An electric car plugged into a charging station at a shopping centre car park in France
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Electric vehicles poised for wider adoption breakthrough within five years

Image credit: Reuters

Electric vehicles could become mainstream in less than five years, as advances in battery technology and the introduction of new light-weight materials promise to cut production cost and increase range.

The battery in an electric vehicle currently accounts for approximately 50 per cent of the price of the vehicle, but these costs are falling sharply. During 2015, the cost has fallen by 35 per cent and industry leader Tesla says they are already making batteries for less than $190/kWh.

“What we are seeing is the capability of electric vehicles to come up and the cost come down. What we are headed for is sort of a 200-mile range for £20,000 in 2020,” said Erik Fairbairne, CEO of crowd-funded electric charging company POD Point.

“In the next few years as we are heading to 2020, all of a sudden the electric vehicles’ capability and the electric vehicles price will reach a sweet spot where we will see massive adoption of electric vehicles and that’s not very far away.”

Other industry insiders forecast a less rapid shift, but still expect a major turning point within the next decade. BMW vice president of electric-powertrain development Stefan Juraschek recently told journalists he expects doubling of battery capacity in seven years’ time. Before that, Juraschek said, the appeal of EVs to the mass-market customer will remain limited.

Ford agrees with BMW, expecting battery prices to drop below $100 per kWh by 2025, at which point electric vehicles are expected to become cost competitive with internal combustion engines.

In Europe, however, electric vehicle technology may receive a major push from the European Commission’s legislation coming to force in 2020. All new vehicles introduced by manufacturers from 2020 onwards will have to emit no more than 95 grams of CO2 per kg of vehicle weight. Car makers will be severely penalised for every excess.

“That’s going to place a huge cost burden on manufacturers of vehicles to actually be able to meet those emissions targets,” said Mark Victory, Editor of the ICIS Global Automotive Report.

“Since the VW diesel scandal, regulations around emission assessing have changed. In real-world tests, diesel cannot hit the nitrous oxide emission standards without significant technology investment and a significant amount of expensive work, which means the manufacturers will all have to start looking at electric vehicles and light weight.”

Victory believes that the electric vehicle sector will soon adopt a new strategy for enhancing vehicle range – another major obstacle for electric car adoption, along with high prices. This new strategy doesn’t have anything to do with battery technology itself but with decreasing the weight of the vehicles through the use of light-weight materials. The most promising of these materials is carbon fibre, already in use in the aerospace sector but still waiting for its debut in car manufacturing.

“The most exciting thing about carbon fibre is that it is strong enough to replace the traditional metal chassis, but it’s about 30 per cent lighter than aluminium,” Victory said.

“If you’re looking at battery life in electric vehicles then the easiest [option], from the technical design point of view, to increase the range of an electric vehicle is to lower its weight. The more you lower the weight, the higher the range of the vehicle.”

Until recently, carbon fibre has not been considered due to its high price. A carbon fibre electric vehicle might offer a longer range, but it would be much less affordable then an aluminium-based one. However, Victory said, times are changing and the carbon fibre industry is making strides to make the material more attractive.

“An awful lot is changing in the market. If you looked a year ago, the answer would be that it’s all too expensive,” said Victory. “But we are seeing new techniques being developed by the industry to bring the cost of carbon fibre down, such as woven carbon fibre instead of knitting and continuous fibre-reinforced thermoplastic (CFRTP) composites.”

In parallel, the price of metals such as aluminium is going up. Only a year ago the price of carbon fibre was twice that of aluminium, but the situation today is very different.

Increasing battery performance together with reducing vehicle weight will help alleviate the infamous range anxiety, a major obstacle for electric vehicle uptake.

New infrastructure is also needed to make drivers confident that they can get their charge whenever and wherever they need.

In addition to superchargers that mimic the petrol station experience by allowing drivers to recharge their empty batteries in a very short period of time, companies are focusing on creating a dense network of charging points that would allow slower-rate recharging whenever the cars are parked.

“If you think about a typical car, it’s probably not used for 90 per cent of its life,” said Fairbairne. “What we are doing is to put charge points to three fundamental places. We put them into homes, we put them into people’s work places and we put them to destinations such as retailers and leisure centres or gyms. We want to see a charger everywhere where you can park for an hour or more.”

Volkswagen, Mercedes, BMW and Ford recently announced a joint project to roll out thousands of fast-charging stations across Europe to encourage electric vehicle adoption. The four automakers are following in the footsteps of Tesla, which started building its own super-charger network in 2012.

Political support is also gradually aligning behind electric vehicles. Faced with the inconvenient truth about the catastrophic effects of breathing heavily polluted air on people’s health - and the repercussions of this on the economy - global cities are producing strategies to encourage the uptake of cleaner cars. In central London, an Ultra Low Emission Zone will be introduced in 2020, requiring drivers to either switch to hybrid or electric vehicles or pay high fees for entering the Zone.

In November, the UK government announced a £390m pool of funding to encourage the uptake of electric vehicles. Meanwhile, the German Bundesrat passed a resolution in October calling for an EU-wide ban on combustion engine cars by 2030. Though non-binding, the resolution is a clear sign of the growing momentum behind electric vehicle technology.

Experts also say that the arrival of autonomous cars will provide further stimulus to the electric vehicle industry, as the technology is better suited for driverless cars as well as car sharing schemes due to the lower maintenance requirements.

Currently, only about 1.5 per cent of new cars sold in the UK are electric, but Fairbairne forecasts exponential growth: “Although it will have taken us maybe six or seven years to get from nought to maybe six or seven per cent adoption of electric cars in 2020, what we will then see is a really rapid adoption over the next ten years.

“I think that most of us will be buying purely electric vehicles by 2030. We are going to see a massive ramp-up from 2020 because electric vehicles will have the capability for the cost that they need and that’s very, very close by.

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