FAW-VW Interested in Protean EV Tech for China

In 2012 it seemed that every week a U.S. company with electric vehicle technology was announcing a China deal. That flood slowed to a steady stream in 2013 as Chinese companies and investors waited to see what technologies the government would support. Some companies I wrote about in those go-go days are no longer in business. So I was pleasantly surprised to see a press release a few weeks ago from Protean Electric announcing FAW-VW and Protean are cooperating to test Protean’s in-wheel EV propulsion system. FAW-Volkswagen is Volkswagen’s joint venture with First Auto Works in China.

To be sure, Volkswagen has some ambitious electrification plans for the China market. I must say, however, that I am still skeptical that any long-term business deal resulting in volume production of vehicles with Protean’s technology will result from this cooperation.

I talked with Ken Stewart, vice president of business development at Protean, about the deal and how Protean’s business in China is going in general. The good news is that Protean’s in-wheel motors are drivetrain agnostic where EVs are concerned and can be used with PHEVs, BEVs, fuel cell vehicles, and hybrids. In China, where production often awaits government policy and government policy can change from year to year, that flexibility is useful.

The most recent New Energy Vehicle Policy supports plug-in hybrid most strongly in the near term, and emphasizes electrification of municipal fleets. Protean’s drivetrain slots into that space nicely. Protean’s current in-wheel electric drive system fits an 18-inch road wheel, which is the type on larger passenger vehicles and the upper half of the light commercial vehicle segment. It has regenerative capability to recapture energy from braking. And it can be included on a vehicle without major changes to the production process.

Stewart said the in-wheel motors and electronics cost $1,500 per wheel; the battery pack and battery management system control is extra. “It is a clean, easy way to get a hybrid,” Stewart told me. “Depending on the battery, you could get up to 30% better fuel economy and it is less expensive than retooling the whole car.”

A bit of background, though you could just go to this link and read the press release: According the agreement, FAW-VW will produce an all-electric Bora sedan using two of Protean’s in-wheel motors. To quote the press release: “The motors reside in the space behind the wheel, producing torque and power exactly where and when drivers need it. Each in-wheel motor comes with its own power and electronics control packaged inside the motor, which communicates with the vehicle utilizing a common vehicle control system.”

Now of course Protean puts the best spin possible on this cooperation with FAW-VW, but right now the two companies are only doing what Stewart called “pre-engineering work.” That should be concluded in the first quarter of next year, he said. Then, “the intent is to move into the next phase of activity, which hasn’t been fully determined yet but is likely to include demonstration vehicles and engineering on par with what is required for a production vehicle.”

Warning to Protean: Chinese companies like to talk to suppliers about technology but not act on those talks. And as a friend at a very large multinational supplier said to me regarding how often that occurs, “our business is to do business” not demo products. Actually, Protean may feel the same way having already produced an extended range electric demo vehicle with Guangzhou Auto and Brabus. The Trumpchi 2WD EV debuted at the 2010 Guangzhou Auto Show and made an appearance at the Detroit Auto Show in 2013. GAC has another car using the motors -+going through tests, said Stewart. But volume production of any kind seems distant. So the gap between demo and any kind of volume production can be long.

But you gotta start somewhere, I suppose. Volkswagen has said it aims to launch at least 15 electric car models in China by 2018, and to begin production of electric cars in China in 2016. Using Protean’s in-wheel motors wouldn’t require much re-engineering, which could help VW meet this goal. If an automakers wants “more New Energy Vehicle technology on the road quicker and less expensively, then we are the answer,” said Stewart.

Automakers in China are also going to have to explore many different technologies to meet the 5 liter/100 kilometer fuel economy requirement by 2020. Protean’s solution is a good option to boost fuel economy on larger sedans, said Stewart. Assuming a 15-20 kWh battery and a European driving cycle, he predicts 35% improvement in fuel economy on larger vehicles “without having to change major tools or dies.”

The investors behind Protean’s China venture are the same ones as when I talked to Bob Purcell in 2012 plus, it seems. They are Oak Investment Partners, a Palo Alto, CA-based company; GSR Ventures, a Beijing-based company with offices in Palo Alto; a Liyang, China – based company called New Times Group; and the government of Liyang.

I’m guessing Liyang’s investment is in the form or a sweet deal on the manufacturing facility that Protean is building there, which is running a bit behind schedule. Initially production was to start in early 2014, so Protean may not miss the mark by too much, however. It is “coming up into the area where we are spending money on capital equipment” for the factory, said Stewart. Protean is talking to other automakers in China about using its system, he added. “The customer demand is coming but not as fast as we’d like,” said Stewart.

As for when we might see 10 or more vehicles on the road in China with Protean’s in-wheel motors, around one year for captive fleet vehicles and 18 months for consumers, said Stewart. As for the few vehicles that are in testing right now, the feedback from FAW-VW has been very good, said Stewart. “We are seeing efficiencies that are delighting them,” he said.

He adds: “I am not doing this to have them go through a development program and change their mind.” Good luck with that.

Article by Alysha Webb, a freelance automotive journalist and founder of ChinaEV Blog.

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