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Emerging Technology Spurs Surge in Electric Vehicles

Nobody wants to be the guy of four or five generations back who said, “It’ll never replace the horse,” when Henry Ford’s Model A’s began rattling noisily down the streets of Detroit. And from looking at recent numbers, it’s likely not much longer before electric vehicles (EVs) cross over into the automotive mainstream. If you’re an EV naysayer (“Costs too much.” “Not enough range.” “Where’s the infrastructure?”), you may want to look at some of the recent data.

Visions of vastly reduced greenhouse gas emissions and tech breakthroughs for components like batteries are supporting rising sales of electric vehicles. 


Currently, EV market share remains small compared to overall car sales. Data for 2017 shows electric vehicles represented about 1.2% of overall U.S. car sales at 187,985 vehicles. By the end of last year, that figure jumped notably to 328,188 vehicles, more than 63% higher than 2017.


In forecasting future sales, Loren McDonald of defines mass adoption of electric vehicles as 16% of new auto sales. His research says EV sales will hit that point in 2028, nine years from now. California, which accounts for nearly half of all U.S. EV sales, hits mass adoption even earlier according to the research, projected at 2022, just three years hence.


Corresponding cost reductions for electric vehicles, led by Tesla’s recent price reduction to $35,000 for the popular Model 3, point to strengthening sales. “We expect the introduction of a significant number of affordable EVs in the 2020 to 2022 timeframe,” McDonald adds.


Defining Terms


Electric vehicles cover a range of types and operating styles:


  • Hybrid Electric Vehicles (HEVs) are powered by both gasoline and electricity. The car’s braking system recharges the battery by a process called “regenerative braking,” by which the electric motor harvests a portion of the energy normally converted to heat when braking. HEVs start off using the electric motor, then the gasoline engine cuts in as load or speed increases. An internal computer controls both motors and ensures the best economy for the driving conditions. Notable vehicle models are the Toyota Prius Hybrid and Honda Civic Hybrid.
  • Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles (PHEVs) can recharge the battery through both regenerative braking and “plugging in” to an external source of electrical power. While “standard” hybrids can (at low speed) go about 1-2 miles before the gasoline engine turns on, PHEV models can go anywhere from 10-40 miles before their gas engines provide assistance. Notable models include the Chevy Volt, the Ford Fusion Energi and the Mercedes C350e.
  • Battery Electric Vehicles (BEVs) are fully electric vehicles with rechargeable batteries and no gasoline engine. Battery electric vehicles store electricity onboard with high-capacity battery packs. Their battery power is used to run the electric motor and all onboard electronics. BEVs do not emit any harmful emissions or hazards caused by traditional gasoline-powered vehicles. BEVs are charged by electricity from an external source. EV chargers are classified according to the speed with which they recharge an EV’s battery.


The major factor in the sales boost in EVs appears to be down to one company – Tesla. The California-based manufacturer sold 139,728 Model 3s last year. Add Tesla Model S and Model X models, and more than half of U.S. EV sales last year were Teslas.


Batteries Evolving


Travel range of electric vehicles depend on many factors, namely the size and weight of the vehicle, terrain, driver performance and, of course, battery type. Lead-acid batteries, the most inexpensive, reported approximately 80 miles per charge when production EVs first hit the scene. Loren McDonald notes new battery developments are also driving EV sales. “Luxury-car battery range will easily average 250 to 300 miles by 2020,” he predicts. At the same time, DC fast-charging time to 80% battery level will be reduced to 15 or 20 minutes by 2022.


Infrastructure is also predicted to grow rapidly. Mark Verbrugge, director of the chemical and materials systems lab at GM Research & Development told a recent conference that General Motors will collaborate with EVgo, ChargePoint and Greenlots, three of the nation’s leading electric vehicle (EV) charging networks, to enable access to the largest collective electric vehicle charging network in the United States, including more than 31,000 charging ports.


A New Mindset


Growing adoption of electric vehicles is both part of and actively changing a new car culture. Susan Brennan, executive vice president and chief operations officer, Bloom Energy, was a keynote speaker at the Center for Automotive Research (CAR) Management Briefing Seminar in July. When asked what was the biggest opportunity in a paradigm shift to mobility as opposed to conventional automobile transportation, she answered, “Asset utilization – the average vehicle sits unused for most of its life. When I was at Ford, many years ago, I met the founder of Zip Car, the concept was ahead of its time but I see it gaining traction now as the younger generation has no issue with sharing – as evidenced by Air BnB among other things. It is hard as a baby boomer to think of someone using your house or car but these concepts are now mainstream. The opportunity to use a vehicle 24/7 becomes a game changer and new industries that don’t even exist today will develop from the paradigm-shifting technology.”


This shifts directly to improved energy use in an on-demand sharing car economy. When asked what is the primary game-changer in automotive sustainability, Brennan replied: “Electric vehicles. I think for too long the automotive industry looked at the margins, the costs of batteries, etc., and did not look to the future that electrification could bring. That day is here and I believe EVs and more important, the business models they will enable, are in their infancy. It is an exciting time. Instead of us versus them, I see it as us and them together – I believe that better business outcomes will occur when auto and tech stop labeling and judging each other and seeing where synergy exits. Together, both can be better and build a better planet.”

"The opportunity to use a vehicle 24/7 becomes a game changer and new industries that don’t even exist today will develop from the paradigm-shifting technology."
Susan Brennan, Executive Vice President and Chief Operations Officer

Bloom Energy

    Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a contributing author and not necessarily Gray.

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