‘The future is electric’! In this article, we explore the basics of electric vehicles and some of their distinguishing features. This is Electric Vehicles 101.
Though the invention of electric car predates the internal combustion engine powered car, the shift towards an electric automobile future has been rather slow. However, this seems to be changing now as the buzz around electric vehicles continues to grow. As per data from EV-volumes.com, globally 2.1% of passenger car sales in 2018 comprised of electric cars, up from 1.3% in 2017.
Government bodies all over the world have been imposing strict regulations on the industry to lower emissions and announcing incentives to create a supporting ecosystem for electric vehicles (EVs)to thrive. Such efforts to encourage adoption of EVs have met varying degrees of success in different parts of the world. e.g. Norway leads the electric adoption race with 58.4% of cars sold in March 2019 being fully electric (BEV). These numbers can be attributed to a legislation that mandates the sale of only zero-emission cars after the year 2025 and tax rebates offered to buyers by the Norwegian Government. China, Sweden and California in the US are other front runners when it comes to EV adoption with China accounting for 56% of global electric car sales in 2018.
This revolution, however, remains to see a breakthrough in other big markets like India where concerns around low driving range, lack of charging infrastructure and high buying prices deter private car owners to go electric. Having said that, it has become common on Indian roads to see commercial public transport vehicles, e-rickshaws and electric 3 wheelers popularly knows as autos, replacing their fossil fuel versions owing to their lower maintenance and running costs.
What is an Electric Vehicle?
An electric vehicle uses electricity stored in a rechargeable battery to power an electric motor for propulsion, whereas a conventional car relies on an internal combustion engine powered by diesel or petrol. Let’s first get to the terminology to understand different types of EVs depending on how these vehicles are powered.
Broadly, EVs are of two types.
1. AEVs or all-electric vehicles are powered by stored electricity only and there is no fuel tank or internal combustion engine (ICE). AEVs solely rely on battery power to run electric motor and all auxiliary equipment onboard. The batteries are recharged by plugging into an external outlet and by regenerative braking. These vehicles produce no harmful tailpipe emissions and are categorised as zero-emission vehicles. For more information on specifications of electric vehicles, click here.
AEVs can be further classified into BEVs and FCEVs:
a. BEVs or Battery Electric Vehicles use the electricity stored in its battery to run the electric motor. The amount of power and energy stored onboard are determined by the battery size.
The range of BEVs varies greatly between makes and models with latest BEVs claiming upwards of 200 miles or 320 KMs on a single charge. As they run on electricity, these vehicles do not have a fuel pump, fuel tank or a tailpipe. A few examples of BEVs are – BMW i3s, Tesla Model 3, Tesla Model S, Tesla X, Volkswagen e-Golf, Ford Focus Electric, Chevy Spark, Hyundai Ionic.
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b. FCEVs or Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles also run on an electric motor. However, in place of recharging a battery, an FCEV stores pure hydrogen gas in a tank. A fuel cell combines hydrogen with oxygen from the air to produce electricity to run the vehicle’s motor. As a result of the chemical reaction, FCEVs emit water from the tailpipe.
The power of an FCEV is defined by the size of the fuel cell and amount of energy that can be stored is defined by the size of hydrogen fuel tank. These cars are expected to offer a range of 300 miles or 480 KMs between refills. Another advantage of FCEVs is that refuelling with hydrogen is much quicker than other EVs and can take as little as 5 minutes. Examples – Hyundai Nexo, Honda Clarity Fuel Cell. This should be noted that FCEVs and required supporting infrastructure are still in the early stages of development.
2. PHEVs or Plug-in Hybrid vehicles can be charged by plugging in and also have an additional source of energy in a conventional internal combustion engine (ICE). Depending on its configuration, a PHEV can switch from electric motor to ICE to directly drive its wheels (parallel configuration) or it may use the ICE to charge its depleted batteries (series configuration). The vehicles with series configuration are also known as Extended Range Electric Vehicles or EREVs.
PHEVs offer the benefit of covering an extended range of distances on a single charge. The electric range of a PHEV is designated by PHEV-[miles/km], representing the distance it can go on battery power alone and it varies from a low of 10-20 miles to a high of 97 miles for BMW i3 REx. Examples of PHEVs are Chevy Volt, Audi A3 e-Tron, BMW i8, Porsche Cayenne S E-Hybrid.
Among above variants, the EV market is shifting towards fully electric battery vehicles that offer sufficient range to cover daily commute for most of the buyers. The global ratio between BEVs and PHEVs went from 56:44 in 2012, to 60:40 in 2015, and to 69:31 in 2018.
What makes EVs a better option?
As per a report published by the International Council for Clean Transportation, initial price parity between EVs and similar ICE-powered vehicles is still 5 to 10 years away. However, there are still many distinctive merits of choosing an EV over a conventional vehicle including better efficiency, low carbon footprint, easy maintenance and lower running costs driving millions of buyers to choose the former. Let’s see what’s working in favour of EVs:
1. Efficiency – Electric motors are more efficient than internal combustion engines in converting the stored energy into turning the wheels. According to European Commission Mobility & Transport website, Electric vehicle ‘tank-to-wheels’ efficiency is about 3 times higher than that of ICE vehicles.
An electric motor typically is between 85% and 90% efficient, whereas gasoline or diesel powered engines can only reach onboard efficiency of 20%. EV efficiency is further increased by common features of electric cars called ‘Regenerative Braking’, and ‘Idle Off’. Regenerative Braking is an energy recovery mechanism that converts a part of kinetic energy of the vehicle into electricity at the time of braking. In conventional vehicles, friction braking dissipates all of the kinetic energy as heat. ‘Idle off’ means that EVs do not consume energy when stationary.
Effectively, as per a US Department of Energy website, EVs convert about 59%–62% of the electrical energy from the grid to power at the wheels, whereas conventional gasoline vehicles can only convert about 17%–21% of the energy stored in gasoline to power at the wheels. This efficiency directly translates into savings on running costs for the car owners.
2. Environment-friendly – BEVs produce no tailpipe emissions. Even PHEVs emit no carbon dioxide or other pollutants such as NOx, NMHC or particle matter when running on electric motor. When we consider Life cycle emissions including fuel production, vehicle manufacturing, distribution, use and disposal, we realise that all vehicles produce substantial life cycle emissions. However, even if an EV uses electricity produced by fossil fuels, it will have a lower emission profile than an ICE vehicle because typically emission content for electricity generation is lower than burning diesel or petrol. Of course, using cleaner methods of electricity production would render the EVs greener than ICE vehicles that leave a bigger carbon footprint as they age.
Moreover, EVs are quieter and contribute to lower noise pollution especially during peak hours.
3. Cheaper to Run – Electricity is cheaper than petrol or diesel. As per a report by Australian Electric Vehicles Association, the running cost of an EV is a third of an equivalent ICE vehicle when compared on a mileage basis. The difference in running cost largely depends on the pricing of electricity and diesel/petrol at a place.
4. Cheaper to Maintain – EVs have less moving parts than conventional vehicles, making them cheaper to maintain and more reliable. There’s no need for regular oil changes, and no spark plugs or valves or timing belts. Electric motor hardly requires any servicing over its lifetime. This means fewer trips of service stations that are time and cost heavy. Also, regenerative braking results in less brake pad wear and tear, hence require less frequent replacement. One cost factor the EVs could be battery replacement as ultimately EV batteries will lose the power to hold charge but that stage comes after 8-9 years and most manufacturers offer 8-year/100,000-mile warranties for their batteries.
5. Performance Benefits – EVs offer smoother, quieter rides and overall better drive quality. Electric cars produce instant torque and can surprise with super-quick acceleration e.g. Tesla S can go from 0-60 mph or 0-97 km/h in 2.4 seconds.
6. Additional Incentives by Governments – Governments and regulators everywhere aim to reduce emissions and oil import bills. These agencies are promoting EV uptake using a two-pronged approach. On one hand, schemes and benefits have been rolled out for EV buyers like tax rebates and toll discounts in the US, Europe or FAME subsidy and lower GST in India. On the other, industry is being impelled to move towards producing EVs through strict emission standards in Europe and requiring carmakers to buy credits for CO2 emissions in China.
Roadblocks to EV Mass Adoption
Global EV market has doubled since 2013, however, there are still only 4 million electric vehicles in use, compared to more than a billion cars around the world. Higher upfront costs (attributed to high cost of batteries that make up to one third of the car price), lack of charging infrastructure in most parts of the world, long charging times as compared to refuelling an ICE vehicle, range anxiety and less consumer choice have been touted to be the biggest roadblocks in mass adoption of EVs. It still seems a long ride to reach the tipping point where more buyers prefer to buy an EV regardless of government rebates and incentives.
Things are moving at a quick pace in the EV world as not just EV pioneers like Tesla but other auto giants such as Volkswagen, Nissan, and Toyota are investing heavily in bringing new and better performing EV models to the market. Private companies are setting up charging stations to lay the groundwork in markets like India where electric car adoption is yet to begin. According to a Bloomberg New Energy Finance report, today electric car batteries cost $176 per kilowatt-hour but that figure will drop to just $87 per kWh by 2025, thereby reducing the upfront cost of the EVs substantially.
Experts across the board differ on when the mass adoption will start to happen worldwide, some say it will be by the year 2030 while others suggest it will be by 2040, but they agree that the shift towards EVs is inevitable.
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