Is the EV finally coming of age?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.