Understanding Electric Cars – History, Technology, Barriers + More
This recent press release from Energy Learning tells us all about electric cars in exhausting detail.
From time to time, we come across a valuable teaching tool that may work to help people better understand electric cars. It’s important to know the different forms of electrified vehicles and how they work, but also the history of the segment. Many of the issues surrounding marginal EV sales stem from a lack of education and understanding.
This informative article takes it a step further with information about environmental impact, technological advancements, and political implications. There’s also a conclusion related to current barriers such as cost, charging infrastructure, range anxiety, and more.
Check This Out: A Look At The Future Of The EV Market & Battery Technology
For those of us “in the know” regarding the EV segment, it’s important to spread the good word and help inform people around us. This is a valuable resource to assist in that endeavor.
In this article we explore what is an electric vehicle (EV), how owning an EV may differ from our current conventionally fuelled personal passenger cars, and what we should expect in an age of the electric car.
In 2016, worldwide stock of electric vehicles (EV) rose over 2 million, currently with 750,000 sales in that year alone (IEA 2016). Although varying across countries, Norway by far leads the world in electrifying its fleet with a 29% share of new registrations, due to a series of political efforts. Many countries have ambitious targets for EV market penetration, with China setting a target of 10% of sales by 2019 and 20% by 2025. Various other countries have proposals plans to phase out conventional vehicle sales including UK and France by 2040 and Norway by 2025. In the EU 1.5% of all new vehicle sales were electric in 2015. This is supported by a network of around 120,000 public charging points across Europe (EAFO 2017).
What is an EV?
An electric vehicle (EV) is powered by an electric motor as opposed to the fossil fuel internal combustion engine which powers conventional vehicles. There are four distinct versions of electric vehicles available.
1. Conventional Hybrid Electric Vehicle (HEV)
The HEV is the most common form of EV that exists today, having been commercially available for twenty years when the first HEV model, the Toyota Prius was released. The HEV remains in many ways similar the conventional petrol or diesel car, and the drive train consists of both an internal combustion engine and an onboard electric motor, either of which can provide the power. The electric motor can drive the car at low speeds, hence HEV’s being usually zero-tailpipe emissions in urban driving. Solely fuelled by conventional fuel (predominantly petrol), the ICE will generally power the vehicle. The electric motor is powered by an onboard battery which is charged by regenerative braking.
2. Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle (PHEV)
Similar to its conventional counterpart, the PHEV differs as the electric battery can be externally charged (ie plugged-in). Generally, a PHEV would have a smaller ICE and larger battery and can spend longer periods on its pure electric range. There are two types of PHEV – parallel, which is as described, and series, which more closely resembles the BEV, and is sometimes referred to as an Extended-Range Electric Vehicle. In this mode, the car is always driven by the electric motor powered directly by the battery, however, the battery itself is charged while driving by an onboard generator – essentially an ICE.
3. Battery Electric Vehicle (BEV)
Commercially available since around 2010, the BEV is driven by an electric motor powered by a battery, itself solely charged by externally plugging into to a power source. BEV currently make up less than half of European EV sales, which varies significantly by country. A number of BEV models exist, the most prominent being the Nissan Leaf, Renault Zoe, and Tesla S. Most BEVs can expect to have a range of up to 100km, but the luxury brand Tesla S can achieve up to 400km.
4. Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle (FCEV)
The final type of electric vehicle is the FCEV. In the FCEV, the electric motor is powered by a hydrogen fuel cell. Within the fuel cell, hydrogen gas is combined with oxygen drawn from the air to create water (H2O). This process creates energy that powers the electric motor. FCEV has the advantage that it can be fuelled in a similar method as conventional vehicles and achieve similar ranges. However, the technology is still under development and safety concerns remain regarding hydrogen storage and delivery. Although a limited number of models are commercially available, such as the Honda Insight, it is not yet a credibly on the market.
Although the EV is just now making a credible break-through in the car market, it is by no means a new technology (though recent developments have catapulted its utility and usability). Experimental EVs first appeared in the 1830s, 50 years before the first ICEV. In fact, in the early days of the automobile at the start of the 20th Century, electrically powered vehicles were the market leader. The advantage of the EV at this time was much the same as now – they were viewed as cleaner and quieter and provided much greater instant torque resulting in a smoother and more exciting ride (important, bearing in mind automobiles were exclusively a plaything of the rich rather than the functional transport artifact of today). However, as the automobile became more widespread, with increasing interest in ‘touring’ rather than just racing, the advantages of the ICEV over the EV emerged and resulted in the conquering of the market and first demise of the EV. This included the lower range and slower recharge of the EV and the mechanical nature of the ICEV that lent itself to being more easily mended. During the First World War, the EV flourished due to petrol shortages, ICEV acquisition and the newly installed power stations and electricity network. However, during the Great Depression of the 1930s, many burgeoning EV businesses collapsed. A brief resurgence was witnessed during the Second World War to conserve resources and due to the low maintenance, however, by the mid-20th century when the automobile began to be embedded in our transport system, the EV would seem to have been confined to being no more than a milk float. Environmental concerns of the 1960s and oil crises of the 1970s led to some prototypes that were never developed, so the EV remained a niche technology. At the end of the 20th century, not only was the conventional ICEV the king of the road, but also the car itself was the center of the mobility system. However, following a renewed international focus on sustainable development and climate change, attention once again turned to the potential of the EV. Hybrids were developed in earnest to help meet new environmental regulations related to emissions and in the early 21st century commercially available BEV and PHEVs began to appear on the roads, and since then the market has grown.
So what has been the game changer for the EV over recent years that has led to its current market success? A number of factors have come to the fore which have supported the EV.
1. Environmental argument
Since the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the subsequent progressive Climate summits, there is scientific consensus on the role of man-made carbon emissions in the observed phenomena of global temperature increases and that this will lead to potentially irreversible changes in global climate, affecting all nations but particularly many of those that are already the most vulnerable and make the smallest contributions to global emissions (IPCC 2013). As such, through COP talks, there is generally an agreement that there is a responsibility to reduce emissions in an aim to limit global temperature rises to 2oC. Transport contributes to the around 25% of GHG emissions, with road transport the main contributor to this, as well as being the main contributor to urban air pollution (EC 2016). Further to climate change, there are also concerns about local pollution causing issues with air quality, environmental degradation, and public health. As such, the EU wish 2050 transport emissions to be at least 60% lower than 1990 level, and for the removal of conventionally fuelled cars from cities. Governments are setting targets on emission reductions and in particular on car manufacturers to reduce the average tailpipe emissions. Although many efforts are made to increase the efficiency of ICEV, assuming continued use of private cars at current levels, the targets will not be achieved without zero tailpipe vehicles entering the fleet in substantial numbers.
2. Technology improvements
Over the past ten years, there have been significant advances in battery technology, particularly the Lithium-ion battery, which have lead to an increase in the efficiency of the battery leading to longer ranges, alongside a reduction in the size, weight, and cost of the battery (McKinsey 2017). Alongside this, battery chargers have become increasingly effective and efforts are being made to install a standardized public charging network across Europe under the Alternative Fuels Infrastructure Directive.
3. Political aspirations
Recognising the potential role of the EV in environmental targets, conscious political efforts have been made to support the transition, this includes purchase subsidies, company car tax relief, fleet placement and charging infrastructure support (IEA 2016). In London for example, the congestion / low emission zone charge has been focused towards zero tailpipe vehicles.
Remaining Challenges and Opportunities
Despite these developments, barriers remain to the EV for being widely adopted.
All forms of the EV remain more expensive to purchase than their conventional counterpart. The second-hand EV market remains somewhat uncertain in its immaturity partly due to the uncertainty over the lifetime of batteries, the most expensive component of the EV. Therefore, despite the lower running costs, EV ownership maybe perceived to be outside the budget of many individuals (McKinsey 2017).
2. Charging Infrastructure
There are now around 120,000 charge points across Europe, but their placement and spread are inconsistent (EAFO 2017). Although most EV owners may be relatively certain of finding an available charging point when required, supported by the use of smart technologies, as the market grows this may become more of an issue. Further to the provision of public charging infrastructure, is the ability to charge at home. The majority of European urban populations live in residences without private off-road parking that would allow this.
3. Range anxiety
Related to access and provision of charging infrastructure is the recognized concern of ‘range anxiety’. With a medium sized conventional vehicle, an individual may expect a driving range of up to 500 miles on a single fuel tank. Fuel stations are abundant, and widely accessible in all but the most remote parts of the country, with a refueling time, including payment of less than 10 minutes. Limited by the size and weight of a battery pack, the most common fuel BEV on the market can expect a maximum driving range of around 100km (with the notable exception of the Tesla, a high-end model that can offer around 400km). This can be reduced significantly by driving conditions and use of auxiliary systems. Although rapid EV charging (c. 30 mins) is possible, it is currently expensive, sparsely available and possibly detrimental to battery life if used repeatedly. An individual should expect to use a slow charging facility overnight / workday that would charge to full over 8 hours, and on-the-go charging in public facilities of over 1 hour.
4. Preferences and Habits
Individuals with a private car are used to having it available to (more or less) go anyway, at any time. An EV clearly does not offer a direct replacement of this. It is therefore perceived as unacceptable. However, few people require an average daily range over that of a standard EV. For journeys which may be longer, or to destinations without guaranteed charging coverage, other options are available, such as hiring a car or using an alternative mode such as a train. These have other societal benefits as well. Due to the environmental motivations of the transition to zero tailpipe vehicles, alongside advances in smart technologies, the perceptions of what a car provide could realistically change in society to support the technological capabilities.
5. Upstream and life cycle emissions
Although full EVs have zero tailpipe emissions, thus eliminating concerns of local pollution related environment and health issues, they can only be classed as zero carbon if the electricity comes from a fully zero carbon source, such as renewable energies. Currently, over half of the installed electricity capacity in the EU is low or zero carbon (Nuclear (12.4%), hydro (15.5%), Wind (14.4%) and Solar PV (9.7%)) (EC 2017) and as electricity becomes increasingly decarbonised, then electric vehicles could part of the solution to reducing GHG emissions. Similar to upstream emissions, an EV cannot be considered zero carbon when one also considers the embedded emissions form the constituent parts and resources involved in the process of building and decommissioning the vehicle. For the chassis of the vehicle, this will be more or less comparable to conventional vehicles, with small differences (for instance an EV may be heavier due to the battery and require sturdier materials). For instance, some metals incorporated, such as Aluminium are higher energy intensive and therefore have high levels of embedded carbon. To what extent the user accounts for the embedded emissions is related to the vehicle lifetime and mileage.
6. Other resources
Materials currently being used in the production of EVs may also become scarce or uneconomical (especially if energy-intensive industries are discouraged due to emissions). A prime example is Lithium, a key component of the battery. Although research is being undertaken to discover efficient methods of recycling used batteries or the lithium itself, as well as identifying new battery materials and technologies using more abundant or recyclable materials, this could remain a concern. One avenue of interest for chassis material is the production of biomaterials.
7. Power Grid and Energy Storage
The Power Grid across Europe has developed with the growing electricity network and energy demand of the past century. Furthermore, it is currently entering a stage of change as various fossil fuel and nuclear power stations reach their end of life and require replacement, and renewable energies are brought into the energy mix. Alongside is the power grid itself if reaching end-of-life requiring upgrading and replacement to cope with increasing demand from consumers. Should a significant transition to EVs occur with many people regularly charging their vehicles, the load on the grid will shift substantially requiring extra capacity and upgrading. Further, it is likely that this demand will occur overnight, which is traditionally the time of low demand and may trigger paradigmatic shifts in the operation of the network. Although this may also be an opportunity for positive change towards a more efficiently used network, and connected vehicles could also be used to share power to the grid or as a form of energy storage, a whole system approach will be required, which itself sets up further challenges.
8. Congestion, road safety, and social exclusion
Although the EV may offer many technical and environmental advantages over the conventional vehicles it in itself does not offer any solutions to existing traffic and transport related issues such as congestion, road safety, and social exclusion. In many ways regarding such factors the EV is comparable to conventional vehicles, as there will be the same number of vehicles on the road used in a similar manner (especially in urban settings), and the same groups of the most vulnerable people will not be able to participate or benefit in car ownership (eg certain disabilities, the poorest). In some cases, an EV could impose further issues – for example without the sound of a combustion engine, pedestrians and cyclists may be more at risk of road traffic injuries.
The story of the Electric Car has been going for over a century and been close to ending many times. However, the EV is currently flourishing, and with many prospects for the future, both near and far. The internal combustion engine has been the dominant technology throughout the history of the automobile, and responsible for its position in society, but as fossil fuels become scarce and environmental concerns become greater, there has been no other time that the future of the EV has looked so promising. Despite the many remaining challenges to EV technology, the automobile and indeed the wider mobility system is facing a period of great change. With the increased use of connected and smart technologies in our daily lives, our need to get between places and our preferences on how we do so are changing. Lower take-up of driving licenses on the younger age groups is already being witnessed, as is the increased adoption of shared ownership, especially in the bigger urban environments. New and disruptive technologies are poised to enter the transport system, from autonomous vehicles that are already being tested on our roads to entirely new concepts of travel such as the Hyperloop. Public health agendas encourage more active forms of transport for the shortest journeys and demand reduction in local pollution. Together these suggest that the role of the automobile in our daily lives may be very different in the generations to come, with technologies complementing rather than competing within our mobility services. The EV will likely be the technology that continues to fill a new position, especially in an urban environment.
EAFO. (2017). “Electric vehicle charging infrastructure.” Retrieved 13/12/17, from http://www.eafo.eu/electric-vehicle-charging-infrastructure.
EC (2016). Communication: A European Strategy for Low-Emission Mobility. COM(2016) 501 final. Available from: http://ec.europa.eu/transport/themes/strategies/news/doc/2016-07-20-decarbonisation/com(2016)501_en.pdf, European Commission.
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McKinsey (2017). Electrifying insights: How automakers can drive electrified vehicle sales and profitability. Available from: https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/automotive-and-assembly/our-insights/electrifying-insights-how-automakers-can-drive-electrified-vehicle-sales-and-profitability, McKinsey & Co.
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