Plugging In: Evolution of the Electric Car

1996 EV1 The First Modern-day Electric Propulsion SystemThere’s something almost magical about plugging your car into an outlet at night and waking up to a full ‘tank’ in the morning. There’s no need for a stop at the gas station, ever. Plus, there’s no nagging guilt that the miles metered out by the odometer are counting off one’s contribution toward any societal and environmental ills attendant with fossil fuel use.

This is a feeling experienced during the year Green Car Journal editors drove GM’s remarkable EV1 electric car in the late 1990s. Daily drives in the EV1 were a joy. The car was sleek, high-tech, distinctive, and with the electric motor’s torque coming on from zero rpm, decidedly fast. That’s a potent combination.

ev1-rolling-chassis-1The EV1 is long gone, not because people or companies ‘killed’ it as the so-called documentary Who Killed the Electric Car suggested, but rather because extraordinarily high costs and a challenging business case were its demise. GM lost many tens of thousands of dollars on every EV1 it built, as did other automakers complying with California’s Zero EmissionsVehicle (ZEV) mandate in the 1990s.

Even today, Fiat Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne says his company loses $14,000 for every Fiat 500e electric car sold. Combine that with today’s need for an additional $7,500 federal tax credit and up to $6,000 in subsidies from some states to encourage EV purchases, and it’s easy to see why the electric car remains such a challenge.

Fiat 500 BEV

This isn’t to say that electric cars are the wrong idea. On the contrary, they are perceived as important to our driving future, so much so that government, automakers, and their suppliers see electrification as key to meeting mandated 2025 fleet-wide fuel economy requirements and CO2 reduction goals. The problem is that there’s no singular, defined roadmap for getting there because costs, market penetration, and all-important political support are future unknowns.

The advantages of battery electric vehicles are well known – extremely low per-mile operating costs on electricity, less maintenance, at-home fueling, and of course no petroleum use. Add in the many societal incentives available such as solo driving in carpool lanes, preferential parking, and free public charging, and the case for electrics gets even more compelling. If a homeowner’s solar array is offsetting the electricity used to energize a car’s batteries for daily drives, then all the better. This is the ideal scenario for a battery electric car. Of course, things are never this simple, otherwise we would all be driving electric.

Ford Focus ElectricThere remain some very real challenges. Government regulation, not market forces, has largely been driving the development of the modern electric car. This is a good thing or bad, depending upon one’s perspective. The goal is admirable and to some, crucial – to enable driving with zero localized emissions, eliminate CO2 emissions, reduce oil dependence, and drive on an energy source created from diverse resources that can be sustainable. Where’s the downside in that?

Still, new car buyers have not stepped up to buy battery electric cars in expected, or perhaps hoped-for, numbers, especially the million electric vehicles that Washington had set out as its goal by 2015. This is surprising to many since electric vehicle choices have expanded in recent years. However, there are reasons for this.

RAV4 EV Action Right

Electric cars are often quite expensive in comparison to their gasoline-powered counterparts, although government and manufacturer subsidies can bring these costs down. Importantly, EVs offer less functionality than conventional cars because of limited driving range that averages about 70 to 100 miles before requiring a charge. While this zero-emission range can fit the commuting needs of many two-vehicle households and bring substantial fuel savings, there’s a catch. Factoring future fuel savings into a vehicle purchase decision is simply not intuitive to new car buyers today.

Many drivers who would potentially step up to electric vehicle ownership can’t do so because most electric models are sold only in California or a select number of ‘green’ states where required zero emission vehicle credits are earned. These states also tend to have at least a modest charging infrastructure in place. Manufacturers selling exclusively in these limited markets typically commit to only small build numbers, making these EVs fairly insignificant in influencing electric vehicle market penetration.

bmw-i3

Battery electric vehicles available today include the BMW i3, BMW i8, Chevrolet Spark EV, Fiat 500e, Ford Focus Electric, Honda Fit EV, Kia Soul EV, Mercedes-Benz B-Class Electric Drive, Mitsubishi i-MiEV, Nissan LEAF, Smart ForTwo Electric Drive, Tesla Model S, Toyota RAV4 EV, and VW e-Golf. While most aim at limited sales, some like BMW, Nissan, and Tesla market their EVs nationwide. The Honda Fit EV and Toyota RAV4 EV are being phased out. Fleet-focused EVs are also being offered by a small number of independent companies. Other battery electrics are coming.

BMW’s i3 offers buyers an optional two-cylinder gasoline range extender that generates on-board electricity to double this electric car’s battery electric driving range. A growing number of electrified models like the current generation Prius Plug-In and Chevy Volt can also run exclusively on battery power for a more limited number of miles (10-15 for the Prius and up to 40 miles in the Volt), and then drive farther with the aid of a combustion engine or engine-generator. Both will offer greater all-electric driving range when they emerge as all-new 2016 models. Many extended range electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids like these are coming soon from a surprising number of auto manufacturers.

coda-evIt has been an especially tough road for independent or would-be automakers intent on introducing electric vehicles to the market. Well-funded efforts like Coda Automotive failed, as have many lesser ones over the years. Often enough, inventors of electric cars have been innovative and visionary, only to discover that becoming an auto manufacturer is hugely expensive and more challenging than imagined. In many cases their timeline from concept and investment to production and sales becomes so long that before their first cars are produced, mainstream automakers have introduced models far beyond what they were offering, and at lesser cost with an established sales and service network to support them.

A high profile exception is Tesla Motors, the well-funded Silicon Valley automaker that successfully built and sold its $112,000 electric Tesla Roadster, continued its success with the acclaimed $70,000-$100,000+ Model S electric sedan, and will soon deliver its first Tesla Model X electric crossovers. While Tesla has said it would offer the Model X at a price similar to that of the Model S, initial deliveries of the limited Model X Signature Series will cost a reported $132,000-$144,000. It has not yet been announced when lower cost ‘standard’ Model X examples will begin deliveries to Tesla’s sizable customer pre-order list.

tesla-model-sTesla’s challenge is not to prove it can produce compelling battery electric cars, provide remarkable all-electric driving range, or build a wildly enthusiastic – some would say fanatical – customer base. It has done all this. Its challenge is to continue this momentum by developing a full model lineup that includes a promised affordable model for the masses, its Model 3, at a targeted $35,000 price tag. It will be interesting to see if the Model 3 ultimately comes to market at that price point.

This is no easy thing. Battery costs remain very high and, in fact, Tesla previously shared that the Tesla Roadster’s battery pack cost in the vicinity of $30,000. While you can bury the cost of an expensive battery pack in a high-end electric car that costs $70,000 to over $100,000, you can’t do that today in a $35,000 model, at least not one that isn’t manufacturer subsidized and provides the 200+ mile range expected of a Tesla.

tesla-model-xThe company’s answer is a $5 billion ‘Gigafactory’ being built in Nevada that it claims will produce more lithium-ion batteries by 2020 than were produced worldwide in 2013. The company’s publicized goal is to trim battery costs by at least 30 percent to make its $35,000 electric car a reality and support its growing electric car manufacturing. Tesla has said it’s essential that the Gigafactory is in production as the Model 3 begins manufacturing. The billion dollar question is…can they really achieve the ambitious battery and production cost targets to do this over the next few years, or will this path lead to the delays that Tesla previously experienced with the Tesla Roadster, Model S, and Model X?

Tesla is well-underway with its goal of building out a national infrastructure of SuperCharger fast-charge stations along major transportation corridors to enable extended all-electric driving. These allow Tesla vehicles the ability to gain a 50 percent charge in about 20 minutes, although they are not compatible with other EVs. For all others, Bosch is undertaking a limited deployment of its sub-$10,000 DC fast charger that provides an 80 percent charge in 30 minutes. A joint effort by ChargePoint, BMW, and VW also aims to create express charging corridors with fast-charge capability on major routes along both coasts in the U.S.

chargepoint-chargerThe past 25 years have not secured a future for the battery electric car, but things are looking up. The next 10 years are crucial as cost, infrastructure, and consumer acceptance challenges are tackled and hopefully overcome to make affordable, unsubsidized electric cars a mass-market reality. It is a considerable challenge. Clearly, a lot of people are counting on it.

 

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