As auto producers continue to unveil plans for developing all-electric (EV) and plug-in-hybrid vehicles (PHEV) for the near-future market, there are still many questions regarding the broader implications of building a larger EV infrastructure. Many of the use models for electric cars involve some form of recharging strategy relying on a direct interface with our current energy grid. This is no simple proposition. Though it is improving, much of our energy grid is quite antiquated. Just this week, as the summer temperatures started setting in here in New York, we had small scale brown outs and power shortages in several highly populated portions of north Brooklyn.
In order to prepare for the impeding influx of electric vehicles on US streets, solutions for managing their use of the power grid will need to be implemented. We’ve already seen a lot of these “smart grid” technologies hit the market for home energy management. Google among other companies have developed energy management tools that help users understand their home energy use and make changes to improve their efficiency. Recharging a car would add an immense load to the average household energy needs making the need for such technologies that much more important. To be successful, energy management tools will need to not only monitor the use of your appliances and heating and cooling systems but also your new electric car.
The Ford Motor Co. has already got a jump on this need by partnering with Microsoft to integrate energy management software into it’s future line of electric vehicles. Ford is planning on releasing a all-electric version of their popular Focus model as soon as 2011. Microsoft’s Hohm software will assist owners in determining how to to recharge their vehicle’s batteries in the most efficient, responsible, and affordable way. The primary goal of the software will be to lessen the strain of car charging on the power grid during peak hours, and to help utilities better manage the rising need. To accomplish this Ford and Microsoft will also be working directly with individual cities and utilities to bring them into the development process creating a true “systems” approach.
IT has been an increasingly important part of auto design, most recently in the form of integrating the myriad of mobile technologies we have come to rely on. Ford’s partnership with Microsoft takes this relationship a step further by involving the still emerging field of smart grid technology into the future automobile. Regardless of weather Electric vehicles represent the best long-term solution to the countries car-dependency, the EVs are certainly here and are going to be a influential part of the future energy needs.
With all the recent attention on hybrid and electric vehicles it’s easy to forget that the near-term global demand for new vehicles is still very much the uncontended domain of the internal combustion engine. That’s what makes Ford’s new EcoBoost engine platform so exciting. The EcoBoost is a new Gasoline Turbocharged, Direct-injection (GTDI) engine that can achieve 20% better fuel economy, 15% lower CO2 emissions, and vastly improved performance over larger displacement engines. Beginging this summer Ford will begin offering a 3.5-liter V6 EcoBoost in their Flex and Lincoln MKS models. This will be followed by it’s deployment in the new Taurus SHO and Lincoln MKT. Ford has also announced the development of a smaller 1.6 and 2.0-liter V4 EcoBoost that will be available starting in 2013. This will help the company better meet the growing consumer trend towrds smaller, more efficiant cars, a market they have already gained a foothold in with models like the Focus.
Though the EcoBoosts’ claimed environmental advantage over conventional engines may seem nominal compared to, say an all electric vehicle, it’s important to consider the factor of scalability. Ford has said it would like to offer these engines in over 80% of their models by 2012, and have set a target of putting around 500,000 EcoBoosts on the road every year. While the number for hybrid-electrics will undoubtedly continue to grow, it will still represent a far smaller share of the market than conventional vehicles for many years to come. Additionally, the technology costs for hybrids have continued to push higher price points, leading many to argue they are a less economical choice for many potential buyers. According to Ford Global Product Development VP Derrick Kuzak, when you consider the entry level-cost for various technologies, the role for new, more efficient gasoline engines like the EcoBoost is clear. Kuzak further explained the rational for Ford’s commitment to GTDI technology by comparing payback times based on fuel savings for various technologies. He claims a four cylinder hybrid drive-train has a pay-back time of about 11.5 years. A comparable four cylinder diesel has a 7.5 year payback. A four cylinder GTDI will save enough fuel to recover the extra cost in 2.5 years. Those figures are based on gasoline at $2.87/gallon, diesel at $2.90/gallon and 15,000 miles per year of driving. While these numbers can be corroborated by many sources, there are a myriad of additional considerations to be had when making such a comparison. Regardless, there is certainly a role for what are clearly better engines in meeting the current global demand for new and affordable automobiles.
I’ll admit that when I first heard about the EcoBoost or “TwinForce” as it was formerly called, I was skeptical. In my, somewhat brief experience with cars (15 years or so) I have been consistently let-down by our domestic auto producers when it came to engine technology. However, as the reviews of the EcoBoost begin to trickle in, it appears a new standard of American performance is emerging, ironically, amidst the industry’s darkest hour.