|Bubble chart of plausible mainstream PHEV buyers’ battery requirements (light and dark gray circles) and experts’s requirements overlaid on a Ragone plot of NiMH and Li-ion batteries. Source: Ken Kurani. Click to enlarge.|
A series of presentations at the SAE 2009 Hybrid Vehicle Technology Symposium held in San Diego (11-12 February) sketched a mixed outlook for mainstream consumer—i.e., not enthusiast or pioneer—adoption of coming plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs), given current market conditions and consumer awareness and attitudes.
The findings from the studies suggest that manufacturers will need to be careful in balancing the design of all-electric range capability against a number of other factors; that competition from alternative solutions will be stiff; and that mainstream consumers still do not place the highest values on fuel economy or low emissions when purchasing a new car.
Dr. Ken Kurani from the UC Davis Institute of Transportation Studies (ITS) presented results from the latest in a series of electric drive consumer studies seeking to learn from consumers whether or not PHEVs are a good idea.
|“Consumers right now, given the opportunity to manipulate the idea of a plug-in vehicle, are designing not only very different vehicles, they are designing vehicles that are much more possible than the experts are assuming.”|
The ITS study worked with a national sample of households representing a plausible early market for PHEVs—households with a high potential for physically recharging—and enrolled them in a design game.
Among the study’s findings was that the majority of participating households designed a PHEV with much lower all-electric capabilities—and hence battery requirements—than automakers or experts are working with. Based on the game results, battery pack requirements would be equal to or less than 2 kWh.
New car buyers are not like pioneers, advocates and experts, Kurani noted. The Most Plausible Early Market consumers value fuel economy. The most frequent designs resulting from the game include higher charge-sustaining (CS) and charge-depleting (CD) blended operation—few valued all-electric range. All-electric driving may not be a bad idea for consumers, Kurani noted, it is just one that they don’t yet value or understand.
Questions for the industry, Kurani said, include how do we get from where households currently are to where PHEVs provide the most benefit? How to provide households with an opportunity to create value for electric driving? Which cars should be built when? And which should have incentives and when?
A trajectory through time of PHEV designs allows good things to happen. It allows us to start with batteries within lithium. It allows supplier and manufacturer cost reduction through multiple product generation. It allows more consumers to buy some electric driving sooner, and thus to experience and form value for electric driving.—Ken Kurani
In a talk on gauging the competition between advanced vehicle powertrains, Steven Plotkin, staff scientist with Argonne National Laboratory’s Center for Transportation Research struck a slightly more pessimistic note in describing results of Argonne’s Multi-Pathways Transportation Futures Study.
|“What may look like an attractive technology to a society can look pretty crappy to a consumer.”|
What looks good against today’s conventional car may not look so good against tomorrow’s conventional car or tomorrow’s hybrid, Plotkin said. The competition against PHEVs in 2030 is likely to incorporate a radically downsized, boosted direct-injection engine; an automated manual or 7-8 speed automatic transmission; advanced tires with CR at 0.006 or below; a 30% weight reduction on the glider; advanced aerodynamics with CD of 0.22 or below; advanced accessories; and a mild hybrid drivetrain.
That could yield more than 50 mpg of fuel economy—or usage of less than 300 gallons per year—and still be a lot cheaper than a plug-in hybrid or a fuel cell vehicle, he noted.
|“Congress should not pick [vehicle technology] winners—policymakers have a hard time being neutral. Our history with alternative fuels has been truly awful.”|
There are large number of significant unknowns in terms of evaluating the success of future drivetrains, he said, including the future price of gasoline (“the most important thing”); what people think the future price of gasoline will be; future attitudes about climate change and energy security and what the government is willing to do about them; future technology progress; and how consumers will respond to new technologies.
We saw a horrible drop in vehicle sales last December [down] 36%. Hybrid sales 43%. A recent poll by the Pew Center found that global warming was the last...the last...of 20 concerns. A Rasmussen Reports poll show that 41% of the US public thinks Mankind is causing global warming...Are desires for more power, more luxury, more size reaching saturation? Recent trends say no. Research shows that people value loss of dollars a lot higher than value gained, about 1.5 times as much. People are more worried about losing than they are happy to gain...what that means is that there is a lot of uncertainty.
Given high initial costs, volatile oil prices, improving competition, an industry in poor financial shape and consumers who aren’t perfectly rational...who actually are quite risk averse...advanced technology may be a hard sell. Expect mostly incremental change unless the market is helped, or unless technology progress surprises us again.—Steven Plotkin
Scott Miller, the CEO of research firm Synovate, also noted that while “things don’t look so good” for the auto industry right now, hybrids and plug-in hybrids are still favored by consumers against other advanced fuel-saving technologies.
|“...the first time in your entire lives you’ve ever heard the EPA and the OEMs agree on something: tax the fuel. Start talking about more than just climate change. Let’s talk about water quality, local emissions, natural resources and the wars that come from places that don’t have enough natural resources. Tax the fuel.”|
He also noted that their research shows that fuel efficiency is the number 12 reason for buying a car and that environmental friendliness ranked 38. Mainstream adoption by new car buyers depends on connecting with more important criteria such as reliability and durability, he said.
Consumers in the US have been spending money they don’t have, he noted. The net effect of correcting this problem will be pressure on purchase prices first and operating costs second. The industry needs to “accept the fact that the correction to the situation is that people are going to spend less, and buy less frequently.”
Miller stressed that it is important to recognize that hybrids are still favored by consumers, and that is important that automakers not start behaving like they don’t believe in the future of the technology.
Jonn Axsen and Kenneth S. Kurani (2008) The Early U.S. Market for PHEVs: Anticipating Consumer Awareness, Recharge Potential, Design Priorities and Energy Impacts (UCD-ITS-RR-08-22)