This is turning into a big week for fans of battery-electric vehicles, or BEVs, with Audi showing off the new e-tron GT and General Motors set to reveal both the updated Chevrolet Bolt EV and the all-new, extended-length Bolt EUV this weekend.
Automakers as diverse as GM and Audi, Volkswagen and Nissan, Bentley and Volvo have announced major increases in EV investments during the past few months. Some, like General Motors and Bentley, laid out plans to eliminate internal combustion engines entirely. While such a goal is still a decade or more in the future, the pace at which new BEVs will come to market is rapidly accelerating with several dozen options expected on the road by late 2022 covering every segment, from small sedans and SUVs to exotic supercars.
What that means is far from certain, in particular, if we’ve reached the “tipping point” for EV adoption – as many proponents believe. A broad shift to all-electric propulsion will require everything from better, cheaper batteries to a nationwide network of chargers to keep them running. There’s the issue of recycling and even the need for new supplies of raw materials.
Getting there may require government “assistance”
Dealing with the planned migration from internal combustion engines to electric propulsion is likely to be difficult, potentially impossible if we rely solely on a laissez faire approach, many observers warn. If anything, it will require a coordinated effort involving consumer education, massive industrial investments and government backing in the form of sales incentives and funding for things like public charging and renewable energy sources.
It’s been a full quarter century since California first tried mandating battery-electric cars, a move the state quickly retreated from in the face of that era’s limited technical capabilities. Since the industry started moving on its own a decade ago — with products like the Nissan Leaf BEV and Chevy Bolt PHEV — the technology has rapidly improved. With cheaper, more reliable, longer-range batteries, it’s now approaching the point where BEVs are truly ready for prime time.
Consider that since 2010, the range of the typical new BEV has grown from barely 75 to 200 miles, Tesla now offering a 400-mile Model S option, Lucid topping 500 miles with the upcoming Air sedan. The slow and stodgy first-generation battery cars have given way to products that are quick and fun to drive. The new Audi e-tron GT, for example, will hit 60 mph in barely 3 seconds. Prices are beginning to come down as batteries drop from $1,000 a kilowatt-hour in 2010 to around $150 a kWh last year. GM is targeting $100 with its new Ultium cells and next-gen solid-state batteries are widely expected to hit $70 or less.
Who are the buyers of BEVs?
Consumer studies deliver a mixed bag of results when it comes to public perception and acceptance of BEVs. A study released by Consumer Reports in December found 78% of the millennials surveyed by the influential magazine said they’re open to buying a battery-electric vehicle, with fully seven in 10 U.S. motorists overall showing interest in the technology. But the active phrase is “at some point,” with only a minority among any age group ready to purchase a BEV the next time they’re in the market.
The question is how to get more buyers ready to buy now – or at least soon.
There’s no question that both established and startup automakers will have to invest heavily. Ford this month said it would more than double spending on EVs. About 40% of Toyota R&D budget now goes to alternative technologies.
“The top priority for us (this year) is to invest in both new and existing businesses, including previously announced investments to accelerate EV and AV growth, while reducing complexity and leveraging current architectures across the ice portfolio to drive better productivity and customer response, which will help fund investments in our future,” said Paul Jacobson, GM CFO, during the company’s earnings call on Wednesday.
Automakers are investing beyond just new products, however. A critical move by Tesla saw it launch its proprietary Supercharger network, making it possible for owners to travel long distances and ensure their vehicles could stay powered up. Volkswagen, meanwhile, launched Electrify America, albeit as part of the settlement of its diesel emissions scandal. GM, Ford and others have now invested in charging infrastructure, as well.
Now, with ChargePoint set to go public, even more funding will be available. But the sheer size of the American market will require investments running into the tens of billions of dollars, more than even the deepest corporate pockets likely can handle throughout the next decade.
Dearth of charging stations
That’s where government will have to step in, at least according to many EV proponents. The Biden administration will face pressure to follow up on the new president’s campaign pledge to put 500,000 charging stations into operation by decade’s end.
The White House also will have to decide how to follow up on the Trump administration’s attempt to roll back national fuel economy standards. The auto industry, on the whole, is backing plans to increase mileage standards and set targets for zero-emissions vehicles. The administration already signaled its intent by calling for the replacement of the vast federal vehicle fleet – more than 600,000 cars and trucks – with zero-emission alternatives.
New sales incentives promoting vehicles will be critical, according to analysts at Cox Automotive, IHS Automotive and elsewhere. The question is whether new government funds will be available, especially with an evenly divided Senate – and the need to deliver massive stimulus funds for the COVID pandemic. However, his push to expand EV sales appears to be getting a lift with newly introduced legislation offering $7,000 in federal tax credits to Tesla and GM EV buyers again.
If anything, President Biden argues that the switch to EVs could create a million American jobs – but not everyone is convinced.
Innovation leading to job creation
Rory Gamble, president of the United Auto Workers Union, offered tentative support for EVs following a meeting with Biden earlier this month, citing “a very open and positive dialogue.” But unless production of EVs is shifted to the U.S. from abroad, the transformation actually could cost thousands of American automotive jobs, EVs typically requiring far less manhours per vehicle.
There are plenty of other challenges. During a conference call this week, Toyota’s top scientist, Gill Pratt, cautioned that BEVs aren’t necessarily the cleanest option for those looking to drive down emissions. One key reason for his concern: where the energy to charge up those vehicles will come from. In California and Texas, both heavily reliant on solar and wind power, the equation is favorable. In coal-burning parts of the East Coast, the case is a lot less certain, said Pratt.
The other concern is whether the country can deliver all the power to keep a national fleet of BEVs running. Since most EV owners charge at night, there’s more than enough off-peak power to keep things running – for now. But, when battery cars start reaching a double-digit share of the market there will be need to expand the country’s generating capacity.
The good news is that renewables now account for the majority of new power sources being put in place. The U.S. Energy Information Agency’s latest outlook forecasts clean sources will surpass natural gas and provide 42% of American electrical power by 2030, double the current figure. If anything, Biden wants to accelerate the transition – and contends that this could add millions more new U.S. jobs. With government backing, a study by the University of California – Berkeley estimates, 90% of American electric power could be renewable.
Upgrading infrastructure leads set of issues
But drill deeper and you discover other problems. The national grid is actually a mish-mash of regional networks that barely work together, creating massive inefficiencies. To address the problem properly will require far more than just tossing cash at the problem.
Among other steps, expect to see growing use of “second-life” batteries. Recovered from vehicles being scrapped, many will have a significant amount of their capacity left. That could allow them to “load level” renewable sources like wind and solar to ensure power at night or when winds becalm. Distributed networks of batteries could reduce problems with blackouts and brownouts.
There are still other challenges the switch to battery power must cope with. It’s far from clear where all the raw materials, notably lithium, will come from. Right now, relatively few batteries are recycled. That will require a massive ramp up. Lithium is, in fact, one of the planet’s most common elements. But most is found in forms difficult to mine or use. Ironically, the drive for zero-emission power risks creating its own environmental headaches. Cleaner material sources, starting with extensive recycling, will be essential.
The bottom line? There seems little doubt that the switch from IC engines to battery power is gaining momentum. But getting there will require far more than just putting more BEVs in showrooms. It will require holistic thinking and vast amounts of funding from both industry and government or we could run into plenty of problems along the way.