January 18, 2021

The Digital Electrochemical Future of Mobility

hydrogen fuel

In 2018 a KPMG survey showed that most auto executives still believed hydrogen fuel cell cars are going to win and EVs are going to fail in the long run. Many of the major oil companies believe that biofuels are fundamentally limited in scale, and oil is too carbon intensive so are looking at a EVs as a stepping stone to a natural gas feedstock, hydrogen powered fuel cell transport fuel future of some sort – in part because every molecule is needed.  Today, hydrogen is back in vogue, though in the current energy transition worldview, the every molecule needed idea is increasingly challenged.

We have a slightly different take, we think a digital – electrochemical auto tech stack of the future rewrites the car and transport sector from well to driver and every business model in between.

Let me posit our future. In the new world order for transport fuel:

  • Renewable and battery costs keep falling
  • Effective “engine efficiency” continues to improve
  • Car weight for the average fleet and the average class goes down
  • AI makes smarter cars/optimized and self driving
  • Car sharing reaches dominant share and builds on driver-less and AI tech
  • Our cost/car mile falls by a third, for umpteen times better product

We expect to see a complete rewrite of both the auto and fuel supply chain and distribution and ownership models in the process. 

What do people actually want out of their cars? How about convenience, low cost, no traffic, no hassle, sex appeal, acceleration, comfort, personal control, less time in them, faster transport, always available. What in that says IC engines invented c 1900 matter? Or that driving up to a gas station, getting out, taking time out of my day, putting in my credit card and sloshing combustible smelly stuff into the car while my kids ask when are we getting there is a positive addition to my life?

Then what do our 2035 cars actually look like? They look hella cool and crush the IC engine and maybe the hydrogen economy forever. Not just on cost, on functionality.

Here’s our ultimate digital – electrochemical auto tech “stack” of 2030-2040.

Ultra-light weight carbon fiber bodied – enabling less battery, smaller engines, more fuel efficiency. Weight is a force multiplier. Car companies that get that will win, those that don’t will fail. The tech is already being adopted in EVs, and has been around for years. Just needs more cost down and scale.  Ford already showed us the way in 2015 with the all-aluminum welded F150 and Ecoboost and a 936 mile range.

EV wheel based pod motor driven – enabling better turning radius, safety, traction control, ultra optimized driving, quad regenerative braking, torque improvement, engine redundancy, 2wd/4wd on the fly switching, drive by wire, lower center of gravity. This was the old GM skateboard concept for fuel cells from 2002. The engine tech just never got there. It literally rewrites how you design a car and what you can do with it, and is the basis for Tesla. It becomes 4 distributed electric motors embedded in the wheels. No drive train, transmission, alternator, big engine, engine compartment, the “drivetrain” and engine and wheels are just structural.

Lithium Ion type battery powered – while there are always more battery breakthroughs, it takes an industry of investment to scale and cost down battery technology. LI class batteries are are winning, and going to win. No single company can change that. It’s just a matter of what type of LI. The key challenges with LI for auto are power to weight and volume, energy to weight and volume, charge/discharge depth and rate v life, safety, and cost – all headed in the right direction and often exponentially cumulative not linearly additive. As a simple example, if the unit has a better depth of discharge/discharge rate v life, you need less battery capacity onboard for range, because you can run what you have harder. If you add that to better weight ratio, you need less battery to carry the weight of the other batteries, and less volume, you need less car to carry the volume.

Think of it like an army with horses as it mechanized. Horses need hay to eat. Horses have to haul that hay. The farther you go, pretty soon your horses are only carrying hay to eat, and you need another horse to carry you. Which also needs hay… Enter gasoline with a very high fuel to weight/volume ratio relative to horses, which can carry a day of fuel in few little cans in the back, and horses are gone.

Now the next issue with LI batteries is power to energy ratio is fairly linear. More power and more range meaning shifting the curve not moving on the curve. The storage industry used this excuse as the need for flow batteries and fuel cells where you can divorce power from energy, just like adding a bigger gas tank (my F150 has 36 gallons, a tiny 2.7L engine with turbochargers, so I can haul, accelerate AND go 936 miles, making it to San Francisco with 1 stop for gas). But today the industry is actually shifting the curves for LI.

PV/Nat Gas/Wind/Water Fueled – So what powers this puppy? Our grid mix is shifting, by 2040 we’ll be running wind and PV for low cost, natural gas for firming, and everything else becomes niche. The PV module today costs like $0.30/Wp, already well below the broad grid parity targets that existed when I started out, and already cheaper than anything else in its best markets. And expected to be at $0.15/Wp by 2025. The train has left the station.

Optional Reversible PEM Fuel Cell/Electrolyzer Range Boosted – instead of a hydrogen fueled PEM fuel cell running the whole thing like auto and oil execs would love, and dealing with hydrogen fueling infrastructure or onboard reforming, both which have massive technical and cost problems especially when you need the size to run a full car, we’re going to get you your 1,000 mile range “PH”EV with a combination of undersized high tech without sacrificing acceleration, torque, and car size. We’ll let you have your fuel cells, they just don’t happen the way you expect. We’ll start with an APU. This is 1960s/70s NASA tech, that I worked on 15 years ago. It’s a reversible PEM electrolyzer/hydrogen fuel cell that run forward converts hydrogen into electricity, allowing a small metal hydride or pressure tank to provide energy storage and range, and run backwards breaks water down and makes electricity. It’s not a mister fusion, but it’s damn close. And the tech is not new, and while hard, is easier to handle at APU scale than fuel cell plus onboard reforming at engine scale. Moral: fuel cells are as likely to be disruptive or supportive of EVs, not a replacement for or supportive of current energy supply and distribution models.

Onboard/Offboard PV Charged – We are going to have PV covered cars. Not now, not in 5-10 years. But it will happen. The knock on this has been simple, not enough surface area to deliver the power needed. And a long list of technical challenges. Let alone handle peak v average load needs and range. Concept cars yes, real cars no. That won’t be true in 2040. Car power requirements will be down by a factor or more (just like my 2.7L vs a 5L, for 97% of the torque and 85% of HP), PV performance /unit area up by a couple of factors, PV prices/Wp down by a factor, and the PV system in an integrated EV world provides more boost than it does prime mover. At the very least it will be a cheap APU or battery trickle charger. I’d like you to imagine a world where the current panel technology that delivers 20+ish % efficiency and costs $0.30/Wp for a c 400 W module moves to a high performance, multi-junction, or a clear single junction plus a multi-junction concentrated cell structurally replacing roof and hood and windows. A car has surface area for say 3 modules, and needs 10s of KW worth of power. An EV has c. 25-100 kwh battery today, I can easily imagine pulling 5-10 kwh/day off onboard solar, and combined in within home charging and our APU electrolyzer able to deliver a fuel stationless existence. Keep in mind cars only drive <10% of their life. My F150 sits in the sun, and a roof and bed just begging for PV. PV becomes the low cost fuel cost reducer, range extender and APU trickle charger.

Inductive wireless home and parking lot /workplace charged – the real question, why exactly do I have to stop for fuel, and why exactly do I have to take my car to get fuel? Why do I get out of my car to plug it in? In 2035, you don’t. Your parking space at home, work and while shopping or out is your charger. And it’s plugged into the grid and the PV on the your roof and your car. Amazon, Walmart, Netflix and Apple have provided the systems, and they advertise on the charger, so you pull into the parking spot on the one that has the best loyalty program, and let it charge while you go to work or in to eat. The energy cost is so low, they bury it in Prime and your healthcare bill, and your onboard AI named Dinah makes the decisions on when and how much it needs.

V2G Enabled Home Backup-power and Integrated Smart Fuel /Charging Switching – these are not single sources of supply. Your car battery is the backup power to your house, and charges from the cheaper of its own PV roof, your PV roof, or the grid wherever it’s parked as needed, without you thinking about it, and is smart enough to know when to pass up the expense. It even has AI tech enabled by blockchain based smart contracts that negotiates with the provider in real time on how much energy it needs, the charging rate and price before it plugs in, or negotiates to sell its power back to reduce that location’s demand charges. The onboard AI knows when to turn on the electrolyzer to make fuel, and when to run the fuel cell and batteries to get paid for peak power management. Your average fuel cost goes down to a fraction of your latte budget (literally), and the new Microsoft AI cuts deals with other car AI’s next to it to create a short term monopoly and force that local utility to pay through the nose for peak supply, because the utilities don’t have top notch AI engineers. And if the utility’s AI refuses, your AI just sells straight to the building owner or another car next to it.

Shared Model AI Self Driving and Fueling – car sharing and ride sharing will have a dominant market. The cars will do the work with no driver. The car will take care of its own maintenance scheduling and fuel. It does the driving, and handles safety, and even shops for its own cheapest insurance based on its own driving history. It will rent itself out to Uber when you aren’t using it, and schedule an alternative ride for you if it isn’t close enough. I will watch tv and conference calls in my car.

Recovered/Recycled – one gets the argument from time to time that there is not enough material to do all of this – lithium, cobalt etc. Either of two worlds: we mine more because it is cheap, or we recycle any valuable metals just like we do the catalytic converters now. 2030 sees an explosion in metals extraction and separation technologies. ExxonMobil’s massive Baytown refining operation turns into metals separation plants because oil volumes have fallen so much.

So what does all this mean? A lot.

  • Fuel demand taps out and becomes deflationary rather than inflationary.
  • No lubricants/low maintenance business
  • More materials mining and recycling
  • Destination and distributed fueling instead of corner Gas Station /Retail
  • Full employment act for electrical and electrochemical technologies and engineers
  • A massive new software industry for autotech and digital auto
  • My car takes itself in for fuel
  • Conventional mass transit take a hit
  • Dramatically cheaper insurance, safer cars
  • Car dealerships disappear – you buy your car at your house, it just drives over and takes you for a test drive, the salesman is pitching you remote from Iowa and the car takes itself in for maintenance when you are sleeping, negotiating the best rate along the way.
  • My car is super custom. 450,000 models not 4,500.
  • Cars utilized 80%+ of the time instead of 10%. “Net jets” for cars.
  • Rental car agencies are gone – Uber has become the new car rental agency.
  • Software, cyber security and General Counsel for Privacy all become C suite departments in transport and energy.

My car is so much cheaper, what am I going to spend my new disposable income?

How do we pay for it?

We are going pay more for cars, and save money. Typical car today is $80K. Yes $80K. 42% or $33K in car, $15K in gas, $12K in insurance $18K in maintenance over its life. In 2035 we are looking at $25-50K in car, 90%+ reduction in fuel costs, 50% reduction in maintenance, and 50% reduction in insurance, and your car will cost you 1/3rd less / month than today, but you don’t have to drive, get gas, or take it in for maintenance yourself and it is always where you want it. And you can always rent it out on AirBnB, which was bought by Microsoft and has replaced Uber as the leading car sharing service. The better your AI, the more money you can rent it for.

Not a bad world.

Don’t believe it’s possible? 19 years ago in 2001 I ran business development for the company behind, which was a hot player looking at an IPO at the time. At the time, there was no cloud, IoT didn’t exist, Blockchain was well over a decade away, self-driving cars were not even a myth, Uber, Facebook, Netflix, did not exist and even Myspace was still 3 years away.  Forget Tesla, even Google was unknown – the best search engine was Northern Light. Apple did not make phones, hell, smartphones were not a thing, solar was for crackpots not trade wars, oil was 24 months off a low of $10 barrel, and the term cleantech had not been coined. Amazon and Walmart were not buying healthcare companies and Amazon was still just a bookseller. And my 1996 car still had a tape deck not

Bluetooth. But in another 19 years you think my vision is nuts?

Energy is Life.

The Rest is Just Details.

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About the Author
neal dikeman

Neal Dikeman


Author Neal M. Dikeman is the Chairman of online network and cleantech think tank, and a partner at early stage venture capital fund, Energy Transition Ventures. He has cofounded half a dozen cleantech and energy startups, previously worked in venture capital at Jane Capital Partners and Royal Dutch Shell. He has been one of the most prolific writers on the subject of cleantech, as chief blogger for, named a 50 Best Business Blog by the London Times. He authored What is Cleantech?, the first brief history of the term cleantech,, 2008, What is the Energy Transition?, 2020, author of a book chapter on cap and trade in The Green Movement, Greenhaven Press, alongside George Will and John Kerry, and a former cleantech columnist for CNET/, Christian Science Monitor, and Sustainable Industries Magazine.