Many commentators, myself included, have over the years pondered whether the dawn of a new era is upon us, and whether it be in the format of hybrid powertrains, hydrogen fuel-cells or full battery-electric propulsion. The fact is that the vast majority of the globe’s motorists continue to purchase conventionally-powered vehicles.
To use an IT-based allegory: In the US Tablet-computers were commercially available in the early 90’s. Yet, by 2010 US market penetration was a paltry 3%. However, with the introduction of the iPad by the end of 2013 market penetration for the same US demography was 34%. This lack of an “iPad moment” for the automotive industry is still very clearly an issue for electric vehicle adoption. Many manufacturers have attempted hybrids or pure electric vehicles, though none can be considered a true success. Since 1999 hybrids have managed around 3.1 million sales accounting for approximately 1.2% of the US’s national parc. Electric vehicle sales are, unsurprisingly, much lower.
The speed of adoption is hardly surprising when one considers the progress being made on conventional power trains. Variable valve timing and lift, cylinder de-activation, engine down-sizing, forced induction, mass reduction via new materials (such as CGI for engine blocks), electrically powered turbochargers and the increasing use of roller bearings inside engines are all examples of technologies that have improved internal combustion engine (ICE) performance, and have resulted in CO2 emissions dropping by 2.2% a year on average in Europe.
This leads one to ask what real impact hybrids and batteryelectric vehicles (BEVs) will have. Firstly, a common feature that all hybrids and BEVs share is their lack of a “desirability premium” or forecourt appeal through either the lack of a premium badge or brand penetration. Secondly, the cost and capacity of traction batteries are still a major barrier to entry for many motorists. Tesla and BMW may have some answers. BMWs ‘i’ sub-brand is arguably the first brand to release a hybrid which carries global status. Initial reports indicate that circa 6,000 i3s were sold in the first six months of 2014 and thousands of back-orders remain. A key difference for BMW’s sub-brand is its admission that it is not an outright replacement for existing technology. The inclusion of short term leasing options for conventionally powered BMWs for long distance journeys has diluted potential negativity surrounding its powertrain and allowed the brand to become the selling point. Tesla, in turn, has made its patented battery technology available to rival manufacturers in a bid to accelerate development in the
EV market. BMW has followed by making its battery technology available to the industry as well. Furthermore, it is reported that Nissan, BMW and Tesla are holding preliminary discussions concerning charging infrastructure and collaboration.
All of this will be critical for EV acceptance as the current price of traction battery manufacture is circa $550 per kWh (though Tesla infer that their battery cost is closer to $280 per kWh). It is felt that maximizing economies of scale can bring down the cost of manufacture to below $200 per kWh (which is considered to be the threshold at which the cost issue surrounding batteries will cease) and open the door to greater public acceptance.
Furthermore, the concern regarding the energy density of traction batteries, whilst justified, can actually be overcome with existing technology if these economies of scale can be reached. Tesla’s Model S has a credible 250 mile range. Lithium-ion battery technology is reaching its ceiling of development in terms of energy density and technologies such as lithium metal, lithium-sulphur or lithium-air, are still in development. Therefore it is encouraging to see that one patent released by Tesla details the use of “metal-air” batteries as infrequently used range-extenders (to side-step the issue of limited rechargeable lifespan) and gives indication that the use of such battery technology is much closer than previously thought. So what do these developments mean realistically? One certainty is that unless the method of manufacture of batteries or the existing architecture of non-Tesla vehicles are supremely flexible, rule of thumb would dictate that will take around five years to develop a compatible vehicle.
In addition, the opening of Tesla’s “Gigafactory” is only slated for 2017. All of which suggests we are not going to see a tidal wave of electric vehicles forcing the ICE out of the market until 2017. Furthermore, the altruism displayed by Tesla and BMW will need to continue if results are to be realized faster. History teaches us that universal cooperation on such a global scale is a very rare occurrence. It is conceivable that the technology will be introduced faster in the small vehicle segment, mimicking BMWs approach of offering a solution for a reduced basket of requirements, albeit with a much more palatable range and providing temporary alternatives for infrequent, long-distance, journeys. Ultimately we should support the proliferation of EVs, even if it is only a stepping-stone to a wholly different future technology. Anything that can reduce our dependency on gasoline/diesel and extend the lifespan availability of these fuels can only be a good thing for the internal combustion engine.