Getting electrified

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The automotive industry will reach a turning point during 2010, as it begins the gradual transition away from the internal combustion engine and towards electrification.” –John Gartner, senior analyst with Pike Research, from the firm’s latest report dubbed Electric Vehicle Charging Equipment

Just to make this clear at the start here, I don’t agree with the above statement coming out of Pike Research’s report. I don’t think the turning point for all-electric and hybrid-electric vehicles is going to be this year, much less two of three years down the road.

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But I do think that “turning point” is going to occur, for the simple reason that the cost of fuel is going to spike again – a direct result of another run-up in oil prices. Won’t happen soon, but it will happen; the growth track of mammoth economies such as China and India almost make it inevitable.

Now, the reason Pike’s experts think the transition to the “electrification” of motor vehicles is upon is comes from a rapidly developing build-out of electric vehicle (EV) charging infrastructure. Pike forecasts a total of 4.7 million such charge points are going to be installed worldwide from 2010 to 2015.

While I think that build-out is way too small to support a massive near-term shift to electric-powered vehicles, Pike thinks otherwise – as laid out in its recent report, entitled Electric Vehicle Charging Equipment.

“The success of hybrid vehicles in the 2000s gave drivers a taste for propulsion by electric power,” says Pike’s John Gartner. “Governments around the world are now highly focused on creating the charging infrastructure to support the arrival of EVs in significant numbers.”

[Recharging electric vehicles is also pretty simple, too -- a big plus for making them attractive for drivers. Check this clip out, demonstrating how some of the new public recharging stations installed by Virginia's Dominion Power operate. This one is at a highway rest stop.]

Now, Pike did downgraded its forecast slightly to 4.7 million charging stations from its original estimate of 5 million last year, largely due to a somewhat slower projected rate of sales for EVs, in addition to the continued lack of a clear business model for public charging stations.

“The economics of selling a few kilowatt hours per charge are very challenging, and as such we anticipate that public charging station deployments will be driven mainly by government initiatives over the next several years,” Gartner said.

He added that, by 2015, access to vehicle charging will be available at nearly one million charge points in the U.S., with EVs and plug-in hybrids in this country being primarily charged at home, while in the rest of the world, public charging will play a more central role due to reduced access to convenient home charging.

The additional power demand from EV charging will have little overall impact on grid reliability, but could impact the reliability of distribution equipment in neighborhoods with the highest EV concentrations, said Gartner.

[Here's another EV re-charging demonstration; this one from Europe.]

He also expects that by 2015, more than 3.1 million EVs – including plug-in hybrids and all-electric vehicles – will be sold worldwide. And comments from a wide range of automakers seems to support that outlook for more production of “electrified” vehicles.

Michael Dick of Audi recently emphasized that the potential for electric power will be developed in successive steps, with lightweight vehicle construction and efficiency technologies will play a central role in the further optimization of electrical vehicles.

What will be decisive are advances in battery technology, he said. “It is our aspiration, just as we currently use every drop of fuel in the optimum fashion, to use every kilowatt of current for optimal movement, comfort, safety and driving pleasure,” Dick explained.

“For sustained mobility it is necessary to use all technological skills judiciously to increase efficiency, downsizing and lightweight construction across the full range of transmission technologies,” he added.

The U.S. government is giving a big boost to vehicle “electrification” as well with plans to buy an entire slab of them in the coming years. The U.S. General Services Administration (GSA), for example, plans to double the federal hybrid fleet this year and has committed to purchasing approximately 100 plug-in hybrid vehicles in 2011.

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Using existing funds, GSA will replace 5,603 of the least fuel efficient cars and trucks in the Federal government’s fleet with fuel efficient hybrids, doubling the number of hybrids in the federal fleet without increasing the total number of vehicles. The resulting improvement in fleet fuel efficiency will reduce petroleum consumption by the equivalent of an estimated 7.7 million gallons of gas, or 385,000 barrels of oil, the agency said.

“By doubling the hybrid fleet and committing to purchasing plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, GSA is leveraging our position as the government’s centralized supplier to invest in emerging clean energy technologies, increase the government fleet’s fuel economy, and decrease the cost of government operations,” said Martha Johnson, GSA’s administrator.

Will efforts like these help further a shift to “electrification” of motor vehicles in the U.S.? That remains to be seen. But it’s a trend worth watching – especially as to whether “electrification” will have staying power in the minds of the U.S. public.

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