Driving 2.0: Is There a Better Fuel Option?

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With improved battery technology, rethinking the way we drive and consume fuel may not be a stretch of the imagination. Photo: Amanda Wills, Earth911

At the Fortune Brainstorm: GREEN in Laguna Niguel, Calif., electric vehicles, the capacity of the grid and alternative fuels were all the buzz.

Opinions varied at a panel focusing on vehicle electrification between auto titans Ford and Nissan about where the market is headed. With Nissan’s focus on an all-electric strategy in the future, Ford is hedging its bets, landing with a mix of hybrid, plug-in hybrid, electric and gasoline vehicles.

Nancy Gioia, director of global vehicle electrification for Ford Motor Co., explains her point of view looks at driver’s individual needs and creates vehicles that suit them. This runs contrary to the panel and the opinions expressed at the conference.

One live polling question asked participants to predict when electric vehicles will dominate the roads, with the top answer forecasting within the next 10 years.

“Well, when it says ‘dominate’ you’d like to say, ‘what does that mean?’ Maybe half, or more? I don’t think that’s realistic,” says Gioia.

“At Ford, about 1 percent of our global fleet is electrified, and it’s primarily hybrids. By 2020, we’re planning 10 to 25 percent to be electrified. So, if our fleet is now at 1 percent, and we’re going to 10 to 25 percent, I don’t care how you count it, a 10x increase is huge.”

Ford still anticipates that it’s electrified vehicle fleet in the future will be 70 percent hybrids, 20 to 25 percent plug-in hybrids and the remainder EVs. Why? Affordability, charge infrastructure and “range anxiety” for battery electric vehicles – essentially, the tendency for customers to worry over the range of their battery charge and whether or not they can complete their daily tasks.

Battery technology weighs heavily, too. “We have to have some improvement in the battery technology itself for a real mass market,” says Gioia. “More charge/discharge cycles, longer life, smaller size, better energy density – all of these things need to happen.”

READ: New Report Investigates EV Impact on the Grid

For Gioia, improving battery technology has to come before scale. “Today in the U.S. after 10 years with incentives, both monetary and non-monetary [such as being able to drive in a high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lane] … hybrids only represent 2.3 percent of the market.”

California is the biggest hybrid markets in the U.S., with half of the hybrids sold going to the Golden State. Gioia adds that the boom occurred when the State offered hybrid drivers HOV lane stickers.

Driving habits have to be modified as well in order for wider electrified vehicle adoption.

“When you start to plug your vehicles in, customer behavior changes. How do you even just plan your day?” she muses. Gioia (who drives the all-electric Focus) explains that with a plug-in hybrid, drivers are not range-constrained. But with a battery electric, “you not only have to plug-in, but you have to plan where you’re going to go today, and then think about ‘Do I have sufficient range on my vehicle,  or do I need to charge intermittently during the day in order to do what I want to get done?’ That’s a huge behavior change.”

Ford has worked to soothe this range-anxiety in its EV drivers with a mobile app that can help users charge at the lowest utility rates, locate chargers and input a route to ensure sufficient power, with its MyFordMobile app, released along with its announcement of the all-electric Focus. Even the car will work against this anxiety, teaching drivers how to operate the car more efficiently with live feedback. Gioia says the system is so effective, drivers shift their braking habits within two days.

READ: EV Charging – There’s an App for That

The bottom line: Ford’s predicting that optimizing a variety of fuel types from diesel to electric that will work best for the custom and particular driving and range requirements of the typical driver.

“One of the biggest challenges I think the entire industry has, including the utilities, for a charge infrastructure is communication and education. It’s not that our customers are savvy people, it’s just a lot of variance out there. You have to really think, ‘Does this fit for me? Does this fit my lifestyle?'”

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