Electric vehicles have gone from a niche product to mainstream in the past decade. EV sales have grown exponentially year after year, with over 2 million sold worldwide in 2019. But what does the future hold for EVs? There are immense opportunities and inevitable challenges that lie ahead as we transition away from combustion-powered cars.
The Rise of EVs
EVs are not new – they actually predate combustion-powered cars, with the first battery-powered vehicles created in the 1830s.
But it wasn’t until the 1990s, with the development of lithium-ion batteries, that EVs became a viable alternative to traditional internal combustion engine vehicles (ICEVs).
Lithium-ion batteries provided the lightweight, high-density energy storage needed to allow EVs to travel farther between charges. Major automakers started developing EVs in the early 2000s, with early models like the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt hitting the market.
Initially, EVs were slow to catch on due to high costs and limited driving range. But prices have dropped dramatically in the past decade thanks to economies of scale and battery innovation.
The typical range for an EV has gone from under 100 miles to over 200 miles on a single charge. Mainstream consumers are now ready to adopt EVs, especially as fuel prices continue to rise. Top automakers like Tesla, Volkswagen, Toyota, and General Motors plan to stop selling combustion-powered cars altogether in the next 10-15 years.
BloombergNEF predicts EV sales rising to 28 million per year by 2030, at which point they will surpass sales of internal combustion vehicles.
Opportunities of Vehicle Electrification
The mass adoption of EVs presents major opportunities and upsides:
- Cleaner air: EVs produce no direct emissions from the tailpipe, meaning improved air quality, especially in urban areas. Studies show EVs can reduce air pollutants like nitrogen oxides and particulate matter by over 40%. This could prevent thousands of pollution-related deaths.
- Lower greenhouse gases: The electricity grid is progressively adding more renewables like solar and wind. Charging an EV from a clean grid reduces lifecycle carbon emissions by over 60% compared to a petrol car. Some automakers like Polestar aim for carbon neutrality.
- Energy independence: EV adoption reduces reliance on imported oil and petroleum products. For countries with limited fossil fuel reserves, EVs provide energy independence and insulation from volatile global oil prices.
- Job creation: New EV-related industries can create economic opportunities and jobs in manufacturing, maintenance, charging infrastructure, battery reuse/recycling, etc. Developing countries are keen to build domestic EV industries.
- Performance benefits: EVs provide smoother, quieter rides with stronger acceleration. Regenerative braking recovers energy while slowing the vehicle. Lower center of gravity improves handling. Over-the-air software updates can continuously improve performance.
- Lower operating costs: Electric motors require far less maintenance than internal combustion engines. Recharging is typically cheaper than buying gasoline per mile. EVs have fewer fluids, filters, and belts to replace.
Challenges Facing EV Adoption
Despite the momentum behind EVs, there are obstacles that must be overcome for full mainstream adoption:
- Upfront cost: Purchase prices remain high, typically $10,000+ over comparable combustion cars. Falling battery prices will help achieve parity, but incentives are still needed today.
- Charging infrastructure: Most EV owners charge at home, but public networks must expand for travel. Easy access to fast, affordable charging is key to mass adoption.
- Access to renewable energy: To maximize emissions reductions, EVs should charge from renewable sources like solar and wind. More clean power generation is needed.
- Secure material supply chains: EV batteries require lithium, nickel, cobalt and other finite raw materials. Sourcing must ramp up sustainably and ethically to meet demand.
- Recharging time: Most EVs take hours to recharge. New fast-charging technologies can shorten this dramatically, but networks are still limited.
- Resale value uncertainty: Battery life expectancy is improving but still unknown. Concerns over battery degradation may negatively impact used EV prices. They can also change the way people charge their cars, such as only to 80%.
- Insufficient model availability: Automakers are expanding EV model lineups, but choices remain limited, especially for trucks and SUVs. More options needed.
End-of-Life Batteries: Reuse and Recycling
Perhaps the greatest long-term challenge is the reuse and recycling of EV lithium-ion batteries once they can no longer power a vehicle. EV batteries retain 70-80% of original capacity when first retired from automotive use. These still-potent batteries can serve a valuable “second life” in less demanding roles:
- Providing grid/renewable energy storage
- Supplying backup power for buildings
- Powering stationary industrial equipment
- Using in non-automotive EVs like forklifts
Repurposing EV batteries can lower costs compared to manufacturing new ones. It also reduces environmental impact by extending useful battery life. Companies like Nissan are exploring second-life battery programs. Standardizing modules and packs will aid reuse.
Ultimately, batteries will reach end-of-life and require recycling. Lithium-ion batteries are complex to recycle but contain valuable materials.
Through processes like hydrometallurgy, pyrometallurgy, and direct physical recovery, critical raw materials like lithium, nickel, and cobalt can be salvaged and reused in new batteries. Closed-loop recycling will reduce reliance on mining. Proper collection systems and incentives are needed to maximize reuse and recycling.
The EV Revolution is Here
The transition from combustion to electric cars is accelerating with every passing year. Falling EV prices combined with rising fuel costs make adoption nearly inevitable and they provide major advantages over petrol and diesel-powered cars:
EVs produce zero direct emissions from the tailpipe when driving, which leads to cleaner air in cities and lower greenhouse gas emissions overall when charged from low-carbon sources like renewables. Studies have shown EVs reduce air pollutants like nitrogen oxides by up to 40% compared to petrol cars. Widespread EV adoption can help countries meet emissions reduction targets under climate agreements.
Electric motors convert over 77% of electrical energy into power at the wheels, versus under 30% for combustion engines. This improved efficiency means EVs require less energy input per mile traveled. The regenerative braking system in EVs also captures energy normally lost when slowing down. This greater efficiency equates to lower operating costs for fuel/electricity.
The instant torque from electric motors provides faster acceleration and smoother operation. The low center of gravity found in EVs, combined with their precise torque delivery, offers better handling and control as well. EVs have fewer mechanical parts to maintain or break down. Software and over-the-air updates allow for continuous performance improvements too.
Lower Total Costs
While EVs have a higher upfront cost, they compensate with lower fuelling and maintenance expenses. Electricity prices are more stable than fluctuating fuel prices as well. The total lifetime operational costs of an EV can be thousands less than a comparable ICE car. As battery prices fall, EVs will reach upfront cost parity too.
EVs allow countries with little or no oil reserves to reduce petroleum imports and achieve greater energy independence and supply stability. This insulation from volatile global oil prices also benefits consumers.