The Electric Vehicle Market Accelerates with Innovation

The electric vehicle (EV) market appears to be signaling that it’s ready to start merging into the mainstream. In 2012, EV sales represented a 73 percent improvement over 2011, and EV sales in the first four months of 2013 were 20 percent higher than in the same period last year, according to Green Car Reports.

Still, even with this jump in sales, EVs comprised just under 4 percent of all the cars sold in the U.S. in the first four months of 2013 (up from just over 3 percent in 2012). The vehicles are still hindered by the “sticker shock” they produce in would-be consumers—that is, they carry off-putting price tags—and by the fact that the vehicles which rely on grid charging for power are able to drive much shorter ranges than carbon-emitting internal combustion engines can.

What would removing these obstacles mean for the EV market? A Los Angeles Times article from July reports that EV-advocacy group Electrification Coalition, in partnership with PricewaterhouseCoopers, calculated the predicted future costs of owning gas-powered versus battery-electric vehicles, and found that the two would be cost-competitive by 2017.

Given this indication—and others—that the price obstacle might be a temporary one, a host of researchers and manufacturers are chipping away at the vehicles’ usability limitations.

A recent report compiled by the American Council on Renewable Energy (ACORE) revealed several of the innovations bubbling within the EV market that may very soon be assuaging automotive consumers’ EV-concerns:

  • The Joint Center for Energy Storage Research—a collaboration between the U.S. Department of Energy and its national labs together with private and public universities and several major corporations—has set a five-year goal of developing battery and charging technologies for EVs that provide five times the energy storage at one-fifth the cost of today’s best storage systems, write Andrew Jack and Simon Amies of law firm Covington and Burling LLP.
  • Jack and Amies add that some EV innovations to watch are happening in motorsports. In 2013, the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile will launch the 2014 FIA Formula E Championship, which will feature cars powered exclusively by electric energy.
  • The attention of motorsports, the attorneys write, “will inevitably be translated to improve the range and lower the costs of commercial and consumer EVs.” A prime example is the wireless charging technology developed by Qualcomm Halo, they say. Wireless charging allows drivers to park their vehicles in spaces outfitted with base charging units, and leave their cars to charge without the need for plugs or cables.
  • Qualcomm says that it expects to eventually develop this into “dynamic charging” technology that would allow EVs to charge while on special lanes of highways and roads—thereby eliminating “range anxiety” and allowing for the use of more compact, less expensive battery systems.
  • Another technology on the horizon in the EV market, says the ACORE report, is that of fuel cell vehicles, or electric vehicles that generate power from hydrogen stored in the car and oxygen from the air. Approximately 11 million metric tons of hydrogen is produced in the U.S. each year, which would be sufficient to power 20 to 30 million cars, writes Chris White of the California Fuel Cell Partnership. There are hundreds of hydrogen-powered cars on the road—most of them in California—but powering stations are scarce. The California Energy Commission and its Alternative Renewable Fuel and Vehicle Technology Program provides funding for a range of alternative fuels in the state—including hydrogen—and offered co-funding for 11 of the hydrogen stations in development there. White argues that roughly 100 more stations must be built in California to sustain the new fuel cell vehicle market.

More immediately, the startups receiving funding in the cleantech transportation space run the gamut, and are attracting strong VC support so far in 2013:

  • The Cleantech Group reports that the transportation sector had attracted the second-largest slice of the cleantech VC funding pie through the first half of 2013, with $292 million invested in 48 deals.
  • The biggest clean transportation deals were in Liquid Robotics, developer of the first wave-powered marine robot (VC firms VantagePoint, Interwest Partners, Riverwood Capital, and Schlumberger collectively funneled $45 million into the startup) and capital-lite cab-hailing app developer Hailo, which received $31 million in funding from Union Square Ventures, Accel Partners, and Wellington Partners.
  • In the second quarter, Cleantech Group reports that Lyft, a mobile app that assists in ridesharing, received the most funding in the transportation sector, with $60 million in funding from Adreessen Horowitz, Floodgate Fund, K9 Ventures, and Mayfield Fund.

In addition, a variety of startups focused on electric vehicle batteries and other technologies that seek to address the aforementioned “range anxiety” problem had funding news to share:

  • Independent Norwegian research firm SINTEF announced this week that they plan to launch a pilot project in Trondheim, Norway that will test GPS technology they’ve developed to make it possible for EV drivers to calculate the range left in their vehicles, reports EVWorld.com.
  • California-based Wildcat Discovery Technologies, a company founded in 2006 and dedicated to developing improved battery technologies for cars, was the recipient of a $1 million grant in September from the Department of Energy’s 2013 Vehicle Technologies Program Funding Opportunity Announcement. The company received $6.8 million in a series A venture funding in 2011.
  • General Motors announced a significant expansion of its Global Battery Systems Laboratory outside Detroit, tripling in size, at a cost of $20 million, making it the largest battery lab in North America run by a car company. This will help GM in its efforts to introduce an electric vehicle that costs $30,000 with a 200 mile range on a single charge.

 

To read the LA Times article cited in this story, click here

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