David L. Greene says his wife calls his car “hyperdrive, like from the Star Wars movie.”
“Hyperdrive,” for non-Star Wars fans, allowed starships to travel faster than the speed of light.
Greene’s car, a BMW i3 electric, may not exceed the speed of light but Greene and a lot of other auto industry observers say they think electric vehicle sales are on the cusp of speeding up, thanks to rapidly dropping battery pack prices and green house concerns.
Greene, Senior Fellow of the Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy and a research professor in the department of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, says, “I think the best way to look at it is level of sales last year. Electric vehicles sales in the U.S. are increasing rapidly but still, last year electric vehicle sales accounted for less than 1.5 percent of the total 2018 vehicle sales. That’s a 50 percent increase over the year before, so the sales have been growing rapidly, but from a very small base.”
Last year, Greene says, electric vehicle sales were somewhere around 316,000 units, which is a small fraction of total vehicles sales. Worldwide sales, thanks to greenhouse concerns, were about two million, with Europe and China accounting for most of the sales.
Robert Wagner, director of the National Transportation Research Center at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, says auto industry commitment to electric vehicles and huge strides in battery pack development are key factors in the growth of EVs.
“There are a lot of studies out there, a lot of analysis around how they anticipate the EVs will roll out,” Wagner says. “There is a lot of variability in the range of those studies, but nonetheless, they are interesting to look at and understand the trend. There is a lot of strong commitment from industry at the moment. General Motors and Volkswagen – they are making a lot of commitment to this [as] the path forward.”
The Department of Energy and universities as well as other research organizations have committed to funding a lot of foundational science in electrification in addition to other fuels, Wagner says.
Two major hurdles EVs have to overcome are battery development and public perception.
“The public still has very little firsthand knowledge and are not familiar with what an electric vehicle is like and is all about ,” says Greene. “So the awareness, if you will, the understanding on the part of the general public, is not very high and that is largely because the sales have been low and as a percentage of the fleet, is less than a quarter of one percent of the vehicles on the road. So there [are] a lot of them now but still they are relatively rare and the public is not familiar with things like what it means to recharge the vehicle, how long it takes, what the performance of the vehicle is like, and those kinds of things.”
“The main hurdle,” Greene says, “is that you have a limited range and a long recharging time. So where you can go to the gasoline station and fill your vehicle in about five minutes, if you simply plug your electric vehicle into a wall socket, it would take 10 hours or something like that.”
EV owners can move up to a level two charger, which starts at about $400, and which most people can install in their homes. Level 2 chargers take about the same amount of electricity as a clothes dryer. Most homes have that capability, Greene said, but he added that “still it is going to take about four or five hours to fully charge a vehicle. “
On the other hand, Greene says, “there are DC fast chargers in the public space that can charge a vehicle in about 30 to 40 minutes. And people are working on technologies that can charge even faster than that. “
“Charging infrastructure is growing very fast,” he says. “We are starting to see more of what is classified as fast chargers, reduced charge time, so a combination of more efficient batteries, faster charge times and the availability of the charging network will, of course, help drive things.”
In addition to battery charging times and public perception, there is the issue of cost.
“The vehicles are more expensive than a comparable gasoline vehicle in terms of size and quality, and that is primarily because of the battery,” Greene says.
According to energysage.com, starting prices for the more popular electric vehicles range from $22,490 to $72,000 after a $7,500 federal tax credit, and there may be other state and local tax credits and incentives from other utilities and organizations.
So why buy an electrical vehicle?
“There are several areas in which I think an electrical vehicle is superior,” says Greene. “The first is the acceleration performance. The electric motor gives almost instant torque at zero rpm. The internal combustion engine has very low power at low rpm and then peaks somewhere around 4,000 – 6,000 rpm.
“The second thing is, you do not need gears. So whereas the internal combustion engine, because that power train keeps wanting to shift gears to take advantage of the higher power of the engine, the electric motor doesn’t have to shift gears. So you have a very smooth acceleration experience.
“And then you have very low maintenance. I have had my electric vehicle almost two years now with one scheduled maintenance and there wasn’t much for them to do – you know, check the brakes, windshield washers, that sort of thing,” Greene says.
Greene adds that once a driver gets used to charging it, an EV is convenient. “Friends say to me ‘Oh the price of gas went up’ or ‘The price of gas went down’ and I say, ‘Oh really, I had no idea.’ You just come home and plug it in in your garage and that’s that,” he says.
“I think those things, plus what some people may think is important or not so important, but it is a zero emission vehicle. Nothing comes out of the tailpipe. There’s no tailpipe. So there are no pollutant emissions as I am driving on the road that would affect the air quality,” he says. “I myself have chosen to buy green power from the Tennessee Valley Authority, so I have more than enough green power to charge my vehicle. So whatever up-stream emissions that may have been caused by my vehicle are cancelled out by using green power.”
Greene and Wagner both say they think the near future will bring about significant changes in mobility and vehicles.
“How a vehicle is being used will play a big role in what happens,” Wagner says. “If you have a vehicle that comes home every night, it is certainly easier to handle the charging requirements than if you have one that is on the road away from home.”
Wagner adds, “The way I always think about the future of mobility and vehicles is, it is going to be … in the near term anyway, a diverse portfolio. You have to have the right technology for the right application, and that can vary, based on where you are.”
There is much speculation about how fast the electric vehicle market might grow but there are signs that barriers are slowly being broken down.
For example, says Wagner, “A couple of things useful to look at is the number of offerings from the different big autos, in the electrical vehicles that are coming in the next few years. The other thing that is changing a lot is the range. A recent study I saw showed the range in 2011 had a median of like 73 miles for the average EV, but now it is up to 125. The peak number available in 2007 was 94 miles and now is 335. So clearly things are trending [up] and the technology will be more appealing to a larger audience than it was a decade ago.”
In addition, battery pack prices are dropping quickly from $1,000 per kilowatt hour a decade ago to $140 kilowatt hour today as more and more battery producers are expanding or opening new plants. A Benchmark Mineral Intelligence blog referred to a “battery arms race” caused by the rise of electrical vehicles.
The EV landscape is not all rosy, however. For example, GM recently stopped production of the Chevrolet Volt. Despite its demise, not everyone sees the Chevrolet Volt as a failure, however. “While it was a financial loser, it did what was intended,” now retired former GM Vice Chairman Lutz, told The Associated Press. “We viewed it as a stepping stone to full electrics, which were totally out of reach due to the then-astronomical cost of lithium-ion batteries.”
Wagner expects that, “GM by 2020 will have more than 20 EV offerings and that is a good sign of the commitment of the industry in pushing this forward. I am a technology guy and I am fascinated by the technology and how fast it has moved.”
Currently more than 3 percent of new vehicle sales, electric vehicles sales could to grow to nearly 7 percent — or 6.6 million per year — worldwide by 2020, according to a report by Navigant Research.
While many people may think of personal electric vehicles as relatively new, the U.S. Department of Energy points out that electric cars were introduced more than 100 years ago.
“Electric cars didn’t have any of the issues associated with steam or gasoline,” the Department of Energy says. “They were quiet, easy to drive and didn’t emit a smelly pollutant like the other cars of the time. Electric cars quickly became popular with urban residents — especially women. They were perfect for short trips around the city… As more people gained access to electricity in the 1910s, it became easier to charge electric cars, adding to their popularity with all walks of life.”