials and software but only with high oil prices are they competitive. Plan for evolution rather than revolution. If you can design your vehicle to be agnostic about what kind of battery it uses, it can extend its lifetime flexibility.

As fuel prices rise in America, electric cars like the Tesla, Chevy Volt and the Nissan Leaf are becoming available. But the most popular electric vehicle in China is not a car but a scooter. People in developing countries do not have to worry as much about older, existing, competing, subsidized legacy infrastructure. The new large cities cannot support the old ways. People just start buying small electric vehicles and are gradually creating a transportation infrastructure around it. Regardless of what other resources a country may have, any country that can generate electricity can build and drive a fleet of electric vehicles. Opportunities for investment and jobs are not only in the building of batteries but recycling them. Technology developed in the West will be scaled for manufacturing in the East and will create a global infrastructure of mass marketed vehicles.

In the West, the question is whether they will be adopted first by consumers or as fleet vehicles. Some believe that government incentives will drive purchasing decisions. Investors should not depend on constantly changing government policies. Your business model should be based on real market costs and demand.

New technology creates new headaches. One concern is about safety for first responders to an accident. How do you extract a person from a vehicle with a damaged and possibly ungrounded power supply? Another caveat is compressed natural gas (CNG). If it becomes cheaper than oil, it may be adapted for large trucks. The details will have to be worked out.

Copyright 2011 DJ Cline All rights reserved.

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