Electric Cars: The Surge Begins

New car showrooms in the U.S. should look a lot different by 2030, with battery-electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids likely to make up more than half of the options among available models, according to many industry analysts. By next year alone, the number of all-electric offerings will quadruple, from 13 today to more than 50.

In just the last two weeks, startup Rivian began retail production of its new R1T pickup, while Ford confirmed it is doubling initial production capacity for its own all-electric truck, the F-150 Lightning, set to launch in June 2022. Honda offered more details about the Prologue, the long-range model it will launch in 2024. And, as it prepares to launch production of its first model, Lucid received an EPA rating of more than 500 miles per charge for several of its Air sedan models from the EPA.

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The market will soon be awash in entries from A to V, Audi to Volkswagen and Volvo, with new models from BMW, Cadillac, Ford, Genesis, Jeep, Mazda, Mercedes-Benz and, well, pretty much every automaker. And they’ll flesh out a broader range of product segments, and at a wider range of prices. While the Lucid Air Dream Edition will top $160,000, Nissan recently added a base version of its Leaf model that, after factoring in $7,500 in federal tax credits, starts at just under $20,000. VW plans to add a $25,000 version of the ID.4 once production begins at its plant in Tennessee.

On the whole, BEV prices are expected to remain higher than for comparable gas-powered models, at least through mid-decade, but the trend is downward as manufacturers bring new battery technology to market, according to research by the Boston Consulting Group. GM had said it expects to spend about $100 per kilowatt-hour for the new batteries it will use in products like the Hummer and Cadillac Lyriq, then this week said it sees the path to $60 per kilowatt-hour, down from $140 for the batteries in the troubled Bolt. A 100-kilowatt-hour battery in a large or high-performance vehicle would cost “only” $10,000.

And Washington hopes to lend a hand. In August, President Joe Biden signed an executive order that calls for plug-based vehicles – including BEVs and plug-in hybrids, or PHEVs – to generate half of all U.S. new vehicle sales by 2030. To add some teeth to that plan, Congress is working up a new round of incentives that could grow to as much as $12,500 – though there’s been pushback on a provision that would specifically benefit models built in the U.S. using union labor which rules out all the New South factories.

The Biden administration wants 50% of vehicles to be electric—zero-emission—by 2030. There is pressure on the administration to order all vehicles by electric by 2035. If not, California, New York and other states might require 100% zero-emission by 2035. The path to 50% and 100% would both be reached if sales increase each year by 5% over the previous year’s EV sales.

Bringing down the hefty price premium will help address one of the biggest challenges to broader EV acceptance – as will rising range. At 520 miles per charge, the Lucid Air Dream Range model leapfrogs the current champ, the 402-mile Tesla Model S Long Range by more than 25%.

Of the dozens of new models coming to market over the next year, virtually all will top 200 miles between charges and “250 is becoming the norm, with more and more delivering over 300 miles,” said Sam Abuelsamid, the principal auto analyst with Guidehouse Insight. The highly regarded BMW iX SUV, the size of a soft-edged X5, projects 300 miles on U.S. ratings.

Steve Carlisle, the head of the Cadillac brand, earlier this year told Forbes Wheels that he expects to see Cadillac target 400 miles in the future – though its first BEV, the Lyriq, will come in around 300. This week, General Motors announced a next-generation battery “innovation facility” in Michigan, and said it sees a path not just to $100 cost per kilowatt-hour but to $60 (manufacturer costs for the battery cell material, not cost to the car-buyer). GM’s mid-term goal will be to have a manageable—size, weight—battery pack good for 500 to 600 miles at a cost 60% less than the cost of batteries in the Chevrolet Bolt EV and Bolt EUV.

There are still obstacles to overcome. The biggest, most experts agree is the lack of a ubiquitous public charging network. (That and current costs and range.) “More than 80% of today’s EV owners charge at home and are likely to continue doing that,” said Pasquale “Pat” Romano, the CEO of ChargePoint, one of the largest EV charging providers. But there is still the need to create a readily accessible public network of fast chargers for those who travel long distances, whether for work or play, he said.

As of now, there are about 43,000 public EV charging stations in the U.S., with around 120,000 charging ports, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. But the network is concentrated along the coasts, especially in California – which is by far the largest market for BEVs today.

In comparison, there are about 150,000 gas stations in the U.S. and an estimated 1.0-1.5 million pumps. The numbers aren’t comparable because gas/diesel cars outnumber EVs 98-2, a gasoline fill-up takes less than 10 minutes—but it can’t be done at home—while EV charging is 20-45 minutes for the fastest charge at a public facility.

It could take years to fill in the gaps in the nation’s heartland, but the process is getting under way. Congressional Democrats hope to secure funding for the nationwide network of 500,000 chargers sought by Biden. New York recently announced its own plan to fund a statewide network, and Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer this week said her state is developing similar plans.

Public charging will be better now that there are just two standards and two plug types for high-speed charging: Tesla Supercharger, plus DC Fast Charge that will be used by everyone else. Nissan EVs including the Leaf EV have used a third standard called CHAdeMO, but it had no significant non-Nissan support. For lower speed charging, 120 and 240 volts, there is more commonality and adapter plugs allowing, for instance, a Tesla to use a non-Tesla charger, and vice-versa. See Best Electric Vehicle Charger Adapters For 2021.

EVs don’t have to be charged by a cable physically connecting the car and a charger. Wireless charging works, too, or soon will. Think of the wireless charging pad a cellphone rests on to charge, then scale to a thousand times the current, so it charges an electric car. It’s called inductive charging and it works for the same reason a traditional transformer works: One coil of tightly wound wire, when electricity passes through, causes electrical flow in a wire coil that’s nearby. Usually they’re fractions of an inch apart, but the technology remains efficient from, say, a low-point on the car to the ground.

Prototype units have the transformer coil on the ground (or embedded in the ground) and wide enough that the car doesn’t have to be parked exactly in the middle of the parking space. The receiver coil on the underside of the car would be about the size of a large baking pan.

Phase one is parking space (or home or commercial garage) inductive chargers. That is fast approaching, by 2025 for sure. Phase two is embedding transformer coils in the highway, perhaps the right-hand lane of a divided highway, and motorists charge their cars while driving.

If and when automotive inductive charging happens, it’s the result of decades of research going back to 1972 at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, then the United States, Germany, France and Sweden. Big research universities such as MIT, Michigan, Stanford and Cornell have contributed recent work and prototypes.

Tesla and some others believe a simpler, cheaper alternative to wireless charging is a flexible charging arm—a snake—that finds the charging port, navigates and aligns, inserts the tip, and then chargers. All it requires is a charger door that opens remotely. Tesla has shown prototypes as early as 2015.

Recent pilot programs for inductive pavement charging systems have been announced in Indiana and Michigan. In Sweden, a pilot program uses a slot car-style system to power up BEVs while running. The system being developed at Cornell University could use radio waves to transfer power to vehicles while driving.

In the meantime, those motorists still worried about range anxiety can turn to the growing number of plug-in hybrids coming to market, including versions of the Toyota RAV4 and Chrysler Pacifica. As with pure electric offerings, they’re filling an ever broader mix of product segments, from compact crossovers like the Kia Niro, to exotic sports cars such as the Ferrari SF90 Stradale.

For a look at plug-ins (also called plug-in hybrid electric vehicles or PHEVs) with excellent battery range, 10 Great Plug-In Hybrids If You’re Not Ready For A Full EV.

Ferrari’s new entry reveals another way in which electrified vehicles are broadening their appeal. The Stradale pairs a twin-turbo V8 with a pair of electric motors to punch out a combined 986 horsepower–giving it enough muscle to hit 60 in just 2.3 seconds.

Those who recall the first generation of plodding plug-ins and BEVs could be in for a surprise when it comes to performance. The second-generation Lexus NX is an example. The new 450h+ plug-in hybrid is the fastest version of the 2022 model, cutting nearly three seconds off the launch time of the turbo NX 350.

Electric motors develop massive amounts of instant torque as soon as they start spinning–if you feed them enough current. In plug-ins, the electric motor delivers maximum power (torque) at zero miles per hour while the combustion engine won’t peak until the car is moving faster and the engine is developing more rpm.

Tesla’s latest Model S variant, the Plaid edition, can hit 60 in about 1.9 seconds. Dodge, meanwhile, expects to launch its own all-electric muscle car by 2024 and promises it will be its fastest model ever.

Electric Car Sales Doubled in First Half of 2021

All these new products and features are clearly connecting with buyers. Sales of BEVs jumped by over 110% during the first half of 2021 – though they still account for barely 2% of the overall U.S. new vehicle market. That’s about half as much as for hybrids. Indeed, Honda and Toyota are betting that the best way to shift buyers away from fossil fuels is through a mix of conventional hybrids, plug-ins and pure battery-electric models.

Tesla remains by far the largest provider of EVs in the U.S. Sales results through September 2021 showed no EVs or plug-ins in the top 20 spots. But Tesla as a company saw nine-month sales shoot up 62%—a bigger gain than all but Genesis and Bentley—with 221,161 sales year-to-date, better than Audi, Acura, Cadillac, Volvo, Lincoln, Land Rover, Porsche, Infiniti, Genesis and 16 mainstream or niche luxury brands. Among premium automakers, only Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Lexus fared better and only by 8% to 11%.

Business Buyers See Big R.O.I. with EVs

There are still plenty of skeptics. Brett Smith, a researcher with the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Michigan, says that while many retail customers say they’d like to switch to battery power, the real surge may come the commercial side of the market.

Commercial buyers are far more focused on operating costs than retail consumers. And, on a per-mile basis, BEVs have a clear advantage, costing about half as much to keep in motion. That’s why Amazon Prime has ordered 100,000 all-electric delivery trucks from Rivian. Volvo, Mercedes and a growing line-up of manufacturers building everything from garbage trucks to semis are going electric.

There’s an ongoing debate over which way is best to clean up long-haul trucks. Hyundai and Toyota, along with start-up Nikola, are betting the best answer is hydrogen, however. The plus with fuel-cell technology is that it can deliver even longer range – up to 1,000 miles – with refueling times comparable to that of diesel, rather than the hours needed to charge up a big truck’s massive battery pack.

Hyundai’s Xcient fuel cell truck on the road in California this year. Hyundai says its the world’s first mass-produced heavy truck running on hydrogen fuel cells. Hyundai
Hydrogen Fuel Cells Fit for the Long Haul

A different form of electrification could power long-haul trucks: compressed hydrogen gas. Passing hydrogen and oxygen (from the air) through fuel cell membranes yields water (H2O) plus electrons that drive electric motors.

Hydrogen fuel tanks, even armored to withstand high-speed collisions and a .50-caliber rifle round, weigh less than the 10,000 or so pounds of batteries needed to run a truck 500 miles. Hydrogen proponents note hydrogen refueling is quick, on par with filling the same size vehicle with diesel or gasoline, and argue it would be simpler to set up refueling stations in remote areas than it would be to bring in enough electric power to light up a small city.

Either way, battery or hydrogen, long-haul trucking is in for another seismic change: By end of decade, autonomous trucks with enough smarts to get off the road if they’re about to break down, could be able to navigate limited access roads. It will reduce freight costs at a time when the U.S. has a shortage of long-haul drivers, but those 2 million jobs pay relatively well ($60,000 plus) and don’t require a high school diploma.

Electric Pickups for the Heartland

Among lighter work vehicles, electric models appear to be gaining the advantage. Ford is targeting commercial buyers with a version of the F-150 Lightning that will start at just under $40,000. It won’t have the market for long, however. With the Tesla Cybertruck, GMC Hummer EV, Rivian R1T and others on tap, there could be as many as 10 all-electric pickups coming by mid-decade. And these could play well in heartland America where EV adoption has lagged behind the coasts, especially California.

Operating costs could become a selling point for retail, as well as commercial, customers. Virtually every recent study finds that over the lifetime of an electric vehicle, the total cost of owning and maintaining an electric car is less.

A recent study by We Predict found that maintenance costs for EVs – which don’t need tune-ups or oil changes – are a fraction of what owners of gas vehicles pay. And Consumer Reports estimates energy costs are about half as much, though that depends upon where and how EV owners charge up.

But winning over retail buyers will be as much an emotional as practical challenge. And it hasn’t helped to have battery fires grab headlines in recent months. Chevrolet will recall and replace the battery packs in more than 62,000 of its Bolt models after about a dozen of the BEVs caught fire.

“It’s something the industry will have to get a grip on if EVs are going to be the future,” said Dave Sargent, head of the automotive practice at J.D. Power.

EV Fires Get Headlines

Hyundai, with its Kona EV, Tesla, and others have also experienced battery fires. But despite the blazing headlines, the numbers actually have been modest, several dozen at most, according to analyst Abuelsamid. Only about 0.006% of EVs have caught fire. By comparison, the National Fire Protection Association shows 212,000 gas and diesel vehicles caught fire in 2018, or about 0.07% of those on U.S. roads.

GM insists the chemistry of its new Ultium batteries will be less prone to short out or catch fire. Tesla and other manufacturers make similar claims. Meanwhile, Honda and Toyota have laid out plans to migrate to solid-state battery technology which is expected to be the next big breakthrough. While not yet ready for mass production at an automotive scale, solid-state batteries promise to deliver even longer range, quicker charging, lower costs – and virtually eliminate the risk of fire. EV proponents say new materials and new manufacturing processes also reduce reliance on miners who are often young, poorly paid and not able to find other work.

More Battery Factories

To power up all the new battery-electric vehicles coming to market will require a substantial expansion of battery production, and there is growing pressure to bring that production home, rather than relying on foreign sources, such as China, said Jim Farley, the Ford Chief Executive.

Ford and partner SK Innovation last month announced plans to set up three new battery plants in the U.S., including twin factories in Kentucky and a third in Tennessee at the new Blue Oval City EV production complex. All told, they will yield about 129 gigawatt-hours of storage each year, “enough to power about 1 million battery-electric vehicles” like the F-Series pickups going into Blue Oval City, said Farley.

The second-largest U.S. automaker isn’t alone. GM has revealed plans for three U.S. plants and promised to announce a fourth for its new Ultium batteries. Tesla’s original Gigwatt plant in Nevada will soon be paired with a facility in Texas. And other manufacturers are expected to follow, potentially including Mercedes-Benz.

Rising Interest Among the U.S. Public

Americans are warming to electric cars and trucks. Recent YouGov survey data developed for Forbes Wheels shows show that 27% of American drivers intend to buy or would strongly consider a hybrid and 23% would consider or buy an electric car versus 45% who’d go with gasoline. (Respondents could cite all vehicle types they’d consider.)

Interest in EVs and hybrids differed by region of the country. It was highest in the West and Northeast, less in the Midwest and lowest in the South, seven percentage points less interest than in the West.

Other polls show rising interest in electrified vehicles, some with even higher EV-interest figures. Polls open to all often draw people interested in that technology or cause.

In reality most analysts expect U.S. buyers to lag behind those in other major markets, especially in Europe and Asia. About half of the vehicles sold in Norway are now BEVs – though hefty incentives clearly buoy demand. China, meanwhile, has set a goal to have “New Energy Vehicles” – PHEVs and BEVs – account for at least 25% of the market in 2025. And the UK will allow only plug-based vehicles by 2030, with even PHEVs banned by 2035.

The European EV market is leading the charge. In Norway, BEVs already account for about 50% of total new vehicle sales. In Britain, they’re approaching 20%, triple the share in 2019. Those two countries plan to phase out internal combustion engines entirely by 2035 – Britain limiting sales to BEVs and PHEVs by 2030. Other countries, notably including Germany and France, are exploring similar options. In July, the European Commission announced its “Fit for 55” proposal, which, if finalized, could require that BEVs make up 50% or more of new vehicle sales by decade’s end, according to IHS Markit.

Overall, plug-in vehicles (EVs, PHEVs) reached 18.4% of EU sales in the first half of 2021.

Canada, as well as New York, Washington State and California, laid out similar plans. And some of the 15 states that copied California’s zero-emission vehicle, or ZEV, mandate, signaled they may follow.

So, while American motorists may still be slow to warm up to electric vehicles, momentum seems to be shifting as more models come to market, delivering a broader range of options, longer range and improved affordability.

Forbes. Paul A. Eisenstein