As emissions regulations around the globe get stronger, carmakers are focusing on the next big thing: electric vehicles.
There are two main types of electric car that can use external electrical power as fuel: pure electric, such as the Tesla Model S, and plug-in hybrids like the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV. In addition to these, there are conventional hybrid vehicles such as the Toyota Prius, which cannot be charged from external sources.
Pure electric vehicles (EVs) are essentially a battery pack, electric motor and controller electronics including an energy management system. These vehicles must be charged from an external electrical power source.
Plug-in hybrids and conventional hybrids combine an electric motor and battery pack with a petrol or diesel engine. The electric motor can be used at low speed in situations like start-stop traffic where high torque is required and the petrol motor is used at higher speeds for increased fuel efficiency.
Plug-in hybrids provide owners the option of charging from an external power source to top up the battery, something that does not exist on a conventional hybrid. Hybrids – both plug-in and conventional – are also not limited in range by battery storage like pure EVs.
What drives an EV?
Motors commonly used on EVs include permanent magnet motors and induction motors i. Another type of emerging EV motor technology is the switched reluctance motor. Power supplied to the vehicles motors causes the car to move, but the efficiency of the motor plays a significant role in determining vehicle characteristics like range ii. Different motor technologies also come at different costs, impacting the affordability of EVs.
Honda, for example, use square copper wire instead of round to help reduce the size of the motors in the company’s Accord Hybrid. Tesla, for the Model 3, moved to a permanent-magnet motor from AC induction motors used previously in its cars.
Greater efficiency and conserving power through techniques like regenerative braking, where the energy generated by braking is converted back into electricity helping the battery stay charged, is important to all pure and hybrid EVs. Despite these features, the future of EVs is closely aligned with both battery technology and pricing.
2017 lithium ion battery prices were down 24 per cent on 2016 and were about 20% the price of 2010 ii, iii. Cost and capacity of power storage is also under the microscope through new development. Sila Nanotechnologies for example, a US-based start-up, is one of the companies working to increase lithium ion battery capacity iv. Companies like Imec v and Solid Power are also working to create ‘solid-state batteries’, replacing the wet electrolyte with a solid, to increase energy density vi.
Clever vehicle design plays a big role in EVs. The lithium ion batteries in the Tesla Model S, for example, are not just a power source. Designers have turned the approximate 550kg of battery weight to their advantage by mounting them low and between the front and rear wheels. The result is a low centre of gravity that aids vehicle handling.
Vehicle weight is also increasingly in focus, with weight reductions in powertrain technology as well as structural components aiding vehicle performance vii.
2,284 plug-in hybrid and battery EVs were purchased in Australia in 2017: that’s more than double the number of the year before, yet still only 0.2 per cent of the 1.189 million cars sold in Australia viii. The increase in sales was complemented by over 23 EV models being available in Australia, a 44 per cent increase on 2016 ix ,x.
The Australian figures compare to 1 million EVs sold globally in 2017 xi. In the same year more than 40 new plug-in hybrid models were released in the USA and automotive manufacturers indicated plans to release more electric car variants, while also increasing investment into the development of more hybrid and electric models xii.
While electric cars may seem a long way away from making a dent in Australian sales of conventional petrol and diesel-powered cars, governments in other markets have made moves that have changed their vehicle markets significantly. As the New York Times notes xiii – and research from countries like China, Norway and certain US states has demonstrated – government incentives can help aid market adoption by providing subsidies or cutting down taxes on purchases.
According to research by McKinsey, China’s EV market has seen significant growth because of effective subsidies and the introduction of new EV models to the domestic market. Sales reached 650,000 units in 2016 xiv and nearly 400,000 new EVs were delivered to Chinese buyers between January 2018 to June 2018 xv. In fact, China’s growth has been so dramatic that it overtook the USA as the largest market for EVs in 2016 xiv, a trajectory it has maintained since, with Chinese demand driving global EV sales across the one million mark xv.
Another reason why electric cars are gaining significant purchase across the world currently is because of how comparatively affordable they have become to run versus the fossil fuel-powered combustion engine xvi.
i Qin, N. 2016, ‘Electric Vehicle Architectures’, http://evsummit.org/speakers/presentations/2016/Workshop_Powertrain_Qin.pdf, viewed 3 September, 2018.
ii Adams, A. 2018, ‘The secret of electric cars and their motors: It’s not all about the battery, folks’, TheDrive.com, http://www.thedrive.com/tech/17505/the-secrets-of-electric-cars-and-their-motors-its-not-all-about-the-battery-folks, viewed 3 September, 2018.
iii Biswas A. K and Tortajada C 2018, ‘Electric vehicles are changing the world. And they’re only just getting started’, The Conversation, 1 March, https://theconversation.com/electric-vehicles-are-changing-the-world-and-theyre-only-just-getting-started-90402, viewed 3 September, 2018.
iv Temple, J 2018, ‘This battery advance could make electric vehicles far cheaper’, MIT Technology Review, April 11, https://www.technologyreview.com/s/610792/this-battery-advance-could-make-electric-vehicles-far-cheaper/, viewed September 3, 2018.
v Imec, Smart Energy, https://www.imec-int.com/en/smart-energy, viewed 3 September, 2018.
vi Imec 2018, ‘Imec reaches milestone for next-gen solid-state batteries to power future long-range electrical vehicles’, https://www.imec-int.com/en/articles/imec-reaches-milestone-for-next-gen-solid-state-batteries-to-power-future-long-range-electrical-vehicles, viewed September 3, 2018.
vii McKinsey 2017, ‘Trends in electric vehicle design’, https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/automotive-and-assembly/our-insights/trends-in-electric-vehicle-design, viewed 3 September, 2018.
viii Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries, ‘Australia’s new vehicle market’, Sales, https://www.fcai.com.au/sales, viewed 3 September, 2018.
ix ClimateWorks Australia and the Electric Vehicle Council 2018, The State of Electric Vehicles in Australia – Second Report: Driving momentum in electric mobility, June 2018, http://electricvehiclecouncil.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/The-state-of-electric-vehicles-in-Australia-2018_compressed.pdf#page=3, viewed 30 August, 2018.
x ClimateWorks Australia and the Electric Vehicle Council 2018, The State of Electric Vehicles in Australia – Second Report: Driving momentum in electric mobility, June 2018, http://electricvehiclecouncil.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/The-state-of-electric-vehicles-in-Australia-2018_compressed.pdf#page=10, viewed 3 September, 2018.
xi ClimateWorks Australia and the Electric Vehicle Council 2018, The State of Electric Vehicles in Australia – Second Report: Driving momentum in electric mobility, June 2018, http://electricvehiclecouncil.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/The-state-of-electric-vehicles-in-Australia-2018_compressed.pdf#page=6, viewed 3 September, 2018.
xii Quain, J. R 2017, ‘2017 could prove to be a turning point for plug-in hybrids’, The New York Times, May 4, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/04/automobiles/wheels/plug-in-electric-hybrid-automobiles.html, viewed 3 September, 2018.
xiii Jolly, D., 2015, ‘Norway is a model for encouraging electric car sales,’ The New York Times, October 16, 2015, viewed 15 December 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/17/business/international/norway-is-global-model-for-encouraging-sales-of-electric-cars.html?_r=0
xiv Hertzke P, Muller N and Schenk S 2017, ‘Dynamics in the global electric-vehicle market’, McKinsey, July 2017, https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/automotive-and-assembly/our-insights/dynamics-in-the-global-electric-vehicle-market, viewed 3 September, 2018.
xv EVvolumes.com, ‘China plug-in vehicle sales for the 1st half of 2018’, http://www.ev-volumes.com/, viewed 3 September, 2018.
xvi The Economist, 2017, ‘The death of the internal combustion engine’, The Economist, 12 August, https://www.economist.com/leaders/2017/08/12/the-death-of-the-internal-combustion-engine, viewed 3 September, 2018.