Will Electric Cars Rule the Future?

What will your children drive 20 years or more from now? According to one analyst, many of them are likely to take the wheel of an electric car. The primary argument for electric vehicles is overall efficiency, said Philip Gott, director of automotive consulting for industry analyst Global Insight, at the firm’s annual Detroit conference yesterday. Why? Because electric cars simply consume less “wells to wheels” energy than do the alternatives.

Gott launched his discussion with a look at the current global “car parc.” We have 800 million vehicles in the world today, he noted, with roughly 70 million new ones built each year. If China, India, and the rest of the world acquire as many vehicles per capita as Europe—which has roughly a car for every two people—we’ll end up with 3 billion cars on the planet by 2035. And if they use gasoline engines, we would need several times the volume of oil reserves currently known in Saudi Arabia just to fuel them.

Then Gott stepped back to 1900 for a history lesson. That year, US auto production was evenly split into thirds: Gasoline cars had 33 percent, but so did battery electric vehicles and steam cars. Of course, we know how that race turned out: Gasoline won, because it offered the virtues of autonomous range (no plugging in), speed, and ease of operation—once the electric self-starter was invented.

For the new century, though, three more factors come into play. Gott laid out the six criteria against which future vehicle power sources must be evaluated:

  • Whole-cycle thermal efficiency, from “wells to wheels”

  • Ease of monitoring and maintenance (to ensure low emissions and best efficiency)
  • Diversity of energy sources—how widely available is the fuel, globally?

  • Ease of use
  • Autonomous range
  • Cost

And battery electric vehicles end up with the best ratings across all six factors, compared to various types of combustion engines and fuel cells. The overall thermal efficiency of an EV is better, with 70 percent of a battery’s energy being converted to power—against just 25 percent of the energy in gasoline (heat and friction waste the rest). Coal-fired power plants aren’t hugely efficient (40 percent) but the electric grid will get progressively cleaner as federal and state mandates move toward restricting carbon and requiring a higher proportion of renewable sources. Fueling an EV with electricity generated entirely from renewable resources is best of all, of course.

  • Alias

    Yes you are quite right, EVs are the cars of the future, simply because as you say “electric cars simply consume less “wells to wheels” energy than do the alternatives.” People realize that there is no longer the luxury of a seemingly endless petroleum supply. Economical and efficient alternatives to gas guzzlers have to be found.

  • Lone Ranger

    It’s amazing how one blatant obvious lie can ruin a whole article. I fully support battery electric vehicles. To say they score highest in the category of autonomous range is utterly absurd, though. EVs are consistently the weakest performers in terms of range. Trying to sweep this under the rug with claims of future technology improvements is just pathetic.

  • Anonymous

    Lone Ranger – You misread the article. It says that gasoline scores highest for range, speed and ease of operation.

  • Dopalchenski

    I agree with this article and i am glad that it is pointing out the facts of the near future! We are well on the way of making it a reality so just hold your breath a little bit longer for plug ins’ and EV’s cause i am.

  • Boon

    There is a couple problems that we need to solve before electric car will become common: Where can we get the additional electricity to charge the cars and will it cost more than gasoline?
    Until we find the alternative energy sources to replace or increase the current energy capacity, electric car will still remain a luxury or show-off merchandise.

  • jvoelcker

    Boon: It all depends on WHEN the cars are charged. You can be sure that the utilities will heavily incent owners (through price breaks) to charge their cars in the trough of the utility demand curve, i.e. between 10 pm and 5 am.

    Remember also that because the packs are so expensive, these cars will roll out gradually. One EV is equivalent to 4 plasma TVs, I’m told, and we’re not panicking over the impact on the grid of a million or more plasma TVs every year ….

    The utilities LOVE the idea of selling their consumers fuel for their cars, and at least one study shows that if PHEVs are fueled largely at night, we have enough existing spare capacity in the off-peak hours to fuel 40 million EVs every night without adding a single new power plant.

  • mdensch

    Interestingly, the author makes no mention of battery technology. I guess we just have to assume that the challenges will be overcome, but without some great leap in battery storage capacity none of this is going to happen.

    [And, Anonymous, the author does, in fact, state in the fifth paragraph that: "And battery electric vehicles end up with the best ratings across all six factors, compared to various types of combustion engines and fuel cells." One of those factors was, in fact, autonomous range.]

    Finally, this is the first time that I’ve seen a figure as high as 70% efficiency for electric vehicles but let’s run with it. So production of electricity is 40% efficient and the vehicle itself is 70% efficient, so the “well to wheels” efficiency is 70% of 40% or 28%, in the same ball park as internal combustion engines . . . according to the article.

  • Need2Change

    This article is right on. Due to the world population growing and oil supplies diminishing, the price of oil will continue to climb much faster than inflation. Gasoline may reach $6/gallon in the U.S. before 2010, and exceed $20/gallon by 2020. This will drive change.

    And as the article states, change will take decades. The decade of 2000 was clearly a decade of the internal combustion (IC) engine. Even hybrids use the IC engine.

    The 2010 decade will be the decade of the hybrid — including series hybrids like the Volt–with two sources of energy. Still, many IC only cars will be sold–especially early in the decade.

    By 2020, there will still be a lot of IC powered cars in the world, but very few of the new cars will have gasoline or deisel engines.
    Most new cars will be pure electric, CNG, or fuel cell hybrid cars.

  • Bryce

    In the long run, electric vehicles are more cost effective to consumers once any energy storage issues are taken care of. I don’t know about the CNG and Fuel cell predictions above, but there will most certainly be some sort of electric component in most new cars whether it be hybrids or electric cars.

  • ex-EV1 driver

    70% EV efficiency and 40% power plant efficiency are actually some of the more pessimistic numbers I’ve seen. Battery charging tends to be over 90% efficient, discharging is also over 90% efficient and the the electric motor is over 90%. This means that worst case total efficiency is 90% X 90% X 90% or about 73%.
    Old coal power plants run around 40% efficiency, however, modern combined cycle co-generation plants are 75% or better. Perhaps, if we’re looking toward the future, we could take the average between these two number so let’s say 55% (slightly pessimistic). Transmission losses for the power grid average about 90%.
    This means that an EV’s overall efficiency is around 73% X 55% X 90% or about 36%.
    The ICE generally starts around 25% at its best (diesels today are a bit better), then you have to add a transmission which is about 80% efficient so you get 20%.
    It is, of course, very difficult to measure the losses in refinering and transporting gasoline, however, I do know that the largest user of electricity in the State of California is the oil industry, for pumping and refining the oil so the losses are clearly huge. Since the the pump-to-wheel efficiency for an ICE is only about 20%, it is clearly a lot worse than the ICE, even if there was 100% refinery, production, and transportation efficiency.
    Some estimates I’ve seen suggest that an EV could go about 20 miles on the electricity required to refine 1 gallon of gasoline. I’d love to get the real numbers on how much energy is used to refine a gallon of gasoline but, funny enough, these aren’t readily available.

    Personally, I believe that a properly designed diesel serial hybrid might be able to leverage a diesel engine optimally designed for constant RPM and torque so that it might start to come closer to an EV but I don’t see it ever surpassing today’s EV.
    Of course, the EV has the benefit of the ability to utilize any form of alternative energy that can be converted into electricity. Any ICE vehicle will require that any alternative enrgy sources be converted into a fuel that can be handled by its fuel system and combusted in it.

  • Samie

    Nice to see everyone is looking at cost of the inputs into production and energy storage of vehicles. Line-loss is a huge problem that needs to be addressed. AC to DC would help a lot, that is if we develop ways to make conversion from DC line use to AC (home use) more efficient. Whats interesting about most peoples arguments is that numbers are based on current conditions and technologies. Mining for low sulfur coal is controversial along with mining of some battery inputs so it is not without some issues. Agree if everything was equal between gasoline combustion and EV’s w/ EV’s we have the choice of adding an array of energy inputs to run our vehicles wc of course reduces many fluctuation in energy prices and aids development of alternatives like solar.

    Long term those great alternative fuels that people talk about have the same issues of price and import concerns I always wonder if our short term thinking will distract us from any long term solutions like greater advancements in a shorter time for EV’s and eventually using Hydrogen or water vapors to drive our cars.

  • Bryce

    ex ev1 driver….

    it is a series hybrid…..not serial

    why does everyone make this mistake.

    think of physics and series and parallel.

  • mdensch

    I’m still waiting for someone to address the battery issue in this discussion. As I noted, until we can achieve much greater storage capacity (affordably) than we have today, all bets are off. And until that day comes, discussions such as this are little more than dreamy reveries.

    Also, while we may be able to produce much more of our electricity from clean sources some day, the fact is that the majority of our current (no pun intended) production comes from coal. In calculating the “well to wheel” efficiency we would also have to factor in the amount of energy it took to remove the coal from the ground, prepare it for use as a fuel and then deliver it to power plants.

    Samie is quite correct in noting that line-loss is fairly significant and reduces overall efficiency if it is factored into the calculations.

    One other issue is the matter of motor fuel taxes. It is essential that we maintain funding sources to keep up our network of highways and bridges and a wholesale shift to electricity would compromise that funding. This problem is not insurmountable, of course, but will need to be addressed. Today, all-electric vehicle owners enjoy a significant cost advantage partly because they are not paying the motor fuel taxes but eventually that will have to change.

    Finally: Is Honey Nut Cheerios a cereal hybrid?

  • Bryce

    It’s true that batteries and the electricity put into them are not exactly as efficient as they potentially could be, but with more time and investment into them, like the internal combustion engine has had, then they would greatly improve. Remember, the ICE has had a century and the electrics, not nearly as long.

    Ultimately though, the fuel used to power an electric car comes from sources that don’t loathe us….whereas the same most certainly can’t be said for a lot of the sources of oil. (ie Venezuela, Iran…..Canada….lol)

  • RandalH

    @Bryce: Most articles I’ve seen use the terms serial and series interchangeably. After all, the definition of serial is “arranged in a series”. Personally, I think it’s a pointless distinction.

  • ex-EV1 driver

    You’ll see that I did include that “Transmission losses for the power grid average about 90%.”. As you see, this is pretty good!

    This efficiency is obtained by transforming electricity up to extremely high voltages for long distance transmission. The efficiency of the grid is one benefit of the PUC regulations on the power companies: They make more profit if they can transmit the power more efficiently. Also, regarding your DC/AC comment, the most efficient transmission line in the US is a cross-country DC line. When our grid was set up, AC was the only thing that could reasonably be converted to and from high voltages for lower transmission loss. Today’s efficient semiconductor power electronics have made DC to DC voltage conversion quite economical and efficient.

    My experience with energy systems is that once you get to 90% efficiency, there are probably other things that you should start focusing on, rather than trying to get a little more efficiency out of it.

    I’m not going to worry too much about series -vs- serial. Of course, the nom-de-jeur for the serial hybrid by Tesla and GM seems to be the REEV or Range-Extended Electric Vehicle.

    I’ll be happy to get into batteries but lets go with a different thread. In short, batteries are adequate today and getting much better.
    Regarding coal: The great efficiency of the electric grid, batteries, and electric motors make even 100% coal generated electricity about the same with regards to CO2 and particulate emissions as a Prius burning gasoline. There have been several independent studies which indicate this. With the national mix, which isn’t 100% coal, the EV immediately pulls ahead and, in the case of California with very little coal generated electricity, it’s a no-brainer in favor of the EV.
    Getting coal out of the ground and transported to a power plant is also quite efficient. It is done in mile-long unit trains from one point to another. It is burned with essentially no processing other than crushing. This is a lot easier than shipping oil across the world and refining it, then transporting it to hundreds of thousands of gas stations that cars need to drive to in order to fill up. I haven’t actually done nor have I seen any actual computations on this but clearly the coal wins at each step of the way.
    Motor fuel taxes are certainly an issue but I’m sure its a lot easier than spending $500 billion of government money each year on importing oil.
    Come on, with batteries and electricity running at 90% efficiency at each stage while ICE is only in the low 20% range, I don’t really see much improvement being necessary for a long time.
    The only place where we really need improvement today is to get the prices of large format batteries down. This can be handled through mass production of them.

  • Samie

    ex-EV1 driver my point about DC is that there is very little line loss but when you convert DC to AC that’s where you run into problems with energy loss. Maybe you are right about technology of semiconductor power but our grid is still setup with lots of AC lines and there is no real push to move back to DC use. The great thing about DC is say you build solar, tidal, or say wind you can carry the generated power further then just into local areas. The importance of this is you can utilize different regions for different alternative energy sources. Not sure a loss of 90% is good but you are right that industry insiders claim this is not that bad. Efficiency in production and transportation will get better due to the independent nature of electrical production of varies resource inputs.

  • ex-EV1 driver

    The LOSS is only 10%, the EFFICIENCY is 90% !!
    We really don’t lose much electricity when we ship it over high tension transmission wires.
    The benefit to switching to 100% DC infrastructure would only increase the power grid’s overall efficiency by a few percent (clearly, 10% is the best that is even left for improvement although you can’t come very close). Maybe a multi-$trillion effort would bring our grid up to 95% but that’s only a 5% improvement.
    DC to AC conversion is pretty good today as well, definitely much greater than 90% efficiency, especially with well controlled, high power systems.
    At 90% efficiency, today’s electrical grid is an outstanding way to bring alternatively produced energy from its sources to its users.

    Let’s not knock something that is awesome today!

  • Bryce

    That’s is actually what I meant by making batteries better….cheaper and smaller, like computer chips. The cheaper and smaller you make them, the more you can fit into a vehicle. : )

  • berk

    The great thing about EVs is you can charge them from your own power sources, e.g. solar panels or wind turbines happily buzzing away while you zoom around town. No transmission losses, no terrorist threats, etc., etc. If carbon sequestration ever becomes a reality, electricity from coal powered stations would also take care of the CO2. Hydrogen for fuel cells needs electricity to generate it. Why go to all the bother of of this middle step(with all the consequential power losses and problems of transport and storage)when we can use the electricity directly in battery powered vehicles delivered through well established and efficient networks?

  • German Tedesco

    Please check an old Peugeot 404 from the seventies and you will realize what a lie is behind every EPA figure mandated to car manufacturers. Future is EV. Present work should led to it. Do not get fooled on gas distractions …. Help and back your local EV association or create one is yours is far away. We can not drill our way out. EV’s are the solution. More than one century years trying to block the sunrays with a hand show the mistake and the conspirational movement to favour oil instead of electricity. Go efficient, go green, go electric.

  • kirk

    I just read about a modified lead acid battery that if for real would make electric vehicles very popular within a few years…….
    The battery called the CNT Battery ( mfg by Micro Bubble Technologies)
    is a lead acid battery modified with carbon nanotubes and a new electrolyte which supposedly increases the capacity by 800 percent, decreases the recharge time to 10 minutes, and increases the longevity of the battery by 500 percent…….
    This battery will be available in a new electric vehicle The Current
    soon to be released by Electric City Motors in Parker, Colorado….
    The range of The Current with an unmodified lead acid battery pack was 55 miles but with the CNT battery(modified lead acid battery 350 miles and recharges in 10 minutes…
    The cost to modify the batteries seemed very reasonable….the modifed battery cost less than double the cost of a normal battery.
    We have many lead acid battery manufacturers in the U.S., with plentiful raw materials available in the U.S. , and a large no. lead acid batteries are recycled….
    The problem with lead acid batteries has been limited storage capacity for the weight. Looks like this problem may have been solved……
    The cost for a modifed battery pack storing 50KWH would probably be $2,500. (my guess) while a lithium pack would cost
    many times more ( I believe I read that the Volt’s battery which stores 15KWH cost $10,000.???)
    I truly hope Micro Bubble Technologies CNT Battery is available soon…..
    I would love to have a reasonalbly priced electric vehicle with a long range and quick recharge and long life…

  • elizabeth

    i think that this is retarted the future is gonna be like it is now so everyone needs to chill about electric cars and shit!!!

  • Trav

    who is the author of this article so i may quote him/her in my research paper.

  • Electric Car

    More municipalities need to offer free charging stations and preferential parking to all-electric vehicles. By doing so, there will be more than the environmental incentive to own an electric car.

  • stoobeedoo

    1) No such thing as free. Q: So who pays for your “free” charging stations? A: other people – so you can drive a car of your choice and have it be more convenient for you
    2) You also want preferential parking treatment because of your choice of car? Really? Walking is pretty green too, remember

    If the market thought this was a BETTER product people would get on board quicker. When it is a better product the market will move to it.

  • Shield

    I 100%agree with stoobeedoo. You can not seriously think that if you own a electric car you deserve free charging and better parking spots.