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Guest post: Electric Vehicles Need New “Assembly Line” Breakthrough

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

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By Wang Tao

Struggling sales in the electric vehicle (EV) market have resulted in serious questions being raised about their viability. Despite Chinese government incentives, only a few Chinese EV pilot cities have met their target of putting 1,000 EVs on the road. Meanwhile, in the United States the GM Volt and Nissan Leaf have also missed their own sales targets for 2012 by wide margins. Even the good news from Tesla Motors of a profitable first quarter in 2013 was overshadowed by the gloom of a series of bankruptcies including Fisker Automotive, battery-manufacturer A123 Systems, and electric car company Better Place.

There is room for optimism, however, as the U.S.-China Working Group on Climate Change reconfirmed their joint efforts to develop clean fuel for transportation at the Fifth Strategic and Economic Dialogue this July. And before declaring EVs as a sinking ship, it is useful to consider the development of the first commercial automobile. Its own journey was by no means smooth. When proud owners of horse-drawn carriages in Europe saw the first three-wheeled Benz Motorwagen in 1885, only 25 were sold in the first five years.

Similarly to the roadblocks that EVs are facing, early automobiles faced their own share of critiques. The internal combustion engine was unstable and even exploded in several notable incidents. Safety was a big concern as seat belts, four-wheel brakes, and windshields didn’t appear in automobiles until much later. Drivers had to learn a whole new set of skills in order to operate these unpredictable and fragile machines. The bumpy and unpaved roads were made mostly for horses-drawn carriages and without shock-absorbing suspension passengers did not have the most comfortable ride. There was not established network of gas station which limited the travel range. As a result, the automobile was widely regarded as an urban car for commuting and leisure instead of an all-purpose road cruiser. They were associated with societal status, representing power and success.

A breakthrough came in 1913 when Henry Ford incorporated the assembly line and interchangeable parts into the Ford automobile manufacturing process. Manufacturing efficiency had improved so much that Ford’s cars soon came off the assembly line in fifteen-minute intervals. The increase in production volume lowered the cost, making it so affordable that an assembly line worker could afford a Ford Model T with four months’ pay. This set off the explosive growth of automobile use and over the past century the United States has added an average of more than one million automobiles to the road every year.

With the explosion of demand for automobiles, technology quickly continued to improve as well. Increased demand also fostered the development of strong social and technological elements to support this growth such as better road infrastructure, regulations, cultural enthusiasm for cars, and improved user experiences. All the early barriers for automobiles were soon swept away.

It is striking how many of the barriers that the EV encounters today are similar to those faced by the automobile about a century ago. These include restricted travel range, safety concerns, mechanical difficulties, and a lack of infrastructure. The transition to EV use, if and when it comes, stands to be even quicker than that to automobiles. In 2011 and 2012, the United States saw about 70,000 new EVs on the road. EVs and hybrids combined made up 3 percent of the United States’ total car sales in 2012. New EV models are also gaining popularity in China and Europe. Globally, the number of charging stations is growing much more quickly than the gas station network thanks to government support.

EVs still need a more extensive charging station network. Better battery technology and a lower price sticker will both be vital. EVs are currently exclusive to the rich—like the early automobile. The technological equivalent of the “assembly line” breakthrough—where volume resulted in increased profit and a lower price in the automobile industry—has yet to come for EVs.

As few expected the success of assembly line in automobile manufacturing, it is the nature of “disruptive innovation” that one can hardly predict where and when the most crucial piece of the EV innovation jigsaw will come. Governments with great EV ambitions like the United States and China need to moderate their expectations and allow more time for technological breakthroughs to drive a transition into EVs. In the meantime, they should focus on developing policies that create the necessary infrastructure and business environment to facilitate this shift. As the assembly line demonstrated at the turn of the last century, new markets do not abide by mandates. Similarly, disrupting the gigantic infrastructure that has developed around the internal combustion engine will require ingenuity, persistence, patience, and a stroke of luck.

About the author: Wang Tao is a resident scholar at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing. He is the author of a new report on Recharging China’s Electric Vehicle Policy.



Photo Credit: Photo of Ford Motor Company assembly line via Creative Commons and from the public domain.

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. sault 10:02 am 08/28/2013

    First, sales of EVs aren’t “struggling”; on the contrary, the entire 2013 production run for the Tesla Model S was sold out before June and the production line is running full steam to fill their backlog. Nissan started LEAF production in Tennessee and recently dropped the vehicle’s price by over $5,000. After tax incentives, you can buy one for around $20k or possibly lower. The Chevy Volt is getting a $5,000 price cut as well. Ford is just now getting into the market in a much bigger way along with several other major automakers. All-in-all, EV sales are outpacing hybrid cars at an equivalent stage of market adoption.

    And when you get down to it, we’ve seen a lot of talk about needing “disruptive innovation” before the market really opens up before. You usually hear this line in relation to renewable energy and how we shouldn’t try to deploy it until a “breakthrough” has occurred causing vast improvements in output, cost, etc. This neglects the fact that there are some things you just can’t learn in the lab and you need to get these technologies in the field to move down a learning curve. In addition, those preaching for “breakthroughs” are usually just trying to slow the adoption of clean energy a much as possible in order to preserve the status quo for as long as possible.

    This is clearly the wrong way to go when wind turbines are selling electricity at old coal power plant prices and when people in the sunnier parts of the country are looking at 7% returns on solar arrays over the life of the investment. And when electric vehicles are getting just as cheap as mass-market internal combustion vehicles, we don’t really need a breakthrough. Sure, the LEAF has a 100 mile range, but look at the average American’s driving habits. More than 80% of people commute less than 40 miles a day, leaving plenty of margin for errands after work. Sure, if you’ve got a really long commute or you drive 100s of miles a day for your job, maybe an EV isn’t right for you. But if you wait until the LEAF has a 200-mile range, it’ll probably be around 2020 or so. And get this, if you drive like an average American, you’ll be carrying around a lot of extra battery capacity you hardly ever use!

    No, this article maybe describes the situation in China, but EVs are selling in big numbers in the USA. Maybe the author’s view is clouded by the difficulties BYD is having in rolling out its EVs. However, EVs are here and they work well for millions of people. Incremental improvements in battery technology and charging infrastructure will expand the market even more, but waiting for a breakthrough means that we would miss out on all the progress and learning that’s occurring as EVs are sold in greater numbers.

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  2. 2. cjoyce 11:27 am 08/28/2013

    **Yawn** Soon the same old droll trolls, and some new ones will be drawn out to spout.

    Well put sault, I would add intensification of pressure on elected representatives to the list of ways to help the spread of electric vehicles in particular, and renewable energy in general. Contrary to what is often spouted there is a strong and growing movement in support of a less consumptive society/economy.

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  3. 3. jerryd 6:12 pm 08/29/2013

    Terrible article in so many ways.

    EV’s in the US are all sold out once they dropped their price to something more reasonable.

    The only thing stopping EV’s is lack of good designs for sale, nothing else.

    What we really need are lightweight low cost EV’s under 1k lbs that can sell under $10k. In composites using lead batteries and good design, aero they can have 100 mile range and 80mph top speed using medium tech EV drives, lead batteries and composite body/chassis.

    Link to this

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