Electric cars like GM's Chevrolet Volt—due to be launched in November 2010—are pretty much everything the U.S. economy is banking on for a recovery. But before the use of electric cars becomes widespread, the industry must prepare for the parts and technologies that will be necessary to advance in order for the transition to occur. Here are six areas in the electric car ecosystem that are currently evolving to achieve this outcome.
Presently, many of the conventional cars we see on the road each day are powered by belts. In the future, when electric cars take over our roadways, car belts will be replaced by electric motors. The companies that develop integrated components - such as power steering and air conditioners - will be crucial first-tier suppliers in the electric car industry.
The undertaking of developing innovative designs to make car batteries cheaper, lighter, and more powerful will become a challenge as several companies and agencies compete to solidify their stake in the business. The winners will therefore becomes suppliers to the automakers, and there will be plenty of room to expand their businesses in the years ahead. So far, the U.S. Department of Energy is just one organization that is bestowing companies with grants to build a lithium-ion battery manufacturing facility.
Additionally, there will still be usefulness for old car batteries that can no longer store enough electricity to power an automobile. In an effort to keep the electric car industry green, companies will assemble with the purpose of collecting the old batteries, and work to connect them to sources of sustainable energy. The batteries will then be able to store the energy, and sell it to power companies and consumers. For example, a Japanese company called Yazaki has developed a new design for recharging electric cars, from virtually any wiring up to 240 volts.
Electric cars will link directly to the electric company, sending data about their charging status and needs. The development of this industry will most likely be centered on this communications path, which will allow companies to be able to monitor car components and navigation records. It will also allow new companies to trace navigation the way that Google tracks Web surfing.
The need for seamlessness in the electric car industry will require new communications standards. America’s 3,200 electric utilities will require massive upgrades of infrastructure and technology, and public areas will have to be restructured electrically for charging, such as apartment blocks, airports, and supermarket parking lots.
We are already seeing the first businesses involved in the installation and maintenance of home and commercial charging stations. Five connectors will run from battery packs: one will be used for cooling, heating, charging, monitoring the car’s performance, and the final connector will be used with the vehicles information and entertainment system. This system will allow the businesses to network with power companies to create an integrated bill for customers.
It is important to understand that electric cars will benefit from a supplier base already structured like an ecosystem—and there are far too many living things in the emerging ecosystem to be anticipated by any single OEM. It will take an implicit partnership of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of suppliers to fill out the technology. The key is to bring them into alignment and, for that, the public sector may play a major role. "If governments act to consolidate standards, they can really make a difference in catalyzing competition among suppliers," says Tony Posawatz, the line director for the Volt.