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The problems of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner will cast an awkward shadow over the EV world

Guest article by Ash Gupta

2012 did not turn out to be a good year for sales of EVs for a mix of reasons. Price was one, a real problem given the backdrop of a global economic decline, but not doing what it says it will do on the tin is as big a crime as far as the early adopters go. I am not going to finger any particular model. I am going to look in at the EV market as a detached observer might do.

What I see, and as a lifelong evangelist for electric cars, this hurts me, is that current EV’s do not live up to expectations overall. Range claims versus real life range is one problem with products claiming to do 100 miles doing about 60 in reality. Next, the lack of cash in city and regional coffers has meant that in most cities the infrastructure to re-charge EVs is not there, not enough or well behind schedule.

Add to this the luke-warm purchase incentive support that global governments have provided (with the possible exception of the USA under the Obama Administration) has not provided the “Push”, while the pretty cranky product offered on the market to date has failed to generate the “Pull.”

Then there was the widely reported battery fire scares in the global media. First the post Volt crash test fire generated a raft of scare stories in the US media which of course then reverberated around the globe in seconds thru Twitter et al. This article from Popular Mechanics is typical.

Then Bloomberg told readers “Electric Cars No More Prone to Fires Than Gas-Powered Vehicles, U.S. Says.”

GM quickly took on the media saying, “Federal testers may have caused Chevy Volt fire, GM says.” All this just stacks doubt in the mind of potential buyers, but then Fisker gets in on the act with fires of its own, not just one fire but a few to stoke the story.

Finally Hurricane Sandy joins in when the inundation from the storm hit the dock areas in New Jersey and 16 Fisker Karmas provided a macabre photo opportunity to the media.

So, successive recalls and unhelpful press stories have not oiled the wheels of sales progress for the EV sector in the key auto markets that many learned studies identified as leading the charge to the brave, new, sustainable, clean, lo-carbon world of electric traction. Sales of hybrids did better.
I thought to myself - OK, all this is what one might expect when you feed in a new disruptive technology into a long established and commercially strategic market. But then it all got political, especially in the USA with Obama getting stick from the political right for federal support for EV battery makers who, one by one, were lapsing into administration like A123, as did a few OEMs too, like Think AS of Norway.

So once again I regrouped in my mind thinking surely 2013 will bring more sophisticated EV product to the EV market from Audi, VW, BMW, Ford and recast, improved versions from Nissan for the Leaf.
Then the battery traumas of Boeing’s Dreamliner began to emerge, first right in the USA, when a lithium-ion battery that caught fire aboard an empty Japan Airlines 787 in Boston this month made headlines around the globe.

Then despite fast media reaction by Boeing and airline spokespersons to the Boston fire, and then a subsequent incident involving a battery alarm and a report of a burning smell on another 787 that made an emergency landing in Japan which prompted the Federal Aviation Administration and other safety agencies globally to ground the Dreamliner last week. The main investigation, which also involves the FAA and Boeing, focuses on the 787's cutting-edge lithium-ion battery system that powers the aircraft’s auxiliary power unit. The APU, for instance, powers the plane's systems when the engines are idle. The batteries in question are manufactured by Japan's GS Yuasa, under a subcontract to France-based Thales, say media reports.

OK, now we have a new hurdle. The battery technology itself becomes suspect. Boeing is one of the great commercial giants of world industry, the IBM of aero-space. If their engineers can’t get it right, who in auto-land can?

I am sure you can all read the initial reports that ensued. Here’s one from CNN via EIN news.

“The examination of data from the Boston 787 indicated its APU battery did not appear to be overcharged by exceeding its designed voltage of 32 volts, according to Sunday's NTSB statement. But experts pointed out to CNN that there was no mention in the statement about how quickly the JAL 787 battery was discharging. Discharging the battery too quickly, or with too low voltage, can also cause it to overheat, said University of Dayton professor Raul Ordonez, an aircraft electrical and computer engineer who spent time observing Dreamliner development at Boeing's Seattle headquarters.

"Investigators in Washington have taken X-rays and CT scans of the lithium-ion battery that caught fire in Boston," the safety board said. "They have also dismantled the battery and examined some of its individual cells."

The agency said it has also examined several other components from the plane, including wire bundles and battery management circuit boards. "The fact that the NTSB is basically looking at every component around the battery, including the computer hardware and the (memory) software, means that they have no idea yet about a culprit and (they) suspect everything," Ordonez said.

So what now for EVs? Well there’s a lot to do. The basic task is still to get battery technology safe and working in terms of range, weight and price. That’s a lot in itself. Then the governments and city fathers of the world need to get ubiquitous auto re-charging facilities in place. The power companies and auto dealers working in close harness with the auto OEMs need to encourage and support the early adopters of the new fabby models from Ford, VW, BMW and Audi to name just some with safe fire proof recharging kit for use at home in the garage and at places of work.

Supermarkets have been quick to see the benefit of providing EV recharge stands in their car parks, but there is so much more to be done on the infrastructure front.

Is the EV dead? I think it’s had a bashing, but in the long run electric cars will prevail. Once the battery makers and auto OEMs get the volumes going, prices will start to fall in line with ICE versions, but the real breakthrough is yet to come. A bigger watershed will emerge when Drive by Wire is added to the design mix, so we finally get apple i-cars, all new tastymodels, as tasty as apple i-phones!

I am not ready to throw in the towel and abandon a life-long dream. No one said it was going to be easy. And in EV land where techno-change is a necessity but price is king, easy it is not.

Posted on Tuesday, January 22, 2013 at 06:53PM by Registered CommenterChristine Gupta in , , , , , , | CommentsPost a Comment

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