With more than 700 companies exhibiting, the Electric & Hybrid Vehicle Technology Expo provides a hands-on opportunity to talk with EV and battery suppliers. (Image source: Design News)

Spending the better part of a week with more than 9,000 attendees at The Battery Show and Electric & Hybrid Vehicle Technology Expo 2019, in Novi, Michigan gives a pretty strong impression of where electrification of transportation is today, and more importantly, where it will be going tomorrow.

Growing Fast

First of all the show itself has grown—the Expo is now 20% larger than last year and more than 700 companies exhibit their products and technologies. There is an incredible variety of things to see—computer simulation software, battery test systems, connectors and cabling, battery packaging and venting systems, motors and controllers, chargers, and of course, battery cells and packs are on display. But, here is the thing—the days of garage hobbyists and “mom and pop” operations are gone. The battery and EV industries have become multi-billion dollar enterprises and the commercial professionals have taken over, and it shows.

Conferences and presentations at the show were divided into eight separate tracks and there were more than 150 speakers. Basic materials science, battery chemistry, charging systems, and EV market factors all get serious and critical examination by academic and industry experts. The talks are grouped into topics such as cell design, battery materials development, and EV and hybrid industry developments to aid show-goers in their choices.

Buses, Trucks, and Delivery Vehicles Lead The Way

Although EVs are still a very small part of the total automotive market in the US (between 2-3 %), there are certain segments that are beginning to show growth. During an Industry Leader’s Round Table on EV Growth, attendees learned that electric school buses are becoming popular. A school bus would seem in ideal EV application—the route is well-established, the speeds are low with lots of stop and go, and after an initial activity in the morning the bus sits unused (when it can recharge) until the end of the day. School districts are finding that the highly efficient electric buses can save, not only in fuel costs but also in reduced service and maintenance costs.

Another market that is rapidly growing is light delivery vehicles. FedEx, UPS, and others are buying fleets of electrically-powered trucks for urban package delivery. Once again, cost is the biggest driver as electrified trucks are proving themselves reliable and frugal in the field. The growing popularity of this segment was reflected in an increase in attendance in sessions dedicated to electrification of trucks and commercial and off-road equipment.

Actor and EV activist Ed Begley, Jr. leads a Roundtable panel discussion on EV Sustainability. (Image source: Design News)

Can EVs Be Sustainable?

The growth of the personal EV market in the US is not quite as robust. Ford’s Senior Technical Leader Bob Taenaka provided a Keynote Address on how carmakers will deliver on customers EV demands. The same topic was also addressed during an Industry Leader’s Roundtable dedicated to EV Sustainability. Auto industry analysts were questioned by actor, author, environmental activist, and noted electric vehicle early adopter Ed Begley, Jr. It was a wide-ranging discussion that included battery and vehicle costs, transitioning from current internal combustion gasoline-powered vehicles to EVS and how soon that is likely to occur in the US. Of particular interest was the conversation surrounding how automakers and unions will handle the disruption caused by vehicles that are much less labor-intensive to build, requiring fewer production-line workers. In addition, auto dealers will find their business changing dramatically, as the service requirements for EVs will be significantly less than current gasoline-powered vehicles.

New Materials

Research and development of new battery materials was also address in several session and during a Keynote Address by Mark Verbrugge, director, Chemical and Materials Systems Laboratory at General Motors. Verbrugge told his audience that a push toward Earth abundant materials and away from exotic elements could dramatically improve both battery performance and cost.

Another innovation that could improve battery performance was discussed during an Industry Leader’s Roundtable on Solid State Batteries. With representation from the University of Michigan, two battery manufacturers, and Ford and Toyota, the panel estimated production of the first solid state electrolyte batteries was just 3-5 years away. In fact, battery maker A123 broke the news during the session that it will convert its Romulus, Michigan battery plant to produce prototype solid state batteries before the end of 2019.

A Show of Optimism

Although the future of electrification of transportation in the US is complicated and difficult to predict, Design News editors detected a shared sense of optimism among battery show attendees. If nothing else, the number of new EVs that are scheduled to reach the market in the next year or two will provide more car-buying options—particularly as SUV and light truck EVs come available. There is also a strong consensus that battery cost will continue to fall and that a cost parity between EVs and gasoline-powered vehicle is just a couple years away. These factors, combined with many billions of dollars of investments by auto makers and suppliers means that electrification has moved from the fringes into an essential core part of the automobile industry.

The dates for The Battery Show and Electric & Hybrid Vehicle Technology Expo 2020, in Novi, Michigan will be September 15-17, 2020.

 Senior Editor Kevin Clemens has been writing about energy, automotive, and transportation topics for more than 30 years. He has masters degrees in Materials Engineering and Environmental Education and a doctorate degree in Mechanical Engineering, specializing in aerodynamics. He has set several world land speed records on electric motorcycles that he built in his workshop.