Hybrid energy and the future of automotive

3rd October 2017
Joe Bush

There is no denying that the automotive industry is evolving, with disruptive players like Google, Tesla and even Apple entering the market. With a current value of over a trillion dollars worldwide, the automotive manufacturing sector has been a significant driver of economic growth for decades. Taavi Madiberk, CEO of Skeleton Technologies explains.

As competition grows alongside rising environmental awareness, the automotive sector is in flux more than ever before. From Toyota pioneering the Prius hybrid in 1997 - which has gone on to sell 5.7 million units - to the launch of the Tesla Model S, the Nissan Leaf and the BMW i3, car manufacturers are leading the charge towards hybrid and fully electric cars and looking to a new sustainable approach in order to retain competitive advantage.

This, however, is easier said than done. Despite the evolution of automotive technology, the ongoing push towards regulation surrounding sustainability and the need for a new approach to energy efficiency to support customer demand, we are only at the start of the sustainability journey.

The road to sustainability
When Toyota first started developing the Prius, many in the industry didn’t take the manufacturer seriously, believing the technology to be niche and questioning rates of adoption, cost and public readiness.

Nevertheless, fuelled by the rise in air pollution, greenhouse gases and the political momentum behind the reduction of global warming, the Prius grew in popularity. In fact, at the 2011 Frankfurt Automotive Show, US manufacturers came under fire for their ignorance towards such environmental issues. This galvanised the industry and the next Frankfurt Auto Show saw many hybrid concepts and a clear trend towards developing more environmentally friendly cars.

Despite this shift, the market is facing significant challenges. From the early hype and developments from the likes of Toyota and Tesla’s Roadster, the economic crash in 2011 left the sector fighting to survive. With investment drying up and costs still skyrocketing, car manufacturers struggled to develop products that would drive public adoption and encourage the payment of high premiums.

Ultracapacitors and sustainable technology
For many, ultracapacitors are the key enabling technology to delivering energy efficient cars. Ultracapacitors enable various energy saving technologies, including start-stop and kinetic energy recovery systems, not to mention an efficient and cost competitive way to power a 48V architecture in passenger cars.

Conventional batteries store and release energy through chemical reactions, which, by nature, are slow. Compounding this, vehicle batteries suffer from degradation of the chemical process, leading to lowered capacity over time.

In contrast, ultracapacitors store and release energy in an electric field, and are therefore able to respond almost instantly to power needs. Furthermore, ultracapacitors can routinely operate for more than 15 years with very little, if any, need for maintenance, while also retaining capacitance throughout their lifetime, instantly reducing car manufacturers’ costs and waste output.

With the benefits clear, car manufacturers are looking to a hybrid approach to drive innovation. By incorporating battery technology with ultracapacitors, they can reduce sensitivity to extreme temperatures and optimise charging times. Ultracapacitors also work well in parallel with traditional batteries by maintaining a level power load during charge and discharge. This reduces the strain on the batteries, prolonging their lifetime.

In addition, unlike batteries, ultracapacitors can undergo over a million cycles without significant reduction in performance.

While ultracapacitors offer almost instant charging and discharging combined with high power density, they’re not an energy silver bullet. For the best and most reliable energy provision ultracapacitors need to be used in conjunction with battery power in a hybrid solution. With hybrid energy set to revolutionise the automobile market, from electric cars to autonomous vehicles, there are vital benefits that this approach can offer.

An era of electrification  
Fuelled by the move towards ultracapacitor technology, the transportation sector is entering an era of electrification and hybridisation, with new types of buses, trucks, trains, boats, ships and even air ships being put into production.

The advantage electrification brings is the environmental impact of reducing emissions. According to US Department of Energy research, if 84% of existing vehicles were switched over to plug-in hybrids, the result would be a 27% total reduction in emissions of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, and a 31% total reduction in nitrogen oxides - and that’s just passenger cars. The whole transportation sector is responsible for 15-25% of greenhouses gases, which means the electrification of transportation will have a huge impact on the environment.

Regenerative braking, start-stop systems, and other auxiliary systems in transportation will also serve to decrease fuel consumption significantly in the very near future, and within the next 15-25 years we’ll start seeing the end of the internal combustion engine. By June of 2016, total cumulative worldwide sales of plug-in cars and utility vans reached 1.5 million. In March 2014, Norway became the first country with one out of every 100 passenger cars on the roads being plug-in electric.

Driven by this growing demand, it is important that the automotive sector addresses the challenges of this technology if we are to experience a greener future.

The move to silicon valley 
The automotive industry is at a crucial tipping point as car manufacturers move towards Silicon Valley. Tesla, Mercedes, BMW and Volkswagen already have offices in Silicon Valley, and Google, Ford and Renault-Nissan have been vocal about their investment in driverless cars and sustainable energy. Going forward, the race is on for who’ll be the first one to come out with a real challenger to Tesla. Once businesses embrace this technology, combining a hybrid approach with an aspirational vehicle, the gauntlet will be thrown and competition will ignite.

Driving regulation
We are increasingly seeing countries look to legislate in order to reduce carbon emissions, opening the door for sustainable technologies and energy efficient vehicles. For example, the Dutch government is debating a law to prohibit selling combustion engine cars by 2025, and the UK and US have both published Climate Change Acts and regulation that will reduce emissions from vehicles and engines.

As this continues and markets such as China and Japan see the potential in this highly lucrative sector, we expect to see more legislation that will support the reduction of greenhouse gases and the rise in sustainability.

The future of automotive
Critically, many believe that we are on the edge of dramatic change – whether it is more electric vehicles or a massive switch to hybrids to lower emissions. As the number of cars on the road grows, we are reaching a crunch point that will drive hybridisation and electrification.

If the automotive sector is to survive and meet the needs of the ever-changing consumer, it must embrace a hybrid approach to sustainability. As Elon Musk and Tesla continue to drive innovation and lead the market, regulation is put in place to support energy efficient vehicles as we enter an era of electrification. Car manufacturers must utilise the capabilities that ultracapacitor and sustainable technology can offer. Only then will we see wider adoption and the world will be able to nurture its resources and not just consume them.

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