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Electric vehicles, the future of mobility

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Since the debut of the very first electric vehicle (EV) in the late 18th century in Europe followed by its introduction in 1889-1891 by William Morrison in the USA (Des Moines, Iowa), it has come a long way. By the turn of the century, EVs became so popular in the USA that by some accounts about one third of all the vehicles were electric! But this phenomenon did not last for long as it did not capture any significant market share of the later times. The last opportunity for capitalizing on the EVs came during the oil embargo period of 1973-1974 when the policy makers as well as the auto industry seriously thought about EVs as the viable solution in keeping the auto industry alive. However, once the oil embargo was over, the oil industry lobbying interests ferociously fought to stopthe internal combustion engine (ICE) replacement programs and as a result, additional funding by the government and the private sectors for the EVs development disappeared.
Now, with the continued increase in the middle class everywhere, the traffic is increasing at such an alarming rate that it is creating nightmares for the urban (traffic) planners, health officials, environmental agencies and the policy makers alike as the traffic congestion, traffic jams, traffic management challenges and dense pollution (smog, smoke) have become major issues in the mega cities around the world. In turn, it is creating chronic respiratory health problems (COPD, asthma, etc.) global warming, permanent thick clouds of polluted air with harmful particles, green house gases emission, ozone layer depletion, glaciers disappearance, oceans’ temperature & levels rise; and are some of the major drivers for the EV’s revival. All these issues are not exclusive facing with the developed countries but are also quite common in the developing countries as well, particularly in the urban settings.
As described earlier, the EV industry seems to be as old as the auto industry itself but it is hard to imagine that why the EVs are taking so long for their wide scale adoption to become an integral part of our primary means of mobility. Even though the EVs offer one of the best solutions not only for reducing the atmospheric pollution and improving the air quality, but also for saving the planet by replacing the traditional combustion engine (ICE) with the electric motor-based automobiles. If we look closely, we will find there are still many challenges that are contributing to the slow penetration and adoption of the EVs in the society. The major challenges that are critical for the mass adoption and fast penetration of the EVs are the following:
= Cost
= Design
= Battery life
= Recharging infrastructure
= Incentives
These are the major drivers that are controlling the large-scale success of the EVs in the USA as well as abroad. Even though the EVs were introduced in the US a long time ago, but it did not catch any sustainable momentum, except for its limited successes. The EVs got some lifeline when the environmentalist pushed their policy makers to pass legislations to support/accelerate the EV technology. As a result, the entrepreneurs, the OEMs, research institutions (Universities) and the private sector all started thinking seriously to come up with the most economical vehicle that can save the planet.
Based on the EVs current cost structure, the costliest part is its battery system. Currently, there is no approved universal battery system and is still evolving. According to the Department of Energy data, the cost of the battery (Lithium-ion battery in terms of the $/KWH) has come down substantially and is currently trailing to less than 40% compared to 2008, as the baseline. The life of the battery depends on many factors, like the operating conditions (at higher temperatures battery life is reduced while at lower temperatures, performance is affected), the depth of discharge, etc. In general, the life of the battery can be as long as eight years or 100,000 miles (160,000 kilometers). The weight of the batteries is another major factor that affects the distance travelled per charge by the EVs. Currently, the batteries represent from 25 to 50% of the total weight of the EV. With the continued research in designing and finding new compositions of the battery materials, the battery weight reduction is making great strides for reducing the costs and improving the performance of the EVs.
There are many new players in the industry who are specialized in the battery designing for the weight reduction and improved safety features, that are the backbone for the success of the EVs. Also, with the continued battery costs reduction, charge storage capacity increase, faster charging time and longer life (longer distance driven) on a single charge has infused new momentum in the industry. Currently, there are several Lithium (Li) based batteries available, like Nickle Cobalt Aluminum Oxide (NCA), Lithium Manganese Oxide (LMO), Lithium Nickle Manganese Cobalt (NMC), Lithium Titanate (LTO), Lithium Iron Phosphate (LFP), etc. However, today, the most used battery in the EVs is the Lithium ion battery in addition to some other batteries that are getting some applications in the EVs sector, also.
Elon Musk, the famous entrepreneur and remarkably successful businessman in 2003 founded Tesla Motors in Fremont, California for building an all-electric vehicle and clean energy company, just like Henry Ford did with the Model T. Initially, he used all his personal wealth that he created by selling off his PayPal business to eBay. He also tried to encourage other auto manufacturers (OEMs) to collaborate with him in mass production of the EVs but did not see much interest from the established automobile manufacturers. After a limited success and facing daunting challenges in the battery performance, he realized that in order to be successful, he must get involved directly in the battery manufacturing, the lifeline for the EVs. He approached the established battery manufacturers, in the US as well as in Asia. Finally, in cooperation with the Panasonic, he built his own battery factory to support the changes & the research needed for timely delivery and continuously improving the battery performance. This decision proved to be the major milestone of his success and generated a lot of interest and demand not only by the USA customers but also abroad. This phenomenon pushed Tesla car production to its limits and wait time for the car deliveries extended into months.
Now, Tesla is considered among the top five Lithium-ion battery manufacturers in the world. This strategic decision brought more trust, making Tesla the leader of the EVs sector within the mobility industry. With the continued demand outpacing the capacity, building of new factories, called “Giga Factories” started becoming realties. Even though the company was still not profitable and burning a lot of cash, but Tesla models’ popularity and continuously capacity additions made Tesla the new darling of the investors and of the Wall Street, alike.
With the rapid success of the Tesla brand EVs, other major OEMs also got interested to build their own brands to compete against Tesla. Today, almost every major OEMs has EV in their portfolios. The continued success of the Tesla brand and commitments by the other major OEMs is transforming EVs as the best technology for tackling the environmental and the pollution related challenges.
In many EU countries, and some GCC region, the taxis for hire fleets are mostly consists of the EVs or are planning to phase out the internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles with the EVs soon by offering hefty incentives. In the Northern EU countries, EVs penetration is very pronounced and with the attractive incentives by their governments, the consumers are embracing the change and adopting the EVs at a much faster pace than other parts of the world, including the USA. China, one of the most populated country in the world with over 1.4 billion people has been suffering with the worst pollution in their major cities due to the extremely high concentration of the vehicles, has embarked on this path.
In the recent times, private sector has been investing heavily in the ecosystem like the charging stations that are popping up at the supermarkets, public parking places, recreation centers, and some gas stations also. However, there are still many challenges remained for the industry to address like how to improve and reduce the recharging time why people are traveling long distances on the Inter-States and the Autobahns. Like in the Indy Car and F1 car racing’s, the tires are replaced on the fly in a matter of few minutes. Similar model can be used for the recharging stations either by expanding the existing gas stations services or by building a brand new recharging service system, whereby the drivers can pull in their vehicles inside the station and the workers or the robots (AI) can quickly replace the old batteries with the fully charged batteries in a matter of few minutes. This model has great potential for its success in the recharging stations due to the breakthroughs in the technology and the AI introduction in to the manufacturing and the service sectors very successfully.
Another recharging model that also has good potential is the induction charging. This means that by leaving the EVs in the parking lots, they can be recharged while the drivers are gone for shopping or having meals, attending any event, etc. However, this model will require building of an ecosystem from the grass root levels, requiring a lot of capital! Additionally, it will require new parking rules, liability exposures and upkeep of the parking lots.
As we all know, the ICE based vehicles require regular maintenance, which is overly complex and expensive, mostly due to many moving parts under the hood. With the EVs, comparatively, there are very few moving parts under the hood as the major part is the electric motor. This means that in the long run, purchase of an EV is more economical as not too often it will require maintenance and expensive parts replacements. In other words, the EVs market will greatly help the consumers not only in cost savings but also for improving the environment by reducing the carbon dioxide emission, the major pollutants for the health related concerns and the climate change exposure and depletion of the fossil fuel, melting of the glaciers, rise of the sea levels, increase in temperature of the ocean waters and reduction in the COPD and asthma causing elements, like the solid particle sizes. This will be a win-win situation for all the stakeholders involved in the mobility chain.
In the commercial sector, the adoption of the EVs will be more visible in the delivery/multi seater vanes and light duty trucks. The major retailer and online market leader, Amazon, has already committed to use EVs as the preferred choice for all its delivery fleet. Similarly, the major courier services like USPS, UPS, FedEx, DHL and public transit will be the first adapter’s of the EVs. These initiatives will provide the solid foundation for the success of the EVs market and will attract and commitment from the major technology firms to continue to push the boundaries for the overall performance of the EVs and bringing the costs down faster, either lower or at par with the ICE vehicles
Until recently, the rate of penetration of the EVs has been the highest in China, the biggest single market in the world. The second biggest market currently is the EU. The Scandinavian countries are leading the race in faster adoption of the EVs mostly due to their deep environmental concerns and lucrative offers by their governments in replacing their ICE vehicles. Marketing data shows that in 2018 the US had the highest penetration of the EVs mostly due to Tesla’s model 3 introductions and federal tax credit offering to the EVs buyers. However, with the expiration of the tax credit, the sales of the EV have declined and now, the EU market has become the major adoption market. Also, Chinese market has been growing at a particularly good rate until the government phased out the incentives.
According to a recent Bloomberg’s report (BNEF), currently EVs penetration in the global automotive market is about 3% and is projected to increase by 28% by 2030 and almost 55% by 2040. However, this penetration may be accelerated at a faster pace if the government incentives on federal as well as state levels are going to be more generous, prices will be less or equal to the ICE based vehicles not only for owning the cars but also for the total operating costs throughout its life (10 years or 100,000 mile) will come down significantly!
In 2019, nine out of the top 10 EVs markets were in EU. In some of the Scandinavian countries and in the GCC region, taxi fleets have adopted the EVs as the choice of their selection. Market data shows that Tesla is by far the market leader in the EVs segment and its model 3 has been the bestselling car on a global scale. Additionally, Tesla is building its ecosystem across the major markets and is also expanding its footprint in the markets where pollution is one of the major concerns for the citizens and the policy makers, alike. Recently, Tesla has built its own factory in China, surprisingly without any local JV partner, a very first of its kind manufacturing ever allowed! In addition to the assembly line, the factory also has the battery manufacturing and product development. Initially, the factory will service the fast growing domestic EVs demand.
As the self-driven vehicles (SDVs) make their inroads into the everyday use by the consumers, it will further accelerate the momentum for the EVs market. All these changes in the industry which continue to make big inroads to make the lives of the occupants not only safer but will also address the environmental sustainability and improving the quality of lives for the benefit of the humanity in the generations to come.
If the above described trends and adoption incentives will continue, it will pick up great momentum by the other global auto manufacturers also who have heavily invested already in the development and commercialization of the EVs to meet the growing demand of their brands’ loyal customers. With all these rapid developments, it seems that those days are not far away when in the metropolitan and mega cities we will see more EVs at the expense of the traditional vehicles. This trend will continue to help not only the growth of new technologies and industries but also to reduce the pollution and the pollution-basedchronic diseases which are getting profoundly at serious levels in the major cities of the world.
(Acknowledgement: This article was first published in the International Association for Energy Economics; IAEE)