The Future of EVs

Jessica Shea Choksey | Apr 01, 2022

The shift to electrified mobility started in earnest nearly two decades ago with the arrival of the first hybrid vehicles. Although most car buyers were not initially comfortable with the idea of a gas-electric powertrain, hybrids continued to gain popularity. Eventually, they served as a bridge to more sophisticated and sustainable offerings, such as plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) and battery electric vehicles (BEVs), with ranges currently surpassing 300 miles on a single charge.

Nowadays, every major auto manufacturer appears to have a strategy aimed at an all-electric future. Many automakers are investing billions of dollars in research & development and manufacturing to electrify their global lineups to go EV-only by the middle of the next decade.

The key motivator for the auto industry's strong momentum toward electrification is the environment. Around the world and here in the United States, light-duty vehicles (passenger cars and non-commercial trucks) have been the most significant contributors of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere. As a result, state and federal regulatory efforts designed to reduce these harmful carbon emissions have mandated carmakers to reduce tailpipe pollutants.

As such, many manufacturers have announced plans to phase out the production of internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles altogether in the next 10 to 15 years. Leading the charge with the most stringent mandates, California's legislators have banned selling new ICE vehicles in the state starting in the year 2035.

All that said, we are only at the beginning of the auto industry's shift to electrification. The share of EVs in the U.S. is still fractional compared to the overall production and sales of automobiles. But as the electrification effort ramps up, BEVs could represent a much more significant portion of the American and global automotive landscape by the end of the decade. And likely redefine mobility altogether by 2040.

Charging Infrastructure

Perhaps an even more significant challenge than developing and manufacturing BEVs is building the charging infrastructure to support the millions of new electrified vehicles expected to flood the market in the years ahead. The focus is now on creating an adequate network of charging stations ready to deliver electricity to EVs everywhere at all hours of the day.

But that's easier said than done. With the number of EVs in the U.S. projected to rise from just under two million in 2020 to more than 26 million in 2030, charging infrastructure will need to expand at a proportionate rate. This means public and workplace charging will need to grow from approximately 216,000 chargers in 2020 to 2.5 million chargers by 2030. This figure includes 1.3 million Level 2 workplace chargers, one million public Level 2 chargers (grocery stores, restaurants, gyms, airports, etc.), and 180,000 Level 3 DC fast chargers.

Expanding infrastructure at this level will cost tens of billions of dollars, both private and public. A Level 2 charger, commonly found in commercial and workplace settings, costs $2,500 to $5,000 to install. Level 3 fast chargers, which allow drivers to recharge 80 percent of a vehicle's battery within 30 minutes, can range between $150,000 and $350,000.

Outside of costs, another challenge to installing charging networks is the number of stakeholders involved. Getting approvals from local officials and municipalities can often be a complicated process that lasts months or longer. Beyond that, connecting a charging station to the grid presents its own set of issues in logistics and engineering.

Once installed, charging infrastructure offers immense benefits. Most of these public charging stations are now supported by smartphone apps that show charger availability and offer embedded billing so that an EV driver can simply activate a charger, use it, and get back on the road without delay. As charging speed and capacity continue to increase, the eventual goal will be for public charging stations to be as fast or faster than the time it takes to refuel a traditional ICE vehicle at a gas station.

Several EV-charging providers are currently in the market: EVgo, Blink, ChargePoint, Volta, and Electrify America. Also, Tesla has its own charging network of Tesla Superchargers. Together, these companies are building a network of stations that will soon leave no part of the U.S. without access to electric charging. And as EVs gain extended all-electric ranges, a vast network of charging stations will allow an infinite number of routes from anywhere to anywhere across the country.

Removing some of the burden of public charging, many Americans opt to have a charger installed at home. At-home EV charging allows drivers to plug in their vehicles at night and wake up to a full battery charge in the morning. Many state and federal subsidies and tax credits help homeowners purchase and install garage-based chargers. And most major utility companies offer special "EV rates" to help with the energy costs associated with electric charging (and other electric usage in the home). But for apartment and condo dwellers, home charging is typically not an option. These EV owners continue to depend on public charging stations.

In the long run, a shortage of public EV chargers could dissuade Americans from swapping their gas-powered vehicles for greener alternatives. Conversely, a robust charging infrastructure network that offers ease of access and the ability to travel long distances without range anxiety will indeed move the needle on EV adoption.

Battery Tech and the Transition to Solid State

Beyond EVs and charging, battery technology is the next critical piece of the electrification puzzle. As EV batteries become more advanced, they can store more energy and take up less space. The result is a lighter, more spacious vehicle that can travel further on a single charge.

The first EV batteries were composed of lead and acid. Far more advanced nickel-metal-hydride cells then followed. The current generation of batteries has graduated to a far more sophisticated lithium-ion chemistry. Of the lithium-ion batteries, there are two primary types: conventional lithium-ion and solid-state.

Both lithium-ion and solid-state are similar in overall structure and operation. However, the lithium-ion battery pack contains a liquid electrolyte, while a solid-state battery has a solid core, giving it more energy density. The higher the energy density, the higher the output. This equates to more range and faster recharge times.

Although lithium-ion batteries have become the norm for electrifying vehicles, automakers are now working toward making solid-state batteries the gold standard. In addition to improved safety, size, and stability, solid-state batteries can reach an 80-percent charge within 15 minutes with less strain after multiple charging cycles. While a lithium-ion battery begins to degrade after 1,000 cycles, a solid-state battery will maintain 90 percent of its capacity after 5,000 cycles.

In general, solid-state batteries are used more commonly in smaller devices like smartwatches and pacemakers. Making solid-state batteries viable for larger applications like EVs requires a scaling-up of hardware and technology. That kind of upsizing is costly.

Overall development costs and manufacturing challenges are the main shortcomings of producing solid-state batteries for mass-market EVs. But just as lithium-ion batteries became more affordable over time, the thinking is that the costs associated with solid-state batteries will also come down. Some automakers are making enormous investments in solid-state battery technology.

Skateboard-style EV Platforms

With a traditional vehicle platform, a slight change to the wheelbase can result in a domino effect to the overall design, requiring engineering changes that could be very costly and take an enormous amount of time to implement. Carmakers have developed a different vehicle architecture for EVs: modular skateboard platforms.

This e-mobility-specific development lets a vehicle designer put all the motors and battery pack in a chassis that looks like a skateboard, with a relatively simple body built on top. OEMs can alter the size and shape of the chassis to meet different requirements, from a small passenger car to a light-duty pickup truck to a commercial vehicle.

Multiple body styles can use variants of the same skateboard platform at a fraction of the cost of a traditional vehicle design. Depending on the application, EV builders can easily modify the skateboard's layout, put a motor on the front or back axle, or add motors to all four wheels for higher performance.

A skateboard chassis can also improve vehicle dynamics. Having the batteries in different positions and configurations along the vehicle's floor can optimize the center of gravity, helping to improve the handling and providing more space for the driver and passengers or cargo.

Ultimately, a skateboard platform allows tremendous flexibility in vehicle design. That flexibility could mean a single platform may yield several EVs of varying sizes and segments, which could save time and money as carmakers these days roll out one EV after the next. To that end, a modular skateboard-style platform will undoubtedly be one of the keys to speeding up the proliferation of EVs in the years ahead.

Summary

The widespread electrification of passenger vehicles continues to gain momentum. Across the U.S. and the world, car manufacturers face regulatory pressures in the form of stringent environmental mandates that mean electrification is no longer just an option. It's a necessity. As a result, most automakers are moving away from combustion-based strategies and setting their sights on an electric-only path, despite the challenges to overcome and the investments to be made. The next several years will prove to be pivotal on this front.

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