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 made its way to the highway. Back then, after daily life with an EV1 during a year-long test and then watching it sadly leave on a flatbed for parts unknown, I knew well the future potential that modern electric vehicles would hold. In the decades since then, automakers have committed to huge investments in expanding their electric vehicle offerings, suppliers have stepped up with new innovations, and consumers are now 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, so addressing key inhibitors of an electric feature is crucial. Let’s take a look at the top 5 reality checks that are top-of-mind.
1) It's All About the 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 electric car batteries like nickel-metal-hydride and lithium-ion.
Today, nickel-metal-hydride and lithium-ion batteries are 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 has been involved in a recall of all Chevy Bolt EVs made due to potential fire issues, to the tune of about $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 there must be truly affordable electric vehicles for everyone to buy, and battery safety issues must be fully resolved.
2) Where to Charge?
The ideal location for electric vehicle charging 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. We’re not so sure. 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 last 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 and growing – 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.
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 in 2021 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.