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Friday
Oct072016

Are EVs the Future?

By Christopher A. Sawyer

Porsche’s Mission E first appeared as a concept at the 2015 Frankfurt Motor Show, but has swiftly moved to production status. The four-door/four-seat sedan has a system power output of more than 600 hp (440 kW), and should propel the car from 0-60 mph in less than 3.5 seconds while offering a range of more than 310 miles. Lithium-ion batteries are integrated into the floor, and charged by an 800-volt charger developed specially for the car, making it possible, Porsche claims, to give the Mission E an 80% charge in 15 minutes. Production is expected in 2020.“The technology definitely has potential, but it’s driven by national or state-level policies fashioned or targeted at making the supply of battery electric vehicles (BEVs) essential to an automaker’s bottom line, as well as the user’s bottom line.” That, in a nutshell, is what is driving the adoption of BEVs, says Scott Shepard, Senior Research Analyst, Energy at Navigant Research. However, that’s not to say that that EV production never will be driven by consumer or public demand.

“Two basic things need to happen,” says Shepard. “The technology has to be on par with the cost of a conventional vehicle, and have an operating experience that is consumer friendly.” Of the two, the technical side of this equation is moving forward at surprising speed. “Five years ago, I don’t think people expected the technology to be where it is today, breaking the 200 mile [range] threshold for under $40,000,” he says. A growing market, driven in large part by government incentives for owners and automakers, has improved the economies of scale for battery production, and helped lower the cost of lithium-ion batteries. As the market grows, the gap between conventional vehicles and BEVs will continue to decline; perhaps to the point that the BEV cost drops below that of a gas-powered vehicle. “That’s actually likely to happen in segments of the market before 2025,” says Shepard, though he stresses the phrase “segments of the market.” That’s because the minimum range requirements for a crossover or SUV are significant, and larger vehicles need larger batteries. That means the battery price for them has to fall even further to be competitive. “It’s very unlikely,” he remarks, “that we’ll see a crossover BEV come to market before 2025 that is on par in terms of cost with its conventional competitor.”

BMW’s i division recently showed how so-called 2nd Life Batteries can be used as a plug-and-play storage application for residential and commercial back-up power. Using used BMW i3 batteries, this system would collect energy from solar cells, and be used to operate a variety of appliance and devices for up to 24 hours either when the grid is down, or to power a dwelling that is designed to be off the grid. Massively upscaled, this same idea could be used as a buffer for public charging stations in order to reduce the strain on the electrical grid. It is similar in concept to Tesla’s Power Wall.So, which segment will reach that goal, and what will be its natural habitat? Shepard’s response is a bit of a surprise given the preconceptions that have built up around electric vehicles. “The suburban market will be the prime user of the electric vehicle, not the urban market,” he says, explaining that the ability to recharge the vehicle conveniently, and the drive to reduce vehicle ownership by banning individually owned vehicles within the city limits — as is happening in Europe — will cap BEV sales in population dense urban areas.

For the average electric vehicle owner, charging at home will be the norm, and — as vehicle range increases — the need to top up will only happen at work or at a destination with public charging. And even that will be uncommon. “Rarely, rarely, rarely will the owner use the public infrastructure,” claims Shepard. “You probably will not have to stop at any charging station for any amount of time because you will no longer have to plan your day or your trip around the range of your vehicle.” This, however, depends on where and how you live.

Those living in a multi-unit dwelling or who don’t have access to their own plug-in point will be underserved. Infrastructure, both at the dwelling and on the street, can be added, but it will be costly and have an uncertain payback on that investment. That, says Shepard, is because a 200-mile range equates with approximately 60 kWh of energy. This energy would have to be drawn from a public DC fast charger once a week to once every two weeks. “That’s one to two hours of charging time based on the current infrastructure,” he says. Popping the output up to 100 kWh only cuts the charging time to 30 minutes, which for most people is a pretty significant chunk of time in which they are forced to be idle. In addition, he says, “DC fast chargers are not always cheaper than filling up on gasoline or diesel. And while costs are likely to drop in the future, system requirements are likely to advance such that the costs for using these systems are  not likely to be small.” On the other hand, suburban households have the option of purchasing a home station with which they can charge their vehicle overnight when electricity rates typically are cheaper. These consumers will buy BEVs, charge them at home, and top them up (if necessary) while at work or at the mall. And while this suggests a potentially large decline in new vehicle sales as urban sales decline, Shepard says that might not be the case.

Jaguar claims it joined the Formula E race series to increase its understanding of performance EVs. That knowledge will be used on its all-aluminum X590 EV platform. It will spawn both a four-door sedan and SUV, with the latter rumored to use an electric motor at each corner. The X590-based SUV should not be confused with the Jaguar E-Pace electric SUV. That steel-chassis stop gap will be based on the latest Land Rover Discovery platform, and arrive in 2017, two years before the X590 vehicles.“Automakers are already investigating changes to their business model that have a greater reliance on shared vehicles,” he explains. “They are going to have to educate the consumer on how an electric vehicle that costs much less in terms of energy — because of various incentives — can support 90%-95% of their needs, with the last 5% achieved via a shared vehicle rented from the dealership or car sharing company.” In addition, and perhaps more importantly in terms of new vehicle sales, as autonomous vehicles become practical and car sharing increases, individual vehicle transportation will be tailored to the type of trip. The expected reduction in vehicle congestion could increase use of that technology compared to other types of multi-modal transportation. These high-use, short-run electric vehicles, like the conventional vehicles that are shared, will have to be replaced more often, increasing sales. And this could result in a dramatic change in the way this vehicle is built, and the systems that support its maintenance. Says Shepard, “The skateboard idea, in this case, does make sense.”

What doesn’t make as much sense, he feels, are fuel cell vehicles (FCVs). “The packaging constraints mean that you need a crossover or SUV-size vehicle, the very markets where there currently isn’t an effective battery technology at a competitive price.” Though this seems like an opportunity, they would compete with conventional vehicles that are much less expensive, making this technology something that would trickle down from the luxury segment. Yet Shepard sees Japan continuing as ground zero for FCV development given the close relationship between domestic OEMs and the government. “They are heavily aligned,” he says, “and their adoption of the technology could support that business model to a point in the future where it could be adopted elsewhere. And while Japan is the FCVs mass market hope, it’s really hard to say that it has a chance in the U.S. in the next 20 years.”

Large battery assembly facilities won’t become obsolete as technology changes, because they will adapt to new chemistries and technologies. Lithium-ion should have a long life as it is the path of least resistance to enter the market as long as its market share continues to grow. Also, disruptive technologies will require a five-year ramp up, lithium-ion continues to increase its capacity, and — unlike consumer electronics — the technology involved is not purchased one year and thrown away the next. One other reason for that pessimism comes from the changes taking place in the luxury market. Shepard and his colleagues at Navigant Research see vehicles with a 200 mile or greater range taking as much as 25% to 30% of the premium luxury market in the future. “Premium vehicle makers don’t have another technology they can rely on to bring them into compliance [with future regulations], and this is the only technology that can provide the same level of performance as their existing engine technology,” he says. Stop-start has minimal effect on fuel economy and emissions, downsizing and turbocharging has its limits, and vehicles like the four-cylinder Mercedes S-Class hybrid have shown the sales limitations of hybrids in terms of market acceptance. “A big reason BEV technology works in the premium segment,” he says, “is that the price of the vehicle is higher while the premium for the technology is lower as a percentage of total vehicle cost. It’s much easier to add $10,000 to a $60,000 car than it is to a $20,000 car.” With premium brands accounting for about 12% of U.S. market sales, a 20% to 30% BEV penetration rate equates to 3% to 4% of the total market. As this happens, it will trickle down to the rest of the market.

According to Shepard, “By 2020, you won’t have any BEVs on the market with under 120 miles of range. “That will be the baseline, and these vehicle largely will be in the non-premium segment.” In addition, he claims, there will be 20-30 models with more than 200 miles of range in the premium segments, and they will be joined by a further five to 10 models with a similar range from mainstream brands. However, even with this increase in sales, Shepard says vehicles with 120-200 miles of range “will still be stumbling around at 1% to 2% of the overall market.”

Sidebar: What About Recharging?

“Recharging and recharging time is difficult to model or quantify,” says Shepard. Growing the technology means moving fast charge technology from the 25-50 kWh level to the 100-200 kWh level not only to significantly reduce charging time, but to increase the usage rates of chargers. Another concern is demand on the electrical grid. “If everybody is charging over a much larger [geographic] area over a 24-hour period, not only are the systemic impacts significantly less, options open up for utilities in terms of renewables penetration, grid services and minimizing grid impacts.”

Creating and incentivizing backup energy systems is one way of leveling demand. This would require a buffer between the grid and charge point with enough power to supply a number of vehicles with a charge, and minimize stress to the grid. Says Shepard, “It’s going to be a large battery.” Unlike many of the rosier scenarios put forth by proponents, it’s unlikely that there will be enough battery packs coming out of used or scrapped vehicles to meet this need for at least a decade. That means, “a lot of new batteries built for this purpose specifically [that are] not as advanced as the car batteries, but which are cheaper than [batteries of this type] are now.” Shepard says Tesla’s Supercharger recharging stations are an example of what this technology will look like, “but not what the business model or payment structure might look like.”

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