Electric cars are being lauded. Twice in two years, the Chevy Volt has edged out the Porsche 911 for highest customer satisfaction in Consumer Reports magazine; in 2011 the all-electric Nissan LEAF was named European Car of the Year; and in November 2012 the Tesla Model S was unanimously awarded Motor Trend’s “Car of the Year”. Sales, too, are on an upward climb. EVs, including both plug-in hybrids (PHEVs) and all electric vehicles (AEVs) are, in some respects, already equipped to compete with the ICE.
All this portends a fundamental shift in the energy landscape. After a century, transportation is decoupling from its complete reliance on oil.
But there are still considerable challenges to deploying EVs, especially AEVs. Cars are one of the most regulated and technology-intensive industries in the world. Today’s vehicles are packed with dozens of computers, intricate emissions systems, even explosives (for air bags). They are constructed with thousands of components – many as complicated as a modern smart phone, iPad or solar cell – that must blend together seamlessly (with complete dependability) over the course of hundreds of thousands of miles and decades of consumer abuse. Building the supply chains, regulatory institutions and competing infrastructure to support a new “EV ecosystem” is an ongoing challenge. After all, almost 100 years have been invested in ecosystems that support the ICE. Still, the underlying drivers of energy security and environmental protection that support electrification are strong.
One of the major focuses at the US Department of Energy (DOE) is overcoming the barriers to widespread EV adoption. The DOE’s “EV Everywhere” initiative brings together stakeholders ranging from research labs, to automakers, to EV deployment communities to tip the scales in favour of electrification.
The market in comparative perspective
How are EVs performing in the market today? In a month-to-month comparison, the Chevy Volt is selling almost twice as many cars as the original hybrid Prius did upon its US introduction. Part of the Volt’s early success likely stems from the fact that, like the Prius, it uses an ICE to surmount the range limitations of batteries and current lack of charging infrastructure. But the Volt’s success also demonstrates consumer demand for electrification.
AEVs, with no supplemental ICE, are a bigger challenge. They have shorter range and batteries that are still expensive and slow to charge. Still, the benefits to full electrification are considerable. Sunlight, coal, biomass, trash and natural gas can all be readily converted into electricity and thus fuel an AEV – not so for an ICE. They have the potential to be cheaper and easier to maintain than either ICEs or PHEVs. But to compete, AEVs need sustained commitment from government, automakers, electric utilities and other stakeholders and a willingness to take risks (and occasionally fail) in pursuit of these ends.
Federal EV policy post-stimulus
The Obama Administration’s EV Everywhere initiative builds on programmes that have already invested several billion dollars in grants and loans for new battery and electric drive research, deployment and component manufacturing plants. These enabled the success of EVs like the Tesla and the Volt – as has a federal tax credit of up to US$ 7,500 for EV buyers.
The batteries in today’s hybrids and other EVs are the fruits of decades of research – much of that DOE supported. To continue the progress, the DOE is launching a new “innovation hub” for batteries that will fund up to US$ 120 million over five years for energy storage research.
DOE is also promoting a “no regrets” policy of EV infrastructure deployment – encouraging companies to install the ducting and electrical systems in new buildings that will facilitate rapid installation of EV charging stations as the electrified fleet expands. Incorporating these capabilities can lead to substantial benefits and savings for businesses in the long term and improve the experience of future patrons of apartment buildings, shopping malls and garages.
A global challenge
But realizing the vision of EV Everywhere will require collective action by a host of stakeholders around the world. Cities and states have the power to promote deployment in their own communities. California’s Air Resources Board leads the nation’s most aggressive state-level EV deployment effort with its Zero Emission Vehicle mandate and will be a key player in the global market. Local and state governments can provide EVs with access to high-occupancy vehicle lanes or institute congestion pricing schemes that would allow EVs preferential entry into city centres – as London does today. This can reduce noise, improve local air quality and further incentivize EV deployment.
However, it is important to remember that an EV is not a cell phone or an iPad. The technology hurdles are higher and the scale of the challenge bigger. But a tipping point may have already been reached – uptake of EVs is accelerating. The pace of deployment will likely be heavily dependent on policy, and the DOE goal is to work with American industry, cities and states to put in place the incentives that will support a flourishing US EV market by 2025. By then, millions of EVs could be deployed in the United States – and eventually, everywhere.