Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 23 August 2019

Range still an issue for mass uptake of electric cars

EVs face challenges while they remain having shorter driving ranges than petrol vehicles, are more expensive and take a long time to recharge

William Li, founder and chairman of NIO with the NIO ES8 electric 4x4 in Beijing, China. AP
William Li, founder and chairman of NIO with the NIO ES8 electric 4x4 in Beijing, China. AP

It took one 330 kilometre trip from Chongqing to Chengdu in his Nio ES8, a seven-seater all-electric 4x4, for its owner Wang Haichun to be consumed with buyer's remorse.

Despite being billed as capable of going 335km on a single full charge, the ES8 didn't get anywhere near that when driving on motorways at speeds above 100kph, he said, adding that after 180km, there was only 50km of range left.

"We had to recharge the car once and drove with a high level of anxiety throughout, constantly having to keep an eye on the range meter," the 44-year-old manager of a property firm said. Towards the end of the trip, he shut off the air conditioner and audio system to preserve power.

"I wouldn't want to do that kind of trip again – ever."

So unhappy was MR Wang, who paid 481,000 yuan (Dh263,318) for the vehicle, he sold it. He and his wife have since bought a Lexus NX300h petrol-electric 4x4, according to Reuters.

Asked to comment on Mr Wang's experience, Nio said the ES8 can travel more than 200km when constantly driven at a 100km per hour and that battery swap stations are available for quick recharging. The company did not address its advertising of 335km on a single full charge.

A Nio ES8 electric 4x4. Electric vehicles still have battery and range challenges to overcome. Reuters
A Nio ES8 electric 4x4. Reuters

In real world conditions, all-electric cars can sometimes fall far short of advertised ranges, car engineers say. That's particularly so when driving at length on freeways or hilly terrain and in hot or cold weather.

The problem adds to drawbacks which have hindered wider acceptance - EVs have shorter driving ranges than petrol vehicles anyway, are more expensive and take a long time to recharge.

China, Europe and the US state of California have set ambitious requirements for automakers to dramatically increase EV sales over the next five to 10 years but those goals are at risk unless EVs can come close to matching petrol engine cars in cost and ease of use.

In China, the country most aggressively pursuing the adoption of EVs and home to the world's largest car market, some of the industry's biggest names believe pure battery electric cars will be as cheap as petrol counterparts by 2025.

A Nio electric car in front of the New York Stock Exchange. Battery vehicles still face significant hurdles. Reuters
A Nio electric car in front of the New York Stock Exchange. Reuters

Those making that prediction include Ouyang Minggao, executive vice president of the EV100 forum, a think tank which is widely seen as the de facto voice of government policy.

"The turning point is coming. We believe that around 2025, the price of pure electric vehicles will achieve a big breakthrough," he said in January.

Mr Ouyang cited a reduction in battery costs to $100 per kilowatt hours from $150 to $200 currently and a planned tightening of emissions rules in China which will make petrol vehicles there more expensive.

But others in the EV industry are less optimistic.

"Chinese policymakers think EVs will become more like conventional gasoline cars as early as 2025. But that's naive and all automaker engineers would agree with me," said a veteran EV engineer at Honda.

"Sure, there's an EV boom but hybrids and plug-in hybrids will be needed as bridging technologies," he said.

The engineer was one of those who believe it will take a decade before battery EVs achieve cost and performance parity with petrol cars.

But pressure to deliver parity will only grow as China rolls back subsidies while setting quotas for sales of new energy vehicles (NEVs). China wants NEVs - which also include hybrids, plug-in hybrids and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles - to account for a fifth of car sales by 2025 compared with 5 per cent now.

For most car makers, battery cells cost around $200/kWh, the engineers said, although costs for Tesla are believed to be around $150/kWh, partly due to its much greater scale of production. Tesla declined to comment.

To cut costs, firms are working on slashing the use of cobalt, the most expensive part in lithium-ion batteries.

Firms such as China's Contemporary Amperex Technology, BYD and South Korea's SK Innovation are developing NMC 811 technology.

It uses 80 per cent nickel, 10 per cent manganese, 10 per cent cobalt, while a conventional lithium-ion battery uses 60 per cent nickel, 20 per cent manganese and 20 per cent cobalt. NMC 811 also delivers more energy density, meaning batteries will cost and weigh less.

Others are developing similar technologies with slightly different ratios. Batteries jointly produced by Tesla and Panasonic substitute manganese with aluminium and use less cobalt than NMC 811.

Less cobalt and more nickel increases the risk that a battery cell will catch fire - a problem still being worked on. Even so, South Korean battery makers say the next generation of batteries due in three years or so will cost much less and offer much greater driving ranges.

But sources say that even if battery unit costs are brought down to $100/kWh, this would not necessarily translate into a steep decline in vehicle costs.

That's because the investment to improve battery quality needs to be factored in, while the cars also need sophisticated battery management systems to prevent overheating and overcharging - adding thousands of dollars to their cost.

Toyota Motor, which does not have a pure EV on the market currently, says it is concerned about battery durability. Battery capacity can drop by half over five to 10 years - the reason for low EV resale values, said Shigeki Terashi, executive vice president in charge of Toyota's EV strategy.

"Falling EV battery capacity is not a major issue in China now because sales there have only recently begun, but in time this problem will likely become more evident," he said.

A longer-term effort to improve batteries are solid state batteries, where the liquid or gel-form electrolyte in a lithium-ion battery is replaced with a solid. That could help double a battery's energy density.

"That's the holy grail," says consultant Jon Bereisa, a former GM engineering director who spearheaded much of the car maker's early lithium-ion battery development.

Many in the industry believe the technology is at least a decade away from mass-market commercial use.

"There are a lot of limitations to solid state drive ... it will be very difficult to adopt the technology in the automotive applications used by the general public," said YS Yoon, president of SK Innovation's battery business.

Advances in recharging are also key to making electric vehicles mainstream. A big obstacle is heat, which increases resistance and in turn reduces the current.

Most EVs can get a partial charge in under half an hour, although several models due out in the next year can get close to a full charge in 20 minutes.

TE Connectivity is working with car makers to cut charging time to as little as 5 minutes and chief technology officer Alan Amici says that goal may be attained in five years.

But others are sceptical. Mr Bereisa thinks battery costs could achieve parity with petrol cars by the late 2020s but his verdict on fast fueling parity is "maybe never".

"It's physics," he said, adding that to charge an EV with the same amount of energy in the same amount of time as a petrol car, you'd need a charger powerful "enough to run a small city".

The battery challenge comes as many car makers are racing to market with electric models both to meet stricter emissions standards around the globe, and since Tesla’s Model 3 started selling briskly last year. Collectively, car makers will spend $255 billion making electric vehicles by 2022, according to consulting firm AlixPartners.

Scott Keogh, the chief executive officer of Volkswagen’s US unit, told a forum co-hosted by the US National Automobile Dealers Association on Tuesday Tesla has proven electric cars are here to stay. VW plans to sell them globally, with a US debut starting in 2022.

Mr Keogh said that VW’s research shows an electric car will be on top of many consumers’ shopping lists either the next time they buy a vehicle, or upon their following trip to the market.

Besides Tesla, Mr Keogh said General Motors also appears dedicated to selling electric vehicles and will be a key competitor. The Detroit-based car maker has said it plans to sell 20 EV models globally by 2023.

Others remain unconvinced, according to Bloomberg. Bob Carter, executive vice president of sales for Toyota Motor North America, said at a conference affiliated with this week’s New York car show that batteries are still too expensive and place plug-in cars out of reach for many buyers. He said Toyota will sell an electric model in the US, but declined to say when.

“This is going to be a slow evolution in the US market, unlike in China and Europe where there are government regulations” hastening electrification, Mr Carter said in an interview. “Nobody is selling electric vehicles at a profitable margin.”

Updated: April 17, 2019 02:11 PM

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