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Adoption of electric vehicles to follow same path as mobile phones

Adoption of electric vehicles to follow same path as mobile phones

Mobile technology has spread rapidly around the globe over the past couple of decades. Most of us own a mobile phone with increasing numbers opting for the highly advanced smartphone variety. Data from the ITU World Telecommunication Database indicates there are 109 mobile cellular subscriptions for every 100 people around the globe (2019). Twenty-five years ago, cell phone market penetration sat at a paltry two subscriptions per 100 people. Some analysts believe the adoption of electric vehicles (EV) will follow a similar trend to that of the mobile phone.

EVs accounted for 1% of global car stock in 2019, according to the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) 2020 Global EV Outlook, not dissimilar to the penetration of mobile phones in the mid-1990s. While there is general agreement that we will see an acceleration in the uptake of EVs, are we likely to all own EVs in 25 years? Covid-19 has intensified sustainability and environmental concerns. While light-duty vehicles experienced a 15% drop in sales in 2020, EVs demonstrated greater resilience, observing a smaller 3% decline.

Adoption of electric vehicles to follow same path as mobile phones
Jeff Hove

However, Jeff Hove, vice president at The Fuels Institute, says the existing light-duty fleet will convert slowly regardless of sales. The Fuels Institute, founded by the National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS) in 2013, is a research organisation dedicated to studying transportation energy and includes representation from fuel refiners, biofuel producers, wholesalers, retailers, fleet owners, and OEMs.

During a physical gathering of industry delegates at ILMA ReEngage on June 4, 2021, Hove delivered a presentation on The Future of Transportation. Even considering the highest adoption rate estimates of 60% of new car sales by 2040, EVs will only account for 27% of the light-duty fleet in the United States, says Hove. The problem with EV adoption compared to mobile phone technology is the infrastructure requirement, he says. There is also considerable discussion on consumers holding on to their used vehicles for longer because of concerns around cost, range, and vehicle availability.

Government programs and policies are pushing zero-emissions vehicles. The Fuels Institute representative highlighted increasing political rhetoric around internal combustion engine (ICE) bans—since California announced in 2020 it was phasing out ICE. 46% of the global light-duty vehicle market have implemented, announced, or are contemplating bans on the sale of ICE vehicles.

Adoption of electric vehicles to follow same path as mobile phones

Battery pricing is one of the biggest handbrakes to EV adoption. Hove cited a recent commentary identifying USD61 per kilowatt-hour (kWh) as the point at which EVs will achieve comparative pricing. We are currently at USD137 per kWh, and it sounds like we’re going to be at about USD100 in the United States pretty quickly, he says.

Hove also noted a recent breakthrough in the development of solid-state batteries that will be a “game-changer.” Researchers at Harvard’s John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS) have developed a lithium-metal, solid-state battery that claims significantly higher energy density, lighter weight, faster charge rates, and less battery degradation. This will reduce our dependence on the minerals and raw materials that go into the battery, he says. According to a recent report in The Harvard Gazette, the battery can be charged at least 10,000 times at a high current density, with the potential to increase the lifetime of EVs by an additional 10 to 15 years. 

Adoption of electric vehicles to follow same path as mobile phones

Concerns have been raised around the chemical volatility of solid-state batteries. Dendrites that form on the surface of the anode can migrate out into the electrode—degrading the battery and creating a potential fire hazard. The Harvard researchers have seemingly resolved this issue using a multilayer approach whereby materials are stacked between the anode and cathode. Scalability remains a challenge, though the research team believes these issues can be overcome.

In California and around the globe the focus continues to be on light-duty vehicles. We do not know what we are going to do with heavy-duty, says Hove. Trucks and sport utility vehicles account for the majority of vehicle purchases in the U.S., a space that EVs have not yet heavily penetrated. Hove acknowledged the recent announcement by Ford of a complete electric line for their top selling F150 truck. Travel centres and truck stop operators are also trying to increase mileage and charging locations for electric class 8 trucks.

Adoption of electric vehicles to follow same path as mobile phones
Gabe Rhoads

“There is no way electrification alone can get us to our climate goals,” says Gabe Rhoads, senior director, North America sales, Lubrizol. Speaking to ILMA ReEngage delegates, the Lubrizol representative outlined a bright future for the industry where liquid fuels remain important. Lubrizol continues to invest in ICE. “We see an increasing demand for higher performance, higher value, and more sustainable lubricants,” he says. Rhoads believes we will continue to live the story we have lived for decades. OEMs will develop new technology and require lubricant technology to develop with it. However, we cannot assume yesterday’s technology will work in tomorrow’s vehicles, he says.

The only way to reduce emissions right now (in heavy-duty) is through alternative low-carbon fuels, says Hove. Low-carbon fuel standard (LCFS) programs are likely to spread as states move to control carbon, he says. And while biodiesel and renewable diesel use is increasing across the U.S., Hove emphasised the impact of changing to low-carbon fuels on criteria pollutants including NOx and particulate matter. Introducing biofuels that could negatively impact injectors’ after-treatment system is a “huge hurdle,” he says. OEMs are working with the U.S. Department of Energy on how to build new engines that can reduce the criteria pollutants but at the same time maintain fuel quality. Pre-treatment systems are going to become very complicated, he adds.

While there is ample biodiesel capacity to supplant the entire petroleum diesel volume consumed in the state of California, Hove sees biodiesel as a short to medium-term proposition. Even with a diesel HD truck fleet that is rumoured to be 30% more efficient by 2035, when looking at this through the lens of a zero-emissions economy it is not going to cut it, says Hove. Questions remain on the heavy-duty side. At what point do manufacturers decide to shift their R&D budgets away from the ICE to electrification, hydrogen, or some other low-carbon fuel?