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Paving the way for cleaner fuels

July 29, 2013

The popularity of alternative-fuel vehicles continues to grow, but significant hurdles still exist for auto manufacturers. High on the priority list: developing infrastructure to support the transition.

Whatever vehicle technology—whether electric vehicles, plug-in hybrids, fuel cell vehicles, compressed natural gas (CNG), or biofuels—customers need convenient access to charging or filling stations, the underlying framework that supports widespread adoption.

UMTRI assistant research scientist Bruce Belzowski moderated UMTRI’s fifth, annual Powertrain Strategies for the 21st Century conference on July 24, which focused on advanced powertrain and infrastructure challenges and opportunities. Most speakers agreed that having infrastructure in place plays a key role in advancing alternative vehicle technologies.

Reducing petroleum consumption and harmful vehicle emissions is a primary goal. Justin Ward of Toyota discussed the role of electric vehicles, hybrid technology, and fuel-cell vehicles (using hydrogen), adding that Toyota’s strategy is to pursue a “portfolio of technologies,” each with its own infrastructure. “The reality is that customers want to see it in operation before buying cars,” said Ward.

Brendan Jones of Nissan described the challenge with electric vehicles in particular as “building range confidence,” among consumers, or the belief that they have access to a charging station when and where they need it. From an electric-vehicle infrastructure perspective, Nissan will focus on installing charging stations at dealerships to demonstrate the technology, in communities, and at the workplace.

According to the Alternative Fuels Data Center, there are 6,268 public electric vehicle charging stations in the United States. Charging equipment for plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) and all-electric vehicles (EVs) is classified by the rate at which the batteries are charged. Level 1 charging is achieved through a 120-volt AC plug, while level 2 equipment offers charging through 240-volt (typically residential) or 208-volt (typically commercial) electrical service. Level 2 charging equipment can easily charge a typical EV battery overnight.

Moving the technology forward, eight automakers recently committed to adopting the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) new industry standard for direct current (DC) fast charging. DC fast charging will allow EV owners to recharge their batteries up to 80 percent in less than 20 minutes.

Other conference speakers included Mihai Dorobantu of Eaton Corporation, who spoke on advanced powertrains in heavy vehicles; Jon Coleman of Ford Motor Company, who discussed the introduction of compressed natural gas (CNG) into fleet and retail vehicles; Matt Sandstrom of the Clean Energy Coalition, who reviewed trends in alternative fuels including biofuels, natural gas, propane, and electric vehicles; and Michael Delaney of DTE Energy who discussed the company’s strategies to provide the necessary infrastructure support for plug-in hybrids and pure electric vehicles.

Conference sponsors included Bosch Corporation, Nissan Technical Center, Denso Corporation, and the U-M Office of the Vice President of Research.

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Photo: Nissan Leaf at charging station on the U-M campus.