Auto industry grappling with public hesitancy on EV technology

As automotive manufacturers bet big on Electric Vehicles (EVs), insiders said that the industry is grappling with low customer confidence in these alternative power vehicles.

Chief among the concerns are customer anxieties about high prices, unremarkable electric power technology that is not yet on-par with internal combustion power and overarching concerns about the environmental implications of disposing spent batteries.

In 2019, electric cars accounted for just 2.6% of global car sales in 2019, translating to about 7.2 million cars on the road. Nevertheless, the American automotive giant, General Motors (GM), said that it is investing $27 million to have 40% of its vehicle lineup (or 30 vehicles) by the year 2025 made up of electric vehicles.

Experts have already linked greater adoption of electric vehicles with achieving critical climate change goals. However, in India, while EV two-wheeler sales increased by 21 per cent in the 2020 fiscal year, and EV buses increased by 50%, the electric car market actually declined by 5%, data shows.

The key problem of the limited penetration of electric vehicles is inherent public anxiety that the range needs to be higher in-between charges, explained Kevin Robinet, Assistant Chief Engineer for Battery Electric Truck Propulsion at General Motors (GM).

We call it ‘range anxiety’,” said Robinet, speaking at a special virtual reporting tour organized by the Foreign Press Centre of the US State Department on combating climate change.

“People think they need to drive more miles before a charge than they [actually] do. However, in most normal daily driving cases, you actually don’t really need that many miles. We’ve done studies on this and the average customer really drives maybe a hundred miles a day, and they’re the 99-percentile customer.”

Tom Cooney, Vice President, Global Policy at GM, added that the matter of EV range is an overwrought matter. “The number-one selling electric vehicle in China only has a range of 100 or 120 miles because that’s exactly what the consumer is using it for.  And the price point on that? Very low, which is why it is the number-one selling vehicle in China,” he said.

GM said it is working on a new 50-200 kWh modular battery system, which it calls Ultium, which is a joint venture with LG Energy Solutions, and which could potentially boost range (depending on the configuration) to 450 miles per charge, while also allowing acceleration of zero to 60 miles per hour in three seconds.

General Motors’  all-new modular platform and battery system for EVs, Ultium, which promises longer range. Credit: Foreign Press Centre

Nevertheless, experts agree that the cost of a battery vehicle is still currently more expensive than filling up your vehicle with gas. “This is primarily because the battery itself is a large contributor to that at this point,” Robinet pointed out, adding that eventually the technology will become cheaper.

But it is not just a matter of deploying a better battery in cars. Rapid charging infrastructure is also required, added Jim Saber, CEO of NextEnergy, a Detroit-based company involved in piloting technologies.

According to Saber, there is an ongoing US Department of Energy-funded project to develop and test a new 400 kilowatt charging station. “Four hundred kilowatts seems like a lot. It could power about 40 homes. But this actually uses new solid state electronics so it’s much more efficient, and because of that it also can be packaged in about one-third of the footprint [of current chargers]. You are not using as much real estate,” he said, adding that such stations would be able to give vehicles 180 miles of driving range in a 10-minute charge.

He pointed out that this means that we could start to compete with the gas station experience, making long-range or interstate travel much more convenient while eliminating fossil fuel.

Recycling Challenges

Where the biggest problem lies in scaling up EV manufacturing is what to do if the battery needs to be recycled. Unlike internal combustion engines which we know to recycle, Saber said recycling electric power systems is more problematic as they still have energy in them.

For Ellington Ellis, Managing Partner and Co-founder of the Michigan-based Global Battery Solutions which is involved in battery cycle management.

“When a battery is manufactured there are many things that can go wrong. There are hundreds and thousands of smaller batteries in a battery module and a battery pack. When one module goes bad, or one cell in the module goes bad, that entire battery pack is no good unless that battery module cell can be repaired,” Ellis said.

In the event the battery can go back into a vehicle, Ellis said one option is repurposing for another application, such as putting it in a golf cart or using it for power storage. “If the battery has reached its end of life, there are several clean processes to retrieve 95% of the raw materials rather than burning them up,” he added.

One additional benefit of using electric vehicles was seen in Texas in the past winter when the state’s power grid collapsed, Saber pointed out. “The people that were fortunate enough to have Ford F150 hybrid vehicles, found they had exportable power. They were actually able to plug their house into their truck and power their homes,” he said.

Think about what you can do if you have a fleet of such vehicles, he added.

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