From flying cars to autonomous or self-driving vehicles, technologies that move people around have been in development for a long time. Predictions on the future of transportation hard to make and are seldom accurate, however, one type of car is finally starting to gain traction. Electric vehicles or EV’s are slowly but surely becoming more common on our roads. At first glance, it seems obvious why they are becoming more popular; EV’s themselves emit no pollution or carbon dioxide, a win-win for the environment and public health. And as gas prices continue to climb, owners have the advantage of just plugging in their cars to recharge. The obviousness of saving the environment and money at the same time almost begs the question why electric vehicles haven’t been more popular before. In the past, high cost, short driving range, and lack of infrastructure such as charging stations have prevented these cars from taking off. That is until now.
Rob Bartz is an engineer for Ford Motors and has been helping design new models of electric vehicles. After graduating from the University of Michigan with a master’s in mechanical engineering, Rob was a lead engineer at GE Aviation, designing the nozzles for the jet engines of commercial airplanes. In his current role, Rob works on the powertrain, a system which transfers the drive from the engine to turn the axles and wheels. While Ford has been producing hybrids for years (cars that use both gasoline and electricity to power them), much of what Rob’s work is being developed for the first time. I sat down with him to discuss the why the automobile industry is quickly turning to EV’s and the engineering and economic challenges that come with this change.
This interview has been edited lightly for clarity and length.
Chris Anderson: Let’s start some news that recently came out that Ford has invested $11 billion dollars to develop hybrid and electric vehicles. Why make this move now? There have been electric cars for years.
Rob Bartz: It’s multiple factors. You see regulations on fuel efficiency have become tight, especially in India, China, and Europe. Several cities have made laws where you can’t drive a car if it’s not an EV in the next 10 years or so. These countries have created mandates and incentives that says “we don’t want the pollution and emissions in our cities”. EV’s already account for over 25% of their cars on the road in Norway, in part because they have been subsidizing it so much that it didn’t make sense to by a new car and have it run on gasoline.
The other thing is that as EV’s like Telsa become more and more popular, as a business, you need to be ready when the customer wants the product. When everyone decides they want an electric car, and you don’t have one, it’s going to be 4-5 years before you are able to get one to market. The general feel of not just Ford, but the entire auto industry is that the tipping point is coming soon.
CA: What’s interesting to me is that everyone, car companies, government regulators, the public, has known about the problems gasoline based cars cause to the environment and climate. We knew about it in the 1970’s.
RB: You have to remember that an electric car is the most expensive type of vehicle for an manufacture such as Ford to make. You need a full electric powertrain and a very large battery to store all that power. Car companies are also regulated by their fleets. This means that the more electric cars you sell, the more SUV’s you can sell. While there have been changes to the pickup trucks and SUV’s that made them more fuel efficient, like the aluminum body, car companies are making a lot of money of SUV’s, which are selling well due to low gas prices.
That being said, there are a lot of benefits to EV’s. If you open up the owner’s manual on the Chevy Volt, there’s like 3 things to do for maintenance. Several people who I work with drive an EV hybrid to work. Their commute is short enough that they only have to use gas to charge their car every few weeks unless they are going on a longer road trip. Now you’ll still have to replace the brakes and tires every 60,000 miles or so, but the electric motors are much more reliable and require much less maintenance. You may pay more for the car, but you’d never have to take it in for an oil change.
CA: If an electric vehicle is easier to own, does that make it easier to engineer?
RB: Electric motors are a known technology that’s been around for years. You can make them more efficient without having to start completely from scratch. Electric motors also have the advantage of instant torque, the force that turns the axles and wheels, which makes the car accelerate faster in the first zero to 20-30 mph. You can imagine that a Ford Mustang with an electric motor would be faster 0 to 60 then the same car with a gasoline engine. That same principle applies with a pickup truck, more low-end torque means the more you can tow.
CA: So what are the challenges in engineering an electric vehicle?
The biggest challenge is the battery. There are trade-offs between the weight and space it takes up and how much energy can be stored. Safety is another big factor. You’ve got all this energy that’s stored in a small space and it’s going to try to find a way to release itself. Hit any electric car hard enough and you could cause a fire. Now obviously everyone in the auto industry takes safety very seriously and are working very hard to avoid that, but it is a concern.
There’s also range anxiety, drivers aren’t always sure how far their electric vehicles will go. If you have a gas car, and you start to get low, you can just pull over to the next gas station and fill up. But in an EV, all the power is connected to the battery. If you drive the vehicle really hard or have the radio and seat warmers on, that’s going to use up energy and affect how far you can drive. Even though most of the time people can get where they are going on a 100-mile range, it’s not the same feeling as if you are driving a gasoline-powered vehicle.
But if you can get cost of down with the next generation of batteries and they take up less material and space, that’s where the biggest strides will come. An electric motor doesn’t have as many parts as a gas motor and therefore a lot cheaper. Everyone is working to improve battery efficiency; creating something with high energy density, lots of energy stored in a small space. This gives your car a longer range while at the same time, making it cost less. So as the price of EV’s becomes more competitive, and people realize that the maintenance is so much less, that’s when electric cars will really take off.
CA: Earlier you mentioned one of your competitors, Tesla. While they’ve received a lot of media hype, they’ve also had struggles with their production. How does a company like Ford and a company like Tesla differ?
RB: Ford knows cars. They know car safety, mass manufacturing. Everything that a car buyer would expect to get with a Ford gasoline-powered car, they will get with a Ford EV. Tesla on the other hand, isn’t burdened by the Ford manufacturing system or decision-making process. They’ve never done it before so they don’t know that they can’t do things a certain way, which allows them to be different. Some of those things are advancements and some things become challenges.
CA: Do you think there are social and cultural barriers in accepting EV’s?
RB: You are changing something that a lot people have had stay the same way in their life for a long time. It’s a little bit of a change in expectations, that I plug my car when it needs a charge instead of going to a gas station. Batteries work better and have longer range after they’ve warmed up, which means that drivers may have to wait longer to drive their car if the weather is cold. An electric motor is going to accelerate without any noise because there’s no combustion, something people aren’t really used to.
At this point, we aren’t shooting for the people who are early adopters to the technology; if you want an electric car, you can go buy one today. We are looking to get your average person to change their behavior. Tesla has done that by making their cars seem really cool, which is pretty smart. People often buy or like cars because they’re cool and when you feel the instant torque on an EV, that instant acceleration, you’ll get that cool factor.
CA: Another challenge I think is going to be how our infrastructure is going to have to change, things like our electric grids, having more charging stations, etc.
RB: Absolutely. With most of the auto industry are kind of using the standard plug so you can charge your car from pretty much any outlet. However, with a standard wall outlet circuitry means it’s going to take a long time to get your car to full charge, especially if you car has a longer range. Now you can an adaptation for your home to up the wattage and charge your car much faster. But that’s one level of infrastructure that needs to change.
On a bigger scope, Tesla didn’t use the industry standard plug for their charger. Instead they set up their own network of charging stations at their dealerships and grocery stores. That’s really going to change how we plan out longer trips or at least until these charging stations become more common. People are also going to want to drive their electric cars to work, which means employers are going to need to install charging stations. So that’s a big infrastructure build out that going to need to be paid for somehow, either by the industry or governments.
CA: Along those lines, what does the future of electric vehicles look like in the next 10-20 years.
RB: The long term trend is that fossil fuels are going to be regulated out of business. Politics cycle and eventually American policy will line up with the rest of the world. Unless there is a carbon neutral alternative, that’s what will happen at some point. To me, the changes EV’s pose are small and once the next generation of batteries has been developed, the auto industry should be able to keep up what they’ve done over the last 20 years and keep the cost for cars under to inflation, which is a good thing. If you can have more people own cars that don’t have an impact on the climate, and there’s no cost difference, you can see then the barriers to owning an EV coming down.