2013-05-21

We May All Be Driving Electric Cars In The Future, But That Future Is Really Far Away

Tesla’s success might be in the news, but it’s just a drop in the bucket of EV adoption. There is a long way to go, and many hurdles, before EVs are the preferred method of getting around.

Electrified transport is key to a lower carbon future. According to the International Energy Agency, three-quarters of new cars need to be EVs by 2050, if we’re to stay within "safe" global warming limits (generally said to be 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels).

To give you an idea of how many sedans that is--it’s a lot. The IEA’s goal is 5.9 million new EVs a year by 2020. And, we’re a long, long way from that at the moment. Only 113,000 EVs hit the road last year across 15 countries signed up to the IEA’s Electric Vehicles Initiative. And those 15 account for 90% of EVs overall.

EVs currently make up 0.02% of the world’s cars, or about 180,000 units. The U.S. (38%) and Japan (24%) have almost two-thirds, with Europe bringing in 11%, and China 6.2%.

A new IEA report looks at what’s driving EV adoption and holding it back, from battery costs and charging infrastructure, to government support.

Cheaper and longer-range batteries are key, the report says. The packs for some EVs currently make up 50% of their overall cost, leading to high prices. The battery for the Focus Electric, for example, costs between $12,000 and $15,000. The model costs at least $30,000, and you can get a Focus Titanium (a gasoline model) for $7,000 less.

Battery costs are falling, though slowly. Between 2008 and 2012, per kilowatt hour price fell by half, the IEA says, and it forecasts it will drop by half again by 2020. If so, EVs and traditional cars should become more evenly priced--though by then, EVs may also have to compete with fuel cells, advanced hybrids, and natural gas cars, as well.

One question is whether governments will continue subsidizing EVs to the same level they have done. Many currently meet a portion of the vehicle cost and/or exempt drivers from road taxes and other charges. But some governments are now cutting back, and the report says it’s possible EVs will get more expensive before they get cheaper. "As government subsidies begin to phase out, the upfront purchase price will revert to higher levels unless substantial cost reductions are achieved," it says.

Some countries are also reducing their R&D spending. U.S. investment, for example, has fallen steeply since 2009, when the Obama stimulus washed through the economy. China now contributes about half of all public EV R&D.

Charging infrastructure is another issue. By 2020, the 15 countries have cumulative targets for approximately 2.4 million slow chargers (4 to 12 hours) and 6,000 fast (as little as 30 minutes) ones. And, again, they are way short of their goals. By the end of 2012, there were 46,000 fast charging points worldwide, and 1,900 slow ones. Planners have yet to work out the required number of charging points to meet demand, and there’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem. People won’t buy EVs without charging points, and governments don’t want to invest in charging if there aren’t more EVs on the road.

The report recommends more analysis of driving patterns before deciding where to place charging infrastructure, more incentives for workplace charging, better interoperability to charging systems, and more consistent charging point signage.

The IEA sees hope for EVs in the worldwide shift to cities. Up to 70 of people will live in an urban area by 2050, according to the UN. If so, EVs could find a growing role as city get-arounds. Still, the future is likely to take a while:

Transforming the way automobiles are powered and scaling the requisite infrastructure will not occur in a matter of months. The challenges facing vehicle electrification are complex and will therefore necessitate a broad and coordinated effort among all relevant stakeholders to address them.

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3 Comments

  • MariahRobertson

    Electric
    cars are fantastic, but this article is correct in saying that the future of electric cars is far, far away.  The transition to electric cars won't happen
    anytime soon. In the meantime, what we need is access to replacement fuels.
    There are a number of replacement fuels that are available and affordable right
    now. We need competition at the pump, and the capability to convert our cars to
    be able to run on fuels like ethanol, methanol, and natural gas.

  • Andrea

    Are we really missing the infrastructure?  How difficult would it be to place solar panels on top of gas stations and put express charging stations there? Most gas stations already have a place to stop and rest for the distance drivers ( especially highways ).