Cold starts, hot power markets, and great expectations
Recent cold spells across the United States have shifted the focus from “range anxiety” in electric vehicles (EVs) to concerns about their performance in cold…how they start, and how far they can go. Buzzworthy? Apparently. Newsworthy? Maybe, but it’s not new news.
Reflecting on a youthful personal experience with a three-on-the-column 1964 Dodge Dart, “range anxiety” meant the onerous mental calculations involved in determining how much spare change was needed to get enough gas to reach home after a night out. “Cold starts” involved the struggle of starting an internal combustion engine (ICE) in Northeastern Pennsylvania winters, usually resulting in a dead battery with whining, rapid clicking, and the anxiety of locating someone for a jump start.
The current discourse around EVs seems to reflect the unrealistic expectations of technology overall — almost understandable given the rapid advancements in electronics to which consumers have grown accustomed. The intricate electronics found in EVs and most of the electronic devices we use daily didn’t simply materialize out of thin air. Developing these power electronics devices is a complex process, and the engineers who bring them to life are highly skilled professionals.
Contributing writer Bill Schweber, in a recent EEWorld Online blog post, emphasized the underappreciated role of engineers in these technological advancements who are frequently overshadowed by the pop culture that benefits most from their engineering advancements:
“My view is that non-recognition is the downside of innovating so much while making it all look so easy, regardless of how hard it was. In many ways, the astounding success of the engineering community at creating so much wonderful stuff, with the resulting advances we live with and routinely use, makes it all look like no big deal: it all “just happens.” Of course, it’s not that way at all.”
As consumers, we often take for granted the complex technology and sophisticated engineering skillsets that power our everyday lives. We expect constant connectivity, rapid charging, and minimal latency when browsing, streaming, or listening online. Similarly, do we think our EV batteries should be unaffected by cold weather, and the driving range on a single charge be comparable to that of a full gas tank?
The transition to electrification, the rise in the number of power electronic components in EVs, and the integration of artificial intelligence into numerous applications are just some of the challenges electronics engineers face today. The solution to these challenges will involve the efficient use of currently available power and significant leaps in energy generation for the power-intensive needs of the future.
It’s not simple stuff, but reigning in expectations appears a lot more complicated. Demand does help to inspire and drive innovation. Maybe it’s time for demanding consumers to spend more time in the driver’s seat with the folks behind that innovation.
The articles included here are definitely for you, the engineer. But it wouldn’t hurt to pay it forward to those who benefit from your work. They don’t have to know what RDson or bidirectional power means in detail; maybe it would be more impactful to explain what you do in a context they can appreciate — and not take for granted.