Briefing: greener driving

Why do governments want us to buy them? What’s on the market? And where are the road-bumps ahead? Paul Carsten looks at the state of play for electric cars.

Since Japanese auto giant Toyota introduced the second-generation Prius in 2004, perceptions of “eco-friendly cars” have evolved. What many in the past considered a gimmick has become a widely touted symbol of a future, greener transport system: a viable alternative to vehicles powered solely by internal combustion engines (ICEs). You only have to look at China’s 12th Five-Year Plan – which aims to bring a million electric vehicles onto the nation’s roads by 2015 – to see how seriously this promise is being taken.

Technological developments have provided consumers with a range of greener cars to choose from, from hybrid vehicles like the Prius, which combine an electronically powered engine with an ICE, to those powered by hydrogen-fuel cells and fully electric vehicles (EVs) such as the new Nissan Leaf.

While US hybrid sales have seen a 30-fold increase over the past decade, rising from 9,000 units in 2000 to 274,000 in 2010 (and peaking at 352,000 in 2007), cumulative sales of EVs are unimpressive: by January this year, only 39,000 units of the Nissan Leaf and Mitsubishi i-MiEV put together were reported to have been sold.

However, as they do not use petrol at all, many governments still see fully electric vehicles as the best way to tackle the carbon footprint of road vehicles. Various nations have adopted schemes to bolster the currently meagre market share for EVs.

Reports on the technology’s future tend towards the optimistic, but a host of challenges to widespread uptake remain. This briefing runs through some of the key obstacles, as well as reasons being put forward for optimism.

First on the list is infrastructure. Aeroplanes require airports, trains depend on railway tracks and stations, conventional cars need petrol stations, roads and parking spaces – and electric vehicles require their own unique set-up. The infrastructure needs of EVs pose a particularly knotty problem.

Most EVs are plug-in electric vehicles (PEVs), meaning they need somewhere to recharge their batteries. Not only do most countries lack a sufficient number of charging stations for widespread EV use to be viable, but the charging process is time-consuming. The Nissan Leaf takes eight hours to fully charge from empty. EVs do have a fast-charge option, which allows an 80% charge in roughly 30 minutes, but using this regularly will reduce battery capacity over time.

It’s a far cry from the convenience of spending two minutes refilling a tank at a petrol station – something car-buyers are well aware of. Results of a survey released by consultancy Deloitte last autumn suggest only 4% of consumers are likely to be satisfied with existing electric vehicles, and cite the inconvenience of waiting for the vehicle to charge as a key complaint.

On top of this, the drive range of an EV is typically far shorter than that of an ICE-vehicle. Nissan claims the Leaf can travel 100 miles (161 kilometres) before it needs to be recharged, whereas the conventional five-door hatchback Toyota Yaris can manage over 400 miles (644 kilometres) on its eight-gallon tank. The shorter drive range for an EV means more frequent recharge stops, which in turn points to the need for a significantly higher density of charging points than there are petrol stations.

Some regions may find it harder to deal with EVs than others. In the suburban United States, where 50% of the country’s population lived by the year 2000, it may be fairly easy for a driver to find space fore equipment to charge their car, such as a private garage. But where does the apartment owner in, say, high-rise Beijing or Tokyo charge their vehicle?

A briefing put together for C40, an alliance of cities working to cut carbon emissions, notes that cities with low-levels of private off-street parking “can expect to see significantly lower EV uptake, due to less favorable economics – and might be forced to subsidise on-street residential charging infrastructure if they want to speed up this process.” Innovative space-saving solutions may be required before a significant increase in EV purchases can be expected in vertically constructed urban centres.

Costs are also high. Even factoring in government subsidies, buying an EV in the United Kingdom, for example, will typically set you back around £5,000 (US$7,760) more than an ICE car. In China, the all-electric BYD e6 is available for more than 160,000 yuan (over US$25,000), while the same company’s conventional F3 model, one of the top-selling compact vehicles on the Chinese mainland, can be bought for under 64,000 yuan (US$10,000).

Costs will likely fall, however, as the uptake of EVs increases and development continues, leading to more efficient and economic manufacturing processes. Meanwhile, many countries – China, the United Kingdom and United States included – have adopted government subsidies and tax incentives for those purchasing EVs, lowering initial costs and making them cheaper to run. In Beijing and Shanghai, EVs are exempt from license plate controls that limit the number of cars allowed to go on sale.

Technologies are also being developed, which, if adopted by governments, could counteract many of the EV’s problems. Companies are providing innovative solutions to infrastructure issues, such as BetterPlace, which has pioneered battery swapping, allowing EV drivers to simply switch their empty battery for a fully charged one at swap stations, rather than waiting for a dedicated battery to charge. This also has the benefit of offsetting the initial cost of an EV, much of which is due to expensive batteries.

Another solution comes in the form of contactless charging. HaloIPT and South Korea’s KAIST OLEV research centre are both working on road-embedded charging strips that enable cars to be driven without battery power diminishing.

At the same time, advances in ICE technology, particularly in areas of fuel efficiency and the adoption of bio-fuels, are creating stiff competition for EVs. Some experts argue these are more effective ways to reduce environmental impacts of road vehicles than shifting carbon emissions from individual vehicles to the fossil-fuel-reliant power grid, which may also struggle under the additional load.

When it comes to dominating the roads of the future, one thing is sure: the race is on.

Paul Carsten is a former
chinadialogue intern.

Image by Qiqi