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Making a case for electromobility

2020 was a year most sectors would want to forget, and the automotive industry is no exception. Based on early market data, the International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that the global sales of automobiles dropped to under 64 million units – three years earlier they had peaked at 80 million. The chief reason for this decline was the pandemic. With countries around the world implementing lockdown measures, manufacturing essentially came to a halt. Additionally, consumer demand plunged: those of us who were thinking of getting a (new) car shelved the idea until an uncertain date.

Electric car markets, however, not only weathered the coronavirus crisis, they actually managed to grow. The preliminary estimate of IEA indicates that their market share exceeded 4%, setting a new record for electromobility. Indeed, in some European countries the electric vehicle (EV) markets witnessed a triple-digit growth: 140% in the UK, 202% in France and a whopping 263% in Germany. And yet, despite all the evidence that electric vehicles bucked the prevailing trend in the automotive industry, a recent study shows that many people still have reservations about electromobility.

A skeptical public

Continental Mobility Study 2020, conducted by Continental and infas Institute for Applied Social Sciences, asked participants in five countries (Germany, France, the US, China, and Japan) about their mobility habits. The findings of the study were published in early January, and it is fair to assume that they raised some eyebrows in the e-mobility industry.

59% of Germans said they could not imagine buying an EV, with the majority in France and the US – 57% and 50%, respectively – having the same opinion. Respondents in Japan were only slightly less skeptical, leaving China as the only country included in the study where a large number of those surveyed could see themselves as owners of an EV.

The four main reasons against e-mobility as cited by the interviewees are as follows.

  • not enough charging stations
  • limited range of vehicles available
  • pre-planning / breaks for long distances
  • price

The lack of charging stations was the number one complaint in all of the countries except France, where the majority (55%) named price as their main concern. The limited range compared to vehicles with an internal combustion engine was mentioned by roughly half of the participants in Germany, the US and China. The need for pre-planning scored highest in Germany (57%) while most of the respondents were not particularly concerned about price, especially in China, where only 19% named it as a reason against EVs. A similarly small percentage (14%) of the Japanese said that limited range was an inconvenience.

In spite of the reservations, a positive trend can be observed overall: since 2013, the number of people who would be willing to buy an all-electric car has risen in all five countries. That said, the survey found that in Germany a third of the participants still doubt that EVs are environmentally friendly, and a fourth of those asked in France have the same misgivings. 

Advocates of e-mobility wish to win over the doubters by informing them of the latest industry developments as well as shattering those widely held beliefs that hinder further progress. Let us take a closer look at each of the complaints mentioned above.

Shortage of charging stations

Insufficient charging infrastructure is the key reason that prevents the sector from growing faster. To remedy this situation, governments have developed economic-stimulus programs which provide funding for investments in the installation of both public and private charging stations at workplaces and employees’ homes. In April 2020, China committed over $1.4 billion dollars to subsidize the building of charging stations, and in November the federal government in Germany pledged to help the expansion of the charging station infrastructure drive forward: the goal is to equip at least 25% of all service stations with fast-charging infrastructure by the end of 2022 and at least 75% by the end of 2026. Even more recently, on February 11, Shell, the global energy and petrochemical group, announced that it is planning to roll out half a million charging stations by 2025. There is clearly a lot of work to be done, but these initiatives bode well for electromobility.

Limited choice of EVs

Undoubtedly, electric cars are as yet no match for gasoline-powered ones when it comes to the variety of models that are available, but the gap separating the two categories is expected to narrow. The German website Electric Vehicle database currently lists 125 different models, 39 of which will be available at some point in 2021. Hyundai, Mercedes, Audi, Tesla and several other manufacturers will all be bringing new models to the market. Also, companies try to appeal to various audiences. Customers who prefer small cars that are more affordable might opt for one of the SMART EQ brands or the Renault Zoe, while those better off may want to consider one of the Porsche Taycan models or the Jaguar I-Pace EV 400 – these vehicles can already be purchased. So, the range is definitely increasing, and soon prospective customers may well find that they are spoilt for choice.

Range anxiety

Driving range on a single charge and charging speed need to be optimized if e-mobility is going to continue making strides. 460 km is the highest range of an electric car currently available in Germany – two Tesla models and the Porsche Taycan Plus share that quality –  but customers of more modest means need to settle for much less: the cars priced at under € 20,000 have a maximum range of 100 km. Similarly, the time it takes to charge an EV varies considerably – generally, the longer it takes a vehicle to charge from empty to full the less expensive it is.

There are, of course, several common-sense ways to extend the driving range, e.g. careful route planning or keeping the speed down, but more importantly, battery technology keeps improving. Toyota is set to unveil a solid-state battery later this year, which should make possible a 500-km trip on one charge with a recharge from zero to full in only ten minutes, and with minimal safety concerns. It promises to be a game-changer for EVs that use lithium-ion batteries.

Meanwhile, the Israeli company StoreDot has developed lithium-ion batteries that are capable of fully charging within five minutes. Manufactured on standard mass production lines by Eve Energy in China, they are set to be rolled out in 2025. Replacing graphite with semiconductor nanoparticles – based on germanium at present and on silicon in future – these batteries will make the passage of ions quicker and easier. Other companies are also developing fast-charging batteries, with some of them, e.g. Tesla, working on silicon electrodes.

High prices     

According to ADAC, Europe’s biggest motoring association, the most expensive electric car currently available on the German market is the Porsche Taycan Turbo S, which costs a little over € 183,000 euros – it is fair to say that this model is outside most people’s price range. However, the state of Germany offers a so-called “environmental bonus,” which can amount to as much as € 9,000 for a battery-powered vehicle up to a € 40,000 net list price. KIA, Nissan, Honda as well as Volkswagen and BMW all have models that could be purchased for that much. Private consumers in France receive similar incentives, and while EVs generally cost more than conventional ones, lifetime costs over a decade favor them, provided that the price of gasoline does not skyrocket. That said, given that few consumers consider lifetime costs over such a long period of time, bringing down purchase prices remains an important objective of e-mobility.

Environmental concerns

Skeptics question whether electric vehicles do less harm to the environment than traditional cars. They allege that the production of EVs is more energy-intensive, and mining raw materials needed for their batteries runs counter to green policy.

While it is true that the manufacture of EVs creates a carbon footprint, if only renewable energy is used for production and refueling – a goal which can be achieved in the foreseeable future – EVs are likely to become carbon-free whereas with an internal combustion engine this opportunity does not arise. Once the transition from fossil fuels to renewables is complete, the additional energy required by the battery-related higher weight of EVs will no longer be an issue. Moreover, advances in battery technology will gradually further improve the energy balance of electric cars.

With regard to mining, as electromobility keeps booming and battery recycling becomes more efficient, the need to extract raw materials such as lithium and cobalt will decrease, which in turn will mean less reliance on mining activities with extremely polluting processes. Incidentally, raw materials necessary for the production of conventional vehicles, notably copper and lead, are also obtained through mining.

Electromobility is on the rise, and while the reservations of potential customers are legitimate, the purchase of an EV will in the long haul help you reduce your carbon footprint more significantly than driving a conventional car ever could. And, in addition to being environmentally friendly, e-vehicles pay off economically in the long term. Indeed, having recognized the growing demand for e-mobility, some governments provide funds to incentivize people to switch to EVs: the Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure in Germany, for instance, is now offering a subsidy of 900 euros per charging point. With politics on board, there are plenty of reasons why electromobility should pull into the fast lane.

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