Friday 6 March 2015

Expert opinion: Headwinds for the electric car industry

The challenges for the electric motor industry
The challenges for the electric motor industry

Tesla, the electric vehicle manufacturer, is causing something of a stir in the media. It's not only the beautiful style, somewhat similar to a Jaguar, which is the cause of all this excitement. Tesla recently started selling its model S in Europe which is capable, on its more powerful version, of achieving a reassuring 306 miles of range.

Not only that, but Tesla is also providing fast charging points throughout the main European routes. These fast-chargers can charge the batteries up to 50 percent in 20 minutes, enough time to stretch your legs and have a coffee-break while you wait. It means you can go from London to Vienna without feeling short of charging points - or coffee-breaks. Plus they are free to use, at least for Tesla customers. All this backed up by a comprehensive warranty of eight years for the powertrain and the batteries.

So you can see why some people have labelled Tesla's model S as the game changer of electric cars. The potential for electric-powered vehicles, such as Tesla's, is enormous and there can be no doubt that this industry will form a major part of the motor car's future. But there are still some challenges facing the industry as a whole which need to be understood.

Firstly, there is the issue of power supply. And in the UK this is an issue of major concern. Because the supply is weaker than demand and with electric cars further pressing the grid, some adjustments need to be made if the population, especially business people, are to be driven in electric cars. Do not expect everyone to be charging overnight. Businesses will need the grid to be fully operational throughout the day.

Not only is this, but the fuel that powers the grid is also important, depending where you are. In China, coal-based electricity supplies the country, and electric cars end up causing as many emissions as petrol engines. In fact, shifting from petrol to electric vehicles will only move the source of pollution to be more concentrated around the power plant. However, if countries rely heavily on alternative energies or indeed nuclear power, the benefits are obvious.

There is also a geo-strategy issue with electric cars. The majority of batteries in electric vehicles, mobile phones and laptops are made out of Lithium. Lithium is a salt and is not as abundant in the Earth's crust as perhaps oil is. Fifty-nine per cent of all lithium comes from brines in salt lakes or salars. Twenty-five per cent comes from hard rock such as pegmatite and the remaining 16 per cent from other brines such as geothermal springs and oilfields.

More than half the world's known stock lies in Bolivia, which is historically politically unstable. According to reports in 2009, there isn't enough Lithium on the Earth's crust to power all the forecasted electric vehicles for the next decade; "just to produce 60 million plug-in hybrid vehicles a year containing a small lithium-ion battery would require 420,000 tons of lithium carbonate". One can only imagine geo-political issues which could come about by moving everyone to electric cars.

Thirdly, and perhaps most obviously, the price of an electric vehicle is generally more than the equivalent in a combustion engine. One can argue that fuel and maintenance costs will be lower, after all there is very little to go wrong with fewer moving parts than an internal combustion engine. But oil prices are coming down dramatically, making petrol derived vehicles even more competitive, whereas the supply of Lithium could become volatile.

Finally, we have to consider the feasibility of the emerging brands. Some critics doubt that emerging electric car makers are capable of surviving the longer-term when the mainstream industry powerhouses catch-up on the innovations in battery technology.

But Tesla, for instance, is investing at an impressive rate and capitalised on an old Toyota plant in California where Tesla and the Japanese group used to build electric RAV-4s under a joint-venture. Supporters are excited by the promises of Tesla's new plant and its ability to produce more than 500,000 batteries per year by 2020, as this article by Forbes magazine describes it. But time will tell whether the mainstream manufacturers, who enjoy the privileges of having well-established household brands, can catch-up with the newer car makers and claim lion's share of tomorrow's industry.

Alex Rodrigues

School of Architecture, Design and the Built Environment

Notes to editors:

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