Tuesday, 21 July 2009

PESTEL Trends – the US Future – “Fly-Drive Me to the Moon”?

We live in a period of massive innovation demand. Most notably clean-tech related from a grand political CO2 agenda as a 'social-good' for the masses, and from the individual's perspective ever increasing expectations towards 24/7 communications and ethically responsible mobility. Such trends have been building for some years, different ethical factions of society promoting lifestyle alternatives and choices derived from personal energy responsibility. From cyber-commuting to walking and cycling to the use of (literally) less carbon exhaustive vehicles – whether ICE powered, hybrid-drive or full EV based.

Historically technical progress has been achieved and trickled-down to commercial enterprise and so mass consumption from ambitious, hi-tech endeavours. Efforts that were largely state sponsored, combining (additional resource) exploration with the need for defending ever geographically increasing national interests. Examples span from Pheonician & Greek times scouting African and Persian coastal waters, latterly the Scandinavian and Spanish cross-Atlantic traverses in search of the riches of the New World, right-up to JFK's promise to land a man on the moon; which would demonstrate the American century and provide a strategic defence advantage in the face of a then cold war.

With exploration came the pushing of natural boundaries, the overcoming of these challenges served scientific enlightenment with new knowledge and thus synthesised innovation: from the creation of the Trireme in 500 BC, the honed development of the Galleon & Caravel in the 16th century to the breathtaking achievement that was the Apollo space-craft. The 40th year of the moon-landings is of course now upon us, and although it has never left the background of the popular consciousness, the anniversary is all the more prescient given America's renewed vow to re-visit our lunar satellite and possibly reach further beyond into the solar system. However, the down-to-earth problems of a negative 'over-reach' in short & mid-term economic budget deficit & PSBR, added to the growing costly domestic challenges of rising unemployment costs and health reform costs means that galactic grand schemes today appear a long-way off.

However, thankfully the spirit of man – even the singular man – is indomitable; so where there is a will there is a way.

Given this ever-lasting edict, it is prescient that 40 years on the US should gather the former knowledge gained all those years ago, combine it with latter-day learning, review the 'pure' and 'applied' technical research and create industrial policy development paths to independently self-propel into the future in its chosen direction. For man's spiritual growth and the nation's economic growth.

Space and military R&D has provided various commercial applications over the years, primarily in the computing, communications, energy storage and materials realms - the latter toward extreme environment alloys & ceramic compounds. Typically work is initially maintained in the public-realm due to the vagaries of tech-transfer (re)development timetables and indefinite project costs. Thus unsurprisingly advanced materials and processes must be largely subsidised and ammortised by the state in military, medical and university research applications – themselves expanding R&D knowledge – before solutions can be practicably targeted at and adopted by the commercial world.

The specific gestation and incubation period and locations vary depending upon the political, social, and commercial context, but the role of PPFI (Public-Private Funding Initiatives) ever more present to encourage a smoother transition from state to commercial worlds and, as we see with QinetiQ in the UK, a growing appreciation that public capital markets can be leveraged to assist both R&D agencies and associated in-house projects. Effectively treating hi-tech engineering R&D in the same manner as Pharmaceutical. This in turn providing new funding methods based on IPR rights and future income streams. (NB the speedy return to this alternative funding model by investors and financial agents as a partial substitute to the ongoing capital accessing problem companies are experiencing).

Very broadly and basically, this is the financing context to the typical hi-tech innovation curve, though as stated much depends on the myriad of variables [NB see the myriad of 'Innovation-Push' & 'Adopter-Pull' theories available].

Today we witness the auto-sector slowly fragmenting and slowly re-forming as companies old and new diminish and grow (eg GM vs BYD) and the very philosophy of personal mobility is put under the social spotlight with emergent reduced CO2 solutions being offered in powertrains, structures and C3 (central command control) telematics. Thus there is a juxtaposition of evolutionary development of the ICE engine and conventional vehicle components versus (series or parallel) hybrid and electric powertrains which given their respective packaging and range issues pose concomitant questions about suitable vehicle structures.

[NB. Today, it seems Toyota is by far ahead on petrol-electric hybrids given the Prius-effect, and now PSA gains credibility with a publicised low cost diesel-hybrid switchable 4WD drive system as seen on the 3008].

But whilst the tech-transfer of space-specific knowledge in structures, heat management and energy storage naturally aligns to its Aeronautical counterpart, only the structures element seems to have trickled-down to land craft, and that primarily via the performance necessity (and budgets) of high-level motor-sport. Given the conventional funding context (previously described) this is the normal route. But whilst it provides a pathway of sorts, technology realistically may not come to the masses – the average vehicle buyer – for decades if at all. The realities of commercial adoption play a major role for innovation spread given that private commercial enterprise seeks rightly to inherently minimise risk and maximise profits.

[NB the R&D vs Risk assumptions vary greatly depending on industrial sector in question and so the relatively low cost innovation of say 'quick-reaction' computer software or consumer electronics hardware is in stark contrast to automotive given their very different R&D procedures, product platform bases, business cultures etc].

It is well known that certain entrepreneurs often from the IT sector are trying to re-orientate the automotive world, with what are a wide spectrum range of product types, mobility-services and business model foundations; with variable credibility and variable eventual success.

The electric vehicle (both ZEV and LEV) of course is one genre that has attracted much exploration and attention, ranging from the marketing of Chinese made electric bicycles, scooters and 3-wheeler commercial/passenger vehicles to new start-up companies at either end of the ambition spectrum – from homegrown e-motorcycles to adapted 'integrated e-systems' vehicles using a COTS vehicle basis to JV ventures that combine volume vehicle and battery manufacturers set within state sponsored new infrastructure agreements.

Many appreciate that the electric vehicle trend has a 'back-to-the-future' aspect, those start-ups trying to leverage the learning accumulated 100 years ago, with names like Detroit Electric and so many others. And so it will be that this burgeoning industry must also look back to only 40 years ago, when perhaps the most advanced electric vehicle was constructed by GM-Delco – the Lunar Roving Vehicle.

Contracted-out by NASA-Marshall to Boeing Aerospace, and sub-contracted to General Motors, the LRV was perhaps the most intellectually intensive EV ever built, demanding engineering solutions that pushed structural, drive-train and energy storage envelopes. It was a (de)foldable lightweight skeletal structure appointed with 4 in-hub motors for 4WD & 4WS (10 foot turning circle), communications equipment and electrical output sockets to power on-board and external ancillary equipment. It had a mass of 209 kg but offered a payload of 490 kg and was 10 feet long x 6 feet wide (ie equal to the length of the1959 Mini). Power was provided by two 36-volt silver-zinc potassium hydroxide non-rechargable batteries with a capacity of 121 A·h. These were used to power the drive and steering motors and also a 36 volt utility outlet mounted on front of the LRV to power the communications relay unit or the TV camera.

Interestingly, the silver-zinc battery chemistry used for LRV has 3 significant advantages over lithium ion It is safer because it lacks the volatile cathode makeup that leads to a thermal runaway, it’s very green since both silver and zinc are non-toxic as well as recyclable, and, perhaps most importantly, it packs 40% more energy for a given volume than lithium ion. Silver-zinc has a long history, used by the military and aerospace where programs could afford to pay for the higher-priced silver in exchange for increased energy density. But of course cost is a prime commercial factor, hence the automotive R&D focus on lithium-ion.

[NB. Even so just as L-ion is being developed to reduce its performance weaknesses, intensive focus should continue to be applied to silver-zinc's structural configurations and re-chargability – as the like of Intel Capital is doing via Zpower].

40 years on and that vehicle and it successors for 2020 exploration (with undoubtedly extended ranges) could be said to offer a possible general specification for dedicated lower speed ZEV urban vehicles of the near term. Today's electric cars are for the most part either adapted from mainstream vehicles or made to try and look like conventional cars so as to be normal enough for marketplace acceptance.

This practice is typical and understandable: if we look back in history, the first cars whether gasoline or electric were styled as horseless carriages.

However, attempting to effectively retro-fit a 'new/alternative' technology into the perceptual envelope of conventional cars is both technically sub-optimal (esp regards structural mass vs range issues) and essentially disingenuous, since by doing so it effectively and unfortuitously encourages the general public to compare apples against oranges dressed as apples. Moreover, electric vehicle companies have the headwind of having to design these oranges to qualify within the legislative realms (esp crash safety) of these apples (conventional cars) unless specific regional legislature has been developed to allow these low speed vehicles onto limited speedway roads.

This has of course happened in certain areas of the USA, but even so there is an obvious social usage chasm between the car and (golf-cart derived) NEV – the latter seen as little more than a joke by many, something belonging to the social fringes of golf-resorts, retirement villages & locales and (mocked) university campus officials. Although sportscar related efforts are trying to change the perception of EVs, there is presently a world of difference between a prototype Mercedes SLS e-Drive (incidentally using hub-motors that are probably sourced from F1 development) and what is being offered as a suitable commuter / shopping vehicle.

Hybrids like Prius and Insight of course fill that middle ground of acceptability, but no EV – even the very limited edition and costly Smart EV & Mitsubushi i-Miev - realistically fulfils the cost/benefit consumer gap. [NB the BMW Mini EV and FIAT 500 EV are still largely R&D and PR exercises given their packaging deficiencies and done largely extol the virtues of BMW & FIAT mainstream eco-tech efforts like 'start-stop' and 'brake re-generation'].

If new-era nuclear-power electricity generation - presently the only feasible clean energy source - is to feed the legions of EVs often described by prompted forecast there is a need for government, enterprise and consumers to re-consider the specific uses and aesthetic forms of alternative types of vehicle – their function derived from their purpose – just as the LRV did. Just as a tractor or HGV / semi-trailer does. Just as a bicycle, boat or airplane does. Just as an Arab stallion or a Clydesdale mare do; respectively suited to racing and ploughing. The case to be set forward of “horses for courses”.

But within this context, enterprise must also appreciate that the public at large views limited capability vehicles differently from the broad capability car or light-truck. And so as long as the direct comparison remains sets a very different price on that capability...one that the industry will not like but must consider when formulating real-world business models that must comprise everything from the cost of production to the life-service of a vehicle.

And to that 'perceptional' end, Obama's words about re-conquering space and the simultaneous desire to protect our planet from our own ravages sets the context to re-orientate the perception of the public at large and the vehicle buying consumer. But it is not an easy task, as previous similar failed efforts with heavily sunken finances litter automotive history.

Perhaps the last words of this short essay are best heard from Charles Lindbergh, the renowned aviator, NACA (later NASA) adviser, son of Detroit and little known 'green guardian', who through his own perseverance of Spirit (of St Louis) promoted transportation innovation:

“All the achievements of mankind have value only to the extent that they preserve and improve the quality of life”....”the human future depends on our ability to combine the the knowledge of science and the wisdom of the wilderness”.

Such words are the philosophical touch-stone for future eco-tech mobility solutions, much of which will depend on an improved cross-fertilisation of ideas from a myriad of different scientific & industrial sectors and sources.