Battery-electric vehicles: The times, they are a changing
By Wayne Gorrett @WaynesWorldAuto
The Geneva Motor Show has an envious reputation as a showcase for the latest in automotive design and technology – some of which is available right now, along with a myriad of exploratory innovations and conceptual creations that may come our way in the future.
However, this year things were a little different in Geneva as no less than 19 mostly mainstream manufacturers ramped up the amps with their latest battery-electric vehicles (BEVs) and, in something of a breakthrough, premium German automaker Audi displayed only electric vehicles.
So, what is fuelling this rush by manufacturers to get BEVs to market? Currently, UK sales figures are falling due to the growing aversion to new diesels (thanks largely due to government misinformation about diesels in general), along with the continuing uncertainty that surrounds Brexit.
For manufacturers to guarantee a profitable future, they have to lead consumers away from fossil-fuelled reliance and offer alternative means of energised mobility and exploit the current and long-term trend towards BEVs, plug-in hybrid vehicles (PHEV) or petrol-hybrid cars.
“One of the things I find interesting is that every manufacturer now sees EVs as its long-term future. Some are talking a couple of years, some several decades, but they all see it as the end game. Hence, anything on that roadmap is viewed as a good investment.” - @Chris_Pickering, automotive journalist.
According to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), UK sales of battery-electric vehicles surged 110 per cent in January, 2019 with sales of 1,334 units, compared to 635 for January, 2018. It brings the total amount of UK EV registrations to a little less than two per cent.
This pales in comparison to the figures in Norway, where 48% of registered vehicles are now electric. By the year 2040, the UK government plans to phase out petrol and diesel vehicles in order to curb emissions and hit climate change targets.
Strong growth in EV sales highlights increased consumer demand to switch to a greener automotive lifestyle. The progress of such cars is a promising development for manufacturers.
Just last month, while at the KIA ProCeed launch in Spain, a senior KIA official from Korea confirmed to me that almost all of the 900 e-Niros allocated to the UK for 2019 have been sold.
In another development, the Volkswagen Group has announced that it is making available its Modular Electric Toolkit (MEB) platform which it developed specifically for its current and future electric vehicles, to other non-Group car manufacturers. VW Group companies include Bentley, Audi, Skoda, SEAT, Porsche and Lamborghini.
Volkswagen says the purpose of sharing the platform is to achieve a significant reduction in the cost of e-mobility through the widest possible deployment of the MEB and the associated economies of scale, thus enabling broad access to individual mobility to continue in future.
Volkswagen is investing more than €30 billion in electric mobility through to 2023, and electric vehicles are expected to account for approximately one quarter of VW Group model portfolio by 2025.
“To restore momentum, we need supportive policies, not least on vehicle taxation, to encourage buyers to invest in new, cleaner vehicles that best suit their driving needs – from the latest petrols and diesels to an ever-growing range of exciting electrified vehicles. This would be good for the environment, good for the industry and those who depend on it.” - SMMT chief executive Mike Hawes.
One of the main stumbling blocks for the expansion of electric vehicles (EVs) right now is range anxiety, the fear that the car won’t be able to reach its destination without recharging due to remaining battery life – particularly during the winter months. Thankfully, battery technology is constantly being improved.
Spanish energy company Grabat, are developing automotive batteries made from graphene, which could be the most powerful yet. Not only could these new batteries give electric cars a driving range of nearly 500 miles from a single charge, but they can be charged to full capacity in just a few minutes. It’s estimated that graphene batteries will be able to charge and discharge 33 times quicker than those currently made with lithium-ion.
Another barrier to EV ownership is the current charging point infrastructure. As a motoring journalist, I have encountered first-hand the frustration of arriving at a charge point to discover it full or that some points are not working, while some of my peers have experienced no issue at all. A hit and miss affair, it seems.
Right now, it is evident that car manufacturers are running the EV race at full pelt, while the infrastructure to support that rapid growth has only just learnt how to walk.
Although car brands are constantly developing their charging networks and providing visibility to the nearest charging points on their apps, the general infrastructure for charging is limited. However, changes have already been put in motion, and over the next few years, there will see many more charging points becoming available. In 2017, there were around 12,000 charging points throughout the UK, but that figure rose to 17,000 during 2018.
Because of the rising demand for electric vehicles in the coming years, EV charger installation is going to be one of the most pressing responsibilities for all of the major power companies. A recent announcement by one of the largest electric charging companies in the UK, BP Chargemaster, stated that it will begin installing around 4,000 EV charging points at hotels and B&B’s throughout the country. In addition to this, new homes are going to be fitted with EV chargers to accelerate the transition into a more eco-friendly environment.
Recently, Tesco and Volkswagen unveiled a new partnership that should see 2,400 new EV chargers popping up at 600 UK branches of the supermarket retailer. Over the next three years, both companies will work with Pod Point to introduce the chargers in selected Tesco Extra and Superstore car parks throughout the UK - and some of them will be free to use, too.
Another reason why electric cars don’t yet represent a serious challenge to petrol or diesel-powered vehicles is the considerable difference in price. The main aspect that drives up the prices of EVs is the lithium batteries. Despite this, many analysts have predicted that the average price of a lithium battery will start to decline over the next few years, with China positioning itself to produce them at a much cheaper cost.
According to a recent report, electric cars could cost the same as regular petrol and diesel vehicles by the year 2024 and will be even cheaper the year after. Right now, the battery of an EV car constitutes 37% of the total price, but as this is a significant drop from 49% only two years ago, the electric car revolution has arrived a little earlier than expected.
The UK Plug-in Car Grant (PiCG), introduced in 2011, used to offer consumer discounts on a selection of PHEVs and EVs. However, reforms in 2018 brought an end to financial support for PHEVs, while the maximum grant for EVs was reduced to £3,500 from £4,500.
The purpose of the grant is to provide a cash incentive to the consumer that cuts the list price of the EVs on sale in the UK today in an effort to encourage people to buy one, with an aim to reducing emissions and improving air quality.
Admittedly, while currently the flavour du jour, electric cars are not for everybody – however well-intentioned the mindset – as geographical barriers will continue to play a prohibitive role. There are tens of thousands of potential EV buyers who cannot entertain an EV lifestyle because they live in flats, or in rural areas and other such low density locales.
Nonetheless, Brits bought nearly 60,000 plug-in cars last year and the next two years will see the trickle of battery vehicles turn into a mainstream flood as prices fall to become more competitive with petrol and diesel cars.
As Bob Dylan once waxed lyrical, “the times they are a changing’.