Can Electric Vehicles Fully Replace Gas Guzzlers?

Formula E Racer
Luca Filippi driving through turn 1 during the ABB FIA Formula E Zurich ePrix on June 10, 2018 in Zurich, Switzerland. Photo by Oskar Schuler/Shutterstock

28 August 2019 – The short answer is, to quote Pooh Bear in A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh, “You never can tell with bees!” Or, with advancing technology, for that matter. Last week, however, the Analytics Team at Autolist published results of a survey of 1,567 current car shoppers that might shed some light on the question of whether electric vehicles (EVs) can fully replace vehicles with internal combustion engines (ICEs).

The Analytics Team asked survey respondents what were their biggest reasons to not buy an electric vehicle. By looking at the results, we can project when, how, and if e-vehicle technology can ever surmount car-shoppers’ objections.

The survey results were spectacularly unsurprising. The top three barriers to purchasing an electric vehicle were:

  1. Concerns about lack of adequate range;

  2. E-vehicles’ relatively high cost compared to similar gas vehicles; and

  3. Concerns about charging infrastructure.

Anybody following the development of electric vehicles already knew that. Most folks could even peg the order of concern. What was somewhat surprising, though, is how little folks’ trepidation dropped off for less significant concerns. Approximately 42% of respondents cited adequate range as a concern. The score dropped only to about 14% for the ninth-most-concerning worry: being unhappy with choices of body style.

Survey Results
Survey respondants cited lack of adequate range as their biggest concern about buying an electric vehicle. Source: Autolist

What that means for development of electric-vehicle technology is that resolving the top three issues won’t do the job. Resolving the top three issues would just elevate the next three issues to top-concern status for 25-30% of potential customers. That’s still way too high to allow fully replacing ICE-powered vehicles with EVs, as nine European countries (so far) have announced they want to do between 2020 and 2050.

Looking at what may be technologically feasible could give a glimpse of how sane or insane such ICE bans might be. What we can do is go down the list and speculate on how tough it will be to overcome each obstacle to full adoption. The Pareto chart above will show the “floor” to folks’ resistance if any of these issues remains unmet.

Top Three Issues

By inspection the Pareto chart shows natural breaks into three groups of three. The top three concerns (range, cost, and charging) all concern roughly 40% of respondents. That’s approximately the size of the political base that elected Donald Trump to be President of the United States in 2016.

I mention Trump’s political base to give perspective for how important a 40% rating really is. Just as 40% acceptance got Trump over the top in a head-to-head competition with Hillary Clinton, a 40% non-acceptance is enough to doom electric vehicles in a head-to-head competition with ICE-powered vehicles. So, what are the chances of technologically fixing those problems?

Lack of Range is just a matter of how much energy you can backpack onto an electric vehicle. The inputs to that calculation are how far you can drive on every Joule of energy (for comparison, 3,600 Joules equal one Watt-hour of energy) and how many Joules can you pack into a battery that an electric vehicle can reasonably carry around. I don’t have time to research these data points today, since I have only a few hours left to draft this essay, so I’m just not going to do it.

There are two ways, however, that we can qualitatively guesstimate the result. First, note that EV makers have already introduced models that they claim can go as far on one “fill up” (i.e., recharge) as is typical for ICE vehicles. That’s in the range of 200 to 300 miles. I can report that my sportscar goes pretty close to 200 miles on a tankful of gas, and that’s adequate for most of the commuting I’ve done over my career.

The second way to guesstimate the result is to watch progress of the Formula E electric-vehicle races. Formula E has been around for nearly a decade now (the first race was run in 2011), so we have some history to help judge the pace of technological developments.

The salient point that Formula E history makes is that battery range is improving. In previous events batteries couldn’t last a reasonable race distance. Unlike other forms of motor racing, where refueling takes just a few seconds, it takes too darn long to charge up an electric vehicle to make pit stops for refueling viable.

The solution was to have two cars for each racer. About half way through the race, the first car’s batteries would run out of juice, and the driver would have to jump into the second car to complete the race. This uncomfortable situation lasted through the last racing season (2018).

This year, however, I’m told that the rules have been changed to require racers to complete the entire race in one car on one battery charge. That tells us that e-technology has advanced enough to allow racers to complete a reasonable race distance at a reasonable race speed on one charge from a reasonable battery pack. That means e-vehicle developers have made significant progress on the range-limitation issue. Projecting into the future, we can be confident that range limits will soon become a non-issue.

High e-vehicle cost will also soon become a non-issue. History plainly shows that if folks are serious about mass-marketing anything, purchase prices will come down to a sustainable level. While Elon Musk’s Tesla hasn’t yet shown a profit while the company struggles to produce enough cars to fill even today’s meager electric-vehicle demand, there are some very experienced and professional automobile manufacturers also in the electric-vehicle game. Anyone who thinks those guys won’t be able to solve the mass-production-at-a-reasonable-cost problem for electric vehicles just hasn’t been paying attention over the past century and a quarter. They’re gonna do it, and they’ll do it very soon!

Charging infrastructure is similarly just a matter of doing it. It didn’t take the retail-gasoline vendors long to build out infrastructure to feed ICE-powered cars. Solving the EV-charging problem is not much more difficult. You just plunk charging stations down on every corner to replace the gasoline filling stations you’re going to close down because you’ve made ICE vehicles illegal.

Second-Tier Issues

The top three issues don’t seem to pose any insurmountable obstacles, so we can move on to the second-tier issues of recharging time, insufficient public knowledge, and battery life. All of these concerned just under 30% of survey respondents.

Charging time is the Achilles heel for EV technology. Currently, it takes hours to recharge an electric-car’s batteries. Charging speed is a matter of power, and that’s a serious limitation. It’s the real charging-infrastructure problem!

It takes less than a minute to pump ten gallons of gasoline into my sportscar’s fuel tank. That ten gallons can deliver approximately 1.2x109 Joules of energy. That’s 1.2 billion Watt seconds!

To cram that much energy into a battery in one minute would take a power rate of 20 MW. That’s enough to power a medium-sized town of 26,000 people! Now, look at a typical gas station with eight gas pumps, and imagine each of those pumps pumping a medium-size-town’s worth of electric power into a waiting EV’s battery. Now, count the number of gas stations in your town.

That should give you some idea of the enormity of the charging-infrastructure problem that mass use of electric vehicles will create!

I’m not going to suggest any solutions to this issue. Luckily, since I don’t advocate for mass use of electric vehicles, I don’t have to solve this problem for people do. In the interest of addressing the rest of the issues, let’s pretend we’re liberal politicians and can wave our fairy wands to make the enormity of this issue magically disappear.

Inadequate public knowledge is a relative non-issue. Electric vehicles aren’t really difficult to understand. In fact, they should be simpler to operate than ICE vehicles. Especially since the prime mover EVs use is a motor rather than an engine.

Hardly anyone I know is conscious of the difference between a motor and an engine. Everyone knows it, but doesn’t think about it. Everyone knows that to run an ICE you have to crank it with a starter motor to get it running in the first place, and then you’ve got to constantly take care not to stall it. That knowledge becomes so ingrained by the time you get a driver’s license that you don’t even think about it.

Electric motors are not engines, though. They’re motors, which means they start all by themselves as soon as you feed them power. When you brake your electric car to a stop at a stop light, it just stops! You don’t have to then keep it chunking over at idle. Stopped is stopped.

When sitting at a stop light, or waiting for your spouse to load groceries into the boot, an EV uses no power ‘cause it’s stopped. When you’re ready to go, you push on the accelerator pedal, and it just goes. No more fiddling with clutch pedals or shifting gears or using any of the other mechanical skills manual-transmission cars force us to learn and automatic-transmission cars take care of for us automatically. The biggest thing we have to learn about driving EVs is how easy it is.

There isn’t much else to learn about EVs either. Gearheads will probably want to dig into things like regenerative braking and multipolar induction motors, but just folks won’t care. If the most important thing about your ICE-powered SUV is the number of cup holders, that will all be the same in your electric-powered SUV.

Overall battery life will be an issue for years going forward, but eventually that will become a non-issue, too. Overall battery life refers to the number of times your lithium-ion battery pack can be recharged before it swells up and bursts. Ten years from now we expect to have a better solution than lithium-ion batteries, but they aren’t all that bad a solution for now, anyway.

It was annoying when the relatively small lithium-ion battery pack in your Samsung smartphone burst into flames back in 2016, and you can imagine what’ll happen if the much larger battery pack in your Tesla does the same thing when sitting in the garage under your house. But, it’ll be less of a problem than when the battery packs in airliners started going up in smoke a few years ago. We got through that and we’ll get through this!

Third-Rate Concerns

Third-rate issues concerned 15-20% of survey respondents. They include issues around electric-motor reliability, battery materials, and vehicle designs. While they concerned relatively fewer respondents, enough people said they worried about them that they have to be addressed before EVs can fully replace ICE-powered vehicles.

Reliability concerned 20% of survey respondents. It shouldn’t. Electric motors have been around since William Sturgeon built the first practical one in 1832. They’ve proved to be extremely reliable with only two parts to wear out: the commutator brushes and the bearings. Unlike ICE power units, they need practically no regular maintenance. With modern solid-state power electronics taking the place of the old commutators, the only things left to wear out are the bearings, which take less punishment than the load-carrying wheel bearings all cars have.

Battery materials are a concern, but when viewed in perspective they shouldn’t be. Yes, lithium burns vigorously when exposed to air, and is especially flammable when exposed to water. But, gasoline burns just as vigorously when ignited by even a spark.

A tankful of gasoline can be responsible for a horrendous fire if ignited in an accident. Lithium ion batteries can cause similar mayhem, but are no more likely to do so than any other energy-storage medium.

Body size/style should not, to my mind, even be on the list. Electric-powered vehicles present fewer design constraints to coach builders than those with ICE power plants. In fact, it’s possible to design an EV chassis such that you can put any body on it that you can think of. Especially if you design that chassis with individually driven wheels, there are no drive-shaft and power-train issues to deal with.

Summing Up

Looking at the nine EV issues that survey respondents said would give them pause when considering the purchase of an electric vehicle rather than an ICE-powered vehicle, the only one not inevitably amenable to technological solution is the scale of the charging infrastructure. All of the others we can expect to be disposed of in short order as soon as we collectively decide we want to do it.

That charging infrastructure issue poses two problems: recharging time and recharging cost. The ten-gallon fuel tank in my sportscar typically gets me through about a week. That’s because I do relatively little commuting. I drive a round trip of about 60 miles to teach classes in Fort Myers twice a week. The rest of my driving is short local trips that burn up more than their fair share of gasoline because they’re stop-and-go driving.

In the past, I’ve had more difficult commute schedules that would have burned up a tankful of gas a day. Commuting more than 200 miles a day is almost unheard of. So, having to sit at a recharging station for hours to top up batteries in the middle of a commute would be an unusual concern for a commuter. They would top up the batteries at home overnight.

Road trips, however, are another story. On a typical road trip, most people plan to burn up two tankfuls of fuel a day in two 4-5-hour stints. That’s why most vehicles have fuel tanks capable of taking them 200-300 miles. That’s about how far you can drive in a 4-5-hour stint. So, you drive out the tank, then stop for a while, which includes spending a minute or so refilling the tank. Then you’re ready to go on the next stint.

With an electric vehicle, however, which has to sit still for hours to recharge, that just doesn’t work. Instead of taking two days to drive to Virginia to visit my daughter, the trip would take most of a week. Electric vehicles are simply not suitable for road trips unless and until we solve the problem of supplying enough electric power to an EV’s battery to supply a small town!

Then, there’s the expense. If you’re going to recharge your EV once a week (or top it off from your wall outlet every night), you’ve gotta pay for that energy at the going rate. That 1.2 billion Joules translates into 333 kiloWatt hours added to your light bill every week. At a typical U.S. electricity rate of $0.12/kWh, that’s about $40. That may not seem like much, but compare it to the $25 I typically pay for a tankful of gas.

In conclusion, it looks like EVs will eventually do fine as dedicated commuter vehicles. They’ll cost a little more to run, but not enough to break most budgets. For road trips, however, they won’t work out well.

Thus, the answer to the question: “Can electric vehicles fully replace gas guzzlers?” is probably “No.” They’re fine for intra-city commuting, or commuting out to the suburbs, but unless Americans want to entirely forgo the possibility of taking road trips, ICE-powered vehicles will be needed for the foreseeable future.

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