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Copper and the Business of Plugging In

November 23rd, 2011

By Bob Weed, CDA Vice President OEM

As reported recently in a Detroit News column, a Ford Motor Company study indicates that while 61 percent of consumers are interested in buying a hybrid or electric vehicle, only 4 percent actually do, and that nearly half of consumers don’t know the difference between a plug-in hybrid and an electric vehicle.   Add to that the initial cost and range anxiety (concerns about running out of power while on the road), and automakers and suppliers have their work cut out for them in fostering the widespread adoption of electrified vehicles.

Conference attendees lined up to drive electric vehicles like this AMP Mercedes ML EV and Chevrolet Volt.

Enter the Center for Automotive Research (CAR) conference, The Business of Plugging In, held in October at the Dearborn, Michigan Hyatt Regency.  I was pleased to represent the CDA at the conference, which was centered on global strategies for the long-term growth and mass market success of the plug-in electric vehicle.  Earlier, I had the opportunity to speak with Brett Smith, CAR’s Assistant Research Director and Co-Director, Manufacturing, Engineering & Technology Group, who said, “In the past, this conference was more about the hype and the excitement – what a wonderful thing this technology is.  Then last year, we had vehicles on the road and people could see that this could work.  Now we’re looking at how we can make this work financially.”

Conference attendees lined up to drive electric vehicles like this AMP Mercedes ML EV and Chevrolet Volt.

Hundreds of companies participated in the conference, representing various aspects of vehicle electrification and related industries, including automotive, utility and new technology developers, government policy makers, researchers and financial investment specialists.  One of the conference, objectives, according to Brett Smith, was “Not only to have presenters speak about their areas of expertise, but to give people who are developing technologies, or those who have new ideas or questions, the chance to interact with potential partners, customers and others in the industry.  It’s a who’s-who in the future of electric vehicles.”

A sure way to ramp up enthusiasm for vehicle electrification is to give people the opportunity to test drive the industry’s latest offerings.  I was among the conference attendees who were able to sit in and drive a Chevrolet Volt, a Ford Transit Connect, AMP Mercedes ML350 EV, Nissan Leaf, and Tesla Roadster at the Ride & Drive.  Experiencing the quiet performance, as well as the surprising power and comfort of these vehicles firsthand can make the reality of electric vehicles hit home like nothing else.


As Always, Copper was Plugged In

The CDA supported the development of the copper rotor motor in this Tesla Roadster.

The presence of the Tesla Roadster was especially significant for me.  One of goals of the CDA is to partner with any organization in the automotive arena, to assist them in advancing their innovations in electric vehicles through the use of copper.  Tesla Motors was quick to adopt an induction motor with an efficient and powerful copper rotor to provide the speed and handling required in their first model. The CDA led the effort to develop technology to die-cast  copper rotors  so that they would be as efficient to produce as they are to operate. We are looking forward to the introduction of a die-cast copper rotor replacing the fabricated copper rotor in a future Tesla vehicle.  I brought along some of the die-cast rotors  for the CDA’s display, and conference attendees stopped by to ask questions about the benefits of induction motors, as well as examine the rotors themselves.  Media representatives, including Frank Sherosky of Torque News and Kevin Clemens of Midwest Energy News, took an interest in the technology and its advantages over permanent magnet motors, including a cost that’s about 20% less and multiple performance benefits.

Siemens was on-hand, exhibiting their latest charging station. Charging is another of the many areas in vehicle electrification that make use of copper.

But, in addition to the copper rotor motor display, copper was a part of virtually every aspect of the conference.  How?  Electric vehicles contain about two to three times the amount of copper as a conventional vehicle. Wiring harnesses, power electronics, motors, batteries and charging infrastructure require copper, and companies representing many of these aspects of vehicle electrification were present, both in the workshops and displaying their innovations in the facility’s Great Lakes Center.

Making Electrification Work for Consumers

A Nissan Leaf is charged at a portable station during the BPI conference.

At a conference workshop titled “PEVs: Getting Plugged In to the Newest Technology,” Don Karner, president of Ecotality North America, said that changing the public’s perception of charging will be essential.  Charging at home will become routine, according to representatives from DTE Energy and Consumers Energy, who brought information about how early adopters could obtain assistance paying for the cost and installation of charging stations at home.  Bringing the initial cost of the vehicles themselves down is another hurdle faced by automakers.  Workshops called “Consumer Insights” and “Community Preparedness” included consumer market analysis and infrastructure professionals, who discussed the likely path of acceptance by consumers now that there are actually EVs on the road.

Sherif Marakby, Ford Motor Company’s Director of Electrification programs and Engineering, noted that saving money is the main reason consumers are interested in EVs.  Whether it’s hybrids or plug-ins or EVs, affordability is a critical factor.  “Customers are looking for that payback,” he said.    I completely agree with Sherif.  In fact, cost is one of the areas where copper can be beneficial.  It’s a mistake to look only at copper’s initial cost. Besides its superior thermal and electrical conductivity, it is 100% recyclable, so some of those costs can be re-captured at the end of the life of the vehicle.

The Bigger Electrical Picture – The Grid

Copper is a critical component of the overall electrical infrastructure, as well, as a transporter of electricity to substations and a connector of the system to the grid.  It’s also part of motors, transformers and all electrical wiring.  Tying this technology to vehicle electrification was the subject of the conference’s “Vehicle-to-Grid and Grid-to-Vehicle Connectivity” workshop.  One of the workshop speakers, Jeff Kessen, Director of Automotive Marketing for A123 Systems, discussed his company’s advancements in energy storage solutions that enable a more efficient and reliable electric grid and help integrate renewable generation sources.  “There’s a real business case to be made for energy storage on the grid, particularly with batteries,” he said.  “And we’ve seen vehicle-to-grid technologies done, but there are challenges.  It’s going to take some time to develop, but when that’s accomplished there will be a benefit for the owner and grid operator alike.”

Again, copper will be a factor virtually every step of the way.  In fact, it’s hard to imagine any of the companies represented at the conference making the strides they are in vehicle electrification without the benefit copper provides.  That’s one of the reasons the CDA is here.   We can offer a wealth of research and development, as well as scientific and engineering support to companies working on improving the efficiency of the grid, vehicle electrification, and any number of other areas involving copper.  We have a strong track record of assisting stakeholders across a wide range of fields, including automotive, medical, plumbing, architecture, art, the environment, and others, providing technical information and pre-competitive developmental assistance using copper and copper alloys, as well as technical and end-user support.

I thoroughly enjoyed my experience at this year’s The Business of Plugging In conference and am already excited about the new advancements we’ll be seeing next year.

For more information, please visit the Copper Development Association’s Web site at copper.org.






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