by P Sanchez
From the luxury segment new contender Jaguar I-Pace to the zero emission everyday vehicles of Hyundai, or from the high-concept speedracer-esque outing of Infiniti to the 2nd generation of arguably the best selling electric vehicle (EV) in the past decade, the Nissan Leaf, major manufacturers have prominently displayed their budding fully electric vehicle lines in the last Chicago Autoshow. If big car brands are putting EVs front and center, is this a sign of an all electric future?
In spite of their clever design and their often futuristic (some say quirky) looks, electric vehicles are as old as their gas-powered brethren. But technological hurdles had kept them as nothing more than oddities in the fringes of automotive history. It took over a hundred years before manufacturers had gotten an impetus to rapidly pursue development that’s making EVs of today viable options for the public, and that compelling force is climate change and social clamor for environmental responsible products
But popular desire to curb tailpipe emissions is different from actual mass market acceptance, a difficult transition that’s testing EV manufacturers right now. We’re going to look at recent developments that may allay any reluctance we have to switching to EVs
Low Batt Lore
There is no talk about the merits and demerits of EV ownership without talking about “range anxiety” or the fear of your EV running out of juice in the middle of nowhere. This was true over a decade ago when Lead acid batteries or Nickle Metal Hydride batteries were the most cost-effective storage for EVs. EVs then are restricted to a sub-50 mile range, making them suitable only for short commutes.
Most experts say that a 120 miles range should be enough to cover all the commuting needs of an average city driver and then some. But advancement in lithium ion battery technology has enabled EVs to have as much as 300 miles without the need for recharging. That’s almost (but not quite) the distance between San Francisco and LA. Then again, seldom do people take the 6-hour drive without at least having an hour break in the middle, which so happens to be enough time to recharge your EV for the rest of the trip.
Long charging times is another concern. Charge time is a factor of battery capacity, acceptance rate (in kW) and power source (also in kW). Example: from zero to full capacity, a 2011 Nissan Leaf takes more than overnight to recharge from a 120 household outlet, or a relatively shorter 7 hours through a Level 1 charge station, the only type available at the time. A 2016 Leaf doubles the acceptance rate for the same capacity, effective reducing the charging times in half from a Level 2 station. EV charging figures are even better this 2019 with effective partial charge times of under an hour..
Note that batteries get to an 80% useful charge level at less than half the time it takes to get to a full charge. Plus most wouldn’t wait for their batteries to totally drain-out before charging again, following advise to top-up at home or at charging stations whenever convenient.
Another important factor needed to calm worries about EV ownership is the availability of charging stations. Tesla has led the way of creating a network of supercharging stations across major cities and highways in the US, making sure a station is always within range of their vehicles. Other manufacturer are expected to follow suit if they would expect their electric products to gain wider acceptance. Gas stations have also started offering EV charging services as a preparation of a predominantly EV future.
But would there be enough public charging stations for everybody? It seems that the building of supercharging stations is unable to keep with the pace of EV sales. In 2011, there were 22,000 EVs sold and about 3400 stations available, making a ratio of 6 EVs to 1 station. With the cumulative EV sales reaching a million in 2018 but only 66 thousand stations built, the ratio became 16.5 EVs to 1. Ratio is seen to further rise to 28.2 to 1 in just 3 years. Considering current average charge times of EVs and the average number of service slots available per station, every station slot will be occupied by a recharging EV for 10 hours a day.
Thus this mean we will soon be seeing a long queue of EVs at the nearest supercharging station? Unlikely because the simplistic computation doesn’t account EVs getting bigger battery capacities (less trips to the station), shorter recharging times, charging from home, and access to private and semi-private charging stations (hotels, private businesses, office parking spaces, etc). EV recharging still won’t be as fast and convenient as filling up a tank but it’s getting close.
Show Me The Savings!
The last and probably the biggest hurdle to full acceptance of EVs is the price. Currently EVs are priced at least a third more - and more often twice the price - of their gas-powered counterparts. The steep pricing is attributed to one component: the batteries. Energy-per-weight, batteries are the most expensive parts of an EV. To get an idea, the manufacturing cost of batteries in 2011 is $800 per kW. To illustrate, the 2011 Nissan Leaf, with a 24 kW battery, retailed for $33,600. The cost of the battery alone accounted for 57% of the price tag!
But as demand for batteries grow, so has global production. Manufacturing cost per kW has dropped to $200 in 2018. Experts estimate that if cost per kW further drops to the $150-$125 range, EVs become directly competitive with gasoline engine cars. At current rates, this goal will be achieved by 2025.
How Soon is Now?
Make no mistake, EVs have entered the mainstream. It may be a premium option today but in a few years, personal preference rather than budget will be the determining factor in choosing whether to get a gas-powered or a battery-powered car.