Automotive

Is the EV finally coming of age?

Is the EV finally coming of ag...
The Renault Zoe's new battery is physically the same size as the one it replaces, but offers double the range
The Renault Zoe's new battery is physically the same size as the one it replaces, but offers double the range
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Renault released a longer-range version of its Zoe EV at the 2016 Paris Motor Show
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Renault released a longer-range version of its Zoe EV at the 2016 Paris Motor Show
The Mercedes Generation EQ signals the start of a renewed electric push from Mercedes
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The Mercedes Generation EQ signals the start of a renewed electric push from Mercedes
The Generation EQ SUV takes the classic Mercedes style and moves it in a different direction
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The Generation EQ SUV takes the classic Mercedes style and moves it in a different direction
The Renault Zoe's new battery is physically the same size as the one it replaces, but offers double the range
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The Renault Zoe's new battery is physically the same size as the one it replaces, but offers double the range
The Generation EQ SUV is part of Mercedes' investment in battery-powered cars
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The Generation EQ SUV is part of Mercedes' investment in battery-powered cars
The Renault Zoe will only need to be charged weekly according to Renault CEO Carlos Ghosn
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The Renault Zoe will only need to be charged weekly according to Renault CEO Carlos Ghosn
The Tesla Roadster saw plenty of improvement over its four-year lifespan
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The Tesla Roadster saw plenty of improvement over its four-year lifespan
The Tesla Roadster was described by Elon Musk as a "disaster."
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The Tesla Roadster was described by Elon Musk as a "disaster."
The Tesla Roadster's lithium-ion batteries caused plenty of problems when it first launched
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The Tesla Roadster's lithium-ion batteries caused plenty of problems when it first launched
The Nissan Leaf was one of the first companies to commit to electric power
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The Nissan Leaf was one of the first companies to commit to electric power
The Renault Zoe has a range of around 250 km
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The Renault Zoe has a range of around 250 km
Nissan expects electric charging stations to outnumber petrol stations in the UK by 2020
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Nissan expects electric charging stations to outnumber petrol stations in the UK by 2020
The Generation EQ is expected to hit markets in 2020
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The Generation EQ is expected to hit markets in 2020
The Mercedes Generation EQ at launch in Paris
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The Mercedes Generation EQ at launch in Paris
The Generation EQ is one of ten EVs expected to be wearing the three-pointed star on the hood by 2025
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The Generation EQ is one of ten EVs expected to be wearing the three-pointed star on the hood by 2025
The BMW i3 has a 33 kWh battery for better range
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The BMW i3 has a 33 kWh battery for better range
BMW has upped the range on its i3 without adding any physical size to the battery pack
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BMW has upped the range on its i3 without adding any physical size to the battery pack
Tesla's Superchargers are expanding 
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Tesla's Superchargers are expanding 
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Electric cars have so far only worked in a vacuum. High sticker prices, combined with limited range and slow plug-in chargers, haven't really put them on the radar of anyone outside cashed-up early adopters. But the tide is turning. With this year's Paris Motor Show as a focal point, established players like VW Group and Daimler, along with upstarts in the industry, are making huge strides in battery chemistry and design, and infrastructure is starting to catch up with the needs of the average driver. With the groundwork laid, is it finally time for the electric car to shine?

The benefits of running with electric motors are crystal clear. They're smooth and quiet, and there's nothing quite like the brutal punch in the back you get off the line in a Tesla Model S. There are also no local emissions and no dirty hands from slimy gas pumps, not to mention the smug glow included in being an early adopter. The key issue with electric cars has always been range.

We're in the habit of driving until a dashboard light pops up, stopping at a petrol station, and repeating the process indefinitely. Electric cars on the other hand, are limited to relatively short-run duty before needing a lengthy stopover for juice. Batteries simply haven't been able to offer useful range. Those days are ending.

When the Tesla Roadster landed in 2008, it was fitted with a 53 kWh lithium-ion battery pack good for 393 km (244 miles). It was unreliable – although that wasn't totally the fault of the battery pack – and real world range didn't stack up against the headline figures, especially on the racetrack.

The Tesla Roadster saw plenty of improvement over its four-year lifespan
The Tesla Roadster saw plenty of improvement over its four-year lifespan

Elon Musk has since described the early days of Roadster development were an absolute mess, and the car was retired from service in 2012. With subsequent efforts, built on bespoke underpinnings rather than repurposed Lotus parts, Tesla has learned from its mistakes.

Beyond the criticism, the Roadster did provide a preview of what was to come with its eye-popping acceleration and telepathic handling – it was still a blast to drive.

Updates to the Roadster throughout the past few years show just how fast lithium-ion battery technology is advancing. After production wrapped up, owners were given the opportunity to swap the factory-fitted battery for a unit offering 60 percent more range than the original, in a package physically the same size and weight.

Over in Munich, the BMW has fitted the i3 a new 33 kWh battery as well. Formed in 2011, the sub-brand is tasked with developing electric powertrains and lightweight materials to filter down through the range. Along with the i3 and i8, its work has also informed the carbon elements in the 7 Series, and is making its way into a growing number of hybrids. Even though it can cover an extra 110 km (68 mi) on every charge, the new unit occupies the same space as the original and carries no weight penalty.

Another example comes from Renault, which used the Paris Motor Show to launch a new Zoe with double the range of its predecessor, the BYD Denza 400 was treated to a huge boost earlier this year, and the Tesla Model S can now be specced with a 100 kWh battery.

The Renault Zoe will only need to be charged weekly according to Renault CEO Carlos Ghosn
The Renault Zoe will only need to be charged weekly according to Renault CEO Carlos Ghosn

Jurgen Schenk, Chief Engineer of Electric Car Development at Daimler, leads development on every electric Mercedes and Smart. We asked him about how electric cars are changing.

"One important breakthrough will be increasing the energy density of the battery through being able to cram more cells into the same volume of battery packs. The battery density doubled between 2009 and 2016, and this is definitely not the end. Just like with the technological development of the personal computer, there is something similar to a 'Moore's Law' in the battery development: currently, we recognize an annual improvement rate of 14 percent, which is quite immense."

Although 14 percent is significant, it's only just a start when it come to battery technology. At the moment, electric cars make use of lithium-ion batteries, the type pioneered by the Tesla Roadster back in the mid-2000s. Schenk says there's plenty of improvement to come in lithium-ion tech, but greater leaps forward are in the pipe.

"New technologies, and especially those aimed at material-related improvements, plus ever-increasing production volumes leading to further price decreases, will determine the development stages of the next few years," Schenk says. "Within the next decade a major technological leap is expected with lithium-sulfur systems, and these are set to revolutionize costs and operating range as extraordinarily relevant buying criteria for electric vehicles."

Already, improvements to battery chemistry are starting to pay off, and people are starting to buy electric vehicles in greater numbers. Renault, one of the largest players in the European electric game, sold 23,087 electric cars in 2015 - a 49 percent increase on its 2014 numbers.

The Nissan Leaf was one of the first companies to commit to electric power
The Nissan Leaf was one of the first companies to commit to electric power

It's a similar story at Tesla, which has grown the appeal of electric cars by focusing on the ludicrous acceleration figures they're able to pull off. Compared to less than 20,000 cars in 2014, it turned over 50,595 cars in 2015, and the first half of 2016 has brought about 29,212 sales. It's also worth remembering these numbers will only grow when the Model 3 arrives.

Renault (and global partner Nissan) dove headlong into the EV game with the Zoe and Leaf, both of which have recently been upgraded with the latest battery tech for almost double their original range. Having established a foothold, they're staying on the cutting edge, trying to get people on board now rather than forcing them to wait until 2018.

Meanwhile, the Germans have generally been much more circumspect with their electric development. Paris heralded the arrival of the Generation EQ, the first in a series of mass-production battery-powered cars to wear a three-pointed star on the bonnet. Set to debut in 2020, it offers a range of 500 km (311 mi) and a new look for Mercedes. The EQ won't be going it alone, either – there are ten battery electric Mercedes set to launch in the next decade, the result of a significant investment made to prepare for 2025, when the company thinks up to a quarter of all its sales will be battery-powered.

"The new generation of electric vehicles will be based on an architecture developed specifically for battery-electric models, which is scalable in every respect and usable across various models: from compact cars up to the luxury segment thanks to our future electric vehicle architecture," says Schenk. "Purely electric vehicles are set to account for between 15 and 25 percent of total Mercedes-Benz unit sales by 2025"

BMW is expecting a similar uptick in battery-powered sales, although it's looking a bit further ahead: cars developed by the i division make up just one percent of sales at the moment, but the electric business is expected to overtake internal combustion by 2040.

The Generation EQ SUV is part of Mercedes' investment in battery-powered cars
The Generation EQ SUV is part of Mercedes' investment in battery-powered cars

Range is getting better, but every battery runs flat eventually. Charge infrastructure and speed have both improved drastically over the past five (or two) years, led by the Tesla Supercharger network. There are now more than 719 Supercharger stations worldwide with 4,700 individual plugs. In our experience, the network is easy to use but still slow compared to the bowser a flat Model S P85D took around 75 minutes to gain around 450 km (280 mi) of claimed range.

Beside the Supercharger network, charge points are popping up rapidly, particularly in Europe. Nissan says the number of petrol stations in the UK is declining, and the number of electric charge points is growing to the point where plugs will outnumber petrol stations in 2020.

At the moment, dedicated charge stations lack the ubiquity of gas stations, and an hour is longer than the five minutes it takes to fill up with liquid gold. But there are other ways for the average commuter to keep their EV topped up, although they might require a slight philosophy shift.

Cars tend to spend most of the day sitting in a parking garage, and most of the night sitting in a garage at home. In an electric car, all that time can be spent plugged into a wall socket. Like keeping your phone topped up, maximizing electric range is simply about making the most of time sitting idle.

Tesla's Superchargers are expanding 
Tesla's Superchargers are expanding 

The final barrier to owning an electric car is price, a barrier that has remained stubbornly in place since the Tesla Roadster landed. Thankfully prices are dropping, although they're still not on a par with gas cars. The Chevy Bolt retails for $37,500 before federal tax credits and refunds, but when government help kicks in that figure is a more palatable $30,000.

When it launches, the Tesla Model 3 is expected to retail for $35,000. They're not bargain basement prices – the VW Golf starts at around $20,000 – but they are within reach for a much broader range of buyers than the $66,000 Tesla Model S ever will be.

Costs are only going to keep falling, too. Mercedes says the Generation EQ will be worth the same as a regular diesel four-wheel drive when it launches, and the Volkswagen ID should sneak in at less than $30,000. There are also benefits when it comes to running costs, both in servicing and charging/fueling.

Beyond upfront sticker prices, the car ownership model is changing as well. As self-driving technology continues to improve, Tesla says its cars could make money as autonomous taxis while the owner doesn't need them, and newcomer Lynk & Co has sharing built into its business model from the start. The idea of cars making money is still novel to regular owners, but it's an idea becoming more prominent as the sharing economy gains ground, and one that opens the door to a more cost-efficient car ownership model.

The BMW i3 has a 33 kWh battery for better range
The BMW i3 has a 33 kWh battery for better range

There will come a time when emissions regulations make it impossible for new internal combustion cars to hit the market. Gasoline engines have been used in cars for more than a century. They've been subject to constant refinement and improvement, but the noose is already being tightened in European and American parliaments. There is a ceiling on how efficient an internal combustion engine can be, and (incredibly clever) developments like variable-compression ratios and world-ending levels of turbo boost can't overcome the inherent inefficiency involved in turning fuel into heat, noise and motion.

Inevitably, there will come a point where it doesn't make sense to keep perfecting gas power, when the cost of improving the breed is just stupid. Some argue that point has already arrived. As someone who loves cars, that's sad, because no amount of torque can make up for the feeling of running a quality engine to the redline.

But owning an electric car is already starting to make sense, and it won't be all that long before you'd be crazy to drive anything else.

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20 comments
P3t3r
Meanwhile in Australia, I can't even get my landlord to allow me to pay for my own power point to charge my Volt!
Jeff J Carlson
ra ra ra ... when the government stops subsidizing them then they have made it ...
Joe Blough
I know I have 75 minutes to waste during a fill - NOT. Then there is the issue of batteries degenerating over time so that a 30 KWH battery becomes 25, then 20, then 15 and so on. The range following the capacity. The volt is promoted on the basis that after 8 years you'll need a $10,000 battery replacement but says the salesperson, this is just like replacing a worn out engine. Hello- has anyone ever had to replace a gasoline engine after only 8 years? Not unless it's been hugely abused. Fast charging equals heat equals early failure. If an EV dies away from charging, can AAA bring a can of electricity to fill it? Clearly a lot more work and better technology is required for this to become mainstream.
DavidB
All I can say in answer to the naysayers above is that, in more than two years of driving an EV, I've only twice been inconvenienced by range-related issues. Both of those times because I was driving more than the estimated 90 miles in a single round trip. The inconvenience was only that I needed to recharge while parked at the location so I'd have sufficient charge for the return trip. It was actually less trouble than stopping at a gas station, because I could just plug the car into a power outlet and go about my business, unplug it on my return, and head home—no muss, very little fuss.
Exactly once, in heading to a temporary job in another state, I had to leave my car behind, because only California has the power-station infrastructure in place to accommodate long-distance travel. I rented a car at my destination, for which I was reimbursed by my car's manufacturer.
Electric vehicles aren't for everyone. They are, however, perfectly suitable for millions more people than currently drive them. They will continue to improve, and more people will drive them. There's really no practical alternative.
habakak
Good article touching most of the relevant points. However the biggest miss is the EFFICIENCY of electric cars vs gasoline. It means HUGE money savings for SOCIETY as a whole. That alone is more than enough reason to go electric. It is coming sooner than people think. All the excuses of range, charging time, longevity of the battery and subsidies are just that. Weak excuses. They are the same type of arguments that were made in the days of the automobile taking over from the horse-carriage.
Autonomous is fortunately happening at the same time and also a better marriage than with an ICE (to to electronic vs mechanical controls). This too will benefit society TREMENDOUSLY. I think even more than the switch to electric. We will need less cars causing less waste and better resource utilization. Better traffic movement, safer, more efficient and more effective. All this stuff will happen because that is what always happens. Constant improvements to efficiency and cutting out of waste.
As for subsidies, the fossil fuel industry were subsidized to the tune of $325 Billion last year. In 2014 it was $500 Billion. For renewable energy the figure was $150 Billion last year. So yeah, level the playing field and electric cars will get adopted even quicker!
With a 14% annual improvement in battery energy density, energy densities will double roughly every 5 years. It's game over for gasoline. Just like those clinging to their horse and buggy businesses could not see the ICE taking over their industry, the same will happen today with the ICE industry. People will always hate what they don't understand, or resist changes to what they believe in. Humans unfortunately never changes much.
DaveWesely
Range anxiety should be irrelevant. It would make far more sense for the consumer to buy the car batteryless and buy, lease or rent batteries for the car depending on need. Car manufacturers would just rather sell a $35,000 car instead of a $20,000 car. With swappable batteries, recharging on road trips would amount to trading discharged batteries for charged batteries, car owners could save money for typical commuting with fewer batteries installed, batteries would be continuously upgraded by battery owner, and batteries could be transferred to new or different vehicle.
Island Architect
All of this started by Bob Lutz...
Who was removed by Rahm Emmanuel, now the Mayor of Chicago? And Ed Whitacre who arrogantly took over and almost screwed things up.
b
LordInsidious
I love the complaint that one expense of 10k in 8 years (though the price will come down) is somehow more money than the price different in gas vs. electricity and maintenance on the 500+ moving parts (belts, fluids and broken parts). Buying electricity versus gas alone is going to more than make up for that in less than 8 years.
JasonWillhite
@Jeff J Carlson, if government subsidies defines a failure then I would readily add the fossil fuel and nuclear industries as well to that list.
@Joe Blough, entropy will deteriorate an ICE vehicle as well as an EV, and you should research how many electric vehicles have had battery replacements. GM Parts Online, for example, is selling a replacement Volt battery with an MSRP of $2,994.64 but, with an online discount, the price comes down to $2,305.88.
Our family has an EV and we would not trade it for anything. With over 20-30 already models on the market, thousands of chargers already installed and well over several billion electric miles combined traveled on electric vehicles already, the future of EVs is here.
Ken Brody
PREDICTION: EV cars will not outnumber gas engines until the cost of electricity is about equal to the cost of gasoline per mile. Taxes and demand will make that happen. Look at electric prices in Los Angeles now.... The capacity of the electric grid is also an issue, and improvements will be subsidized by taxes, same as roads. The only real difference will not be electric vs gas, but personalized commuter transport using self-driving electric vehicles. The car will become an appliance - a toaster with wheels - where the driving and ownership experiences are irrelevant.