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Electric Vehicle Reality Check

by Ron CoganOctober 5, 2021
After decades of high hopes and false starts, the age of the electric vehicle is materializing before our eyes. But it isn’t an entirely smooth road ahead as the transition to EVs faces an array of challenges large and small.

It seems we’re well past the tipping point for electric cars now, 25 years after GM’s groundbreaking but short-lived EV1 electric car went on sale. Automakers have now committed to huge investments in expanding their EV offerings, suppliers are stepping up with new innovations,  and consumers are interested like never before. Plus, of course, some serious government regulation and incentives are driving the electric car field ahead in ways that only government can.

But there are challenges ahead. It isn’t enough that far better electric cars are being built today with compelling features, attractive designs, and desirable performance and range. Many other elements must fall into place for electric vehicles to become the success story we all hope will come to pass.

Moving beyond the media’s breathless reporting on electric vehicles and a widespread assumption that the age of internal combustion is nearly behind us, I would suggest that we view this field with some perspective. Perspective is a useful tool, and honestly, I have plenty to share since I’ve been immersed in this field since Green Car Journal first appeared on the scene in 1992, long before green cars were really a thing.

Living my early years amid the worst of Southern California’s smog, witnessing the emergence of Earth Day following the massive Santa Barbara oil spill in 1969, and driving Sears’ experimental DieHard XDH-1 electric car in 1977 all brought me to this conclusion: The automotive field can do better, in so many ways.

This conviction influenced my focus on the unfolding electric, alternative fuel, and advanced internal combustion vehicle field while feature editor at Motor Trend, as I recognized important movement toward better environmental performance. It also prompted me to launch Green Car Journal as a way to promote understanding of cars and their environmental impact. There’s been a lot of information to share since I’ve had the benefit of driving and analyzing electric cars from the very beginning of the modern EV age.

From the beginning, Green Car Journal’s mission has been to focus on ‘green’ vehicles of all types that will lead us to a more environmentally positive future, with no bias. These vehicles have included, and continue to include, advanced internal combustion vehicles, those that run on alternative fuels, and others powered by advanced propulsion systems like hydrogen fuel cells.  An important part of our focus for the past 16 years has been Green Car Journal’s annual Green Car Awards™ program that has weighed the merits of all these vehicles, headlined by our signature award, Green Car of the Year®.

As a traditional ‘car guy’ to the core, I am also an admitted electric vehicle proponent…always have been, long before electric vehicles became ‘real’ and before the thrill of living with GM’s EV1 electric car was my daily reality.

Over the years I have been vocal about electric cars and their importance to the future of personal mobility. My speech at the opening session of the North American Electric Vehicle and Infrastructure Conference in 1999 was no less than a call to arms for auto manufacturers, energy companies, regulators, state and federal government, and all those involved in the automotive field to come together to make electric cars happen and avoid a developing crisis.

And here we are 22 years later…facing a developing crisis.

It’s exciting to see the age of the modern electric vehicle finally unfolding before us after a three-decades-long journey of endless triumphs and setbacks. But as an auto industry analyst and publisher of Green Car Journal, I understand it isn’t productive to simply embrace this momentum and dismiss the array of challenges that remain as electric vehicles aim to displace internal combustion models in the years ahead.

This is especially true as a growing array of battery electric vehicles compete in a field replete with increasingly more efficient gasoline, hybrid, and plug-in hybrid models, with these vehicles featuring significantly decreased carbon emissions and almost always lower cost than pure electric vehicles. They all have their role to play in the unfolding journey ahead.

It isn’t enough that regulations and incentives are helping drive greater production and purchases of electric vehicles. Those bend to the whims of political change, and these days, there’s no telling how things might evolve in the future. So, addressing key inhibitors of an electric future is crucial. Let’s take a look at the top 5 reality checks that are top-of-mind.

1) IT’S ALL ABOUT BATTERIES: Back in the 1990s when there was great excitement at the prospect of electric cars, there were also big questions. There was no battery front-runner, though there were many technologies and chemistries at play including advanced lead-acid, nickel cadmium, nickel-metal-hydride, sodium-sulfur, sodium-bromine, zinc-air, lithium-ion, and more. Still, choices had to be made so EV programs could move forward. Ultimately, advanced lead-acid won out for small vehicle programs and the first  generation of GM EV1s, followed by better and more energy-dense batteries like nickel-metal-hydride and lithium-ion.

Today, nickel-metal-hydride and lithium-ion are the batteries primarily used for hybrid, plug-in hybrid, and battery electric vehicles. Lithium-ion, or one of its cousins like lithium-polymer, is used for electric vehicles due to its greater energy density and thus longer driving range. However, lithium batteries are costly and additional challenges remain.

Of great concern are instances of thermal runaway issues and a limited number of spontaneous vehicle fires caused by lithium-ion batteries. Some Teslas have suffered from such battery fires, and GM can certainly attest to this unexpected challenge since it’s now involved in a recall of all Chevy Bolt EVs made due to potential fire issues, to the tune of an expected $1.8 billion. Hyundai went through its own recall with the Kona EV for similar issues with its batteries.

Battery technology continues to improve and costs have gravitated downward in recent years, making the cost of building electric vehicles more reasonable, though still considerably higher than building internal combustion vehicles. Yes, there are substantial cost savings realized by owning and driving an electric vehicle. But to truly be a success, at some point they must be affordable enough for everyone to buy, and battery safety issues must be fully resolved.

2) WHERE TO CHARGE? The ideal location to charge an electric vehicle is at home with a 220-volt Level 2 wall charger. All mainstream electric vehicles support this type of charging, plus significantly slower charging with a portable ‘convenience’ charger plugged in a standard 110-volt household outlet.

Charging up with a 220-volt wall charger is convenient and efficient, with a full charge typically coming in about 2 to 10 hours, depending on the vehicle being charged and the battery’s energy level when you plug in. Simply, if your battery shows 40 miles of range left, it will take considerably longer to fully charge than if 140 miles of range is shown. For convenience, electric vehicle owners typically plug in at home during the evening so there’s a fully-charged EV waiting for them in the morning.

EV owners living in apartments, condos, and elsewhere – including dense urban areas where there may be no garage – need other solutions. To a limited degree, this is being addressed with pay-for-use chargers in common areas or even dedicated outside chargers at assigned parking spaces. Public chargers are also being installed in increasing numbers in urban developments as part of a growing public charging network. In addition, the number of chargers provided at the workplace is seeing greater interest, allowing EV owners to energize their batteries while parked at work.

Charging away from home is becoming easier with a significant expansion of a public charging network by companies like Electrify America, ChargePoint, Blink Charging, EVgo, SemaCharge, Volta, and Tesla. Still, this is a relatively nascent effort with charging opportunities far eclipsed by the abundant and convenient opportunities to refuel gasoline vehicles. Plus, to offer the kind of charging most meaningful to drivers, public chargers must ultimately offer fast-charge capability that enables gaining an additional 80 or 100 miles of range in just 20 to 30 minutes, if an EV is fast-charge capable. This network is growing but far from adequate, especially if it’s to  keep pace with the large number of electric vehicles coming to our highways. Building out a nationwide network of fast chargers is costly since the investment for each is in the neighborhood of $100,000.

3) FOCUS ON THE GRID: Many electric vehicle enthusiasts and electric utilities are quick to point out that our existing electrical grid can adequately handle the charging needs of millions of EVs on the road. I'm unconvinced. Plus, if the aspirations of EV enthusiasts come to fruition, there will be many more than just a few million EVs on the road in the future.

For years, certain areas of the country have experienced power outages as electricity demand outpaced grid capacity. Heat waves exacerbate this as air conditioning use soars, something made even worse in recent times with record-setting temperatures attributed to climate change. Given the trends pointed out by climate experts, these extraordinary heat waves are likely to increase.

To this point, the California Independent System Operator, which manages electricity delivered through California’s long-distance power lines, issued multiple Flex Alerts this summer. The Flex Alerts included a request for EV owners to charge in the morning and early daytime hours to avoid placing additional load on an already-overtaxed grid. While that request is counterintuitive to the long-held notion that charging EVs overnight is ideal since electrical demand lessens during overnight hours, it may make sense in a state like California that increasingly relies on renewable power as an important, zero-emission component of electrical generation. Simply, renewables like solar and wind-generated power wane at night.

Another challenge to a future of large-scale electric vehicle charging is the increasing frequency and scope that wildfires pose to the reliable delivery of electricity. In California, a long-time leader in encouraging electric vehicles, this could become a particularly vexing issue as the state continues to battle historic wildfires. Because downed powerlines have sparked numerous catastrophic fires here, the state’s electric utilities can – and have – preemptively initiated Public Safety Power Shutoffs that cut power to regions expected to experience high winds that could cause trees to damage electrical lines. No power, no charging.

Still, this doesn’t mean that an increasingly ‘smart’ grid can’t support large numbers of electric vehicles or that strategic, system-wide upgrades can’t be made to allow the grid to effectively deal with the challenges of wind, wildfires, and climate change. It does mean we should be aware of the potential for problems and make no assumptions, but rather plan far in advance to ensure that electric vehicle charging can be done consistently and won’t overwhelm the nation’s electrical grid in any way.

4) UNDERSTANDING EVS: Electric vehicles remain a very small part of today’s new vehicle market – perhaps 3% or so – for a multitude of reasons. Among these are cost, the perception that a battery electric vehicle may not fulfill a driver’s varying needs, and a general hesitation to embrace what many perceive as an unfamiliar and unproved propulsion technology. When enough of your friends and neighbors are driving electric and others see how well EVs fit their driving needs, that’s all likely to change. But we have a long way to go.

Education represents as important an element in realizing an electric vehicle future as resolving the challenges of charging infrastructure, sufficient grid capacity, and ensuring that EV batteries are inherently safe, sustainably made, and responsibly recycled. Over the years, Green Car Journal has hosted technology displays, electric car ride-and-drives, and discussions like the Automobiles and the Environment Conference and Green Car Summit on Capitol Hill. All these were aimed at promoting understanding of electric vehicles, their environmental benefits, and the issues surrounding them to consumers, the media, and government officials.

While automakers and an array of electric vehicle interests have pursued similar goals over the years, much more needs to be done. There are more people today than ever who have a decent grasp of electric cars and how they work because of the much greater exposure these vehicles have in the general media. That said, there is a greater percentage that really have no clue. That must change if electric cars are to increase market share to the degree that people want and expect. EV education must happen at all levels, and fast.

New car dealers have a unique opportunity to share knowledge of electric cars with would-be buyers, especially if a dealership is committed to the cause and there’s a knowledgeable EV specialist on hand. While a new generation of automakers aiming to exclusively sell EVs have their educational and outreach strategy down, legacy automakers largely do not. Those coming to dealerships are generally prospecting for a new car purchase or lease, now or later. They want to compare models and features, sit behind the wheel, and take a test drive.

While more electric vehicle product is being offered than in previous years, most buyers will not gravitate toward them naturally. What better opportunity than to encourage a first drive of a new electric model? The experience will be enlightening for those who have never been behind the wheel of an electric, with the seamless driving experience and unexpected performance a likely surprise. Leaving a dealership with a greater understanding of electric vehicles and how they work will return rewards, whether in the short- or long-term.

5) IF YOU BUILD IT. THEY WILL COME: If you bet everything on a decision that may drive you past the point of no return, is it the right choice? That depends on the outcome, of course. It worked for Kevin Costner’s character Ray Kinsella in the film Field of Dreams, as he literally bet the farm on blind faith that forces beyond understanding would beckon folks to the baseball diamond in his Iowa cornfield. The movie was compelling and its emotional attraction undeniable. So, too, is the prospect of millions of zero-emission electric vehicles plying our nation’s highways.

We were able to relive Field of Dreams recently as the Yankees and White Sox played a real-life game at a Major League Baseball stadium amid the cornfields, next to the Dyersville, Iowa diamond seen in Field of Dreams. And now we’re living with the very real prospect of an electric vehicle future, with many dedicated people, companies, and institutions focused on making it happen. Still, will that brand of faith work for electric cars?

Amid all the challenges, automakers new and old are betting their future – and possibly ours – that it will.