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Electric Vehicle Deployment – Where Should We Be Today?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Guest Post by Tali Trigg

Electric vehicles (EVs) have come under siege in the media in the past two years, with several observers pointing to shortcomings like driving range, performance in cold weather and resale value as indicators of their imminent demise. Do we know for sure that EVs will overcome all these challenges? No. But we are seeing impressive year-on-year sales, declining battery costs, a decarbonizing power sector, and cities around the world committed to reducing congestion and local air pollution. For these reasons, EVs should not be dismissed and are among the best options to decarbonize the transport sector while boosting a flagging automotive sector, creating jobs, and reducing local air pollution.

The real question asked by few is this: where should EVs be today? The answer should probably be framed in terms of technological development and a close proxy for measuring development would be another vehicle such as the hybrid electric vehicle (HEV). In Figure 1, you can see new vehicle sales versus over time since the vehicle’s initial market launch (date of introduction in parentheses). This figure shows that all major battery electric vehicles (BEV) and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEV) are on track or doing better than what the Prius HEV was doing at a similar time. Of course, this is not strictly an apples-to-apples comparison (it does not take overall vehicle market into account, nor potential subsidy effects, for example), but does help us evaluate a true answer, beyond the press eager for a fail-or-victory message.

Figure 1. Months Since Market Introduction (Updated Until December 2012)

Source: EVI, MarkLines Database, Nissan, Toyota, hybridcars.com

The truth is, given that EVs were only released in 2011 to a full range of consumers worldwide, a doubling of sales (approximately 120,000 in 2012 vs. 45,000 in 2011) is not bad growth. Of course, the key is to keep this momentum to hit intermediate-to-long-term targets, but still; perhaps the death of EVs is greatly exaggerated?

The simple truth is that EVs are coming along, but they are going through a delicate phase that most new technologies experience in the early years when only so-called “Early Adopters” begin buying the product, being less sensitive to a higher price point. Consider the MP3 player in the late 1990s, before Apple introduced the iPod in 2001.  Another parallel “product” launch was the Internet, which transcended product state and spurred a systematic reinvention of information sharing in a revolution that took years, not days. EVs similarly have the potential to integrate into the power grid and do much more than get you from Point A to Point B.

Bottom line – EVs are a new or (depending on your perspective) revived technology – and as such must pass through several stages of technological development, optimization, and scale-up. Today’s EVs are far better than the models sold a decade ago, but the costs are still high and infrastructure is still being developed. In the next two or three years, there may only be a few tens of thousands of EVs produced and sold around the world, but this period will allow for a much bigger expansion of markets toward the middle of the decade. By 2015, there is a good chance of EVs and plug-in hybrids becoming cost-competitive (or nearly so if including subsidies) with conventional gasoline and diesel vehicles.

The reason EVs (or fuel-cell vehicles for that matter) get lambasted or unequivocally praised is that we are tempted to look for a silver bullet to our energy security, economic, and environmental problems. Yet there is no need for a zero-sum game. Whichever advanced vehicle technology we pursue, at some point we cannot get better efficiencies or lower CO2 emissions from conventional gasoline and diesel cars. Even hybrids will have trouble reaching below 90 grams of CO2/km. In contrast, plug-in hybrids could go under 90 grams of CO2/km and full electric vehicles could reach well below 50 grams of CO2/km in areas with clean electricity. Either way, we need to make a sound investment, and electric vehicles are a far sounder investment than the cost of doing nothing.

The widespread deployment of EVs will take time. The Electric Vehicles Initiative, a coalition of 15 key countries, together has set a target of over 20 million EVs on the road by 2020. This is achievable, but even this will just be a small share (about 2%) of the world’s cars at that point. But it will set the stage for EVs to play an increasingly important role after 2020, and especially by 2030. The International Energy Agency (IEA) projects that EVs could account for 15% of the world’s vehicle fleet by 2030 and over one half by 2050. But we have to start somewhere.

Besides EVs, there are other promising alternative vehicle configurations, but what is clear is that EVs offer promise by virtue of their energy efficiency, relying on existing infrastructure, and can be considered desirable high-tech consumer products, all of which together makes these vehicles one of the likeliest technological solutions to lowering CO2 emissions in the transport sector in the next 40 years. However, improving conventional fuel economy and better urban planning and public transit options should be higher near-term priorities in the next 10 to 20 years. These parallel challenges can and need to be achieved, but not at the expense of the broader goal: ensuring reliable, affordable, low-carbon transport.

The promise of an EV is beyond replacing one vehicle type with another; rather EVs offer a clean solution in the near-term as cities try to understand how to best reduce congestion and local air pollution. Car sharing, two-way interactions with the electricity grid, and fleet economies are but three reasons for why the value proposition of EVs is greater than that of yet another hyped vehicle technology.

About the Author

Tali Trigg is an international energy and transport analyst whose expertise is in transportation issues and technologies, with an emphasis on smart growth policies, bus rapid transit (BRT), and electric vehicles (EVs). Mr. Trigg can be found on twitter @talitrigg. He was invited to contribute this guest post by Plugged In’s Melissa C. Lott.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this post are the responsibility of its authors and do not in any way reflect those of another organization.

Photo Credit:

1. Photo of two Chevy Volts and a Nissan Leaf charging in parking lot by rudisillart and used under this Creative Commons License.

Melissa C. Lott About the Author: An engineer and researcher who works at the intersection of energy, environment, technology, and policy. Follow on Twitter @mclott.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. MoEnergySci 3:38 am 02/20/2013

    Interesting. I had not thought about electric vehicle adoption like this before, in terms of where things “should” be versus where we might want or hope them to be. At this rate what are the chances that countries will reach the 20 million goal? Does anyone know what percentage of the total cars on the road this would be? I am guessing less than the 15%/50% numbers that are mentioned as being possible.

    I wonder what the graph would look like if you could include trends for other new types of cars when they came out. Or other consumer technologies that constituted a significant shift in inputs.

    Thanks for this article.

    Link to this
  2. 2. gizmowiz 10:32 am 02/20/2013

    The promise of Ev’s will come within 5 years in the form of batteries capable of 1000+ miles on a charge. They have already been created in the labs and are being readied for mass production.

    But the industry could have done a better job of introducing EV’s to the world by designing EV’s from scratch that used standardized swappable batteries that are mounted under the chassis with the batteries being leased instead of purchased. This low center of gravity makes for very stable cars in a rollover (very hard to do).

    But in the end it won’t matter as batteries are coming in the near future which will allow 1000+ mile ranges and that will drive the internal combusion engine into obsolesence.

    Once you hit that magic 700-800 mile range you have a coast-to-coast car. Few people drive non-stop for more than 12 hours and that’s about the range at 75 mph with a couple bathroom and food stops. And since a lunch stop can charge a vehicle 20 to 30% during a half hour stop using fast chargers–the cars could be driven 1000 miles before breaking for sleep. Then charged fully over night at motel stops. Which is where I see fast chargers going in the future.

    Too many people have no vision. I admire the vision of Tesla it’s on the right track to taking over the entire auto industry someday.

    Link to this
  3. 3. gizmowiz 10:34 am 02/20/2013

    And what’s sickening is the many pundits who claim EV’s are dirtier. Most EV owners had solar power panels installed and charge from their homes free of CO2 generation. And future EV charging stations–mounted at motels roof tops–will charge via the sun too. So the CO2 argument is a completely fraudulent one aimed at trying to preserve the IC engine and it’s wastefuly ways.

    Link to this
  4. 4. MoEnergySci 10:43 am 02/20/2013

    Regarding the comment by @gizmowiz – From what I have read electric vehicles are cleaner in almost all situations, in terms of the total environmental impact associated with the electricity that they use versus petroleum. Even when oil or coal produce the electricity used, you can still consider local air quality. Lots of potential benefits.

    Link to this
  5. 5. sault 11:19 am 02/20/2013

    Here’s an analysis that crunched the numbers. It was a little pessemistic about EV energy efficiency and a little optimistic on the supply chain / emissions from ICE vehicles given my experiences with both and its grid information is a little outdated:

    http://www.paulchefurka.ca/Electric%20Cars%20and%20CO2.html

    In the end, the two vehicle types came out fairly even, but using the lower range for EVs and the upper range for gasoline makes plug-ins the clear winner. One also has to consider that as oil gets harder to extract, or we move to unconventional oil sources like Tar Sands, Oil Shale and the like, the CO2 emissions of petroleum will go up more and more. There’s also the risk of oil spills from drilling and pipelines to account for as well.

    Link to this
  6. 6. Soccerdad 12:12 pm 02/20/2013

    Where should we be today? Well behind where we are if these vehicles had to compete on price and performance like everything else. However, these vehicles are preferred by our central planners, so that money is transferred from average taxpayers to the wealthy individuals to help encourage them to purchase these toys.

    Link to this
  7. 7. gizmowiz 12:14 pm 02/20/2013

    In the end Obama’s ethanol fiasco is just that–a fiasco:

    Look at how much more energy efficient photovoltaics are than corn based ethanol:

    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/01/130117105901.htm

    http://news.thomasnet.com/green_clean/2013/02/13/when-it-comes-to-electric-cars-future-whats-better-pv-or-biofuels-a-researcher-finds-out/

    The same kind of energy efficiencies exist in comparing photovoltaics versus Big Oil.

    http://blog.rmi.org/blog_Five_Real_World_Facts_AboutElectric_Cars

    Link to this
  8. 8. gizmowiz 12:17 pm 02/20/2013

    And more importantly:

    http://www.plugincars.com/winning-coal-burning-electric-plants-vs-burning-gas-tailpipe-argument.html

    However you slice it using an EV to drive around saves the world from CO2, saves the world’s supply of oil, saves you money, and allows you to do the one fingered salute to big oil every time you drive.

    Link to this
  9. 9. gizmowiz 12:18 pm 02/20/2013

    It’s mostly people who work in the Big Oil industry who are churning out negative false statements about the EV industry and polluting. They are jerks no if and or buts about it.

    Link to this
  10. 10. davidwogan 12:22 pm 02/20/2013

    I think another thing to keep in mind about vehicle adoption in general is the average period of ownership of a vehicle. I have read studies pegging that number around 7 years, so one would expect adoption to increase as drivers upgrade to EVs over internal combustion vehicles as we move out of the “early adopter” phase, assuming an EV meets their needs (environmental, cost, driving patterns, length of commute, social, etc).

    Link to this
  11. 11. sault 5:09 pm 02/20/2013

    Re Soccerball:

    If you want all vehicles to compete fairly on price and performance, you gotta include all this stuff:

    * The negative externalities that result from oil extraction / refining / transport / combustion. Pollution from these activities causes health problems, reduces worker productivity, damages property and causes premature death. Examples include: oil spill damages and the necessary cleanup, urban air pollution that exacerbates or causes asthma / bronchitis or even heart attacks and strokes, or even smog that blocks out beautiful views.

    * Defense spending and the geopolitical knots the OECD ties itself into to keep the Middle Eastern Oil flowing. The very existence of many of our problems in the region stem from our addiction to oil and the various ways the money we pay for it tends to get used.

    * The cost of climate change. This is in a different category from the other negative externalities I listed because the disruption caused by GHG will last for generations and is more uncertain compared to the previous externalities I mentioned previously. The range of probable damages from climate change encompass 1% to 10% of global GDP with higher values more likely the higher the CO2 concentration / thermometer climbs. Transportation accounts for around 1/3 of global CO2 emissions.

    So, considering all this, gasoline should cost a lot higher. There’s no way to add in all these costs, but $8 or $9 a gallon is probably a lot closer to its REAL cost than the $3 or $4 we pay currently.

    Link to this
  12. 12. George Smith 10:58 pm 02/20/2013

    @Sault, your first example is simply false. We already pay the costs of cleaning up the occasional oil spill. BP has already spent 20 billion dollars to clean up the gulf. Your second point is based on a moronic proposition, the idea, promoted by liberals, that all our problems in the mideast region are caused by OIL! We buy oil from Canada and we don’t go around bombing it. Likewise we never had to bomb Iraq because of oil. Saddam was perfectly willing to sell, it was our neo-con elites who led us into war for “spreading democracy” bullcrap. Inanimate liquids don’t start wars, people start wars.

    Link to this
  13. 13. selrachj 2:32 am 02/21/2013

    As the owner of a Nissan Leaf, which I charge up with solar panels on my roof, the joy of an electric car can’t be understood until you’ve owned one. It’s quiet. It accelerates like mad. It’s much more pleasant in traffic. I don’t have to touch filling station handles that some guy with the flu just touched. And, my solar panels have already paid for themselves so I’m driving around for free. FOR FREE!

    The Leaf works for 95% of my driving days. On those rare occasions I need to drive a long distance, I simply take the Leaf down to Hertz and rent a gas powered car (which seems primitive after driving a Leaf). For me, the 90 mile range of the Leaf is plenty for the vast majority of my driving.

    Link to this
  14. 14. sault 11:03 am 02/21/2013

    George,

    BP only paid $20B because the feds twisted their arm and the press coverage was bad at the time. The liability cap on drilling disasters was around $1B or even less at the time because there couldn’t be an offshore drilling industry if the companies couldn’t offload most of their risk and liability onto the federal government. Besides, that was just one of my examples. Urban air pollution is still a major problem in this country. If you don’t agree, take a deep drag from the tailpipe of an idling bus and get back to me on that…

    My second point was stated thusly: “The very existence of many of our problems in the region…”

    I didn’t say ALL our problems nor did I mention Iraq specifically. However, 14 of the 9/11 terrorists were Saudis and so was bin Laden. In addition, Iran would find it a lot harder to oppress its people or be an idiot on the world stage if it weren’t for oil money. And don’t even get me started on Russia!

    Sure, people start wars, but they usually start them over resources. Take a history lesson, why dontcha? At least you’re not a climate denier, though. The costs of climate change will probably dwarf the costs of chemical pollution and geoplitical wrangling we do over oil.

    Link to this
  15. 15. bucketofsquid 5:06 pm 02/21/2013

    Decent batteries is the stumbling block to widespread solar and wind energy as well as EVs. When the breakthrough batteries hit the market at reasonable prices, all three areas will really take off. Until then I’m sticking with my coal and oil power sources.

    Just a note – most oil isn’t used for fuel so demand will remain high for manufacturing uses.

    Link to this
  16. 16. PaulScott 6:03 pm 02/21/2013

    @George Smith, your claim that the externalities described by @Sault are not real is silly.

    According to the RAND Corp., the U.S. spends about $80 billion each year on military protection for oil. This is exclusive of war. See: http://www.rand.org/pubs/occasional_papers/OP320.html.

    Clearly, we would not have fought the Iraq war if they had no oil. To claim oil had nothing to do with that war is incredibly disrespectful to the thousands of soldiers who are dead as a result. We have spend about $1.5 trillion on that war.

    There are enormous external costs of oil that are not paid by those who use the stuff. No one can legitimately argue otherwise.

    We either use carrots or sticks. Right now, we’re using carrots in the form of tax incentives. If you buy an EV, the government lets you keep more of YOUR own money. This is not your money, it’s ours. Since you aren’t paying near the cost of your favored fuel, you have no business claiming others are benefiting at your expense. It’s clearly the other way around.

    I’d prefer we use the stick approach and charge you the full cost of oil. Then, and only then, would I consider removing the carrots of incentives.

    Link to this
  17. 17. Dr. Strangelove 12:12 am 02/22/2013

    Where should we be today? Sports cars should be electric. Built by college students, the Buckeye Bullet 1 is powered by ordinary 1.5 volt flashlight batteries. It ran at 321 mph, that’s faster than the 7,000 hp nitro guzzling dragsters.

    Link to this
  18. 18. martin111 11:41 am 02/26/2013

    “3,000 charging points have been installed as part of the plugged-in-places scheme and an estimated 5,000 more charging points having been installed by providers operating outside this scheme there are now many more charging points than there are electric vehicles”
    reference
    For me, when charging is as easy as filling up with petrol, i’m in.

    Link to this

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