domingo, 14 de novembro de 2010

Electric Vehicles on the Rise: What Does That Mean for the Engineering Community?

You can't seem to turn on the news these days without hearing something new about electric vehicles (EVs). Electric cars and trucks are on their way, with the first commercial models due to hit the roads in 2011. But even before the first wave of EVs rolls out of dealers' showrooms, a lot of work is already under way, on multiple fronts, to make it possible for the roads — and the electric grid — to handle them.
State of the EV
First off, let's take a look at where we are on the electric vehicle front:
  • The all-electric Nissan Leaf, due to leave showrooms in December, already has 16,000 advance orders. The plug-in hybrid Chevrolet Volt is not far behind.
  • The Senate passed the Promoting Electric Vehicle Act of 2010 on 22 July. If passed by Congress and signed into law, the Act would create targeted incentive programs for electric vehicles and charging stations with a goal to electrify half of America's cars and trucks by the year 2030.
  • The EV Project has started a big deployment of EV charging stations in six U.S. states and the District of Columbia. With a budget of $230 million, much of it in the form of government subsidies, the Project aims to install a total of 15,000 charging stations.
  • The state of Maryland has invested $1 million to install EV charging stations in Baltimore and other parts of the state. The total combines state money and federal stimulus money, and some of the money will go toward electrifying truck stops so truckers can stop running their engines all night to power their heaters and TVs.
  • Other companies involved in installing charging stations include Coulomb Technologies and ChargePoint America. Several cities around the country have their own programs going. Many of these projects are at least partially funded by government grants.
  • Even parking garages are getting into the act. LAZ Parking announced it would install ChargePoint Level II electric charging stations at its sites throughout New York and New Jersey.
  • Coming in 2012: an electric car from Chrysler (which recently scaled backits other hybrid and EV plans); a luxury EV from Infinity; a plug-in hybrid and battery electric car from Honda; and a wide range of other vehicles that are on the drawing board.
  • Meanwhile, you won't need to buy an EV in order to drive one. Enterprise-Rent-A-Car would like you to rent one from any of their 5,000 locations starting next year.
That's a lot, but to be honest, it's just scratching the surface, and it leaves out whole facets of the work that will need to be done over the next few years.
A True Convergence
The momentum that electric vehicles are driving will create changes in several fields, say experts. The automotive and transportation industry will have some shifts in strategy and in employment needs. The power industry will go through many changes, especially at the local level and with the development of the smart grid. Government will need to change, too. It's already creating incentives to make EVs more attractive, but regulatory changes will be necessary as well.
In the process, the change will create some disruptions — to the petroleum industry, for example — but also create new economic opportunities and jobs.
The Transportation Industry
Many of the mechanical and electrical engineers working in the transportation industry may already have the skills they need to work on electric vehicles, says Peter Fox-Penner, author of the new book Smart Power (Island Press, 2010). "There has already been an evolution there, and there will continue to be."
The growth of computerization in cars has also benefitted computer and software engineers. "There are a lot of digital computer science and technology people in car companies," says Fox-Penner.
But there are other areas that will be of high value, not to mention high demand, in coming years. "There's still going to be a considerable amount of effort in R&D," says Dave Goldstein, president of the Electric Vehicle Association of Greater Washington DC (EVA/DC) and a member of the IEEE-USA Energy Policy Committee. "The energy storage challenge will always remain, so we're going to need people to develop advanced batteries and power control systems that will use those batteries." In particular demand will be electrochemical, electrical, mechanical, and power engineers, he says.
High fleet turnover, driven by the need to reduce carbon emissions, presents more opportunities: "There's a huge demand for engineers who can make low-carbon systems," says Fox-Penner. "In fact, I don't know where we're going to get all of the people we will need."
The Power & Energy Industry
Although the power industry is, by all reports, eager to start selling electricity to consumers for their cars, the growth of the EV market is in many ways dependent upon changes that must first be made to the local and national power grids.
"When you look at utilities, electric vehicles do present an immediate engineering challenge," says Fox-Penner.
When they arrive, EVs will place significant added loads on the local power system, he says, especially in the 'last mile' of delivery to the home. "Studies all conclude that in a particular neighborhood, the most you're going to be able to handle is one or two cars charging at the same time," says Fox-Penner. "Beyond that, you're likely to be burning out the nearest transformer."
Fox-Penner points out that since EVs will likely be bought in certain geographic enclaves populated by wealthy, eco-friendly early adopters — what is known as the "Prius Effect" — the effects on local utilities could be extreme.
Luckily, this will help push the evolution of the smart grid, says Fox-Penner, "but we'll need workaround solutions for the timing of these charging stations until we get there."
Other opportunities exist. "The increase in renewable energy is bringing semiconductor engineers into the power industry, mostly because photovoltaics are basically semiconductors," says Fox-Penner.
Meanwhile, existing regulations might make it hard for the local power grid to say when and where people can charge their cars, and it remains to be seen if consumers will be willing to put up with restrictions on their actions.
"The emergence of the smart grid is very, very complicated, more complicated than anyone would imagine," says Goldstein. "We're going to need people to handle the setup, standards, data systems and more. We're also talking about security issues, and cyber-security as well." Those will be growth areas for jobs he says, as will the development and installation of solar photovoltaic systems and other renewable energy resources.
The Government Role
As mentioned earlier, regulations for utilities are going to need to change if they are going to be able to handle the influx of EVs. And government subsidies are a big part of making the change to EVs possible. In addition to defraying the cost of installing charging systems, tax breaks are going to make the purchase price of EVs bearable for consumers. Without those breaks, not even early adopters will be able to start making the leap to electric vehicles.
Those subsidies and tax breaks are going to need to continue for several years until manufacturers' costs level out, and until workable infrastructure exists that will make EV use practical and efficient.
"These are the convergent issues we're dealing with," says Goldstein. "The energy infrastructure needs to be in place. Battery and automotive manufacturers need to lower their costs. Government needs to provide an incentive on price. And the technology needs to keep developing."
How Much Time Do We Have?
The automotive market is obviously changing, but some might be surprised at how quickly the changes will come. Not being prepared could be costly.
Some of the jobs and changes we have been talking about will need to be met right away if the United States wants to stay competitive, warns Goldstein. "If we don't have success right away, those jobs will go abroad. China wants to be a world leader. Japan has a head start, as does South Korea, which is a major player in the development of lithium-ion batteries." He points out that the battery plant being set up in Michigan, which was recently visited by President Obama, employs technology from South Korean companies. "We want to remain competitive and keep jobs in the United States," says Goldstein.
All of which brings us to the Tesla Roadster, the all-electric luxury sports car that can go from zero to 60 mph in less than four seconds. That's about as fast as the entire EV industry is moving. Blink, and you'll miss it — and the opportunities to come with it.


John R. Platt is a freelance writer currently living in coastal Maine. He is a frequent contributor to Today's Engineer, Tonic.com and IEEE's The Institute. He writes the Extinction Countdown blog for Scientific American. http://www.john-platt.com

source: http://www.todaysengineer.org/2010/Aug/electric-vehicles.asp

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