CHARGING AHEAD: Electric cars are developing fast.

Discussions about the future of the automotive sector inevitably tend to focus on changes to the car itself. But as today’s emerging technologies and new business models scale up, they will begin to reshape many other things, from the way we use energy and raw materials to the design of our cities and towns.

Take the adoption of electric powertrains for example. While carmakers continue to experiment with other alternative fuels – notably hydrogen – in the quest to reduce automotive carbon emissions, electric cars have beaten them to mass production. Including plug-in hybrids, there were more than 1.26 million electric vehicles (EVs) on the world’s roads by the end of 2015, up from just a few hundred in 2005.

Recent growth may have been high in percentage terms, but electric vehicles – especially pure EVs – are still a minute fraction of the overall vehicle market. EV sales to date have relied heavily on government incentive schemes – from lower taxes to direct cash payments to buyers.  Overcoming customer reluctance is a high-stakes game for the industry and regulators alike: if international agreements to limit transport-related carbon emissions are to be met, that figure will need to increase 100-fold by 2030.  

Battery issues

Manufacturing, operating and supporting electric vehicles on that scale will create plenty of challenges. First, there are the batteries. The best current battery technologies are based on lithium – the battery in a small electric vehicle such as the Nissan Leaf contains around 4 kilograms of lithium, for example, and a vehicle may need several batteries over its working life. Batteries already account for around 40 percent of global lithium consumption, and large-scale use in EVs is greatly increasing demand for the metal, leading to sharp price hikes and fears that supplies of the material could become exhausted. Those fears seem overblown. Lithium is highly recyclable and abundant in seawater and salt lakes. Its availability is limited largely by the capacity of the plants required to extract and process it. Encouraged by rising demand, lithium producers are ramping up their output. Philadelphia-based FMC, one of the world’s major producers, has announced plans to double its production to 8,000 tons in 2017, for example.  

Other supply constraints and logistical issues also need to be overcome. Manufacturing batteries is difficult, and quality is safety critical. Electronics giant Samsung had to cease production of its Galaxy Note 7 smartphones in October after numerous cases of their lithium batteries catching fire, and problems with lithium batteries led to Boeing’s entire fleet of advanced 787 aircraft being grounded briefly in 2013.  EVs need other special materials too, including so-called rare earth metals used in their electronic components and motor magnets. Competition for these resources is likely to be fierce in the coming years.

Then there’s the need for charging points – lots of them. Estimates of the number of charging points required to support the large-scale adoption of EVs vary from just under one to as many as 2.5 per vehicle. This demand will have to be met by a mixture of private installations in the homes and workplaces of vehicle users and public infrastructure. Forecaster Navigant Research estimates that the annual global demand for new charging stations will reach 2.5 million by 2025, almost six times its present level. Significant investments in charging infrastructure are underway, but progress has been hampered by a lack of compatibility between the different standards adopted by manufacturers, and some networks have also faced reliability issues.

Electric powertrain batteries are huge, and can weigh up to 400 kilograms. They cannot be handled in the same way as traditional automotive parts, and special equipment is often required to move them around warehouses. In addition, as with many other electronic components, they may need to be kept within a specific temperature range. Special care will have to be taken with storage and transportation due to the potential fire risk, and used batteries will also need collecting for mandatory recycling.

Energy generation

Keeping millions of EVs topped up will also have implications for electricity generation and distribution infrastructure. Beyond the need to generate sufficient clean electricity to reduce global carbon emissions, large-scale EV use may also lead to peaks in demand that exceed the capacity of local and regional electricity grids. While extra capacity is likely to be required, researchers are also looking at the potential to use smart grid technologies to smooth demand. A team at Sichuan University in China, for example, has proposed a system that shares the available energy based on the expected departure times and commuting distances of users, to maximize the chance everyone will wake up to a car sufficiently charged to get them to work.

EVs won’t just be a burden on electricity grids – there could also be a benefit. Charging an electric car is a great way to use cheap electricity available during periods of low demand, such as overnight, or when strong winds and bright sunshine lead to excess power from renewable sources. And smart grid systems can allow cars to send some energy back to the grid, helping to smooth demand peaks elsewhere. As it ramps up battery production, EV maker Tesla has started selling dedicated domestic energy storage systems using its EV batteries, and Nissan is developing a similar system to give an extra lease of life to part-worn batteries removed from its vehicles. Some batteries need to be regularly recharged if stored for long periods, or they lose their capacity. In Germany, Daimler has announced plans to create a 15-megawatt-hour grid-connected energy storage system using new batteries destined for its existing fleet. Similar warehouse solutions will need to be developed for other carmakers.

Clearing the streets

If large-scale use of electric vehicles is set to place significant new demands on infrastructure, two other key automotive trends – autonomous driving and the growth of shared-use vehicles – could fundamentally transform the urban environment. To find out what might happen, researchers at the International Transport Forum built a model of a hypothetical urban transport system for the city of Lisbon, replacing private cars with various combinations of shared, autonomous vehicles and high-capacity public transportation. 

ON THE LINE: Lithium batteries waiting to be installed at Peugeot-Citroen’s Sochaux factory in France.

Their report creates some intriguing possibilities. While the simulations suggested that the number of vehicle miles driven would rise, partly as a result of the need for vehicles to reposition themselves from one user to another, they also found the system could reduce the total number of cars required to meet the city’s transport needs by 90 percent, and cut peak hour congestion by almost two-thirds. The approach would completely eliminate on-street parking, freeing up as much as 20 percent of the available road space for other uses, and allow 80 percent of the current off-street parking space to be used for other purposes.

It’s a vision of city life that would appeal to many, but the researchers warn the transition would be hard to manage – the version of the model that retained private cars for 50 percent of journeys caused vehicle travel to increase by up to 90 percent.  — Jonathan Ward

Published: November 2016

Images: Werner Bachmeier / VISUM, Didier MAILLAC/REA/laif