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The Inconvenient Truth About Electric Vehicles

Electric vehicles, specifically those that are 100% battery powered (BEVs) have everyone “amped up” and anxious to get the most “current” projections on sales, share of the car parc and long-term impact on the aftermarket parts and service business. The impact of BEVs will be felt slowly over a very long time. But the time to get educated and prepared is now.

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Beginning with the joint industry report at AAPEX from the Auto Care Association and AASA and continuing with presentations at the AASA Technology Council and Vision conference this spring, forecasts about BEV sales and their trajectory of market share have fascinated and frightened those who grew up with and depend upon the Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) for their livelihood. The consensus I heard is that the demise of the internal combustion engine has been exaggerated and the growth forecasts of BEV market share are optimistic considering the limits of current battery technology, tepid consumer demand resulting from the high cost, and shortcomings in charging infrastructure and the electric grid.

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There is no secret that CO2 emissions are responsible for changing the chemistry of our atmosphere and warming the planet, and vehicle tailpipe emissions are a major contributor to the problem. So, every alternative form of vehicle propulsion has been thoroughly explored in the last decade and Lithium-Ion batteries are the leading technology for the time being. Tailpipe emissions from the vehicle are eliminated, there’s instant and plentiful torque and the new models are even starting to look cool.

But, BEV adoption has lagged below the projections of futurists and will continue to face a number of challenges and headwinds. To put this in perspective, BEVs in the U.S. account for barely 1% of the fleet in 2021. That market share will double to 2% in 2025. By the end of this decade, BEVs will account for 6% of the domestic parc — and the vast majority of those will still be under factory warranty. It won’t be until 2035 that the BEV share rises to double digits. These numbers are from the joint industry report issued at AAPEX and represent the Base Adoption scenario. The numbers could be lower if development and investment lag, or they could be higher under the rosiest of assumptions.

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A few inconvenient truths about battery-powered vehicles have jumped out at me from my research:

1) Consumers have expressed reluctance to invest in a BEV unless their range-anxiety is satisfactorily addressed, and they can confidently head out on a road trip without the need to plan their itinerary around rest stops at the charging station. Derek Kaufman from Schwartz Advisors told the AASA Vision Conference audience that the government has a goal of investing $5 billion on an additional 500,000 charging stations. That’s great, but the need is for 4X that number. Until the number of charging stations is dramatically increased, depending on a BEV will require changes to driving and consumer behavior.

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2) Current battery technology can be charged with standard household current. But, it takes all night, and the full range potential is not achieved. Fast-charging DC stations typically cost 3 to 4 times as much per KWh limiting their use unless absolutely necessary. Brian Daugherty, chief technology officer at MEMA, explained that a typical home consumes 1.2 kilowatts (KW) per hour on average. A direct current (DC) fast charger on the side of the interstate uses 300 KW or the equivalent demand on the grid of 250 homes. Imagine your favorite rest stop equipped with a couple dozen charging stations on Memorial Day weekend with everyone plugged in for a fast charge to get them to the beach. The entire East Coast will go dim.

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3) Just as concerning as the infrastructure is the source of the minerals that go into modern batteries. China controls 70-80% of the lithium, cobalt, manganese, nickel and graphite use in electrodes and Russia produces more than 20% of battery-grade nickel. Half of the cobalt is supplied from the Republic of the Congo, with a dismal record of child-labor abuses. But, battery technology is rapidly advancing and professor and inventor John Goodenough, who is credited with inventing the current state-of-the-science Lithium-Ion battery, recently co-developed a rapid-charging, high-cycle, non-flammable glass battery. Years of testing and development are needed to prove the viability of this tech in automotive applications. But, apparently, the 2019 Nobel Prize winner for Chemistry did not think Lithium-Ion battery technology was … Good Enough.

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4) Finally, it is worth remembering that switching from a gasoline ICE to a BEV that plugs into the electric grid is simply a trade off from tailpipe emissions to smokestack emissions until we have a much higher portion of our electricity supplied from renewable sources (solar, hydro and wind). Even in our current position, battery electric cars generate only 50% of the emissions of a comparable gasoline vehicle, even when battery manufacturing is included in the calculation, according to Cultura.org.

With all that said, battery electric vehicles are here to stay, and their share of the market will slowly increase. Costs will come down, range and performance will go up, and the investment of the OEMs and the government will ensure that electrics command a significant share of our transportation system in the future. Internal combustion engines are not facing extinction and will remain relevant to hybrid vehicles, heavy equipment and large SUVs and trucks for many decades. As Kaufman explained, electrics will be the preferred solution for small package delivery fleets, autonomous urban vehicles and fleet-shared transportation solutions. The best thing for an aftermarket parts or service business with an eye on the long game is to take your local Avis, Uber or Waymo executive out to lunch and talk about their need to eliminate underperformed maintenance and deliver 100% up-time with a reliable supply of aftermarket parts.

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The aftermarket should do what we’ve always done when faced with something new and uncertain, adapt and pay attention. Change is coming faster than ever, but we are Essential — regardless of the propulsion technology.

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