Electric mobility: a technology of the future with growing pains

Electric vehicles are one of the keys to the mobility of tomorrow. How can they become a real option for more customers?

Electric mobility could be the silver bullet for the mobility of tomorrow: vehicles that do not locally emit any pollutants or CO2 protect the environment and resources, especially if the electricity used comes from renewable energy sources. In addition, they run quietly. This could ensure that our cities remain livable. So far, however, only few customers have opted for an electric car: of the 45 million cars that were registered in Germany in early 2016, only about 156,000 vehicles had an electric or hybrid drive.

What are the reasons for this? After all, German manufacturers offer around 30 different electric models, from plug-in hybrids to fully electric vehicles. Yet for all their diversity, three obstacles stand in the way of widespread use of electric vehicles: The price of electric cars is still quite high, the battery performance is only sufficient for a limited distance, and there are not enough charging stations.

Price

Electric vehicles are generally more expensive than cars with internal combustion engines. This is mainly due to the cost of the battery. Yet this will change in the coming years, since prices for batteries are falling. Researchers at the Stockholm Environment Institute have calculated that the prices of lithium battery cells have fallen by 14 percent per year since 2007. At a battery price at about $150 per kilowatt-hour, electric cars could become competitive with conventional vehicles. This price is expected to be reached in four to nine years.

Until then, it is a good idea to cushion the higher price with rebates. Countries such as China or the United States have already demonstrated how this can be done. Germany has had the so-called “environment bonus” since July 2016: the purchase of purely electric cars and plug-in hybrids is subsidized with up to 4,000 euros. Once the market has gotten started, this incentive will no longer be necessary.

Powerful and capable battery cells and the respective battery technologies are of decisive importance to electric mobility. German manufacturers are at the forefront in developing battery technology. This concerns battery control and temperature management, for example.

However, factories worldwide currently have a significant overcapacity in internal battery components (battery cells), which are mainly produced in Asia. The current generation of lithium cells cannot be produced economically, especially in Europe, and it still has major shortcomings in terms of range. Producing battery cells in Germany therefore only makes sense if we focus on and systematically develop the next generation of cells: new technologies such as lithium-air and lithium-sulfur cells are likely to be cheaper to produce and to perform much better in terms of range.

Range

Many customers are hesitant to buy electric cars because a fully charged battery cannot match the range of a full tank. For comparison: while a full tank of gasoline may easily be enough to drive from Cologne to Berlin without refueling, today’s electric cars need to stop at least once at a charging station, depending on the model.

Electric vehicles are not comparably suitable for all uses yet. This is one reason why there will be a mix of different drives on our roads for a while. But many people do not know that the range of electric cars is already enough for 90 percent of all trips today – and this will increase steadily.

The continuing development of batteries will make them not only more affordable, but also more capable. Experts believe that batteries will be able to store 2½ times the current levels by 2020. The German automotive industry is also constantly optimizing drive systems and performance electronics to make vehicles more efficient. In addition, progress in lightweight technologies reduces weight and increases range.

Infrastructure

Range would not be an impediment for many people if the charging infrastructure were more extensive. Currently, there are approximately 5,800 publicly accessible charging points. This is not enough for car buyers to see electric cars as a real alternative. Therefore, the federal government is doing the right thing in redressing the problem by funding the expansion of the charging infrastructure: the charging station network is to be expanded with the help of about 300 million euros.

Fast-charging stations must have priority of investment, since they charge electric cars in about one to two hours; in the future, this should drop to a few minutes. The German automotive industry is assisting the expansion of a nationwide fast-charging network by working together with universities, among other things.

In addition, the creation of the Combined Charging System (CCS) established a uniform charging system in Europe and the United States. Both represent important steps toward making electric cars a real option for customers.

The industry is undoubtedly consistent when it comes to the expansion and further development of electric mobility: the bulk of the more than 30 billion euros which German automobile manufacturers annually invest in research and development flows into this field.

Recommendations