7. Rob Wills on the future of hybrid and electric cars

In my last blog Rob Wills, the chair of Formula Hybrid’s electrical rules committee, discussed his extensive background in the Tour de Sol and Formula Hybrid. Wills looks forward to the development of the ultimate hybrid vehicle and declared his hopes of seeing more emphasis placed on the performance characteristics of the cars competing in Formula Hybrid. This week Wills looks ahead to where Formula Hybrid and hybrid and electrical vehicles as a whole may be heading.

“What are the goals we’re trying to achieve with Formula Hybrid?” Wills asks. “I think the first thing is that the ultimate hybrid hasn’t been built, either in Formula Hybrid or in commercial vehicles.

“The complexity of different approaches is very interesting. Look at the various approaches that are out there. The lengths that they go to is pretty astounding with the Prius, for example, to be able to run effectively all the way from series through parallel using a complex planetary gear system and motor generators. Apparently Toyota needed to do that to match the engine performance over all the operating conditions of the vehicle. Then you’ve got GM going with apparently a much simpler design in the Volt.

“In Formula Hybrid we have everything from straight parallel to straight series. There are different approaches, from gasoline on the rear to electric on the front and variable speed drives. So it’s all very interesting. I’d say there’s probably more analytical work that could be done to say what’s the ultimate Formula Hybrid car.”

Wills points out that the method of scoring determines where Formula Hybrid teams concentrate their efforts. “It’s entirely dependent on our scoring,” he says. “That’s something I learned in the Tour de Sol days. The teams designed their cars to meet the rules. In Formula Hybrid we’ve got an acceleration event, we’ve got braking, we’ve got autocross and we’ve got the reliability or endurance event. Endurance rewards miles per gallon or efficiency and the others reward performance, but the bulk of the scoring is on the autocross and endurance event.

“I would say that acceleration and autocross are pretty easy to analyze. Acceleration rewards best power-to-weight and best traction, while autocross rewards those things plus the ability to go around corners and to brake well. But then the scoring in the endurance event is making sure your car is reliable and efficient in all those areas.”

Wills says improvements in efficiency don’t necessarily translate directly to similar increases in performance.

“There’s probably not a whole lot of difference between a 90 percent efficient electric motor and a 95 percent efficient motor in terms of overall performance in the endurance event,” he observes. “You often hear the claim of the motor guy who’s come up with a 98 percent efficient motor and they say they’re going to double the range of the car. They’ve reduced the losses in the motor by half, so they believe they’re going to double the range of the car. But all they’re doing is improving motor efficiency from 92 to 96 percent. That’s a common fallacy.”

Quicker recharging will be essential to the success of hybrid or electric cars and a great deal of research and development is going into making batteries that can be recharged much more rapidly. Meanwhile, lightweight lithium batteries have become much more popular in recent years and Formula Hybrid has followed that trend.

“The thing we saw over the last two years is there’s been a massive jumping on the bandwagon for lithium batteries,” Wills remarked. “Before that probably half the cars were lead acid with maybe a few NiCads, but I would say we got to maybe seventy percent lithium last year. There are still some ultracapacitors, but fewer. So there’s still a huge amount of room for fundamental technical innovation.”

Wills is convinced that in the end pure electric power will prevail. “I think a very interesting question is what will win ultimately,” he said. “Will it be hybrid or will it be fuel cell or electric? I think the answer is it will be battery. It will take more evolution in battery technology but with nanotechnology coming along I think it’s just a matter of time before someone improves substantially on Mr. Edison’s original battery.

“An interesting challenge for Formula Hybrid is that we need to be converting our Hybrid-in-progress pedigree to allow pure electrics, starting next year. How that impacts the whole Formula Hybrid event is going to be pretty huge. I think the question for electric transportation in general is where is the market heading. Is it the Nissan Leaf? Is it the Volt? Is it Toyota’s efforts? I believe Subaru is heading down the pure electric path as well. So it’s going to be very interesting to watch.

“It’s all about batteries,” Wills adds. “If they can make batteries in large enough volume and inexpensively enough and with enough cycle life and power-to-weight, then batteries will win. Simplicity wins.”

Wills points out that if the electric car becomes as successful as he believes it will, it will require the auto manufacturers to develop a whole new business model.

“One of the things I like to ask people about electric vehicles is, ‘what’s the typical life of the new car you just bought?’” Wills asks. “How many hours do you expect to put on your new car before you retire it and get a new one? One hundred thousand miles divided by a 30 mph average means the car is good for 3,000 hours of operation and the life of a gasoline engine is probably twice that. Two hundred thousand miles is 6,000 hours and the life of an electric motor is typically rated at about 100,000 hours.

“So the problems we’ll have with electric vehicles are the life of wheel bearings and brakes. Nor will there be an exhaust system to change, so it could result in a change in the car companies’ business model. If you have a car that’s good for 100,000 hours instead of 3,000 hours that’s thirty times longer. So a car could be good for sixty years of driving!

“But you’ve got a serious problem if you could make a car that is that reliable. The market will saturate and you won’t be selling any vehicles. So the ability to change the bodies and re-use the chassis could become an interesting element. You could have a relatively inexpensive plastic body that would change the look of the car. Like I say, it would require a whole new business model.”

As we all know, more and more hybrid and electric cars are beginning to enter that market. There’s Toyota’s Prius, Nissan’s Leaf and Chevrolet’s Volt and at last month’s Geneva Motor Show each of Lexus, Porsche, Land-Rover, Mercedes-Benz and BMW displayed electric or hybrid cars. Even Rolls-Royce rolled out a hybrid concept car built on a huge Phantom chassis.

“That brings up some really interesting questions,” Wills observed. “I think the biggest one is how strong does a hybrid have to be in order to be effective and what degree of hybridness does it have? The other question is, if you look at the Chevy Volt it’s a hybrid essentially, but not entirely. I believe it has a parallel path engine to the wheels.

“The interesting thing that’s going on in the automotive world is that many hybrids essentially have just a hefty starter motor with only a couple of kilowatts, maybe five horsepower, just to give a little bit of extra push. It doesn’t need a lot of battery and you’ve got to have all that stuff onboard anyway to be able to crank the engine.”

Meanwhile, Formula Hybrid has established itself as an ideal recruiting ground for the auto industry to find skilled and motivated electrical and hybrid engineers.

“If you look at the alumni from Tour de Sol and Formula Hybrid you’ll find a lot of them are working in the car companies and the hybrid vehicle business. A lot of early Sol people have ended up working on hybrid vehicles and the same thing is happening with Formula Hybrid. That’s all good. It’s exactly what we wanted to see from the competition.”

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1 Response to “7. Rob Wills on the future of hybrid and electric cars”


  1. 1 Friedrich Lobenstock May 5, 2011 at 4:32 pm

    I hope Formula Hybrid is going to accept cars from the European Formula Student Electric series.


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