Electric cars take off with new standards

With EV prices falling, sales are set to soar with an obvious need for relevant Standards

By Rebecca Pool

If 2012 was the year that hybrid vehicle sales moved up a gear, 2013 will be the year that brought drivers more choice. As automotive manufacturers unveil a vast array of plug-in hybrid and all-electric options, IEC standards are driving consumer adoption.

Cutaway model of Mitsubishi plug-in hybrid EV Cutaway model of Mitsubishi plug-in hybrid EV

Significant growth in EV numbers forecast

Late last year, Japan-based automotive giants unveiled some serious global sales figures. Toyota revealed that total hybrid vehicle sales had reached 4,6 million while rival Honda reported selling one million of its internal combustion engine and electric motor-powered vehicles.

While hybrid electric vehicle sales have taken well over a decade to reach these heady heights, other segments of the electric car market are moving up through the gears, and fast. According to US-based analyst firm, Navigant Research, global sales of plug-in hybrid vehicles (PEVs) – containing an internal combustion engine and rechargeable battery – and all-electric cars have grown rapidly in the last two years, reaching 137 950 units in 2012.

Since its launch in December 2010, there have been 50 000 sales worldwide sales of the all-electric Nissan Leaf, manufactured by Japan-based Nissan. And this is just the beginning.

"Over the past two years we have seen a lot of Japanese and US-based auto-makers delivering plug-in vehicles," says John Gartner, an analyst with Navigant. "But now VW Audi, BMW and Mercedes are all embracing plug-in vehicles for the first time, with other companies following. This will have worldwide implications."

By 2020, Gartner predicts annual sales of PEVs and all-electric cars will have raced to 1,75 million, while the hybrid market will have progressed steadily to around 2 million units.

"We will see these markets getting closer in relative size, and evening out. There's going to be more of a selection [of vehicles] and many more models", he adds. Indeed, automotive manufacturers at this year's International Motor Show, Geneva, were showcasing myriad hybrid and electric cars, providing a glimpse of things to come.

Consumer choice

More than 50 hybrid and electric cars were on show from 25 or so automotive manufacturers. Mainstream auto-makers such as Audi, Lexus, Citroen and Mercedes Benz presented concept and production vehicles while niche players such as Tesla and Fisker displayed their latest models.

Chevrolet, for one, demonstrated its battery-powered Spark; Kia unveiled a turbo-charged hybrid concept while Honda showcased its full hybrid range as well as the world's first mass-produced fuel cell electric vehicle, the FCX Clarity.

Meanwhile, Hyundai displayed the hydrogen fuel cell, ix35; concept car developer, Rinspeed, unveiled the all-electric urban transporter, microMAX; and almost incredibly, Ferrari revealed LaFerrari, its multi-million dollar hybrid containing a V-12 petrol engine and electric motor. Factor in a new VW hybrid XL1, Renault's Kangoo ZE, Fluence ZE, Twizy and ZOE, as well as up and coming models from Toyota, BMW, Peugeot, Volvo, Mitsubishi, Ford, and more, and it is clear that alternatives to the conventional internal combustion engine are on a roll. But why now?

Gartner believes increases in the price of petrol and diesel are helping drive growth right now. "In markets such as Europe where the cost of fuel is the highest [compared to the rest of the world], there is a lot of consumer interest in these vehicles," he says. "You are also seeing government support, for example in the form of carbon-free urban zones like you have in London. These make people look closer at electric vehicles."

Gartner also points to concerns over climate change and carbon dioxide emissions, as well as countries’ desires to reduce reliance on energy imports. "Most countries are not energy independent and import oil for transportation fuel. These nations want to foster domestic energy production... and switching to electricity is an option," he adds.

Crucially for plug-in hybrid and all-electric vehicles, there is a growing infrastructure of charging stations. Networks of chargers are spreading across the US, Japan and Europe. So-called slow-charging stations used for work-place and overnight charging are becoming more commonplace while fast-charging networks are also emerging.

Recent IEC standards have been instrumental in driving up the numbers of vehicle chargers.

Standards for all

IEC standards have been and will be instrumental to the safe, efficient and reliable charging of present and future electric vehicles. In November 2011, the IEC removed a major hurdle for charging infrastructures when IEC SC (Subcommittee) 23H: Plugs, socket-outlets and couplers for industrial and similar applications, and for electric vehicles, published two international electric vehicle standards for plugs and sockets – IEC 62196-1 and IEC 62196-2. The former outlines general requirements while the second defines options for each country and manufacturer.

Crucially, the two standards build on the electric vehicle charging system standard, IEC 61851-1, published in 2010 by IEC TC (Technical Committee) 69: Electric road vehicles and electric industrial trucks, which defines 4 modes of charging an electric vehicle from a power source. Slow-charging in Modes 1 to 3 takes between 3 and 10 hours through direct connection to an AC mains supply while the fast-charging Mode 4 can charge a vehicle in under 10 minutes via an off-grid DC charger such as a high voltage battery.

The general IEC 62196-1 standard applies to all four modes while IEC 62196-2 applies only to Modes 1 to 3, AC charging from mains electricity. However, an SC 23H Project Team is in the process of finalizing IEC 62196-3, which will standardize plugs and sockets for the fast DC charging Mode 4.

Complex standardization landscape

"The standardization landscape has been very complex ", says Professor Peter Van Den Bossche, from the Mobility, Logistics and Automotive Technology Research Centre at Erasmus University College, Brussels, and a key player in laying out the standards. "But at least for the charging infrastructure we have detailed a limited number of options that are actually being adopted by industry."

As Van Den Bossche points out, most vehicles coming onto the market now are fitted with a standardized charging system. "And most of the charging stations in Europe are going to a Mode 3 configuration ", he adds.

On behalf of the IEC, Van Den Bossche has also been working with the relevant committees within ISO on standards for energy storage. ISO 12405 and IEC 62660-1 provide guidance for testing lithium ion battery systems and cells in electric road vehicles. As he notes, one of the key challenges of electric vehicle standardization work has been to achieve collaboration between the electro-technical world and automotive manufacturers.

"The electric vehicle is a device which is both a road vehicle dealt with by ISO committees, as well as an electrical appliance dealt with by IEC committees," he says. "A profound difference in standardization cultures [exists] and we haven't always worked well, but now we are in good agreement. We have good collaboration, progress is being made and several projects are underway."

Future developments

So where next for the electric vehicle industry? John Gartner now expects a communications infrastructure to emerge, initially in Europe, that guides drivers to charging locations and provides a seamless payment system at the charger.

For example IBM is currently working with Ireland-based ESB e-cars on a smart charging IT system that interacts with the power grid and manages public electric vehicle charge points. Registered users will be able to charge their vehicles anywhere in Ireland, using a single ID card; similar projects are underway in Portugal, Denmark and Spain.

"The ambitious goal is to have a billing and communications system in place by 2015 that will work across Europe, thanks in part to funding from the European Union's Green eMotion Project", says Gartner. "[A European model] will first be put to the test in 2013 and if successful, American counterparts are likely to at least begin conversations about national systems later in the same year."

However, Gartner also believes the actual cost of electric vehicles has to drop if hybrid and electric vehicles are to take off. "Our consumer surveys in the US indicate that USD 23 700 is the optimum price for a plug-in electric vehicle, and we haven't seen any vehicles come close to this figure", he says.

But as he points out, lower costs will come predominantly from price reductions for the vehicle's most expensive component, the battery, and this looks set to propel the industry onwards.

"The cost of vehicles is definitely a limiting factor now, but year after year we are seeing substantial reductions in the cost of batteries," he concludes. "By 2020 we can expect electric vehicles to be much more competitively priced with combustion engine models."

Cutaway model of Mitsubishi plug-in hybrid EV Cutaway model of Mitsubishi plug-in hybrid EV
The current development model of Mercedes FC system (below) is more compact than that of the B-Class (above) and fits in conventional engine compartments (Photo: Daimler AG) The current development model of Mercedes FC system (below) is more compact than that of the B-Class (above) and fits in conventional engine compartments (Photo: Daimler AG)
Toyota iRoad personal mobility vehicle (Photo: Toyota) Toyota iRoad personal mobility vehicle (Photo: Toyota)