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The Future Of Electric Vehicles

By: Adi Gaskell, Katerva’s Futurist 

The concept of the electric vehicle has been around since the early 1800s, but has faced constant opposition, with the mass production of gasoline-powered vehicles by Henry Ford in 1913 resulting in the idea of using electricity to power automobiles onto the backburner for generations. Despite many of the major manufacturers producing electric concept vehicles in the 1990s, the opposition persisted to such an extent that Sony Pictures Classics released a movie in 2006 asking just who had killed the electric car.

A common accusation of opponents is that the technology itself is not actually very green.  They argue that not only is the manufacturing of the vehicle, and especially the battery, resource intensive, but the methods of generating the electricity itself all add up to make them more harmful to the environment than traditional vehicles.

This was an argument nicely skewered by recent research from the University of Cambridge, which found that even taking all things into account, electric vehicles are greener than existing petrol-powered vehicles in 95% of the world, with the only exceptions being countries, such as Poland, where the majority of electricity is still generated via dirty fuel sources, such as coal.  In countries where electricity is generated largely from renewable sources, then lifetime emissions are around 70% lower.

It’s a prognosis that fills the researchers with optimism, and they suggest that by 2050, around half of all cars on the roads will be electric, which collectively would reduce global CO2 emissions by 1.5 gigatons each year.

“Understanding the effect of low-carbon innovations on relevant sectors of the economy, such as heating and transport, is crucial for the development of effective policy,” they say. “We hope our work can inform the policy process here in the UK and abroad, particularly around discussions of the new carbon targets under the Paris Agreement framework.”

Progress being made

Despite nearly 200 years of struggle for acceptance, there are signs that the technology is gaining a foothold in the market, but it’s also clear that performance varies considerably around the world.  For instance, China currently leads the way, with the market for electric vehicles growing by 85% in recent years, which is considerably higher than other regions.  This growth is driven by strong technical performance, with the minimum electric range demanded by the government growing to 150 kilometers, and an energy density of 105 watt-hours per kg.  These levels are growing year on year, with performance gains growing in unison.

The 1.1 million units sold in the country in 2018 represents 51% of all sales worldwide, and the Chinese market is roughly three times the size of both the European and American markets.

In Europe, the growth has been more modest, with Norway leading the way and showing signs of mass market adoption in the near future.  Momentum is more evasive in larger markets, such as Germany and the UK, with market share languishing at around 2%, compared to the 40% achieved in Norway to date.

Much of the growth in North America has been driven by the relative success of the Tesla Model 3, which sold 140,000 vehicles in 2018 alone.  These sales were partially driven by tax credits for electric vehicles, and sustained growth depends both on the long-term nature of these subsidies and regulatory issues around fuel-economy standards, which are currently under considerable threat from the Trump administration.

The global outlook

Tesla is the largest electric vehicle manufacturer in the world, closely followed by Chinese firms BYD and BAIC Motor, but the nascent state of the market means that competition is sure to intensify, and consolidation is likely.  While the coronavirus pandemic is likely to significantly disrupt plans, it was expected that over 100 new models would be released during 2020, including models in the D and E segments, and various SUV models.

Time will tell whether countries will continue to push for lower emissions as part of global efforts to combat climate change, or whether ambitious targets will be relaxed in a bid to revitalize economies that have been ravaged by the coronavirus lockdown.  There have already been strong indicators that the United States will relax climate measures in an attempt to bolster their economy, but it remains to be seen if other countries follow suit.

The industry is moving apace, however, both in developing vehicles with greater range but also more power.  Toyota have also teamed up with Hino Profia to make a fuel-cell based heavy duty truck, signifying the growing range of vehicles being developed.

Continued progress will rely not just on regulatory support, but coordination across the value chain.  The supply of vehicles was hampered recently, for instance, by shortages in battery-cell production, and it remains to be seen how supply chains will be affected by the coronavirus pandemic.  The sector will also require continued investment in renewable energy sources to ensure a ready supply of affordable, green electricity, coupled with a strong network of charging stations across towns and cities.

There will also be a need for OEMs to develop a more affordable range of vehicles if the technology is to reach a mass audience.  To date, most vehicles have skewed towards the premium end of the market, which while it has allowed revenue to flow into the sector, will not be sufficient in the longer term.  Developments in more price-sensitive markets, such as India and Brazil, may lead the way in the development of affordable models.

The need for efficient and environmentally sustainable modes of transport are unlikely to go away, and it’s highly likely that once the dust settles after the pandemic that the industry will renew the upward trajectory it’s been on for the past few years.

If you loved this article–our ‘Future of’ series will explore new topics released weekly every Thursday–stay tuned!
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