In his 2011 State of the Union message, President Barack Obama set a goal to have 1 million electric vehicles (EVs) on the road by the end of 2015. That isn’t likely to happen. As of 2014’s close, less than one-third of that number were on the road (2015’s numbers aren’t yet available), but that doesn’t mean EVs won’t have a place in our future transportation portfolio. In fact, even automobiles and trucks with standard internal-combustion engines (ICEs) are becoming more electrified and gaining efficiency in the process.
To be clear, the president’s goal applied to plug-in electric vehicles (PEVs), which include automobiles powered only by a battery (battery electric vehicles, or BEVs, such as Nissan’s Leaf) and automobiles that use gasoline to supplement a battery’s output for extended driving range (plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, or PHEVs, such as the Chevy Volt). By the end of 2014, slightly fewer than 300,000 light-duty BEVs—the class of vehicles that includes passenger cars—were traveling U.S. roadways. More than 118,000 of them were sold during 2014, according to the Electric Drive Transportation Association (EDTA).
As of the end of July, the EDTA tallied 2015 sales of just over 62,000 plug-in vehicles (a figure dwarfed by the sales of standard hybrids, such as the Toyota Prius, which totaled almost 226,000 during the same period). This figure is virtually identical to July 2014’s total, indicating consumer demand for EVs might be stagnating, and a May 2015 Harris Poll backs up that notion. Posing the same questions to car-owners and prospective car-buyers Harris researchers asked in 2013, they found the number of respondents who’d consider BEVs and PHEVs in their next purchase decision had risen only 2 percent—to 21 percent and 29 percent, respectively—in the last two years.
Some industry-watchers claim this year’s slowdown is the result of EV enthusiasts holding off on purchases in anticipation of new models coming online, such as the 2016 Chevy Volt and Tesla’s much-anticipated Model X SUV and Model 3 family sedan, which is expected to begin production in 2018. But an even bigger factor in stagnating sales is the precipitous—and unforeseen—drop in gasoline prices in the four years since Obama announced his ambitious goal. Crude oil topped $100 per barrel at the end of 2011 and has since fallen to under $50 as of early this September, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. When pump prices edge close to $2 per gallon, an EV’s fuel-expense advantage over traditional vehicles slims considerably.
But when it comes to EVs, the market isn’t the only significant sales driver. In 2012, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration jointly announced new Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards, which require automakers to significantly reduce their average fleetwide greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2025. The actual calculations for individual automakers are complicated, but, simply speaking, the new standards equate to a fuel efficiency of 54.5 miles per gallon for light-duty vehicles with traditional ICEs. For a manufacturer such as Ford, for example, high-efficiency EVs could be critical to balancing out the GHG impact of its highly profitable pickup trucks and SUVs.
Regulatory drivers are even higher in California, the only U.S. state with the authority to set its own, tougher fuel-economy standards, the Clean Car Standards. EVs—or some equally efficient alternative—could become a more common presence in California garages than they were before.
Electrification also is beginning to aid efficiencies of even standard ICE fleets, which could minimize the need for the averaging assistance provided by zero-emission EVs. For example, start-stop systems turn engines off when vehicles come to a full stop at a traffic light or in congested highway traffic and turn engines back on when a driver lifts his or her foot off of the brake. These designs require electric motors to keep pumps and air-conditioning systems running and are already improving fuel-efficiency performance by up to 10 percent.
Soon, these systems will be paired with new 48-volt (V) electrical designs that supplement the existing 12V lead-acid batteries with a 48V lithium-ion battery to improve efficiency an additional 10–15 percent. These batteries also can store energy captured by regenerative suspension systems, which are in development. These systems will capture energy in a manner similar to the regenerative braking systems in the Toyota Prius and other standard hybrid vehicles.
The biggest wild card for true BEVs, though, might not lie in incremental technology advances in today’s standard ICE drivetrains, but in the impact Tesla’s Gigafactory could have on battery costs once production gets rolling in late 2016 or early 2017. (See “Giga-Sized Dreams,” page 36, for more information.) Its enormous production capacity is anticipated to force those costs down by 30 percent. Such a price drop could significantly reduce payback periods for automobile shoppers and make BEVs a reasonable option even in an era of cheaper gasoline.