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Electric vehicles: unplugging the hype

Electric cars, vans and motorbikes are winning fans around the world, especially among governments, but as E&T discovered at a recent conference, even their most optimistic supporters admit that several road-blocks remain and that mass market success could be a decade or more away.

Electric mobility is winning fans in major conurbations around the world and should begin to take off within the next five years or so. However, the mass adoption of vehicles powered purely by batteries outside those key markets could be at least 10 years away - if indeed it ever happens.

That's according to speakers at the recent Electric Vehicles Unplugged conference held in London. Coming from sectors such as local and national government, banking, and the power and automotive industries, many sounded caveats alongside their long-term optimism, noting for instance that government backing for electric vehicles can only work hand-in-hand with social pressures, commercial incentives and technology advances.

One of the markets in which electric vehicles (EVs) are being pushed hard is mainland China, where economic development has outstripped oil supplies, said Dr Neil Wang, general manager China for market research company Frost & Sullivan, which hosted the conference.

'China is in dire need of oil,' he said. 'It was a net exporter in the 1970s and 1980s, but its non-self-sufficiency rate hit 47.3 per cent in 2008.' In addition, China emitted more CO2 in 2006 than the rest of BRIC (Brazil, Russia and India) put together.

He added that while Chinese car ownership more than doubled in the last five years, from 19 to 46 per 1,000 people, there is still a great deal of room for growth - the equivalent US and UK figures are 668 and 509 - so the country needs to move those vehicles away from fossil fuels wherever possible.

China currently subsidises EV purchases by between US$6,600 and $8,800, but is moving to subsidies based on battery capacity, Wang said. He quoted the government's strategy of 10 cities, 1,000 cars, and noted that there are also plans for local authorities to buy up to 20,000 EVs.

London's local government is also behind EVs in a big way, according to Graeme Craig, director for congestion charging and traffic enforcement at Transport for London (TfL). 'We are spending £20m to support EVs in London,' he said. 'Add in the cost of the congestion charge discounts - drivers can save £2,000 a year - and it's £29m.

'The benefits have been monetised at £12m. But local authorities have to be bold - cars are responsible for 11 per cent of CO2 and 10 per cent of NOx, so real gains can be made.

'At the end of this year we start the roll-out of infrastructure for the widespread adoption of EVs. We are going to have 25,000 charge points by 2015, around 90 per cent of them at workplaces. 20 per cent of parking places in new developments must have charging facilities. There will be 2,000 in public car parks and 500 on-street, and they will be a mix of standard, fast and rapid.' He added that registered users would be able to access all the public charge points.

'London already has more EVs than the rest of the UK - 1,700 EVs, plus 15,000 hybrids, but we want 100,000 on London streets as soon as we can, and 1,000 in the London government fleet by 2015,' he continued. 'In practice, if you want to do business with TfL, the Metropolitan Police, you would be expected to use an EV where practical.'

The Netherlands too has ambitious plans to become an EV leader, said Maarten Casse, asset management manager for Stedin, a power grid operator whose fief covers several cities in the west of the country, including The Hague, Rotterdam and Utrecht.

As in China and London though, he said most Dutch EV drivers will be 'closed user groups' - governments and companies which can be persuaded that this is a way to show social awareness. 'Then in 10 to 15 years the consumer market takes over,' he added.

The problem is that government support can only take the EV so far. Sure, governments want to remove pollution from cities and meet their carbon reduction goals, but developing a mass market requires consumers to voluntarily buy EVs, and that remains challenging.

Range anxiety

Several speakers argued that improved charging facilities would help overcome 'range anxiety' and boost EV uptake - among early adopters, at least. Sean Long, automotive & LCV sector specialist at UK regional development body One North East, said that plans to install high-voltage rapid-charge points on spine roads around the north east of England should give EV drivers the confidence to travel between cities as well as within them, for instance.

However, some acknowledged that the pool of potential buyers is limited in other ways too. Maarten Casse pointed out that, unless the owner has at least a driveway, installing a charger at home is an issue.

Ford's director of global electrification Nancy Gioia agreed. She added that an EV 'doubles the household's power load when it is charging' and that 'home charging infrastructure is not free.' She cited costs of between £1,300 and £5,000 to install the necessary equipment, depending on whether it is normal or fast-charging.

On the plus side, Casse quoted a customer study which showed that cars are parked at home for an average of 13.2 hours, and at work for five, which is plenty of time to keep a battery topped up with a normal charger. 'We see very few people loading on the road. Mostly it's home or work, and road loading will just be fast-charge,' he said.

Looking beyond mere mobility, Frost & Sullivan partner Sarwant Singh identified 40 cities world-wide which he predicted would be 'smart' cities by 2020. He defined 'smart' in this context as being the stage beyond 'green', and said it would combine features such as renewable energy, and smart transport and power grids.

He pointed too at the growth of shared mobility, predicting that by 2015, car pooling and sharing clubs and companies in Europe and North America would have over nine million members. He added, 'After 2012, one in three of the cars bought new by a car sharing organisation will be an EV.'

Even so, he said it will be 2015 before fast charging becomes widely available, and perhaps 2020 before EVs get the kind of advanced batteries that will allow them to go 200 miles or more before recharging in 15 minutes.

Like Wang and Singh, the European Copper Institute's automotive programme manager Nigel Cotton said that batteries and range remain the key short-term inhibitors. 'We're now getting purpose-designed electric motors, next will be purpose-designed gearboxes,' he added. 'But we still need a breakthrough in both mobile and static batteries. We need super-capacitors, e-boost and regenerative systems - it already works in Formula 1, and we see it going into cranes, for example.'

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