Environment, Transportation and the Electric Vehicle Revolution
To understand the electric vehicle revolution, it helps to look at the key elements driving it today.
Consumer tastes and preferences are changing. The driver to these behavioural changes can almost be linked to technological innovation.
Technology is one part of a three-pronged phenomenon that’s behind the electric vehicle revolution. The other two key drivers are environmental awareness and political policy changes.
Awakening environmental consciousness
Air pollution – reducing emissions
Air pollution, particularly in cities is not a new problem. In the Middle Ages the use of coal in cities such as London began to escalate. The Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th century was centred around the use of coal. Burning coal for domestic and industrial uses, meant that air pollution reached very high levels.
Following the clean air act of 1956 and 1968, air quality improvements continued through the 1970s. Further regulations were introduced through the 1974 Control of Air Pollution Act. This included the regulations for the composition of motor fuel and limits for the sulphur content of industrial fuel.
Today, the UK is committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80% by 2050, relative to 1990 levels. For this to happen, the UK economy needs to transform while ensuring secure, low-carbon energy supplies to 2050.
Growth in cars, trucks and buses
During the early 1980s, the number of motor vehicles became more prevalent. The early focus was on the effect of lead pollution on human health. By the early 1990s, the effects of other vehicle pollutants became a major concern.
Today, cars, trucks and buses powered by fossil fuels are major contributors to air pollution. As well as being a leading source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The transport sector is responsible for a large proportion of urban air pollution.
The automotive sector contributes somewhere between 12 and 70 percent of particulate air pollution. Another transport-related air pollutant that harms health includes ground level ozone (O3) a key factor in chronic respiratory disease such as asthma. Some of the precursors of O3 include nitrogen oxides (NOx) and carbon monoxide (CO).
Automotive sector is responsible for a large amount of polluting emissions
Cars, trucks and buses produce air pollution throughout their lifecycle. This includes pollution emitted during vehicle operation and fuel production. Extra emissions are associated with refining and distribution of fuels and to a lesser extent, manufacturing and disposal of the vehicle.
Air pollution from cars, trucks and buses splits into primary and secondary pollution. Primary pollution emits into the atmosphere. Secondary pollution results from chemical reactions between pollutants in the atmosphere. These pollutants, now concentrated at their highest levels in the Earth’s atmosphere in the last 650,000 years, are now linked to climate change.
Environmental studies around the impact of climate change suggest, that the Earth’s temperature will rise far more than two degrees Celsius by the end of this century. Unless significant changes are made to global manufacturing, energy supply, and consumer practices. At the same time, these pollutants have created smog and local pollution, creating health problems and choking major cities.
Key observers of the UK diesel-fuelled air pollution crisis, advised that the government decision to incentivise diesel vehicles, which produced less climate-warming dioxide, sparked the initial problems. The heart of the disaster a giant broken promise: the motor industry said it would clean up diesel but instead bypassed the rules for years. What of course actually happened was that diesel emissions limits were not met on the road. Motor manufactures could not manage the problem.
Bordering the edge of sharp practice
Since 2000 The European Union set tough emissions standards for Nitrogen dioxide, which could have kept levels down. But rather than deliver cars that met these limits in everyday driving, manufacturers created vehicles that could pass the tests. Yet these vehicles emitted pollutants at higher levels once out of the test centre.
This sharp practice motivated by the opportunity to shave costs and avoid the inconvenience of drivers needing to top up pollution-busting chemicals more than once a year. By the mid-2000s, it was clear to air-pollution experts that something was very wrong. Nitrogen dioxide levels were rising in cities not falling. And on-the-road testing was starting to show that diesel vehicles were producing more pollution then they were supposed to.
Following the VW ‘dieselgate’ scandal, and glimpses at backroom dealing done by national governments to protect car makers from greener regulations. It was no accident, as large-scale public outcry in response to this trend was starting to build. Auto manufacturers began marketing alternative-powered vehicles that produced lower emissions. They did this by augmenting internal combustion engines with electric motors.
It may be the replacement of diesel, not cleaning them up, that finally clears the air.
Electric vehicles early history
The invention of the first model electric vehicle is attributed to various people.
- 1828 a Hungarian, Anyos Jedlik invented an early type of electric motor, he then created a small model car powered by this motor
- 1834, Vermont blacksmith Thomas Davenport, built a contraption which operated on a short, circular electrified track
- 1834, Professor Sibrandus Stratingh of Groningen, the Netherlands and his assistant Christopher Becker created a small-scale electric car, powered by non-rechargeable primary cells
- 1859 Rechargeable batteries for storing electricity on board a vehicle with the invention of the lead acid battery by French physicist Gaston Plante
- 1881 Camille Alphonse Faure, French Scientist improved the design of the battery increasing the capacity which led to their manufacture on an industrial scale
- 1884 Thomas Parker an English electrical engineer, inventor and industrialist. Was responsible for innovations such as electrifying the London Underground, overhead tramways in Liverpool and Birmingham. Thomas Parker built the first production electric car in London using his own speciality designed high-capacity rechargeable batteries. His interest with the construction of motor fuel-efficient vehicles led him to experiment with electric vehicles
- 1888 Electric Construction Corporation was formed and had the monopoly on the British electric car markets.
- 1899 Electric vehicles also held may speed and distance records. Among the most notable of these records was the breaking of the 100/km/h (62mph) speed barrier by Camille Jenatzy, a Belgian race car driver with his rocket shaped electric vehicle 29 April
Electric vehicles the golden age
In the late 1890s and early 1900s interest in motor vehicles increased. Electric battery-powered taxis became available at the end of the 19th century.
In London, Walter C. Bersey designed a fleet of such cabs and introduced them to the streets of London in 1897. Nicknamed ‘Hummingbirds’ due to the humming noise they made.
Electric vehicles had many advantages over their early-1900s competitors. They did not have the vibrations, smell and noise associated with gasoline cars. They also did not need gear changes. The electric vehicles were also preferred because they did not need a manual effort to start, as did gasoline cars which featured a hand crank to start the engine.
Electric city cars
Used as city cars, electric cars found popularity among well-heeled customers who used them where their limited range proved to be even less of a disadvantage. Electric cars were often marketed as suitable vehicles for women drivers due to their ease of operation; in fact, early electric cars were stigmatised by the perception that they were “women’s cars”, leading some companies to affix radiators to the front to disguise the car’s propulsion system.
Acceptance of electric cars was hampered by a lack of power infrastructure.
By 1912, many homes were wired for electricity, enabling a surge in the popularity of the cars.
A total of 33,842 electric cars were registered in the United States. And the U.S. became the country where electric cars had gained the most acceptance.
Most early electric vehicles were massive, ornate carriages. Designed for the upper-class customers that made them popular. They featured luxurious interiors and were replete with expensive materials.
Sales of electric cars peaked in the early 1910s.
In order to overcome the limited operating range of electric vehicles, and the lack of recharging infrastructure, an exchangeable battery service was first proposed as early as 1896.
The concept was first put into practice by Hartford Electric Light Company and the GeVeCo battery service and available for electric trucks.
The vehicle owner purchased the vehicle from General Vehicle Company (GVC, a subsidiary of the General Electric Company) without a battery and the electricity was purchased from Hartford Electric through an exchangeable battery.
The owner paid a variable per-mile charge and a monthly service fee to cover maintenance and storage of the truck.
Both vehicles and batteries were modified to ease a fast battery exchange.
The service was provided between 1910 and 1924 and during that period covered more than 6 million miles.
Beginning in 1917 a similar successful service was operated in Chicago for owners of Milburn Wagon Company cars who also could buy the vehicle without the batteries.
The decline of the electric vehicle
By the 1920s an improved road infrastructure required a vehicle with a greater range than offered by electric cars.
With the affordability of fuel as well as; cars becoming even easier to operate, coupled with the invention of the electric starter and finally the initiation of mass production vehicles from Henry Ford, the electric car began to lose its position in the automobile market.
By 1912, an electric car sold for almost double the prices of a fuel car. Most electric car makers stopped production in the 1910s. Electric vehicles-maintained popularity for certain applications where their limited range did not pose major problems.
Fork lift trucks were electrically powered. For most of the 20th century the majority of the world’s battery electric road vehicles were British milk floats. Electric golf carts were produced as early as 1954.
Years passed without a major revival in the use of electric cars. Electric vehicle technology stagnated.
In the late 1950s, Henney Coachworks and the National Union Electric Company, makers of Exide batteries, formed a joint venture to produce a new electric car, the Henney Kilowatt, based on the French Renault Dauphine.
The car was produced in 36- volt and 72-volt configurations; the 72-volt models had a top speed approaching 96 km/h (60 mph) and could travel for an hour on a single charge.
Despite the Kilowatt’s improved performance with respect to previous electric cars, consumers found it too expensive compared to fuel cars of the time, and production ended in 1961.
Electric vehicles revival of interest
- In 1959, American Motors Corporation (AMC) and Sonotone Corporation announced a joint research effort to consider producing an electric car powered by a “self-charging” battery. That same year, Nu-Way Industries showed an experimental electric car with a one-piece plastic body that was to begin production in early 1960
- In 1967, AMC partnered with Gulton Industries to develop a new battery based on lithium and a speed controller designed by Victor Wouk
- 1971, 31 July an electric car received the unique distinction of becoming the first manned vehicle to drive on the Moon; that car was the Lunar Roving Vehicle, which was first deployed during the Apollo 15 mission. The “Moon buggy” was developed by Boeing and GM subsidiary Delco Electronics (co-founded by Kettering) featured a DC drive motor in each wheel, and a pair of 36-volt silver-zinc potassium hydroxide non-rechargeable batteries
- 1970s and 1980s energy crisis brought about renewed interest in the perceived independence electric cars had from the fluctuations of the hydrocarbon energy market. General Motors created a concept car of another of their gasoline cars, the Electrovette (1976)
- 1990 Los Angeles Auto Show, General Motors president Roger Smith unveiled the GM Impact electric concept car, along with the announcement that GM would build electric cars for sale to the public
- Throughout the 1990s, interest in fuel-efficient or environment friendly cars declined among consumers in the United States. Instead they favoured sport utility vehicles, which were affordable to operate despite their poor fuel efficiency thanks to lower fuel prices. Domestic U.S. automakers chose to focus their product lines around the truck-based vehicles, which enjoyed larger profit margins than the smaller cars which were preferred in places like Europe or Japan
- 2004 California electric car maker Tesla Motors began development on the Tesla Roadster. The Roadster was the first road legal serial production all electric car to use lithium-ion battery cells and the first production all electric car to travel more than 320 km (200 miles) per charge
- 2010 The Nissan Leaf introduced in Japan and the United States became the first modern all-electric, zero tailpipe emission five door family hatchback to be produced for the mass market from a major manufacturer. As of January 2013, the Leaf is also available in Australia, Canada and 17 European countries
- 2014, there were over 500,000 plug-in electric passenger cars and utility vans in the world. The U.S leading plug-in electric car sales with 45% share of global sales. The world’s top selling all-electric cars in 2014 were the Nissan Leaf (61,507), Tesla Model S (31,655), BMW i3 (16,052), and the Renault Zoe (11,323). Accounting for plug-in hybrids, the Leaf and the Model S also ranked first and second among the world’s top 10 selling plug-in electric cars
- 2016, Norway became the first country where 5% of all registered cars was a plug-in electric vehicle
- 2018, December the global stock of plug-in electric cars reached 5.1 million units, consisting of 3.3 million all-electric cars (65%) and 1.8 million plug-in hybrid cars (35%). Despite the rapid growth experienced, the plug-in electric car segment represents about 1 out of every 250 motor vehicles on the world’s roads at the end of 2018
Types of electric vehicles
Conventional vehicles – Use internal combustion engines. Fuel is injected into the engine, mixing with air before being ignited to start the engine.
Hybrid electric vehicles – Powered by both engine and electric motor. The battery is charged internally throughout the engine.
Plug-In Hybrid – Battery can be charged both internally and externally through outlets. Run on electric power before using the engine.
All-electric vehicles – Powered only by electric motor with no engine. Have large traction battery and must be plugged externally to charge.
Electric vehicle technology rises to the occasion
As consumer awareness continues to grow and governments around the world set rigorous new fuel economy standards, automotive technology has also upped its game. The electric Tesla Model S, introduced in 2012, has now sold more than 250,000 electric cars has set an entirely new standard of what was possible in an alternative-powered vehicle. Able to hurtle from 0-to-60 mph in 2.5 seconds, the four-door luxury sedan is the third fastest accelerating production car ever.
Suddenly environmentalists and enthusiasts alike can find something to get excited about in the burgeoning EV movement. Still, despite the rapid-fire growth coming from several different directions, just six countries – China, the U.S., Japan, Canada, Norway, and the UK – currently have EV market shares that are above one percent of total vehicle sales. That number is expected to grow exponentially over the next several years, though.
The key to that growth has been technological improvement in lithium-ion batteries. Technology improvements in this space are causing energy storage prices to drop precipitously.
Lithium batteries have seen an 89% reduction in price and a 73% increase in energy density.
Due to economies of scale, the price for the lithium-ion battery pack is dropping steadily by 15 percent every year and the energy density is increasing. This results in a longer range for the same price. When the range increases more, consumers will accept EVs and the adoption moves along a classic technology adoption curve: from early adopters to laggards. This market is no different from other tech markets.
With this development, EVs will sooner or later reach the price/quality ratios that make them competitive with fossil-fuel alternatives. When this happens, the market will tip into a new direction quickly.