How BEVs Could Be the Future (And Why They May Not Be)
Demand for plug-in electric vehicles (EVs) is growing, though they still only claimed about 2% of the U.S. market share in 2018 (global market share is similar). That number includes battery-operated vehicles (BEVs) and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs).
The thought on everyone’s mind: is this the future of driving?
The primary difference between the two types of vehicles is that a BEV runs solely off the energy from the vehicle’s battery, while a PHEV uses the battery alongside a fuel tank that kicks in at various intervals. There would be clear benefits to drivers and the environment if BEVs were to become mainstream. However, there are currently just too many drawbacks to know how successful the BEV market can become. While many proponents are hopeful that BEVs will eventually become commonplace, the future of these vehicles remains largely unknown due to a number of unanswered questions and issues yet to be resolved. For instance, how will drivers have access to charging their vehicles? Will there be convenient charging stations like there are gas stations? Also, can we expect improvements to be made with batteries in the future?
This article will explore the potential advantages of a BEV-driven world and the challenges that BEV drivers currently face, and we’ll take a look at some of the main questions and issues that are too prevalent to be ignored.
ADVANTAGES OF A BEV-HEAVY MARKET
Even though we are still in the early stages of developing electric vehicles, BEVs currently come with many benefits, and it’s not hard to see how these benefits could become even more impactful as technology improves.
Lower Operating Costs
For one, it’s much cheaper to charge a BEV than it is to run a traditional vehicle off of gas; it’s actually about one-third of the cost. Also, a BEV contains very few moving parts compared to a traditional vehicle, which means it’s less expensive to maintain. For instance, with a BEV you don’t have to worry about servicing a starter motor, fuel injection system, exhaust system, or radiator, among many other components. Though many improvements need to be made to these vehicles’ batteries, most BEV manufacturers provide an eight-year warranty on their batteries even now.
Some of the most obvious advantages are those that benefit the environment. BEVs have virtually no exhaust emissions, which means they emit much less pollution than traditional vehicles do. And if you use renewable energy for charging, greenhouse gas emissions are reduced even lower. For example, rather than charging from the grid, you can use a polar PV system while there’s daylight. If you must use the grid, you can still minimize greenhouse gas emissions by purchasing green power from your electricity company.
Even the manufacturing of some of the top BEVs is eco-conscious. For instance, the Ford Focus Electric and Nissan Leaf are largely made of recycled and bio-based materials, such as plastic bags, water bottles, and second-hand car parts and home appliances.
Health and Safety
Along with the financial and environmental benefits, BEVs can help improve our health and safety. Less pollution from exhaust means better air quality, which can reduce health problems caused by pollution, and BEVs create much less noise pollution than traditional vehicles. Also, since BEVs typically have a lower center of gravity, they are less likely to roll over. Furthermore, fires aren’t as much of a risk, and the body structure of BEVs can prove more durable in a collision.
DISADVANTAGES OF CURRENT BEV MARKET
Of course, there are also drawbacks to BEVs. While they have enjoyed success, it has been with a limited group of consumers.
Tesla has led innovation in the BEV market in many ways, including its Supercharger networks, which can charge vehicles in about 30 minutes. However, that’s still a lot more time than it takes to fill the gas tank of a traditional vehicle. What’s more, scientists behind the efforts of manufacturers like Tesla and Toyota have their doubts about the possibility of reducing charging times enough to satisfy mainstream consumers. And since Toyota has been in the electric vehicle game for over 20 years, that speaks to the magnitude of this problem.
Another prevalent issue with BEVs is that they require electricity, which must come from somewhere. In states like California, most of the electricity comes from natural gas supplies, but states like West Virginia use coal to generate up to 90% of its electricity. Overall, about 38% of electricity in the United States is generated by coal. This begs the question: just how clean and green are electric cars? In short, it depends on where in the country you are driving. Furthermore, the lithium-ion batteries used by manufacturers like Tesla contain components that can potentially harm the environment by way of ecological toxicity and contributing to global warming.
Finally, you don’t see any BEVs that fall under the heavy-duty truck category. This is mainly because the technology isn’t workable for truck applications—and it won’t be anytime soon. This is a serious problem because there are 2 to 3 million heavy-duty trucks on the road in the U.S. Much of the American economy depends on Class 8 commercial trucks, which guzzle 30 times more gas than the average automobile (about 35 billion gallons each year).
It’s difficult to see how BEV technology could advance enough to accommodate the heavy-duty truck category in the foreseeable future. However, if such trucks were able to be produced in an electric format, it could drastically decrease oil dependence and significantly benefit the trucking industry financially.
THE IMPORTANCE OF CHARGING STATIONS
There are currently about 20,000 public charging stations and 57,000 outlets for plug-in electric vehicles in the U.S. Here’s the thing: 4,800 of those stations and 18,200 of those outlets are found in California. Not surprisingly, California has also accounted for almost half of all BEV sales in the country since 2011. If there is hope for the BEV market to experience continued growth—and especially if battery-operated cars are to become mainstream—there must be more charging stations created throughout the country.
In a sense, the future popularity of BEVs in any particular area of the country depends on the accessibility of charging stations in that area. However, it gets tricky because states that don’t sell a lot of BEVs are less inclined to invest in public charging stations, but if they never decide to invest, then their sales will probably not improve by much. Therefore, there must be a break in the cycle at some point if BEVs are to become commonplace in the future.
Sure, there are some people who could charge their BEV at home, but that’s a limited category of consumers. Without an adequate number of charging stations open to the public, much like gas stations are, BEVs will never reach the mainstream. To put it into perspective, there are approximately 168,000 public gas stations in the U.S.—more than eight times the number of charging stations. The majority of consumers will never make the jump to BEVs until that gap is dramatically closing.
THE ROLE OF BATTERIES
As essential as charging stations are for the future of BEVs, batteries may play an even more important role. And BEV batteries need to undergo a lot of development if electric vehicles are to become commonplace.
The term “battery anxiety” is often used in reference to one running out of battery power on their smartphone. We’ve all seen the symptoms: a family member searching frantically for a charger cable; a co-worker turning their desk over, only to ask you if they can borrow a charger; even a stranger asking if they can PowerShare with your phone. Chances are you’ve experienced the symptoms yourself. In a study administered by electronics manufacturer LG, 9 out of 10 people showed signs of battery anxiety.
The same logic is behind the term “range anxiety” in reference to electric vehicles. If such a phenomenon has that kind of grip on people with smartphones, you can imagine the impact of this anxiety when it comes to driving a car. Range anxiety is one reason why many consumers won’t even consider going the BEV route.
Most BEVs allow drivers to go about 100 miles fully charged (the Tesla Model S is an exception, as it allows drivers around 250 miles). This is another reason why the scarcity of charging stations is such a severe problem. Nonetheless, many manufacturers have pledged to develop BEVs that will hit about 200 miles per charge. That would surely make a big difference, but it’s still a far cry from a conventional vehicle that can go 300 to 400 miles on a full tank of gas.
The Problem with Lithium-Ion Batteries
Most newer electric cars these days are powered by lithium-ion batteries. These batteries are not without their advantages, such as the fact that they are light-weight (as compared to lead-acid batteries), relatively low-maintenance and can last for 8-10 years. However, there are some serious issues to consider as well.
For example, lithium-ion batteries are expensive. While a high-end lead-acid battery—as used in most traditional vehicles—costs around $120, a typical lithium-ion car battery costs in the $1,700 range. Also, lithium is highly reactive. This means if they are damaged or installed incorrectly, they can explode.
Moreover, the cells used in lithium-ion batteries are made with rare-earth metals; the supply of these metals is limited, and they’re dangerous to mine. Most workers who are tasked with retrieving rare-earth metals are laboring in harsh conditions, to say the least (and in some cases this means illegal child laborers).
The Prospect of Flow Batteries
Enter a new hope for BEV proponents: the “flow battery.” Scientists are currently working on this new type of refillable battery that they hope will replace lithium-ion as the commonplace battery in BEVs. The strongest appeal of the flow battery is that it solves most of the biggest problems consumers have with BEVs.
Depending on the model of vehicle and the power source used, it can take anywhere from 30 minutes to 10 hours to fully charge a lithium-ion battery in a BEV. If the flow battery is a success, it will allow drivers to empty their battery liquid and pump in new liquid in minutes—roughly the same time it would take to fill a gas tank.
What’s more, since the basic infrastructure is already there, it would be easier for gas stations everywhere to be retrofitted to pump this battery liquid in place of gas. This means that the scarcity of charging stations would no longer be a problem—thus, no more range anxiety. There is still a lot of progress to be made in the development of flow batteries, but it’s possible we will see some form of them in the next three years.
THE BOTTOM LINE
It’s easy to see how drivers and the environment would benefit from a BEV-driven market. All things considered, they are a more eco-conscious alternative to traditional vehicles, they are cheaper to operate, and they offer health and safety benefits. That said, BEVs have their share of drawbacks as well.
If BEVs are ever to enter the mainstream, more charging stations and better batteries must be made available. It looks like the work is being done to solve these issues, but only time will tell whether or not BEVs are indeed the future.