How to Address the Key Barriers to the Widespread Acceptance of E-vehicles

This article is contributed by Mr Ishan Palit, President and CEO, TÜV SÜD Asia Pacific. He addresses the greatest challenges to the widespread adoption of electric-powered vehicles (e-vehicles).

In the last five years, the manufacturing, awareness and usage of e-vehicles has rapidly gathered pace, buoyed by the introduction of attractive government incentives and mounting concerns about the future availability of oil and world’s burgeoning carbon footprint. According to Pike Research, this trend will only intensify. A recent report [1] from the firm predicts a total of 3.2 million electric vehicles and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, such as Nissan Motor Co.’s Leaf model and General Motors Co.’s Volt, will be sold between 2010 and 2015 with a compound annual growth rate of 106%. Projections from Bloomberg New Energy Finance echo these sentiments. It believes plug-in electric hybrid cars could account for 9 percent of total U.S. auto sales by 2020 and 22 percent by 2030.

These figures are unquestionably impressive and undeniably important, considering 19 percent of global energy use and 23 percent of energy-related carbon dioxide emissions are currently attributable to transportation [2]. But with the world’s automotive services geared towards supporting the 800 million fuel-powered vehicles that currently adorn our roads, transportation needs set to increase, and escalating concerns from consumers around their practicality, e-vehicles are still some way off becoming a reality.

Growing Pains

I agree with Pike Research and Bloomberg New Energy Finance in that the potential for e-mobility is tremendous, bearing in mind demand and choice is rising, cost is falling and the target market is getting bigger by the day. However, as with all innovative new products destined for widespread use, this cocktail of ingredients is rarely enough for success. In the case of e-mobility, it requires an extra dose of affordability, education and transparency around performance. The current lack of adequate battery-charging infrastructure, notably ‘smart grids’, is a cause for concern.

1. Education

The introduction of electric power for on-road vehicles brings a sea change in technology to the automotive sector. High-voltage components, for example, are required not only in engine and battery components but in all of the electronic controls. Unfortunately, such technologies come with potentially lethal risks. Education in high-voltage safety and handling of lithium-ion batteries is therefore imperative for anyone that comes into contact with e-vehicles on a regular basis, including staff at manufacturing plants, consumers, service providers, workshop mechanics and the emergency services.

Proficient training courses in handling such issues are already available in Asia Pacific from accredited third party providers. Adoption however, is severely lagging behind the uptake in electric vehicles. In my view, this is due to a lack of awareness and / or shared responsibility from the industry’s major stakeholders. This must change quickly if manufacturers are to achieve growth targets and governments are to reach carbon emission goals. For example, if mechanics in garages or paramedics in ambulances are ill-equipped with the knowledge of how to safely and effectively handle high-voltage components in e-vehicles the consequences could be severe and the repercussions long-lived.

The issue lies in the fact that the majority of parties that come into contact with e-vehicles are often consumers, small businesses or (small government departments) with budgets that restrict their personal ability to take the appropriate action. Moving forward, I would like to see accountability for education tackled collectively by major stakeholders and ahead of the curve.

2. Cost

According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, the price of electric cars is more than three-quarters that of their petrol/diesel counterparts [3]. This is primarily due to the high costs of production of efficient, effective and reliable batteries. Reducing battery prices to levels of economic viability is therefore a primary goal for electric vehicle manufacturers – especially because the more prices fall while fuel prices rise, the more economical e-cars become.

Manufacturing batteries at lower costs, however, has been a significant challenge for battery manufacturers for some time. And while battery technology is slowly advancing it is unlikely that significant cost reductions will be realised for some years. Immediate solutions must therefore be sought in tandem, the most achievable of which is securing a second life for used batteries and extending their value.

This is an area TÜV SÜD has been pioneering in close collaboration with leading e-vehicle manufacturers. At present, for example, we are developing the methodologies for the evaluation of retired batteries with the aim of establishing whether they could potentially be used as energy storage devices in green buildings. In theory, the added value this would bring to batteries would help manufacturers, or even consumers, recoup a significant proportion of their up-front costs.

3. Range

Aside from cost, one of the greatest concerns from consumers regarding e-vehicles is their range (i.e. the distance they can travel without needing to be recharged). A survey of motorists carried out by TÜV SÜD in 2009, revealed that while most people are open-minded and have a positive attitude towards e-mobility, over a third (36 per cent) would only consider buying an electrically-powered car if a range of 300 km was guaranteed.

This distance may be achievable by some e-vehicles but they are few and far between and the elephant in the room is consistency, especially during extreme internal and external conditions like low temperatures. In December 2010, we introduced a new standard for determining the range of e-cars, named the TÜV SÜD E-Car Cycle (TSECC), which was the first to take into account such effects. Its first comparative test delivered dramatic results. One e-car that was tested was deemed to have a range of 133 kilometres when determined in accordance with the legal test cycle defined in ECE-R101 at 23°C and without additional power consumption. However, when based on the TSECC (carried out also at 23 degrees, but at a more realistic speed profile), the same car was revealed to have a range of just 113 kilometres. At the subzero temperatures the situation for EVs seems to be more critical, since contrary to the internal combustion engine using the waste heat to warm up the passenger compartment the EVs should be equipped with a separate heating system often taking the energy from the traction batteries. At the temperature of -7°C and when the heating and additional power consumers were turned on, the range dropped to a meagre 64 kilometres.

If consumers are going to not only buy but enjoy e-vehicles and increase sales through word of mouth, improved accuracy and transparency around range is imperative. It only takes a few customers to be left stranded tens of kilometres from home with no charging stations in the vicinity to spark outrage. And the consequences of this should not be underestimated. In today’s digital world, everyone has a voice. And one can quickly multiply.

To conclude

I firmly believe that electric vehicles are our future – they have the potential to appease the world’s appetite for green products and services and more importantly significantly reduce our carbon footprint and our dependence on energy imports. However, the key to their success will be dependent on the diligence and patience of the industry’s major stakeholders. It is not about speed to market, it is about getting it right.

[1] Pike Research
[2] International Energy Agency
[3] Bloomberg New Energy Finance

About Ishan Palit

Ishan Palit is President and CEO of TÜV SÜD Asia Pacific, one of the world’s leading providers of integrated testing, inspection and certification services to e-mobility manufacturers.

About TÜV SÜD

TÜV SÜD is a leading international service organization catering to the business segments INDUSTRY, MOBILITY and CERTIFICATION. It is a leading one-stop global solution provider for product quality and safety testing & inspections, engineering support, management system certification and training solutions. With over 16,000 employees, TÜV SÜD operates worldwide at more than 600 locations. As partners in our customers’ processes, our specialist teams ensure that technology, systems and know-how are optimized, thus strengthening our customers’ global competitiveness. More information is available at www.tuv-sud.com

Images: TÜV SÜD

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