Electric cars push needs ‘careful thinking’

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This article is part of our special report Electric Vehicles.

Despite a strong push to ramp up the production of electric cars around the world, experts warn that their roll-out needs to be carefully planned before investors open their wallets.

Lew Fulton, senior transport energy specialist at the International Energy Agency (IEA), argues that the difficulty in successfully bringing electric vehicles to the market lies in managing to put charging infrastructure in place while making sure that the vehicles ready at the same time.

"In the next 3-5 years, we need to be very careful that we don't make big mistakes," Fulton cautioned, speaking at a roundtable in Brussels organised by the French Institute for International Relations (IFRI) last week (29 April).

He warned that a careful study of customer preferences is crucial to avoid a situation where infrastructure and vehicles are built but no buyers are found.

There is a "major gap in available information on consumer attitudes," Fulton said.

The IEA recommended last year that combined sales of electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids should reach at least five million globally by 2020 in order to ramp up their market share to 50% by 2050.

Fulton said that the various targets announced by countries worldwide would already amount to four million vehicles by 2020, which is not far behind the IEA's ambitious scenario.

Battery remains key issue

Speakers at the event agreed that battery technology remains the main area in which advances are necessary to boost the attractiveness of electric vehicles to the public.

"The battery is a tremendous bottleneck in electric vehicles," said Thomas C. Luthy from IBM's energy and utilities department. However, he argued that cutting edge technologies emerging from research laboratories, such as lithium air batteries, would "drastically reduce volume and increase energy density".

Luthy stressed the need to see electric vehicles as an incremental change that will need investment and proof that they work.

"I disagree with those who say that we need a new generation of batteries before we can get started," the IEA's Fulton said, arguing that the existing lithium ion battery is "going to be fine" for the years to come.

The major problems that need to be solved, he believes, concern the need to improve the lifetime and journey range that the batteries provide.

"We need a battery life of at least 10 years. 15 years would be better," Fulton said.

To achieve a longer range, fast charging and battery-swapping were floated as possible solutions.

"Quick charging technologies are instrumental in making the market move," said Luthy, explaining that Japan seems to be leading in this area.

However, the problem with technologies that allow you to charge a battery in a matter of minutes rather than hours is that they are hard on the batteries, Fulton said. "If we start moving down to level 3 [fast] charging, we need to make sure that the batteries can handle it and that we're not shortening battery life," he warned.

The IEA expert also pointed out that if fast-charging were made available early and were used at peak hours, it could put a strain on electricity generation which would not otherwise be felt until after 2020, when more electric cars are on the roads.

Battery-swapping, on the other hand, did not gain much support and was seen as expensive.

Luthy argued that swapping would require manufacturers to standardise their "most closely-held technological asset". "I think there are more cost-effective ways to improve range."

Standardisation efforts fragmented

Luthy said the USA's SAE International used to be the leader in setting standards for the automotive industry, but an eastward shift in global car manufacturing meant China, for example, now wanted to use its market power to dictate standards for electric cars.

"There's no leader in standards, so there's no standardisation of standards," Luthy said, pointing out that each geographical region was now working on its own set of standards.

The push to develop viable electric cars has been driven by the need to cut greenhouse gas emissions in order to curb climate change and reduce reliance on fossil fuels. The transport sector has been offsetting emission cuts from other sources, as it has become the fastest-growing consumer of energy in the EU.

In an economic recovery package released last year, the EU earmarked €5 billion for its Green Car Initiative (EURACTIV 27/11/08). The EU plan includes support for research into electric and hybrid vehicles, but also allocates funding for hydrogen powered-vehicles and fuel cell technology.

An informal meeting of competitiveness ministers in February opened a debate on a common strategy for electric vehicles (EURACTIV 08/02/10).

On 28 April , the European Commission presented a new strategy to promote clean and energy-efficient vehicles in the EU, with a focus on electric cars (EURACTIV 28/04/10).

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