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May 18

Low-cost Revolo bolt-on, plug-in hybrid system touted for its potential

 

Note: This is a different story than usual, but I spoke with an engineer in India for nearly an hour, recorded the whole conversation, and wrote about this expedient solution initially for the emerging Indian market. As you’ll see, it’s technologically flexible and if eventually brought to Europe or the U.S. costs would undeniably go up, but I was curious what you all thought …

While some U.S.-based aftermarket startups are offering high-five-figure hybrid powertrain retrofits, an Indian original-equipment (OE) automotive supply firm is preparing to launch a simple $1,300-$3,500 bolt-on plug-in parallel hybrid system for the masses.

Revolo3
A Revolo-converted Suzuki Alto. The system is covered by several patents, and has already won eight awards.

Having proven its effectiveness in testing so far, the prototype system called “Revolo” is being developed by KPIT Cummins as a gas- or diesel-engine add-on, first for the Indian market, but North American, European and Asian automakers have also already expressed interest in the system.

The anticipated installed cost of its belt-driven electric motor, battery and battery management system (BMS) works out to about one-third the selling price of a new vehicle in India, and the system functions essentially like GM’s eAssist.

While the batteries remain charged for average daily driving needs, fuel efficiency is said to be improved by 35 percent, emissions by 30 percent, and the system’s payback is to be less than two years from time of purchase.

One of the company’s two similarly sized “green” buildings in India. KPIT Cummins says both are designed to allow optimum utilization of natural resources.

If you’ve not heard of KPIT Cummins, briefly, it is a $309 million publicly traded company with over 7,700 employees, based in India, 11-percent owned by Cummins of North America. It has operations in North America, South America, Europe, Japan, Korea, China, and is a supplier to 14 of the top 20 original equipment manufacturers.

In a phone interview this week with one of the engineers involved in the project, we learned this will be the company’s first foray in automotive hardware plus software products, but it is building on its strengths as a behind-the-scenes automotive technology provider to most major automakers.

High Tech Low Tech

 
 

Because a low-cost but effective system had to be devised that could sell itself without any green car conversion incentives in India, KPIT had to think hard to come up with solutions to meet these criteria.

This was all the more challenging when trying to be viable in the light-duty commercial market for such vehicles as cabs and delivery trucks. Many Indian small businesses do not have pockets as deep as, say, American corporate fleet buyers who might spring for something like a $30,000 retrofit by the likes of ALTe or a $70-80,000 turnkey converted pickup from VIA Motors.

So to be sure, the several-hour installation of the Revolo parallel hybrid system upgrade – intended for engines up to 3.0 liters – is not as involved as these series hybrid powertrain retrofits, but it is said to get the job done with a quick return on investment.

Presently two motors are being developed for the system. One is for smaller passenger cars, rated at 2.2 kilowatt (3 horsepower, 22 pound-feet torque), the other is for light commercial vehicles rated at 7.5 kilowatts (10.2 horsepower, 55 pound-feet torque). KPIT Cummins says these continuous-output ratings can be peaked by triple these numbers for up to one minute bursts when needed.


Suzuki Alto on left, Tata 207 pickup on right. The Revolo system is currently made under a joint venture with component supplier Bharat Forge in India.

The result is a system that adds 20-40 percent more power to the internal combustion engine’s output when needed without using any fuel.

The idea is when the engine needs it most – such as at low rpm – the instant torque of the electric motor assists, then tapers off above 1,800-2,000 rpm seamlessly thanks to the sophisticated engine control unit (ECU).

The BMS and ECU that come with the installation are the company’s own design, can be adapted to a variety of battery chemistries, and rely on algorithms fed signals by some retrofitted sensors, as well as the vehicle’s stock sensors used by its ECU sensors.

Another innovation is the use of a high-efficiency AC induction motor, instead of a more costly permanent magnet motor, and unique lead-acid batteries made more durable with carbon technology.

Comparatively inexpensive lead acid batteries are usually considered the bottom of the automotive battery hierarchy, but the added carbon and other technological innovations extend life to around 750 recharge cycles.

In contrast, lithium-ion – which by the way, the system is compatible with also – would normally cost 3-5 times more.

KPIT Cummins has also tested with lithium-ion, but the carbon-enhanced lead-acid chemistry is getting the nod for the Indian market at this juncture. The Revolo system would also work with nickel-metal hydride, but KPIT-Cummins has not gravitated to that chemistry in its development work.

Planned battery range with lead acid is expected to be up to 62 miles for commercial vehicles, and about two-thirds that for commuter applications.

 

The idea is to provide enough range to work for most applications, either light commercial vehicles traveling up to 62 miles per day, or commuters traveling the average 18-25 miles per day in India.

After the batteries deplete, the BMS shuts the system down, the petrol engine continues to operate as normal, and the electric motor simply freewheels with no parasitic drag.

Regenerative braking does also offer 10-12 percent recharging to the batteries on average, extending range somewhat. After the system finally depletes, the regen feature stays operative, and if the batteries reach a sufficient state of charge, the system will automatically turn back on.

Another low-cost, but effective aspect is this plug-in hybrid system uses a basic three-phase plug much like a computer cord. No fancy 5-pin SAE J1772 or CHAdeMO plugs here to pay for – or risk being stolen.

Economics and Pragmatism First

 
 

For now, the Revolo system is intended as an efficiency boost, and not as a speed or acceleration performance enhancer, so 0-60 runs will only barely be improved. The main goal is saving money without costing a lot of money, and the benefits have not been lost on some of KPIT’s existing OE customers who’ve shown interest in the system.

For example, in testing the system mated to a sophisticated modern “European luxury SUV” with over 60 on-board ECUs – which KPIT Cummins was not at liberty to name – the Revolo system provoked no diagnostic error codes. This and other such testing have been taken as a good sign that the computer programming side of KPIT Cummins’ automotive engineered solution is as effective as the low-cost side of it is.

First things first however is to prove it works in the real world. The initial Indian market launch of the lead-acid system is anticipated to be a “lucrative” market with no downside for consumers.

Pending plans are for retrofitting the system through third-party franchises to existing vehicles. At the same time, KPIT Cummins is in discussions with automakers to build the system into new vehicles.

As mentioned, the company says it is talking with automakers about installing it in vehicles intended for the Indian market.

If all goes as intended, the company hopes for OE joint ventures, and in time to see its Revolo plug-in hybrid system installed in vehicles made for other markets also – possibly even the U.S. assuming it works as advertised.

 

May 11

Landlord in SF Bay Area says no to Volt-owning tenants plugging in

 

Trinity Management Services, reportedly one of San Francisco’s largest landlords, has put the kabash on one of its tenant’s intentions to recharge his Chevy Volt on premises.

According to a newscast by a Bay Area ABC affiliate which focuses on such perceived inequities, tenant Richard Wiesner got himself the new plug-in car which can be recharged in eight hours on regular 120-volt current, but was firmly denied permission.

The video lays out the case, but the short story is this landlord barring all its tenants isn’t the first or last, and such phenomena could represent a rude logjam in the stream of progress toward green cars at an epicenter of green car adoption.

VoltPlugin

 

For its part, the landlord reportedly said only that it would deny any plug-in vehicles from recharging, but refused to comment further.

An attorney interviewed by the TV news team verified that the letter of the law says the landlord is not contractually obliged to allow discretionary access to the outlet.

That said, the receptacle is right next to the indoor parking spot the tenant would use, and before it became an issue, it was presumably there for other benign purposes – such as as perhaps for a shop vac – although that is only implied, not entirely clear.

Further, Wiesner offered to pay for the few extra kilowatts, but that was a no-go as well – perhaps because it would need a meter and that could turn into a hassle if others wanted the same arrangement?

What ever the case, given that somewhere around half of Bay Area dwellers reportedly rent their homes, the newscast said this could be a repeated problem in the face of an otherwise strong initiative to encourage cars that plug in.

And to be sure, the overall tide of sentiment is in favor of green cars, and in other quarters advocates have said such things as businesses and employers might readily provide plug access for free or for a nominal fee as a value-added service.

But that is apparently a wishful fantasy in this purported backwoods corner of the Bay Area region. Despite Wiesner’s reasoned entreaties, the landlord simply said no.

Really, it’s a classic case of what constitutes a right versus a privilege, and a repeat of the age-old saga of who has the moral upper hand besides.

For his part, Wiesner said he thinks a decade from now he’ll be able to look back and laugh at a retracted mentality and policy that tried to stand in the way of plug-in vehicles.

For balance, we’d add also the landlord’s position, but we cannot, because it has only said no comment.

KGO-TV San Francisco

 

May 04

Jason King is on his way to driving his Volt for ‘free’

 

Is the Chevy Volt way too expensive – a car for well-meaning but well-heeled greenies to make themselves feel good? Or, is it so frugal to own and drive that you cannot afford not to get one?

Those are two extreme views aren’t they? We’ve heard from critics – who often have never even driven one – and who’ve tried to paint negative views, and more recently we heard from Jason King, who says his Volt fits the latter scenario, and is paying him back fast.

King is a writer and photographer living in Maui who figures his driving will soon be effectively “free” due to low-cost solar panels he had installed to keep his car charged.

 

The cost of solar has come way down in recent years, but we know where gas is going, don’t we?

“Gas prices are only going up,” King said. “Gas here is around $5 a gallon, and I drive by just laughing, you know?”

What’s more, King says his Volt is the best automotive value he’s yet had despite not having recouped any federal or state subsidies when he bought it. Being eager to get one early, he bought his Volt in California just two months after GM began production, and shipped it for about $1,000 to Hawaii.

His cost for installing nine extra solar panels to his pre-existing solar array was $5,000, plus he paid $500 for an optional fast charger.

If you have no solar now, you would also need a DC-to-AC inverter and related hardware, so it could be up to double or more compared to what King paid, but this is an investment that would last for many years that would effectively wipe out your gasoline bill, and you may even be able to sell unused electricity back to your local utility.

As for King, he says buying a Volt and solar charging is a good deal even though he forfeited eligibility for a $4,500 Hawaiian state subsidy now available, and the $7,500 federal subsidy.

To others, he says it should also make good financial sense, as they more likely will qualify for federal and state subsidies – for the car, and possible for the solar installation.

King’s estimation that charging costs will soon be no charge takes into consideration what he formerly spent monthly on gas for a Honda CR-V. In nine more months, his Volt will have paid off its lifetime cost to solar recharge, then every electric mile he drives thereafter is effectively free.


Not having a particular affinity for the undesirable effects petroleum has had on the environment and society, King has set up his house to live autonomously yet with high quality of life.

“I was previously spending at least $2,500 a year on gasoline so that means in two years the solar panels have paid for themselves, compared to what I previously spent on gas,” King said. “You know – in terms of the cost of the solar panels to power it. That means in two years my driving is not only pollution free, it’s free.”

The deal was especially sweet where Maui electric rates can hover around 30 cents per kilowatt-hour or more.

King acknowledges everyone’s situation is different, and living entirely off the grid as he does, his environmental commitment is deep, but having researched solar, he does not understand why more people are not doing it – particularly when a less-involved approach of grid tie-in is more financially feasible than ever.

Nor is he alone.

Jay Friedland, legislative director for Plug In America says a growing number of people are discovering what it is like to cut or eliminate the electric bill – and even be able to sell energy back to their local utility for a very satisfying turning of the tables.

State-by-state subsidies are available, as is a 30-percent federal tax credit, and so are loans if needed.

Friedland cited others who have realized – like King – that all of a sudden having effectively free kilowatts on hand, they would benefit from buying or leasing an electric vehicle.

Naturally, beyond the cost-benefit analysis, every individual’s motivation is unique. People’s rationales can include preferring their energy to be domestically sourced, and it’s satisfying knowing the money stays at home, instead of paying domestic or foreign oil suppliers. Others point to what it costs in wars and military expense and lives to keep the oil flowing here. Others point to cutting greenhouse gas emissions. Others point to being self-reliant and not having to pay for ever-increasing gasoline expense. You can take your pick, or empathize with some or all of the above.


King’s off-the-grid living is made possible through readily available technology.

But consumers who are not as ideologically driven want to know they are not paying extra just to support a cause. There are those who want to able to simply justify the outlay, and see a return on investment.

That ultimately depends on a host of variables for your local circumstances, but the good news, says Friedland – and King – is that solar recharging can pay back out-of-pocket costs to switch to solar.

King says his solar power system includes 24 deep-cycle batteries for storage, and a diesel generator backup – which he rarely if ever uses, and he looks forward to when the Volt can be used in a smart grid application as his backup.


Twenty four deep-cycle marine batteries last maybe seven years or so. The rest of the system is much more robust. Battery backup is optional, and not required for more ordinary grid-tied systems.

In any event, his solar panels recharge 100 percent even on a cloudy day, and about the only time he may not generate power is in a torrential downpour.

If anyone thinks solar is only for sunbelt states though, you’d be mistaken. They just need a clear exposure to the sun, and Friedland notes the second largest solar energy usage outside of California is in New Jersey. King observes also that Germany leads the world in solar proliferation.

As for justifying whether it would be worth it for solar electric car recharging, one major factor to consider is how much you spend on gasoline and electricity per year, and factoring the Volt’s electric range and money saved can make a compelling case.

In King’s moderate climate, his Volt’s all-electric range is much better than the EPA-stated 35 miles, and he averages 45-48 miles on a charge. All this to him will soon be effectively free, as he is not even paying a utility for the kilowatt-hours or a gas station.

His reasoning extends also to other electric vehicles with longer ranges, such as the Nissan Leaf, Mitsubushi i, and other available or soon-to-be models like the Ford Focus Electric or Tesla Model S, and others.


Going well beyond creating enough juice for their car, Norma and Alan Williamson power their California home with photovoltaic panels. We’re including this photo to show an example of a more ordinary residence with solar system potentially tied to the grid. This is one of Plug In America’s case examples mentioned.

If the vehicle to be charged has a larger battery as pure EVs do, you’d need enough solar energy daily, and a 240-volt level 2 charger, but the math can still work out – while giving a hedge against inflationary gasoline prices.

For his part, King says the Volt makes the most sense because its range meets his daily driving needs – and statistically, those of most Americans – and has gasoline backup when needed. Thus far, he estimates he’s only used about four gallons, and has effectively driven the Volt at 2,000 miles per gallon – with his electricity soon to be paid off as well.

“It’s not just a hype – the lack of range anxiety that I feel having that backup, you know? I mean if it was just pouring rain for few days and I needed to use the electric that my panels were generating for my house; I didn’t want to charge the car,” King said. “So yeah, I can still drive. You know, if I need to drive 100 miles in a day because I have friends visiting and I’m taking them all over the island, no problem, so I’ll drive 100 miles and I’ll use a gallon of gas.”

To determine what state-by-state incentives are available, the Energy Department has an interactive map. You can think also about leasing solar from a company like Sungevity, or others, and as you know the cost of a Volt can also be offset by a presently reasonable lease rates – and this might make sense especially if you do not fully qualify for incentives.

For more information on solar power in general, you can contact a non-profit like the American Solar Energy Society, and the Energy Department has further info worth perusing as well.

 

Besides these resources, there are many others, but they ought to get you started in the right direction.

Calculating cost for solar would also mean factoring in amortization, as the solar array will not last forever, but they are known to last many years even decades.

But if you ask Jason King, he says he has the formula dialed and even if your daily mileage goes a bit over the Volt’s electric range, it still is an elegant solution with no downside.

“The point I want to drive home to people is most people think that they can’t afford to do it,” he said. “I’m living proof that you know what, you can’t afford not to do it. I only have nine months to go until all my driving is free and powered by the sun with no pollution.”

 

Apr 19

Concerned scientists offer ‘first of its kind’ nationwide power grid analysis to promote electric vehicles

 

On Monday. the Union of Concerned Scientists released a report regarding electric vehicle operating costs and regional power grid emissions intended to enable consumers to more accurately analyze cost-benefit and pollution.

The comprehensive report focused on such vehicles as the Nissan Leaf, Chevy Volt, Mitsubishi i and others, and graded regions by how much greenhouse gas on average is emitted.

The main findings are in line with what EV advocates already know: greenhouse gas emissions are effectively reduced by switching to electric propulsion power. Further, the study estimated average fuel savings per year between $750-1,200.

“This report shows drivers should feel confident that owning an electric vehicle is a good choice for reducing global warming pollution, cutting fuel costs, and slashing oil consumption,” said Don Anair, the report’s author and senior engineer for UCS’s Clean Vehicles Program. “Those in the market for a new car may have been uncertain how the global warming emissions and fuel costs of EVs stack up to gasoline-powered vehicles. Now, drivers can for the first time see just how much driving an electric vehicle in their hometown will lower global warming emissions and save them money on fuel costs.”

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UCSUSA

 

If you surf the Web for other write-ups on the study, you will also see some reports cuing in on the finding that the most efficient gasoline-powered vehicles may be environmentally cleaner than EVs recharging in regions relying on some coal-powered plants. That is, the study found effective emissions needed to recharge vehicles relying on some powerplants makes them little cleaner than some of the cleanest gas cars – but still cleaner than most.

But in any case, the study’s over-riding emphasis did not go in that negative direction, even if it does give potential material for such sound bite journalism, and fodder for critics of EVs.

One assumption the study made was that EV drivers for now are primarily recharging at home, often in the overnight hours. The executive summary noted that for 45 percent of the population, “EVs produce lower global warming emissions than even the most efficient gasoline hybrids.”

And for 37 percent of the population, EVs are on par with the most efficient hybrids such as the Civic Hybrid and Prius.

The Union of Concerned Scientists focused its study on greenhouse gas emissions which it says are responsible for climate change.

It said the expectancy is overall, EVs should become effectively cleaner to operate in years to come as more renewable power sources come online.

Also, it encouraged consumers to shop for the best available power plan for them, be it one focusing on green energy supplementation, or merely a less expensive alternative rate plan.

In California, for instance, consumers can elect a time of use plan that could save an estimated $500-1000 per year, the study says.

 

 

It is equally true that any electricity generated in the United States is energy that need not be imported, which is cannot be said of petroleum dependent vehicles.

Reasons why the Union of Concerned Scientists is thus very much in favor of EVs include reduction of greenhouse gases, net operational savings, as mentioned, but no doubt energy security is also in the reasoning process.

The perceived downside for consumers is most EVs come at a price premium, which we’ve seen all sorts of estimates on with regard to how many years it will take to make a payback.

The short answer is it is a qualified decision. The study’s authors recommend knowing exact cost of electricity, getting the most cost-effective plan possible and taking advantage of any available government subsidies.

If investing in your own renewable energy – such as solar or wind – is an option, this also is recommended to reduce carbon footprint, and save money.

To learn more, visit the organization’s Web site.

 

Mar 01

EPA Says Prius Plug-In Gets 11 Miles Electric Range

 

Depending on how one drives it, Toyota’s Prius Plug-In can go a few miles farther than its U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rating, but officially it can be expected to travel 11 miles with “Electricity + Gasoline,” and the sticker lists All Electric Range at 6 miles.

This falls short of the “up to 15 miles” at speeds up to 62 mph estimated after consulting with Toyota and reported in HybridCars.com’s full review.

Although not an apples-to-apples comparison, the Plug-In Prius is often weighed against the extended-range electric Chevy Volt. With its larger battery pack, the domestically produced rival from GM is intended to stay in all-electric mode at speeds of up to 100 mph for an EPA-estimated 35 miles distance – though this too can vary greatly depending on usage and ambient temperature.

 

As mentioned, plug-in Prius test drivers have routinely seen over 11 miles electric range, especially when driving in a gingerly manner.

And where the Prius Plug-In’s EPA efficiency ratings begin to outdo the Volt is in other drive modes. In “EV Mode,” it’s rated at 95 mile per gallon equivalent, which a tad above a fully charged 2012 Volt’s estimated 94 MPGe. In hybrid mode, the EPA says the Prius Plug-In returns 50 mpg combined. This compares very well to the Volt’s 37 mpg combined in gasoline-only mode and means – in the absence of on-the-way recharging facilities – for longer trips the Toyota starts to pay back more.

 

While the two vehicles are often compared and contrasted based on more metrics than the scope of this brief can consider, in short it is a qualified decision to determine between the two.

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Note
– As an extra bit of PIP news, the plug-in Toyota is also eligible for $1,500 California Clean Vehicle Rebate and application for a solo HOV sticker under certain conditions. It’s available in 14 states this year and Toyota is no longer taking online reservations. It says in 2013 it will offer nationwide availability. It’s eligible for a $2,500 federal tax credit, and aside from California, other states or localities may have subsidies available. MSRP for the base Prius Plug-In is $32,000 and price for the Advanced model is $39,525. This latter version comes standard with features including Premium HDD Navigation with Entune, Plug-In Hybrid Applications through a smartphone, Head-up Display, Dynamic Radar Cruise Control, and more.

So what do you think? Did the EPA underestimate the PIP? Has it been conservative on other cars too that you can think of?

 

Jan 16

Could lithium-air batteries replace gasoline by 2020?

 

Would you believe that eight years from now lithium-air batteries – with energy density nearly equal to gasoline and able to provide five times today’s average EV range – could relegate combustion engines to history?

You’ll believe it when you see it, you say? Well, high hopes have been hyped before, so we can’t say we blame you, but this story making the rounds is based on research by no less than well-regarded IBM researchers on two continents.

“We now have one which looks very promising,” said IBM physicist Winfried Wilcke about an electrolyte material that could lead to a working lithium-air battery prototype by 2013.

 

Wilcke works at IBM’s Almaden laboratories in San Jose, Calif., and he and Alessandro Curioni at IBM’s Zurich lab in Switzerland used a Blue Gene supercomputer to find an alternative electrolyte for the present close-but-no-cigar lithium-air battery.

But let’s back up a minute: What is lithium air, you ask?

According to New Scientist.com which broke the brief story, lithium-air batteries differ from lithium-ion batteries by using carbon for their positive electrode instead of metal oxides.

The carbon is lighter and reacts with oxygen in the surrounding air to produce electrical current. While their energy density is through the roof, li-air battery cells have proven chemically unstable, thus shortening lifespan when repeated recharging is attempted, so that rules them out at this point.

To attack the problem Wilcke used a form of mass spectrometry to analyze the lithium-air cells’ underlying electrochemistry. In doing so, he discovered that beyond reacting with the carbon electrode, oxygen was also reacting with the electrolytic solvent (that carries the lithium ions between the electrodes).

So, the aforementioned supercomputer was used to run extremely detailed reaction models to find more viable electrolytes. This scientific detective work included a form of atomistic modelling down to the quantum mechanics of the components, said Curioni.

After all this high-tech sleuthing, the researchers reportedly have a material they think could work. They won’t reveal what the electrolyte is but say that several research prototypes have already been demonstrated adding to their positive outlook.

Perhaps the news is also credible because it is coming from IBM, and not a super capacitor maker named EEstor, or some other company with no known track record.

In any event, if they can get a prototype to work, it would solve a major obstacle with lithium-air batteries, said Phil Bartlett, head of electrochemistry at the University of Southampton, UK.

Other practical issues to overcome before lithium air is given the commercial green light would include coping with moist air, Bartlett said. Moisture could make for a hazard the pundits at Fox News wished they could have pinned on the Volt’s LG Chem cells.

 

“Lithium in water spontaneously catches fire,” Bartlett said.

And we all know fire is not a good thing, right?

So, you ask, what do we really have?

At this point, we have positive reported results from reputable research scientists who think they are onto the right trail.

But what do you think? Can any of you scientists or engineers or otherwise knowledgeable readers add to the discussion?

We’ve already anticipated the usual skepticism, jaded responses, and tired old EEstor jokes, but aside from that, what is a realistic attitude to take?

And while we’re speculating, do you think GM knows that if not this, some other ground-breaking energy storage technology is around the corner, and that is why it is being so conservative with new plug-in vehicle development?

Or do you think there’s some other reason?

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