Elon Musk said he would banish range anxiety with an app. Don’t think his method would go over big in China since there aren’t Tesla recharging stations everywhere. This app would just cause more anxiety, as one KBB analyst points out!
Karl Brauer, senior analyst for Kelley Blue Book’s KBB.com:
“Incorporating charging locations into a vehicle’s navigation system and trip planning is an excellent feature, but it’s also not new or innovative. The Nissan Leaf offered this feature when it was introduced back in 2010, and nearly every electric car offers it today. Knowing where an electric vehicle charging location is and having enough energy to get to that location are two different issues. It sounds like the Model S will be more capable of alerting the driver when he or she is nearing that threshold, but I’m not sure these warnings equate to eliminating range anxiety. One could argue such aggressive warnings will only remind drivers how critical it is to get to a charging stating before draining the battery pack. And this situation remains a much bigger deal in an electric car than one powered by gasoline or diesel fuel, where a roadside assistance organization can deliver a gallon of fuel and usually get you going in a matter of minutes.”
Matt DeLorenzo, managing editor for Kelley Blue Book’s KBB.com:
“This solution to range anxiety reminds me of Ettore Bugatti who responded to one of his customer’s complaint that his car was hard to start in cold weather. He reportedly said ‘If you can afford a Type 35, then surely you can afford a heated garage.’ In other words, Musk is giving the buyers of his luxury car an app that says ‘don’t drive too far from one of my chargers.’ As for his comment about driving 10 hours and wearing a diaper, obviously he never has taken a road trip of any length. If you take a conventional car, you can drive 10 hours and stop for gas in that time, which takes about 5-10 minutes. In a Tesla, best case scenario, is enforced stops of at least a half hour or more (and what if the charger is in use, then it will take even more time). I think the range anxiety is complicated by the fact that recharging adds additional time to what is already a long road trip.”
One thing I can say about BYD, it’s becoming consistent. That’s good. The Chinese automaker learned some lessons from the blunders when it first tried to enter the U.S. market. It has stuck to its strategy of selling its electric buses here for the time being. But I learned from BYD executives at a recent event here in Los Angeles the company still has its eye on the retail EV market, as well.
Yesterday I attended an event meant to show off BYD’s new articulated battery-electric bus. The 60 footer, billed as “the world’s largest battery electric vehicle,” was nice. I’ve come to expect that from BYD buses. Of course I’m not driving them so can’t speak to performance. But they are always spacious, well finished, and of course quiet.
This bus, which we took from Union Station in downtown Los Angeles to City Club, a fancy venue on a high floor of another downtown location, wasn’t quiet however. It was quite loud, a result of being packed with people, from reporters to sustainability consultants to labor issue professionals to bankers. All but the journalists had played or are playing a role in BYD’s effort to build and promote e-buses here in California.
BYD has had some success in getting small numbers of its e-buses into municipal fleets for demonstration and testing. Five of them will start operating in the Los Angeles municipal fleet this year. BYD buses are also trolling the roads in Mexico, Chile, Edmonton, and Sydney, among other locations. And in January in New Orleans at a trade show, BYD unveiled a long-distance electric bus that could go a claimed 190 miles on a single charge.
What about the 25-bus Long Beach Transit contract that BYD had apparently landed only to have it snatched away because BYD had not filed the correct paperwork related to the federal funding Long Beach would have used for the purchase?
BYD re-bid for the contract. “Long Beach is in the final stage of evaluating bids,” said BYD’s new VP of sales, Macy Neshati, whom I spoke with at the event. “We’d really love to see that come together.”
The demo bus we took to City Club was a 60-ft articulated pure electric vehicle. An articulated bus is two 30-foot buses connected by an accordion-like section. According to BYD, the articulated bus holds 120 passengers and can go 170 miles on a single charge. “Proudly designed and built in the United States of America,” said the promotional material.
Neshati said the 60-ft. articulate buses will cost around $1.2 million each. A 40-ft. bus costs around $800,000, he said.
Electric buses have been around for quite some time, but they have been slow to catch on. Why, I asked Neshati? Bus companies are risk-averse, he said. They worry that the technology is “new” and that the companies will go out of business. That’s why government subsidies are needed.
“We try to explain to them that there is no risk” working with BYD, he said. “We are not a startup. We have the resources and the capital.”
Nonetheless, government funding is still the secret sauce to get contracts, and BYD has several funding applications in progress with the California Energy Commission, said Neshati.
Is Berkshire Hathaway the secret sauce for BYD’s retail distribution?
So, BYD’s bus business seems to be going okay. What about electric passenger cars? That is where BYD got off to a rocky start here in the U.S.
When BYD opened its North American headquarters here in Los Angeles in late 2011, it planned to build a dealership network and sell the e6 pure electric crossover.
But the vehicle was not ready for prime time in the U.S. market. Its fit and finish were not up to U.S. consumer standards, among other issues. So BYD put those plans on hold to concentrate on selling its electric buses here in the U.S. To that end, it opened a manufacturing plant in Lancaster, Calif. in 2013.
So, I asked both Neshati and Matthew Jurjevich, market research analyst with BYD America Corp., what’s up with retail sales of PEVs here in the U.S.? They gave me slightly different answers but both confirmed that BYD still plans to sell passenger EVs here.
“We are keenly interested in being able to bring an all-electric car (to the U.S.) market, with a mix of plug-in hybrid electric” cars as well, said Neshati.
Jurjevich wouldn’t speculate on what kind of vehicle would get here first, though he did point out that BYD’s philosophy has always been to bring affordable cars to market. But he did say retail sales are “100 percent on our road map.”
BYD should have a number of models to choose from in coming years. Its first electric vehicle, the pure-electric e6, sold poorly. It seems to have been relegated to taxi fleet status for now. But it is working on an improved BEV, it seems.
Meanwhile, its new plug-in hybrid electric (PHEV) models have proven popular in China. Final figures aren’t yet available, but 2014 sales of the Qin PHEV sedan were expected to be around 15,000 units, said BYD. According to LMC Automotive, BYD sold 437,725 light vehicles in 2014, down 14 percent compared to 2013.
It expects its Tang PHEV SUV, launched in January, to sell very well, and more PHEV SUV models will follow, BYD has said.
Those models might appeal to U.S. drivers. But distribution is the 800-pound gorilla. BYD started to set up a dealership network here in the U.S. in 2012 but shelved that plan. Now, however, the U.S. media is full of speculation that Berkshire Hathaway Automotive, Warren Buffett’s recently-acquired dealership group, will distribute BYD vehicles in the U.S. Buffett bought 9.9 percent of BYD’s Hong Kong-listed company in 2008.
I asked both BYD execs about using Buffett’s dealerships to sell BYD cars. “That is 100 percent speculation,” said Jurjevich. As for Neshati, he said: “At this point it is all speculation.”
I don’t see BYD cars being sold at Berkshire Hathaway dealerships here in the U.S. within the next 2-3 years. I don’t think they are ready for the U. S. market, frankly. But I may be wrong. I’m going to check them out at the Shanghai Auto Show in April.
Western media was all a flutter over the latest new energy vehicle production numbers out of China. Okay, production of NEVs did increase immensely. But let’s put those numbers in perspective. For one, they are production numbers, not sales. Secondly, they represent less than one percent of all vehicle sales in China.
Still, judging from the models on display at the Guangzhou Auto Show automakers have gotten the message that they need to offer new energy vehicle choices to Chinese consumers. There were plenty of NEVs there. As in the past, of course, they could be just for show, not for volume production.
First the numbers. According to the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers (CAAM), in November China produced 3,540 passenger battery-electric vehicles (EVs), 1,640 commercial EVs, 2,469 passenger plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs), and 1,977 commercial PHEVs. That’s a total of 9.626 plug-in electric vehicles in November. Yes, a ten-fold increase over the same month in 2013 but still a tiny drop in a large sea.
Sales figures hadn’t been released at the time of writing, but let’s consider who is buying PEVs in general. The Chinese media, which is somewhat more realistic about the market than many foreign media outlets, quoted the assistant general manager of the BAIC New Energy Co. as saying only about 65 percent of the PEVs it sold were to private consumers. The rest were government buyers or BAIC employees. The APEC meeting in Beijing helped boost PEV sales, said the BAIC manager.
I think that customer base is probably similar for many PEVs, that is, mostly governments and related individuals. However, some cities in China are offering special considerations to PEV buyers such as no registration fee. A CAAM official was quoted as saying consumer interest in PEVs might be a bit higher in cities that offer those perks i.e. a higher percentage of buyers may be consumers.
Shanghai, for example, offers free registration to PEV owners. That’s quite a perk when a license plate can cost nearly 100,000 RMB. (Shanghai auctions off a limited number of plates each month). BYD”s Qin PHEV seems to be the biggest beneficiary of the preferential policy. BYD sold 1,700 units in November and 1,212 of those were sold in Shanghai.
That has caused some annoyance among non-PEV owners in Shanghai, however. It seems that the Qin PHEVs, which have a 70 kilometer all-electric range, are running on regular old gasoline 95 percent of the time. If that is the case, grumpy non-Qin owners have asked, why should Qin owners get free plates?
The BYD model has nonetheless remained the darling of some central government advisors and officials. Ouyang Minggao, head of the automotive engineering department at Tsinghua University, at a conference on December 11 praised PHEV technology and singled out the Qin as a fine example. A few months ago Wan Gang, minister of science and technology, also praised the Qin.
Ouyang noted that some have complained that PHEV owners are mostly using gasoline to power their vehicles. But he put the fault squarely on the lack of charging stations rather than the technology.
To be sure, that is one problem. But not one that will be solved any time soon.
A plethora of PEVs
There were plenty of plug-in electric vehicles, both EVs and PHEVs, at the Guangzhou Auto Show, held in that south China city in late November. Thanks to WAYS Consulting in Guangzhou for the information regarding the various electrified models at the show.
There were some 29 EVs on display there including models by domestic, foreign, and joint venture companies. Their range varied from a low of 100 km (62 miles) for an EV produced by Leahead (领志) to a high of 310 km by a model produced by MAXUS (大通). Leahead is a sub-brand produced by the Guangzhou Toyota JV. MAXUS is a sub-brand of SAIC that produces vans. So you can see that all variety of producers have their EV to show off.
In the PHEV segment there were some 16 models on display. Interestingly, all but six were produced by foreign brands. Of those six, three were the BYD Qin, Tang, and Shang, variations on a theme. So let’s say all but four were foreign brands.
I think that is because a PHEV is much harder to produce than a pure EV. As an executive at a foreign supplier pointed out to me, most Chinese automakers can’t produce a PHEV on their own.
Regular old hybrids are gaining some traction in China, it seems. Automakers will need to have some hybrids in their mix to meet the stiff 5l/100 km standard by 2020. Still, local automakers have been slow to launch HEV models. There were only 12 on display in Guangzhou. Of those, five carried a Lexus badge.
So, what is my conclusion regarding the current state of China’s PEV market? It is oddly similar to the U.S. market. Still very little demand from consumers but automakers are being pushed to produce PEVs by regulations and stiffening fuel economy standards.
As in the U.S., demand will grow very slowly but at some point will speed up. As in the U.S., the timing of that depends on battery technology (which means price) and on charging infrastructure. China’s central government may be able to prod and incentivize local governments to install charging. But they won’t be able to speed up technology so consumers will remain reluctant to buy PEVs for some time to come.
Last year eight states in the U.S. signed a Memorandum of Understanding calling for cooperation among the states, and alliances with the private sector to speed up deployment of plug-in electric and fuel cell vehicles in their states. The goal is 3.3 million zero-emission vehicles, or ZEVs, on the road by 2025.
The plan works with carrots rather than sticks. There are not quotas, rather the state governments are buying PEVs themselves, offering rebates to buyers, and building charging infrastructure. The Beijing Municipal government is studying that cooperative model, especially California’s measures to promote ZEVs, Yunshi Wang, China Center director at the University of Davis Institute of Transportation Studies told me recently.
“They want be China’s California,” says Wang.
The Beijing Municipal government is already working to expand the use of new energy vehicles in its borders. New Energy Vehicles refers to plug-in electric vehicles and fuel cell vehicles. But things aren’t moving quickly enough, apparently. The Beijing government wants to make raise the profile of its NEV plan by linking with California, says Wang.
California accounts for more around 40 percent of all plug-in electric vehicles purchased in the United States. That is partly because its citizens tend to be more “green” than those in many other states. But those tendencies are magnified by state policies supporting ZEV ownership and requiring automakers who sell cars in the state to produce and sell ZEVs here.
Those policies often come out of the California Air Resources Board, usually referred to as CARB. It is a high-level state government body that works on improving California’s air quality. The Institute for Transportation Studies at UC Davis works closely with CARB. In China, a similar role is played by the China Automotive Technical Research Center, or CATARC, located in Tianjin, a coastal city near Beijing.
“CATARC provides intellectual support to the National Development and Reform Commission and the Ministry of Information Industry Technology,” says Wang. The UC Davis Institute for Transportation Studies China Center at UC Davis works closely with CATARC. Indeed, in September the ITS and CATARC signed an agreement to help speed the commercialization of PEVs and fuel-cell vehicles.
CATARC also suggests to the central government some new ideas for developing the new energy vehicle segment, he says.
For example, the Tesla-inspired idea of allowing non-automotive companies to produce new energy vehicles originated at CATARC. (Any company in China wanting to produce vehicles of any kind requires a permit from the National Development and Reform Commission.) “Existing automakers, especially plug-in vehicle makers, are strongly opposed,” says Wang.
CATARC is also promoting allowing wider usage of low-speed electric vehicles, especially in provinces such as Shandong and Jiangsu, where there are companies that produce LSEVs (especially Shandong, where it is hard to throw a rock without hitting an LSEV maker).
As for the city of Beijing working more closely with California, CATARC is talking with the city’s Science and Technology Commission about it and the Commission is “very positive” about the idea, says Wang.
Beijing vs. California: Okay, they aren’t exactly alike
To be sure, Beijing is unlike California in many ways. The government structure is very different, naturally. And Beijing’s population is not known for being exceptionally green in their thinking (though there are of course greenies in Beijing).
Also, as an attendee at a lunch presentation I gave last month in Hong Kong for Macquarie on China’s NEV sector pointed out, Beijing’s climate is very different from California’s, or at least from Southern and Northern California, where EV ownership is concentrated.
Beijing is much hotter in the summer – making car air conditioning use a necessity if one has it – and winters are much colder ergo heaters are needed. That drains a PEV battery
But like California, Beijing has set NEV goals. It aims to have 200,000 NEVs on its streets by 2017. Of that, 50,000 will be public vehicles, 150,000 privately-owned. Among the public NEVs will be some 10,000 taxis. Half of mail and sanitation trucks will be NEVs. (This is more aggressive than the central government call for 30 percent.)
Beijing has allocated license plates that will go to NEV owners free of charge, and that bypass the municipality’s registration lottery. Beijing also has its own subsidies on top of the central government subsidies.
So Beijing already has some policies that are similar to California’s, says Wang. But the Chinese city is looking at how California’s policies have been implemented and considering some tweaks to its own, as well as additional perks such as high-occupancy lane stickers to NEV owners and the like.
China’s capital city favors one technology over another – Beijing’s policies are more focused on battery-electric vehicles, says Wang, and perhaps fuel-cell vehicles in the future.
As for plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, the municipal government worries that owners of those vehicles are mostly driving on liquid fuel rather than using the battery capacity, says Wang. The lack of a widespread charging infrastructure is seen as the culprit. (This is also a concern of other city governments such as Shanghai. It nonetheless subsidizes PHEVs at near the same rate as BEVs.)
The ITS at UC Davis also aims to work with other cities in China on new energy vehicle policies, says Wang. For example, he wants to work with the Shanghai International Auto City (see my November 5, 2013 on SIAC’s EV efforts) to see how much time the PHEVs there run on pure electricity, who is driving and where, and what their expectations are. That will help the government know where to place charging stations, he says.
Adds Wang: “You can’t blame PHEV drivers (for not running on pure electricity). If there is an appropriate charging infrastructure, there will be no problem. You need to provide infrastructure so you don’t force drivers to use the gasoline engine.”
Wang Chuanfu, chairman of BYD Co. should be a happy man. Wang complained in 2010 that the central government was not offering enough consumer incentives for purchasing electric vehicles. Now, Beijing has extended rebates for battery electric and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles beyond 2015 and exempted buyers from paying a purchase tax, among other measures.
But it gets better, much better. BYD’s “dual mode” plug-in hybrid electric vehicle technology recently received an endorsement from Wan Gang, China’s Minister of Science and Technology.
Speaking at a recent conference in Tianjin, Wan used the technology to rebut those who say that range anxiety – the fear of running out of “fuel” – will stop Chinese from buying EVs. Range anxiety won’t be a big problem, said Wan, because of plug-in hybrid technology.
He illustrated his point with a story: I have a friend who owns a BYD F3 Dual Model electric vehicle, said Wan. He said that in half a year he has hasn’t even used one tank of gas because he recharges at home. “Why do you need to use gas sometimes?” Wan asked his friend. “If I need to go to Tianjin,” his friend explained, “when I run out of electricity I use gas.”
Wow! Could BYD have created a better commercial for its technology? No, because BYD’s commercials are pretty lame. But I digress. Why pay for advertising when the nation’s top science guy gives your company’s EV technology a free plug?
Wang Chuanfu didn’t miss a chance to tout BYD’s PHEV technology and why should he? At the same conference he mentioned that sales of BYD’s current generation Dual Mode vehicle, known as the Qin, sold close to 8,000 units in the first half of 2014 (the F3 is the older generation Dual Mode model.).
Next year, he said, monthly sales of the Qin could reach 3,000 units. These buyers were consumers, not government or corporate fleets, said Wang. And, he added, later this year BYD will launch a Dual Mode SUV model.
So will 2014 be the “First Year” of electric vehicle commercialization in China, as some at the conference apparently predicted (thanks to AutoHaus China for its story on the conference, which provided many of the Wang details.)?
To be sure, plug-in electric vehicle sales in China this year will be much larger than last year. Perhaps by the 300 percent some are predicting. They will still, however, represent a tiny percentage of total sales. And despite Wan Gang’s big talk on China issuing standard related to batteries and charging, there is still has a long way to go in that area.
As for Wang and Wan’s apparent belief that PHEVs have the magic technology to convince Chinese consumers to buy an electric vehicle, I prefer to wait until BYD’s Qin has been on the road a bit longer to crown it the range anxiety savior. Problems may arise with the technology. More PHEV models will also need to come on market so consumers will become more familiar with the technology and have more choice. And those will need to be at the right price point.
Also, consider the U.S. market’s cautionary tale. Sales of PHEVs rose 44.3 percent in the first eight months of 2014 to 40.748 units. But in August they fell 7.4 percent compared to the same month in 2013 to 5,935 units, according to Edmunds.com.
PEV sales in the first eight months accounted for less than 1 percent of the overall market of 11.2 million vehicles, pointed out Edmund’s analyst Jessica Caldwell.
“Electric vehicle sales were basically a rounding error in terms of the overall market,” said Caldwell.
The market share of all-electric drive vehicles in the first eight months – including BEVs and PHEVs – fell by 4.8 percent compared to 2013.
Remember, a few years ago analysts were predicting that PEVs, including PHEVs and BEVs, would at least have market share of single digits.
So in China is the glass half empty of half full? For Wang Chuanfu and Wan Gang it appears to be half full. But how quickly it moves past the half-way mark – if it does — remains to be seen.
The law of unintended consequences is at work in China’s somewhat haphazard formation of electric vehicle policy. I call it haphazard because let’s face it, the plan has some holes in it and has progressed by fits and starts and occasional backward moves.
Talking recently with a friend whose company works with bus companies in China on EV technology, I heard about an unintended consequence of the section of the EV subsidy policy that defines the all-electric distance needed to qualify for some government largesse.
If you are from California you are very familiar with the “compliance” car. Automakers produce and sell in small volumes various types of zero-emission vehicles to meet the state’s strict emission control standards. In California, the compliance cars are produced to avoid fines. My friend told me that local governments in China are producing “compliance” EV buses to get subsidies!
Here is how it works. In order to qualify for the central government’s subsidy, which is up to RMB 250,000 for PHEV buses, a vehicle must be able to travel at least 30 kilometers on pure electricity. That distance, and the necessary battery size, was chosen, it seems, because it is not too expensive. Not cheap, but at a cost the central government figured was bearable. Another large expense associated with a fleet of plug-in electric vehicles is, however, a network of charging stations.
Some local governments have found an easier and cheaper way to qualify for the subsidy, a method that does not involve any pure electric propulsion or the need for a network of charge posts. Here is how it works: The local governments install a battery and a super capacitor on their diesel-powered buses. A super capacitor can store and discharge energy very quickly. They are often used on hybrid buses for storing energy created by regenerative braking.
On these compliance buses, the battery pack is built to the minimum spec to go 30 km on a charge. There is a connector socket on the side, or at least what appears to be a connector socket. That is never used, however. The bus is driven like a regular hybrid bus, never on pure electric power. “The main thing the battery does is allow the engine to be downsized,” my friend said. That cuts costs.
The battery is recharged while the bus is in operation, but that occurs using the diesel fuel. The battery can, as my friend put it, last forever. And while the fuel economy does improve on the hybrid bus, it is still running mainly on diesel.
Why did the government make the all-electric bar so low – 30 kilometers – that it could be met by in effect cheating? Because the policy was made using the crossing the river method. The battery is the major cost in an electric vehicle. The 30 kilometer battery was a compromise. It wasn’t that costly and still replaced liquid fuel use (when used properly). Of course, adding the super capacitor was an additional cost. But the super capacitor was small enough that the additional cost wasn’t that great, my friend figures.
Charging stations also hit by LOUC (Law of Unintended Consequences)
Another big area of cost savings under this scheme is the elimination of the need for a charging network. Charging stations for buses have to be very powerful, roughly four times the power of Level 2 charging in the U.S., my friend said. They are expensive. By producing the “compliance” buses the local governments eliminate the need for that expense, at least for now.
My friend is optimistic, however. He figures that the central government will eventually see that its current policy is ineffectual and will make the requirements for pure electric range much stiffer (that will be the next stone…).
“The thinking in the bus companies,” he figures, “is that someday, if the government changes its regulation and ups the range requirement, at some point it is going to be cost effective to use the battery. Otherwise they are hauling around 4,000 pounds of dead weight.”
That is charitable. The local governments have saved themselves money by fudging their PHEV buses and also by not building out a charging network. If they need to produce buses that have a longer pure electric range, they will cross that bridge when they come to it. Or throw down that stone.
Of course, the news lately is that the central government will throw 100 billion RMB towards funding a charging infrastructure. That may encourage some of the local governments to build out charging networks since they can nab some government funds to do that. Then they can continue to use their compliance E buses as hybrid buses and save costs on recharging.
According to the Ministry of Information Industry Technology, in June 673 commercial plug-in hybrid vehicles were produced in China, a more than four-fold increase compared to the same month in 2013. Production of commercial battery electric vehicles in June rose 85 percent to 362 units. How many of those were true PHEVs, however, and how many were in fact compliance PHEVs?
Meanwhile, true hybrid production plummets….
The latest EV policy does not subsidize regular hybrid vehicles. A consequence, perhaps unintended, perhaps not, of this omission, is that production of actual hybrid commercial vehicles has virtually ceased. And while foreign and Chinese company executives told me last year that they expected hybrid subsidies to eventually be announced, that has not occurred.
The slowdown in hybrid bus production has had a huge impact on the China sales of Maxwell Technologies, Inc. The San Diego-based company produces super capacitors, which is another name for an ultra-capacitor. Its China sales of super capacitors are down 50 percent to $25 million in the first half of 2014 compared to the same period in 2013, Mike Sund, vice president of communications and investor relations at Maxwell, told me.
Now wait a minute, you say, shouldn’t Maxwell’s sales go up if what Frank is saying is true? My best guess is that there is no need for a super capacitor of the quality that Maxwell produces to make a hybrid bus appear to be a PHEV. Also, the number of compliance buses being produced is no doubt small.
China is down on regular hybrid buses because Toyota owns most of the intellectual property associated with hybrids and China doesn’t figure it can make any breakthroughs in that area. Plus Chinese companies might end up paying to use Toyota-owned technology. So why subsidize them?
Another law of unintended consequences result. Regular hybrids do improve fuel economy and thus could be a stepping stone to China’s goal of reducing dependence on imported fuel. Indeed, some Chinese officials even called hybrids an interim step to full-electric vehicles. That step wasn’t big enough to warrant government support, apparently.
Let’s see if the latest subsidy bone the government is throwing the PEV sector has positive results i.e. more charging networks. And if that actually increases the number of PEVs on the road, both commercial and private.
Ever wonder where the 100+ electric vehicles that Coda delivered ended up? Well, I found five of them in a warehouse in Davis, California. Efficient Drivetrains Inc., a company with plug-in hybrid electric vehicle and continuously variable transmission technology bought five of the Coda all-electric sedans for a China-related project. Full disclosure: I do some business development work for EDI.
EDI is doing some other interesting China-related stuff as I discovered when I visited a few weeks ago. It seems all manner of Chinese companies and even research institutes are looking to benefit from the government’s electric vehicle policy. As I discuss in a blog I’ll post after this one, however, some elements of that policy are not very well-thought out.
But I digress. EDI’s warehouse is filled with vehicles in various stages of having some form of electric drivetrain or CVT installed. Imagine my surprise to see some familiar faces on the lifts! EDI has been asked by the Dongguan Research Institute to produce some pure electric vehicles that also have CVTs. This research institute, contained within one of Dongguan’s many universities, is surely owned by the local government.
EDI procured the five Coda’s for this project. Why? “They are cheap,” said Andy Frank, EDI founder and chief technical officer. Frank explained that the Institute wants an EV that is inexpensive but also shows good performance (doesn’t everyone?). It “wants to design something different than the conventional EV manufacturer,” said Frank. “They have to show some uniqueness.”
Pure electric vehicles aren’t the ideal application for CVTs, admitted the engineers at EDI. A CVT allows a car to change gears without steps, and electric vehicles do that anyway, I believe…. But the Research Institute is the customer, so EDI will install a CVT in the Coda sedans’ pure electric drive, which will add cost. EDI has a cost-cutting strategy, however: Source parts from China.
Coda sourced most of the components for original EVs from multinational suppliers. Think UQM motors and Borg Warner transmissions. EDI is replacing those high-cost components with less-expensive components sourced in China. EDI will then add its secret sauce — software and a management system that will make all the parts work together in a superior way.
The replacement CVT is from Hunan Jianglu Rongda.Vehicle Transmission Co. On the company’s website is a Chinese saying that, according to Rongda’s English translation says: “Ocean holds precipitation; acceptance makes greatness.” A better translation might be “The ocean accepts a hundred rivers, and that makes it great.” It is a saying that urges tolerance for diversity because diversity produces greatness. I guess that is meant to promote acceptance for a CVT. And it is a play on the characters in Rongda’s name.
Rongda is China’s only volume CVT manufacturer. Since its CVT can be bought off the shelf, EDI is using one in the prototype. How good are the Rongda CVTs? “We don’t really know; we have to build one and test,” said Frank. “In order to get real economics (in fuel economy) we (will) have to design a special CVT for this application,” he added. If the vehicle goes into volume production, EDI will design a CVT specifically for the vehicle, either on its own or with Rongda, said Frank.
The motor will come from Beijing-based Jing-Jin Electric. The company, founded by a General Motors China alum, supplied motors to the ill-fated Fisker Karma. It produces motors of all sizes for electric vehicles, said Frank. And its motors may show up in the Fisker-based car that Wanxiang produces.
Another interesting project in the EDI garage was a Ford F550 truck that is a PHEV with exportable power being produced for Pacific Gas & Electric. In a blog last year, I talked about how exportable power is what PG&E, one of the largest utilities in the U.S., really wants in its PHEV trucks. It can use that power, said Dave Meisel, director of transportation for PG&E, to light up a neighborhood while it does repairs, or during emergencies such as hurricanes when power has been lost.
I talked with Meisel recently about the PHEV that EDI is producing for PG&E. It has exportable power, it seems, and a lot of it. PG&E will test it soon. Why has EDI apparently been able to achieve levels of exportable power that others haven’t, I asked Meisel? “It is technology related,” he said. “EDI’s software and onboard management system has done a really good job.” I guess we will know if that proves true in a few weeks as PG&E is planning to test the EDI truck then.
China could certainly benefit from some exportable power. Although the brown-outs that were common when I lived in China in 1984, and even when I was there in the early 1990’s, they aren’t so common now. The grid in China is strained, however. Imagine if a fleet of trucks could serve as power plant in a pinch.
So that’s what I saw during my EDI visit. I’m still laughing at the Coda sedans. Never thought I would run into them in such a place. And they’re going home! The body came from China, after all, and now the components will, too. Is the fact that such disparate entities – such as a research institute — are looking into producing electric vehicles good news for China? Or is it a waste of resources? Will it produce innovation that doesn’t emerge from the big automakers? That is what China is hoping. The government thinks that by giving non-automotive entities licenses to produce EVs, a Chinese Tesla could emerge. That seems a stretch. But there may be a Chinese Elon Musk out there.