Electric cars: The benefits and the barriers

The global automotive industry is undergoing a significant transformation. As the negative impacts and costs of fossil fuels are better understood and more widely accepted, strong consumer preferences and regulatory changes are putting pressure on manufacturers to make more efficient and environmentally friendly vehicles. 

Currently, transport contributes 13% of global man-made carbon dioxide emissions. With the number of cars on the road estimated to double from one billion to two billion by 2035, the need for new and more sustainable transport technologies is increasingly apparent.

Electric vehicles are an emerging technology that manufacturers are increasingly turning towards. These manufacturers are at various different stages of electric vehicle development and commitment; some are focused solely on producing electric vehicles (Tesla), BMW has released a new range of electric vehicles to join their other fossil fuel powered ranges, and others are developing hybrid vehicles powered by both electricity and hydrocarbon fuels.

Environmental

The environmental benefit of electric vehicles over fossil fuel powered vehicles is obvious – they don’t produce any tailpipe emissions. Driving an electric vehicle produces no carbon dioxide or any other environmentally damaging emissions at the source.

That said, electric vehicles do indirectly emit carbon dioxide because owners will charge the vehicle’s battery with grid electricity generated by fossil fuel powered power plants. 

Whilst this means electric vehicles will not be zero carbon across their lifecycle, the carbon efficiency of a power plant is significantly higher than an internal combustion engine and electric vehicles are therefore still more environmentally friendly than fossil fuel cars. 

In addition, 80% of the energy used by an electric vehicle goes toward turning the wheels whilst a conventional fossil fuel powered vehicle only uses 20% of the energy stored in fuel, the rest is lost as heat, further demonstrating an electric vehicle’s superior energy efficiency.  

Another important point to note is future grid electricity could come from renewable sources. In Oslo, Norway, 99% of grid electricity is sourced from renewable sources. This makes the prospect of an electric vehicle that is nearly 100% carbon neutral to drive a possibility in the future.

Public health benefits

Air pollution is an increasing concern to public health. Nitrous Oxide (NOx) is a tailpipe emission from fossil fuel powered vehicles that has been found to have a statistically significant correlation with cardiovascular and respiratory diseases.

Urbanisation, the proportion of citizens living in urban areas compared to rural areas, is estimated to reach 80% by 2050 and the number of road vehicles on the road is set to double by then as well. This means more people will be exposed to poor levels of air pollution that is damaging to health.

A recent World Health Organisation report says air pollution is now the biggest single environmental health risk and the cause of one in eight deaths worldwide. PM2.5 – particles small enough to penetrate deep into the lungs and enter the bloodstream – are one of the most detrimental tail pipe emissions and consequently found in high concentrations in urban areas.                  

Beijing’s concentration of PM2.5 particles hit 505 micrograms per cubic metre in February 2014 - significantly above the World Health Organisation’s recommendation of 25 micrograms as a safe level. The wider adoption of electric vehicles would reduce air pollution in urban areas and make them a healthier place to live.

Economic benefits

The total cost of ownership over six years of an electric vehicle’s lifetime is lower than a fossil fuel powered vehicle. The average price of an electric vehicle is higher than a conventional fossil fuel powered vehicle, because of the high production costs of the electric vehicle’s battery, but savings are made from electricity prices being cheaper and less volatile than petrol or diesel and the option to pre-programme your electric vehicle to charge during off-peak hours.

If driving 40 miles per day for all 30 days of the month, it would add up to 1,200 miles per month, and it would cost a 25 MPG gasoline-powered car driver $192 per month, assuming a gasoline cost of $4 per gallon.

The Nissan Leaf, however, would cost $36 per month to make those same trips, assuming an average electricity cost of $0.10 per kWh. The Nissan Leaf is equipped with a 24 kWh battery bank. After driving 40 miles in this vehicle, you would have a range of 33 miles remaining for the rest of the day.

Governments have also been handing out grants worth £5,000 to owners of certain models of electric vehicles to help overcome the high purchase price, but as this programme begins to phase out, it is important for battery costs to come down rapidly. As electric vehicle’s become more popular, the cost to the manufacturer to produce the battery will fall as they gain economies of scale enhancing an electric vehicle’s economic benefits.

Barriers to electric vehicle adoption

The advantages of electric vehicles are clear, but there are some developments required to break down the barriers to their adoption. A key barrier to the adoption of electric vehicles is consumer perception. Many consumers believe that the range (distance covered by a fully charged battery) of an electric vehicle is not high enough to satisfy their needs when in fact 90% of trips made are well within the range of an electric vehicle. Also many consumers believe that electric vehicle’s are slow and cumbersome, often associating them with milk floats.

Buying a car is a very rational purchase and buyers weigh up many different factors. If consumers believe that an electric vehicle is impractical, it is unlikely they will be purchased by the masses and it is up to exciting projects such as Formula E to change these consumer perceptions. The FIA Formula E Championship is a brand new, fully-electric, global race series. The series will visit many major cities around the world – London, Beijing and Buenos Aires to name a few – and 10 teams will race their electric vehicles around street circuits at up to 150mph.   

Formula E is an important piece of the electric vehicle puzzle as it will demonstrate to a global audience the feasibility of electric vehicles and it will also be a test-bed for future technological innovations.

Jaime Alguersuari, one of Virgin Racing’s Formula E drivers said “I think Formula E could have huge impact on electric car industry. Some big names are already involved at the moment – Renault, Audi - and are believing in this. In year two when we can build the car ourselves it will be much more interesting for manufacturers to come inside and play a big role on the industry.”

One technological barrier holding back the acceptance of electric vehicles is battery technology. The energy density of current batteries is not high enough to rival fossil fuels such as petrol or diesel at the moment. In order to get similar range to a tank of petrol, an electric vehicle battery would be too heavy and large for practical use, because it packs less punch relative to its size.

It is important battery technology is advanced in the near future to reduce the difference in range between an electric vehicle and fossil fuel powered car, as it seems to be the number one barrier to electric vehicle adoption. 

Another technological barrier is the time it takes to charge an electric vehicle’s battery. Private charging overnight is not a problem, as consumers will not be using their vehicle for at least eight hours, but charge time when out and about in the day is an issue.

The current range of an 85kWh battery in a Tesla S is 306 miles if you drive on a highway at a speed of 55mph. It is unlikely consumers will need to recharge during the day with a vehicle of this range but if it is required, consumers will need a means of supercharging their battery so they can continue their journey without waiting a long time.

Tesla has started to roll out their superchargers which can recharge an 85kWh battery with enough charge to drive 170 miles in 30 minutes. This means a consumer can stop for lunch whilst their car is recharging and significantly improves the practicality of an electric vehicle.

Whilst this supercharging facility is currently only available to Tesla consumers, it is hoped the technology will filter down and become available to mass-market electric vehicles as well.   

Formula E could be a great test bed for testing and tweaking these new technologies when they are in the development stages and amass major automobile manufacturer interest and investment so they reach the mass-market.

At the moment, electric vehicles are in their early stages. It seems automobile manufacturers are slowly adding electric vehicle’s into their product lines but at the moment consumer demand for electric vehicles is not high enough to switch manufacturers focus off fossil fuel vehicles. 

A middle-ground manufacturer’s have started to focus on are plug in hybrid vehicles. These vehicles can run on an electric battery in urban areas, where range is not an issue and air pollution is a problem, and then switch to combusting petrol when a longer trip is required in rural areas.

Hopefully the use of plug in hybrids will demonstrate the feasibility of electric vehicle technology, especially to urban dwellers, and stimulate more consumer demand for electric vehicles.

Manufacturers should then invest more in electric vehicle technology and enable battery technology to advance to a point they can rival the range of a fossil fuel vehicle. The gradual transition and adoption will also allow infrastructure to be build and charging points to be intelligently rolled out in parallel with demand.   

Together, these two factors will play a big role in improving the practicality of electric vehicles and raising the number of electric vehicles on the road.

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