New Mobility

E-mobility: Why the journey has just begun

In the discussion about electric cars, skeptics cite limiting factors such as range, lack of infrastructure, availability and high prices. Indeed, these problems exist - but they are only a snapshot at the beginning of a long journey that has only just begun.

Whenever a new technology is developed to the point where progressive thinkers use it to challenge an established technology, an unfair comparison occurs: status quo versus future. Not only does the established technology have the advantage of years of development during which problems have already been solved, but human nature also plays into its hands: For People are "creatures of habit".

People are "creatures of habit" - what does that mean?

A habit is comparable to an automatic reaction to a certain stimulus. Every person develops a variety of such habits in the course of his or her life. They are attractive because they reduce complexity and create comfort zones with low cognitive load. The human nervous system needs a certain amount of time to get used to something. It takes even longer to break and change habits once they have become ingrained.

The limiting factors are ...

The arguments of the e-car sceptics undoubtedly address existing problems. However, this is true for the moment, but hardly for the future. What solutions could there be - and what developments are emerging for the future?

... range ...

The range of electric cars is one of the most frequent points of criticism. In some cases, it is significantly less than that of a combustion engine and also has the problem that charging the battery takes significantly longer than refuelling a combustion engine vehicle. 

The development of new battery types with higher energy density is therefore one of the most urgent development tasks of the automotive industry. However, it will be several years before solid-state batteries, for example, are ready for series production. The constant optimisation of existing battery technology will bring progress, but rather in small steps.

However, it could also go faster: A new gigafactory for solid-state batteries is currently being built in Switzerland. Swiss Clean Battery is planning the world's first series production there for the new generation of batteries, which has many advantages: it is smaller, lighter, largely gets by without critical raw materials, is non-flammable and four times more durable than the previous lithium-ion batteries. Mass production could start as early as spring 2025 and not only in 2030, as experts previously predicted.

Another interesting solution has already been introduced to the German market by the Chinese manufacturer and ERGO partner NIO. At so-called "Power Swap Stations", empty batteries can be exchanged for a fully charged one within five minutes, so that travel time on longer journeys is not extended by time-consuming charging.

There are also futuristic visions: Because if you look a little further into the future, the range problem could even be solved completely and reversed in comparison to the internal combustion engine. For one thing, it is conceivable that the capacity of the batteries used will increase so much that they will last longer than we want to and can drive. This means that electric cars could play an important role in the future as storage units for electricity from renewable energy sources. Via a bidirectional connection, they could store electricity when too much is being produced and feed it back into the grid when demand exceeds current production.

On the other hand, inductive charging, which is already used for smartphones and tablets, could make the range problem superfluous. A test track is already in operation in Brescia, Italy, where a specially equipped Fiat 500e can "drive at normal motorway speeds without using up the energy stored in its battery". Bavaria is also planning a similar pilot project on a motorway for 2025.

... infrastructure ... 

The number of charging stations for e-cars is still far too low, critics warn. And indeed, the expansion of the charging infrastructure is lagging far behind the ambitious plans of the German government. By 2030, there should actually be around one million public charging points for the 15 million e-cars planned by then. As of 1 May 2023, 73,683 normal charging points and 16,622 fast charging points were registered in the Federal Network Agency's charging point register. In the next seven years, therefore, around 130,000 charging points would have to be added annually to meet the plan.

Upcoming solutions: The original plan assumed charging capacities between eleven and 22 kilowatts. The fast charging stations, however, charge batteries with up to 350 kilowatts. That corresponds to a range of 100 kilometres in five minutes. Although not all e-models can take up the full power, this plays a subordinate role for the supply in the future, as the planned increase will be fast-charging capable.

In addition, there are around one million private wallboxes that can be used to charge e-cars at home. There is further potential, for example, in company car parks where commuter vehicles can be charged during working hours.

Futuristic visions: With the development of new battery types, the frequency of recharging could be significantly reduced in the future. In particular, charging speed will be a key development factor alongside capacity. The already mentioned inductive charging would also be an important infrastructure factor.

... and sustainability

In particular, the production of the batteries ensures that electric cars carry a larger CO2 backpack than internal combustion vehicles at the beginning of their use. In addition, raw materials are used for the batteries that should be viewed critically: Lithium, cobalt, rare earths.

Upcoming solutions: Here, too, the further development of batteries plays a key role. The next generation will also be based on lithium, but will largely do without critical raw materials. Moreover, the often criticised high water consumption in lithium mining only occurs through evaporation of lithium-containing salt water, as in the salt deserts of South America. This is not the case with lithium mining in Australia, the world's largest mining country.

Futuristic visions: Batteries for electric cars are still based on lithium, but there are already prototypes that manage without the lightest of all metals. Silicon, for example, could be used as an alternative active anode material. While lithium makes up only 0.006 per cent of the earth's crust, silicon comes to 25.8 per cent. At present, the lower energy density still prevents a rapid replacement of the anode material, but this could change in the future.

Even if lithium cannot be dispensed with at present, the great demand for high-capacity batteries should ensure extensive research and development work.

Conclusion: The journey has only just begun

We talk about range, battery sustainability, prices and availability as limiting factors of e-cars and forget that their development is just beginning. New battery types (even without lithium), falling prices and better availability through mass production are already within reach. Technologies such as inductive charging while driving are being experimentally researched and could ensure that internal combustion vehicles suddenly only see the back of e-cars in a range comparison. The biggest obstacle to progress is in people's heads.

This is where history repeats itself, because when the automobile was invented, the coachmen said back then: "Automobiles will never catch on, better give us faster horses!"

Today we know how wrong they were.

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