Electrify Expo gives EV-curious consumers hands-on experience

Car enthusiasts arriving at the Electrify Expo festival next month in Long Beach, Calif., will find familiar products from the likes of Hyundai, Toyota, Volvo and about a half-dozen other automakers.

They’ll also find much more.

From electric unicycles to conventional e-bikes, electric motorcycles to electric boats, the event boasts electric mobility options of every stripe, and they’re ready for hands-on use by e-curious consumers willing to fork over $20 for a daily ticket.

Electrify Expo held its first event in September 2020 and three more last year. The Long Beach show, scheduled for June 3 to 5, is the first of five planned for 2022 across the U.S. As its scope has grown, the expo has attracted interest from carmakers at a time when traditional auto shows are in flux.

Among those shows, IAA Mobility took a step toward a broader mobility audience last fall, with two of its nine halls in Munich dedicated to bicycle manufacturers. Electrify Expo arrives from the other side of the mobility spectrum, founded with an e-bike focus and now branching toward automotive.

Whether the expo complements or competes with traditional auto shows, founder BJ Birtwell is reluctant to make comparisons.

“Maybe it’s this generation’s auto show, but we’re so much broader than an auto show,” he told Automotive News. “You trade some of the glitz and glamour for EV shoppers who just want to try stuff. They just need to experience it, and you can only do that so much within the boxed walls of a convention center.”

Static objects behind velvet ropes, Electrify Expo is not. While the festival is located at the Long Beach Convention & Entertainment Center, exhibitors will demo products outdoors across more than 1 million square feet.

The Los Angeles area, Miami and Austin, Texas, hosted Electrify Expo events last year. Those three locations return to the 2022 lineup, along with newcomers New York and Seattle. Birtwell said expansion sites are being chosen based on EV registration data and that more cities will be added next year.

Historically high gasoline prices — they reached $6.09 per gallon last week in Los Angeles County, according to AAA — have contributed to increased interest in electric vehicles writ large and Electrify Expo in particular. Though he did not divulge figures, Birtwell said advance ticket sales were already running substantially higher than in 2021.

He sees that as a tail wind to an industry already on the verge of a shift to electrics. And he wants to do his part to push past the tipping point.

“The biggest hurdle to EV adoption is trial,” he said. “If we can deliver a meaningful experience so that lightbulb moment happens, then the game has changed.”

Other automakers and brands scheduled for Long Beach are Lucid Motors, Chrysler, BMW, Volkswagen, Lexus, VinFast and Polestar.

Electrify Expo also offers an important element for consumers interested in EV adoption: Utility and charging network companies are there to assist prospective customers in figuring out how they can charge a vehicle.

“Whether they live in a home or an apartment, there’s answers there to learn how and when to charge their vehicle,” said Birtwell, who came up with the idea for the expo after buying his first EV, a Tesla, in 2016. “I’m a car guy. I grew up and thought if I couldn’t hear the rumble of a V-8, a vehicle lacked a soul. Then I bought an electric, and all these things I thought were big hurdles were easily answered.”

EV truck makers prepare for big business ahead

LOS ANGELES — For a glimpse of how quickly the market for electric heavy-duty trucks is evolving, consider the crowd size of the Advanced Clean Transportation Expo, an 11-year-old trade show for the burgeoning segment.

According to show organizers, more than 8,300 people attended last week’s expo in Long Beach, Calif., which featured a range of suppliers and truckmakers such as Daimler Trucks and Nikola Corp. showing off their latest zero-emission and green vehicles. Attendance was up about 60 percent from the August show, prompting organizers to move the event to a larger space in Anaheim, Calif., next year.

“The attendance numbers are clearly a reflection of what’s happening in the industry,” said Erik Neandross, CEO of clean transportation consulting firm Gladstein, Neandross & Associates, during the expo’s opening reception.

Interest in electric big rigs is growing as massive investments are being made by established truckmakers and electric startups. The market is on the rise as companies look to meet looming government targets and hit their own sustainability goals, and as fleet operators and drivers react to the record-high cost of diesel fuel.

But the market for electric heavy-duty trucks is still small. Short-term sales goals are often discussed in the hundreds or even dozens of units. Nikola, for example, said this month that it delivered its first 11 Tre semitrucks in April. It expects to ship between 300 and 500 trucks this year.

The trucks’ production could herald a fresh start for Nikola, whose stock price plunged last year amid accusations of fraud levied against its founder.

“You can’t build credibility overnight. It takes some time,” Nikola President Michael Lohscheller told Automotive News.

While the future of trucking is leaning electric, no one knows how quickly the industry will get there or what technologies will emerge as the best solutions.

“It’s clear we’ve not hit the easy button yet,” Mary Aufdemberg, general manager of product strategy and market development for Daimler Trucks North America, said during a panel discussion. “There are a lot of options out there that we all have to be very active in pursuing.”

Many of the hurdles to electric heavy-truck adoption will sound familiar to those who follow the passenger vehicle market. Long battery- charging times, the lack of a robust charging infrastructure, range anxiety and high costs were major topics at the show.

But the answers to those questions in the commercial trucking space are likely to be distinct from those for passenger vehicles.

“There are different rules in the automotive space versus the commercial space,” said Rob Ferber, chief technology officer of the Los Angeles electric truck startup Xos. “Trucks are not big cars. Cars are consumer products. If they fail or if the return on investment is a negative number, that’s just part of a lifestyle choice. Commercial products with negative returns on investments aren’t commercial products. They’re art projects.”

Charging infrastructures illustrate the difference.

While the number of public charging spots for passenger vehicles has risen significantly in recent years, that means little for heavy trucks, which might not be able to physically access those stations.

“The inability for fleets to access recharging infrastructure will be the single largest inhibitor to widespread adoption,” said David Carson, senior vice president of sales and marketing at Daimler Trucks North America. “It’s what will keep these technologies constrained to important but niche-use cases.”

Designing charging points with trucking in mind will be crucial for electric adoption, but so will investing in the nation’s electric grid. Carson said Daimler estimates there would need to be a 20 percent increase in electricity generation nationwide if the country’s trucking fleet were to become zero-emission.

“When we start to think about 50 or so battery-electric trucks charging simultaneously at a highway rest stop, almost any local power grid would be severely challenged and overwhelmed to deliver this power,” he said.

Executives were also in agreement that, because of high costs, government incentives are crucial for electric truck adoption. According to a report by Gladstein, Neandross & Associates, battery-electric semitruck tractors can have a base cost of about $300,000.

While the report notes that base prices for electric trucks are expected to decline by as much as half by 2030, as battery and components costs decrease, incentives remain critical.

More public funding is being made available. According to the report, federal and state incentives will increase to about $20 billion this year, up from a “historical annual average” of about $3 billion.

“The incentive market has really started to explode, and this will be the case going forward,” Erik Neandross said at the expo.

The zero-emission truck segment has been dominated so far by battery-electric vehicles, but many companies are betting that hydrogen fuel cell technology will emerge as a major consideration.

Hydrogen-powered trucks are a rarity for now, and the public charging infrastructure to support them is in its infancy. Most of the country’s hydrogen fueling stations are located in California, where there were 52 as of June 2021, according to Gladstein, Neandross & Associates. But most of those were designed for passenger vehicle use, not heavy-duty trucks.

Still, truckmakers are investing in hydrogen fuel cell development. Nikola, for instance, plans to introduce a hydrogen-powered Tre truck in late 2023, with range of up to 500 miles compared with about 350 miles on the BEV model. The hydrogen model will be geared toward long-haul trucking uses, Nikola’s Lohscheller said.

“There will be customers who prefer the electric version because, in some uses, you know you’ll come back to certain charging points,” Lohscheller said. “You can go back and charge overnight. If you look at the distance of a lot of trucks in the U.S. and Europe, it’s not so long. They come back to the same hub or station. But some customers need longer range.”

Volvo Trucks, meanwhile, sees hydrogen-powered trucks playing a major role alongside battery-electric trucks and those with internal combustion engines. Volvo’s VNR Electric truck is already on the market and will primarily serve urban markets, said Peter Voorhoeve, president of Volvo Trucks North America. Hydrogen-powered trucks will start to serve long-haul freight by the end of the decade, he said, while a market for internal combustion trucks powered by renewable fuel sources will remain even beyond 2040.

“You’ll still have internal combustion engines, but with renewable fuels,” Voorhoeve said. “Are they powered by renewable diesel or renewable natural gas? There are many options that we’re investigating right now.”

What happens when things don’t go according to plan for a self-driving truck

Self-driving truck developers are promising they’ll launch commercial service as soon as next year. One of the key remaining engineering hurdles involves safely coaxing these 80,000-pound robots to the side of the road when things don’t go according to plan.

As driverless-deployment timelines draw nearer, many of the leading companies are focused on perfecting this particular fail-safe maneuver — even more than on expanding their routes or solving other edge-case scenarios.

“We can talk until we’re blue in the face about technology capabilities and the maneuvers a truck can handle and the way it interacts with traffic and all that stuff,” said Don Burnette, CEO and co-founder of Kodiak Robotics. “But at the end of the day, in order to launch this technology safely, when there is something that isn’t quite right, there has to be that capability to then safely pull the truck over to the side of the road.”

For a variety of reasons, this can be a complicated act, more so than an ordinary lane change. But companies are inching along.

Kodiak Robotics has practiced the maneuver since last year. Last week, the company conducted a public demonstration, cutting an ethernet cable that’s part of its self-driving system and showing a video of the Class 8 truck then pulling to the shoulder along Interstate 45 near Dallas.

The Mountain View, Calif.-based company, which built its systems to check for faults 10 times per second, heralded the test as an industry first. Competitors say they have conducted similar testing.

Waymo, with experience in both robotaxi and trucking applications, says it regularly tests its trucks in these so-called minimal-risk condition scenarios on closed courses, plotting for trucks to either pull to the shoulder or get off the road at the nearest exit.

Another competitor, Aurora, expects to demonstrate that capability at highway speeds in the third quarter of this year. The company says it is refining pulling onto the shoulder now in simulation, on test tracks and on limited settings on public roads.

On Aurora’s first-quarter earnings call this month, CEO and co-founder Chris Urmson underscored the importance of fail-safe operations.

“Most of the time, we talk about these sexy machine-learning, computer-vision types of problems, which are obviously important,” Urmson said. “To actually have a commercially viable product, you have to deal with what happens when the product breaks in some way.”

Although companies are placing fail-safe issues at the forefront now, they’ve long been under consideration.

For Aurora, that has involved working with partner Volvo Autonomous Solutions to integrate its self-driving systems into Volvo’s VNL long-haul truck and develop redundant systems for braking, steering and propulsion.

Likewise, when Burnette started Kodiak in July 2018, he did not want to merely prepare for autonomous testing, in which he could rely on a human safety driver as a backup. He wanted to incorporate fallback conditions form the start.

“ ’Driver, take over,’ that’s a pretty logical and reasonable way to design the early stages, because you don’t have to worry about handling the system in a degraded form,” he said. “But that’s a shortcut approach. We said, from day one, we’re going to calculate both a nominal driving path and a fallback driving path, and we’ve built up the sophistication of these systems in parallel.”

Kodiak’s design separates its computational engine into two different systems: one that handles understanding the road environment, decision-making and other primary tasks, and another that’s certified to the most stringent Automotive Safety Integrity Level (ASIL-D) in the industry and can take control when a fault is detected and navigate to the side of the road. Waymo and Aurora have similar primary-and-backup computing architectures.

Mapping can be an industry challenge, because precise high-definition maps are harder to make. That’s not a challenge for Kodiak’s system, which relies less on high-definition maps and more on inferring its surroundings in real time.

Road shoulders themselves can be haphazard environments, littered with debris, roadkill and other vehicles that are either stopped or possess uncertain trajectories. Still, the shoulder is almost always preferable to stopping in the lane of travel.

“We think of that as a last resort,” Burnette said. “It’s generally not considered to be the safest option in most circumstances. Whenever there’s an available shoulder and access to get there, our truck will try to do it.”

Once parked on the shoulder, there is yet another challenge. Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration rules mandate that drivers of vehicles stopped on the highway or shoulder must place warning triangles or flares behind them within 10 minutes of stopping.

A Kodiak spokesperson said the company is working with regulators and others to find a solution to a problem that remains nettlesome across the industry. It will need to be solved before commercial deployments begin next year.

For now, getting to the side of the road ranks as a milestone.

Israel’s EcoMotion highlights GM, Red Hat tie-up

EcoMotion highlights GM tie-up, battery tech

TEL AVIV, Israel — When General Motors opened its Israeli R&D center in 2008, it was a lonely outpost on the automotive landscape.

Today, more than 30 automakers and major suppliers have permanent offices and major tech centers in the country, and they are just a part of the auto-tech realm that includes hundreds of companies.

According to organizers of EcoMotion, an annual mobility event that marked its 10th anniversary last week, there are 670 transportation companies active in Israel, 27 of which have raised approximately $5.5 billion in initial public offerings over the past decade.

EcoMotion, a joint venture of the Israel Innovation Institute and government agencies, returned to its in-person roots last week after a COVID-19-related hiatus. More than 100 companies exhibited their technologies for about 3,000 people from 40 countries.

Topics ranged from electric vehicles to cybersecurity, in-cabin sensing and software. As it has been from the start, General Motors was at the forefront.

One of the most important tasks for the automaker’s Israel Technical Center has been working on the Ultifi software platform, which is expected to offer over-the-air services and features to vehicle owners, such as insurance or urban logistics.

At EcoMotion, GM unveiled a collaboration with IBM-owned Red Hat, a leading global provider of open-source, cloud-based enterprise solutions.

The partnership ushers in a Linux-based open-source system for vehicle operating systems. Like GM, Red Hat has been active in Israel since 2008.

Many of GM’s 850 employees at the technical center, located in the Tel Aviv suburb of Herzliya, are focused on the project, which constitutes a substantial undertaking.

“This company has never undergone as significant a revolution as it is going through now,” said Gil Golan, executive director of GM’s Israel Technical Center.

“The tools and resources we get for the Israeli center are unprecedented. GM today is a different company of anything I have known in 20 years — different priorities different products, different executive mindsets.”

Batteries were a central theme for startups at EcoMotion. Israeli battery startup StoreDot made headlines just a few weeks ago after earning investment from Volvo Cars Tech Fund. But it is not the only battery-minded Israeli startup. Three others were particularly intriguing.

3D Battery, established four years ago, appeared at the show for the first time, touting lithium ion technology ready for production that can improve energy density by 25 percent from market averages. The company says its batteries, at 950 watts per liter, can support fast charging that adds 62 miles of range in five minutes of charging.

Erez Schreiber, founder and CEO of 3DBattery, says the company is working to develop future generations of batteries, including solid-state batteries. Within a year, he expects the company will introduce a prototype of a sodium battery that will be dramatically less expensive than lithium ion-based batteries.

Another startup, Addionics, focuses on what company executives describe as a “three-dimensional electrode architecture,” which works with any type of battery chemistry. Addionics claims to have a cost-effective manufacturing process and artificial intelligence-based optimization software that improves battery performance, doubles accessible capacity, halves charging time and significantly increases battery life.

As long as lithium ion batteries are around and thermal runaway remains an industrywide concern, Israeli startup Carrar will remain intriguing.

Established in 2019, Carrar spun off from another company that developed a gas-liquid cooling technology for the computer industry.

Avinoam Rubinstain, Carrar’s CEO, says the company has built a closed-loop system in which heat is transferred from gas to liquid, which dissipates heat at three times the rate of conventional systems. Gentherm is an investor.

Bosch bets $528 million on ‘green’ hydrogen technology

Bosch plans to invest $528 million to develop components for hydrogen electrolysis, a technology that promises to speed adoption of so-called green hydrogen for use in transport and other sectors.

The world’s largest auto supplier said Wednesday at its annual news conference that it hopes to start production of electrolyzer “stacks” in 2025, with the expectation that the market for the components will reach nearly $15 billion by 2030.

Each stack is made of several hundred connected cells; in each cell, electricity is used to split water into its hydrogen and oxygen components. In green hydrogen, the electricity for this purpose is generated by wind, solar and other renewable sources.

Thomas Pauer, an executive vice president at Bosch who will lead the supplier’s electrolyzer business, said that Bosch would draw on its existing expertise in fuel cell powertrains. Bosch’s hydrogen portfolio ranges from sensors to complete fuel cell modules, and the supplier is developing stationary fuel cells for use in industrial applications and even as charging points for electric vehicles.

Bosch and most other suppliers say that hydrogen power will be adopted first by the long-haul trucking market, but Pauer said that in the future passenger car applications could be considered. Stellantis and Renault have already launched limited-production commercial vans, while Toyota has sold the Mirai fuel cell car for several years. 

Hydrogen fuel cell technology remains a niche market in the mobility sector, due to costs and lack of refueling infrastructure, but auto suppliers such as Bosch and Faurecia expect that scale and a wider push to decarbonize will bring down prices. 

Countries including China, France and Germany are investing billions of euros to support hydrogen infrastructure, innovation and industrialization.

The chemical reaction in fuel cells is facilitated by a polymer electrolyte membrane, or PEM, and Bosch will use the same technology for electrolysis stacks.

“We work with fuel cells around the clock, so our expectation is that some of this technology can be transferred to help come up with a cost-optimized [electrolysis] stack,” Pauer said.

Bosch CEO Stefan Hartung said Wednesday that the war in Ukraine has highlighted the urgency to develop new sources of energy, including hydrogen.

“Our concern is to secure energy supplies, with the price of oil and gas remaining at a very high level,” he said. 

“Green hydrogen is essential if we want to make our world carbon neutral,” Hartung added. “Hydrogen can help to mitigate global warming in every sector.” 

Bosch will work with partners to combine the stack with “smart modules,” including power electronics, control units and sensors, Pauer said. 

“We don’t want to build electrolysis plants in the sense of a power plant,” he said. “We want to be a component supplier; this is our core business.” Customers can use the modules to build their own plants.

“We’re surprised by how strongly the market is growing,” Pauer added, noting that investments in electrolysis had doubled in Europe in recent years. “The world is realizing that we need a different energy source. I don’t think we can solve our energy issues without hydrogen.” 

Germany’s Bosch ranks No. 1 on the Automotive News list of the top 100 global suppliers with worldwide sales to automakers of $46.5 billion in 2020.

American Axle’s Q1 net income plunges

American Axle & Manufacturing Holdings Inc. saw its first-quarter net income nearly evaporate while it tries to manage the immediate disruption of supply chain volatility and the longer-term challenge of electrification.

The Detroit-based supplier’s income plunged 97 percent year-over-year to $1 million as revenue remained flat at $1.4 billion, according to its earnings report Friday.

“The industry is experiencing unprecedented supply chain volatility stemming from multiple global challenges,” CEO David Dauch told investors Friday. “We’re going to continue to grow in our conventional products. We’re going to continue to grow in our electrification.”

American Axle joins much of the automotive supplier base this week in reporting bleak performances for the quarter, underscoring the financial pain that persists among suppliers even as automakers turn significant profits.

American Axle shares dropped 3 percent to $6.85 per share as of early Friday afternoon.

The company won a contract to supply drive axles to Geely Group, based in Hangzhou, China, and pointed to its $135 million acquisition of German supplier Tekfor Group as examples of how it is winning new contracts for its core business and preparing for electrification.

“We do see a significant amount of electrification opportunities presenting themselves,” Dauch said. “Each quarter, that just continues to grow.”

The company’s adjusted EBITDA in the first quarter was $196.1 million, or 13.7 percent of sales, compared to $262.9 million, or 18.4 percent of sales, at the same time last year. Its net cash provided by operating activities for the first quarter fell more than 60 percent to $68.5 million. The company has $1.5 billion in liquidity.

For the quarter, American Axle took a $44 million hit due to the microchip shortage and higher costs of material, freight and labor. CFO Chris May said the company is negotiating with customers to recover those costs.

“We’re addressing these issues with our customers,” he said. “As you know, it’s a very sensitive topic with our customers. We’ve continued to make good progress with that.”