By Christopher A. Sawyer
Jon Bereisa is a GM retiree, but not just any GM retiree. He was the Systems Architect responsible for the extended range electric vehicle we now call the Chevy Volt. Before that, he was the Chief Engineer, Propulsion Systems on the EV1 electric vehicle and S10 electric pickup. He also spent time as Director Advanced Engineering and Technology Strategy Powertrain for the development of GM’s hydrogen fuel cell vehicle technology, helped develop inverter power switch technology and the GM EV1’s inductive charging system, and a whole lot more. To say that he knows a bit about hybrids, EVs and vehicle electrification is, at the very least, a massive understatement.
The Prius Conundrum
According to Bereisa, Toyota’s former chairman, Hiroshi Okuda, gave the hybrid team a mandate to either double economy or halve the energy use of an existing model, but failed. Rather than drop the concept, the team was reshuffled, and started again. Because GM and Toyota were collaborating at the time, says Bereisa, “They saw what we were doing with the two-mode hybrid for the busses with Allison, and ditched their original CVT transmission in favor of a rather conventional automatic transmission with two motors in it. Then they did the car from the ground up as a holistic solution, which allowed them to optimize the vehicle for performance, cost, customer value, etc.” Despite many in the industry pooh-poohing the Prius, it went on to became the poster child for hybrid vehicles. Toyota sells more than 120,000 in the U.S. annually.
Moving hybridization to the rest of the lineup, and Lexus, hasn’t worked out so well. Sales for these vehicles average anywhere from 20-150 per month, well below the Prius level. The story is the same at other auto companies that have chosen to electrify conventional models. “The customer doesn’t see the value proposition,” says Bereisa. Plus you can hybridize the wrong car, and end up with compromises in cost, performance, etc. that make no sense to the consumer.” Says Bereisa, "Hybrids are not profitable at the current sales levels. You are putting money in the trunk of each one sold.”
Data developed during his time at GM showed that consumers willing to spend $35,000 or more on a vehicle are not buying a vehicle based on fuel economy. They are looking for certain functions or features, a brand or a style. He says, “It’s a lifestyle choice, They wear their car. They’d rather spend the difference in purchase price between the non-hybrid and hybrid model on the uplevel audio system, navigation — or larger towing capacity if it’s an SUV.” In other words, they can’t rationalize paying out that money and waiting five or more years to get ity back in fuel saved. “It’s like lending the bank my money for five years and getting only the amount I gave them back. That’s not a savvy investment.”
However, there’s a different problem at the other end of the market. “When you get below $20,0000, people are buying an appliance; it’s transportation and a monthly payment,” Bereisa remarks. This buyer wants the most transportation they can get for the least amount of money. What to do? “Automakers have to get into that $20,000 to $35,000 price range with a hybrid option that costs about $2,000,” he claims. “Above that price, the interest starts falling apart to the point that, at $2,500, you’ve just about gone over the cliff. By $3,000, there’s no discussion. The customer has no interest at all.”
80 for 20
Because buyers are sensitive to both purchase price and operating cost, Bereisa claims the industry is slowly moving to “P2” hybrids, where there is one motor and two clutches tucked away in the front end of a transmission, or a motor external to the engine that uses belt drive and a small battery to do stop-start, recover a little bit of braking energy, etc. The next step is to move to a 48-volt electrical architecture with a much smaller, less intense (and less expensive) battery pack. This not only powers a 5-10 kW motor-generator and enables stop-start on larger engines, it eliminates the need for a front-end accessory drive to power things like the air conditioning compressor, power steering and more. All those items will be driven by separate electric motors, eliminating parasitic drag on the engine, and opening the door to even more electrification. “[Automotive supplier] Continental just showed an electric parking brake with a reservoir in the caliper and a tiny motor that squeezes it to apply the parking brake,” says Bereisa. “You can imagine beefing that up a little to have electro-hydraulically driven calipers that eliminate the hydraulic lines and pump.”
No matter when this happens, the price problem means that automakers are looking for hybrid system that give 80% of the benefit at 20% of the cost. Central to that equation is the battery. “The battery dominates the cost and, in my opinion, it’s a tragic mistake to assume one battery technology fits all,” he says. “Just because lithium ion works great in an electric vehicle doesn’t mean you automatically shove it into a hybrid. After all, it doesn’t matter how small or light or powerful the package is if it is so expensive that the customer doesn’t care!”
Bereisa, who consults for Energy Power Systems, says the nickel-metal hydride will disappear from the hybrid scene, and larger applications —like plug-in hybrids and EVs — will use lithium chemistries, though it will take quite some time to work its cost down. Moving up to a 48-volt system removes lithium for cost reasons. “I’ll admit my bias,” he says, “but I believe there will be new lead acid battery architectures — flooded, recombinant, stored electrolyte or some other clever design — that are engineered to be more robust with the same chemistry and reduce cost.” After all, he states, even in a $2,000 hybrid option, the battery can be 2/3 of the total cost. That means the industry needs nickel metal hydride performance at the price of lead acid, and the package size of lithium ion.
“The only other option,” he claims “ is to do what Toyota has done, and create a colony of unique hybrid vehicles that become their own brand. However, you’re kind of stuck since you can’t make that into a pickup truck or SUV or even a cost-effective tiny compact. You need the bandwidth, and that means getting to the price/benefit equation that gives value the customer can see and afford.”
The Near Future
But what about claims by some current and former auto executives that the future is to create an EV architecture onto which a small internal combustion powertrain can be added as a generator set? It would do away with the Chevy Volt’s expensive power-split (combustion and/or electrical propulsion) hybrid tricks, and replace it with a simpler layout more like a diesel-electric locomotive. This series hybrid seemingly would eliminate range anxiety, and usher in a full-electric future. “Series hybrid have great appeal because they have this electric vehicle-like operating mode, unlike the Prius, Civic, etc.,” says Bereisa, “but they are even more battery (and battery cost) dependent.” Using his 80/20 equation, he thinks there are much more cost effective solutions.
Accordingly, Bereisa predicts that even mild hybrids will have 10 miles of plug-in mileage where you drive on the battery alone. “When you calculate the equivalent mpg or CO2 output, it’s a huge benefit to have two tanks onboard; one full of electrons, the other full of hydrocarbons. And if you can do that cost effectively, you probably don’t need as much range as the Volt.” When he set out the Volt architecture, Bereisa wanted it to satisfy a lot of people in electric mode as this was the car’s attraction. “And that’s exactly what attracts them. But a Volt for everybody? I don’t think so, even with a $5,000-$10,000 price reduction in the Gen 2 car.” However, he claims, if you do the math in terms of MPG and MPG equivalence, once you get to around 10 miles of all-electric range, “you get some fantastic sticker numbers. So I think we will have these mild hybrids, as time evolves, that will add plug-in variants to vehicles,” and allow automakers to meet the 2015 CAFE standards.
Tesla, Leaf and the Battery Bubble
When it comes to Tesla and Elon Musk’s plans to revolutionize electric vehicle, or to the Nissan Leaf, Bereisa’s assessment is blunt: “Once you satisfy the early adopters, they won’t come back for a long time. They certainly won’t come every year.” Leaf sales have not reached Nissan’s stated goals, and have begun to drop, despite the car being a remarkable, and affordable, electric vehicle. Tesla, on the other hand, is at the upper end of the market, and it sells an aluminum sedan with high performance, decent range, and a high price that was named Motor Trend’s Car of the Year. “Tesla is going to have that same issue. They are building to 400/week or 20,000/year, and the first 10,000 sales will, I think, be pretty straightforward,” Bereisa states. “Nevertheless, Elon Musk is going to have to work really hard for the next 5,000, and then there’s going to be a cliff. And if your business plan calls for 20,000/year for three years or 60,000 units, there aren’t 60,000 of these first adopters out there!” Bereisa hopes Musk, once he reaches the 400 car/week production level necessary to satisfy the preconditions in the loan he received from the U.S. government, will negotiate that level down to one more in line with market demand.
When it comes to the government’s role in excess capacity, Bereisa is even more blunt. “Let’s take (battery maker) A123 Systems and all of that “shovel ready” stuff. Embedded in every one of those requirements is that they had to show capability of a certain volume of production, and that production volume correlated to a certain number of jobs. So if you are A123, you wind up building a huge factory even though there is no market. You wind up, in collaboration with Fisker, building a load of battery packs that have to be embedded in those in cars and then sell them. To satisfy the loan, you do that despite the lack of demand, and wind up bankrupt. You overspent and overinvested because you operated with other people’s money.”
Bereisa states that, because U.S. Energy Secretary Chu had been on the board of small battery startups in California when he was at Berkley and Stanford, he believed that all it would take is dictating the volume and timeframe to make the technology viable. However, this also meant battery production was pushed ahead of what the consumer could consume, and what he could afford. “It’s great that the government is handing out all of this money,” says Bereisa, “but the conditions it imposes and the mandates will guarantee failure. Stop doing that, and it will all work out. It truly will.” Unfortunately, Bereisa calculates there are 11 global battery plants with more capacity than the industry will need before 2023. By then, those same plants, if they still exist, will be old and producing old technology.
2040 and Beyond
Bereisa’s future isn’t the stuff of science fiction. In fact, he claims to have built a similar vehicle while he was at GM. In his future vehicle, each wheel will have small but powerful electric wheel motors, and no service brakes. The electric motors will take care of both acceleration and braking. Because the contact path at each wheel is computer controlled — that is, torque can be shifted left-to-right and front-to-back, and the steering changes the angle of each wheel individually as necessary — lane changes are no longer lazy S-curves from one lane to another, but side-steps from lane-to-lane. ABS, traction control and stability control are, as Bereisa puts it, “trivial”. Linear electric motors replace hydraulic shock absorbers, and allow engineers to put energy in as well as take it out to control ride and handling. Fully active suspension will be common.
Further, the internal combustion engine will still reign supreme, but in much smaller swept volumes. “I don’t see combustion engines disappearing,” Bereisa prognosticates, “but I do see them getting very downsized; maybe 1.0 to 1.2 liters.” Electronically controlled valvetrains, electric turbochargers that spool up in 1/4 of a second, electrically driven accessories and systems, and mild hybridization will give unexpected performance and fuel economy.
Key to these technologies is experience and the ability to create programs and software that seamlessly integrate them into the driving experience. “The Chevy Volt has 10 million lines of code,” Bereisa states, letting the mental image of the work that went into the development of that, comparatively simple, car sink in. Tomorrow’s cars will need much, much more code and effort, two things Bereisa feels will give established automakers an edge over their younger competition. That is, if the governments of the world let automakers adapt and adopt new technologies organically. “Speaking as an engineer, the answer is electrification, but it is electrification on the timeline that the science and technology allows, and not what the government mandates.”