How Quickly will the Electric Vehicle Revolution Come?

Posted on April 29, 2014
Posted By: Davis Swan
 

In a previous posting I stated my belief that the pure electric vehicle was the way of the future and that this sector of the automobile industry would grow more or less continuously for the foreseeable future. I decided to do a bit more investigation into how quickly that could happen given trends in vehicle sales over the past few years. I also decided to look into what has been happening with fuel economy rates given that retail gasoline prices have more than doubled in North America in the last ten years. Unfortunately, what I found was not terribly encouraging.

The chart below displays U.S. vehicle sales since the turn of the century.

There are a couple of things of note.

First, the shift from passenger cars to "trucks" (which includes SUVs) between 2000 and 2005 was significant. This trend did not slow down until the price of gasoline hit about $2.30/gallon and even then the impact was not dramatic. What was very dramatic was the decline in vehicle sales in the U.S. as the financial crisis of 2008/2009 battered the economy.

In those years, when cash was scarce for so many Americans, vehicle sales dropped almost 30% sending almost every U.S. automobile manufacturer into bankruptcy. Truck/SUV sales were hit particularly hard, dropping below sales for passenger cars for the first time in the 21st Century. Presumably this reflected a recognition that the cost of owning and operating a truck/SUV was hard to justify in tough economic times.

As the economy gradually recovered it could have been the case that this lesson would have had a lasting impact; that more economical and fuel-efficient vehicles would continue to dominate. Sadly (in my opinion), this has not been the case.

Sales of Trucks/SUVs have rebounded even more quickly than sales of passenger cars and have regained their leadership position. There is every indication that the gap will continue to grow despite historically high gasoline prices.

What impact have these buying patterns had upon the average fuel consumption for the U.S. vehicle fleet? The trends are shown in the graph below.

The gap in fuel economy between trucks/SUVs and passenger cars is large and has actually increased from 6 MPG to over 7 MPG since the turn of the Century. This is primarily because the two categories of vehicles are treated differently under the Energy Policy and Conservation Act which mandates certain levels of fuel economy for vehicles manufactured in the U.S.

The bottom line is that despite having made some progress in the past few years Canada and the U.S. continue to exhibit the worst vehicle fuel economy in the world (for an in-depth analysis see "International comparison of light-duty vehicle fuel economy: An update using 2010 and 2011 new registration data"). And despite record-breaking retail gasoline prices, tough economic times, and an increasing awareness of environmental issues we keep slipping back into the habit of driving fuel-hungry vehicles.

There are justifiable reasons for that purchasing pattern. We do get some nasty weather in much of North America including snow and ice which makes a four wheel drive vehicle a safer ride. And because there are so many SUV's, pickup trucks and 4x4's on the road driving a smaller, lighter passenger car can be more than a little intimidating. To some extent the whole situation becomes one of "I need to drive a big, strong vehicle because everyone else has a big, strong vehicle."

Is there any realistic hope that vehicle buying habits will change in North America anytime soon? The incentives for such change could include significant increases in retail gasoline prices (very likely in the next 5-10 years), significant changes to the CAFE rules (unlikely because of intractable opposition from automobile manufacturers and conservative politicians), and/or a real change in public attitudes towards CO2 reductions that could moderate climate change (I have seen very little evidence of this as described in another posting).

Taking all factors into account the prognosis for a significant change to more fuel-efficient, generally more expensive and smaller vehicles is poor. That does not bode particularly well for EV's which are even more expensive and often smaller than fuel-efficient gasoline, diesel, or propane-powered vehicles.

It was recently announced here in British Columbia that the the "Clean Energy Vehicle Program Rebate" has depleted its funding pool and would not be extended. These rebates provided up to $5,000 in direct government grants for EV's, representing about 14% of the price of a Nissan Leaf. Even with this fairly generous rebate program less than a thousand EV's were sold in BC in the last two years - and BC considers itself (perhaps incorrectly) to be the "greenest" province in Canada.

There is another concern that may start to become apparent over the next year or two.

The new breed of EV's rely upon Lithium-ion batteries - the same type of battery that is used to power mobile phones, laptop computers, iPads and other tablets. Having used these types of devices extensively over the past 10 years I have never had a single device where the battery was not essentially useless after about 3-4 years. Perhaps automobile batteries will perform better - I certainly hope they do. But as the early Nissan Leafs and Tesla's start to age they may degrade significantly; And that would have a chilling impact on EV sales around the world (note that the Prius uses a NiCad battery that has proved to be extremely reliable over 10 years or more).

So have I changed my opinion on EV's? The short answer is "No". I still believe that we have embarked upon a revolutionary change that will take place at a steady pace. However, it could well be that the pace of that change will be slow for most of this decade. Only a serious spike in the price of oil, which is always a possibility, could radically speed up the EV revolution. But that would have all kinds of other negative economic impacts that we would all probably like to avoid.

Addendum:

Less than a week after writing this post I was on a business trip to Anaheim and finally was lucky enough to find a Nissan Leaf "in the wild". It's owner, Matt Buchanan was kind enough to spend a few minutes talking to me about his beautiful "Felix". In fact he stated that he was always happy to talk to people about the car and has had lots of questions about it.

Matt has had the car for a few months and is very pleased with it. He noted that the acceleration was particularly impressive and he feels that the Nissan Leaf is the best engineered car he has ever driven.

In terms of range Matt feels that the 75 mile range on a charge is a reasonable claim although he has not driven more than about 50 miles with the car yet - hasn't had the need to in his normal driving.

One issue that Matt highlighted was the situation with fast charging stations. Originally almost all the stations were free but some are now charging a fee - typically a monthly subscription plus a per minute charge. So this will impact the economics of driving the car if the trend continues.

Overall Matt is very satisfied with his "Felix" and would recommend a Nissan Leaf to anyone considering purchase of an EV.
 

 
 
Authored By:
Davis has been involved with energy policy development and the exploration of innovation in energy use throughout his career. For more than 20 years he worked in the oil & gas industry where he had broad exposure to the technologies used in the development of natural gas, conventional oil, heavy oil, and tar sands resources. He has also acted as the energy policy advisor for the Official Opposition in the
 

Other Posts by: Davis Swan

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Comments

May, 02 2014

Malcolm Rawlingson says

Very interesting article Davis and some useful findings here. None that surprise me in the least but it is nice to see it written down and presented graphically. Good job.

My views on the rapid introduction of electric vehicles should be well known but in a nutshell the massive loss of jobs that would result from it will cripple the US and world economy for decades. Also - and I think instinctively people know very well that if they spend a pile of their hard earned money on a switch to a cheaper fuel it will be just a matter of time before the "cheaper: fuel becomes just as expensive as the fuel you just left....therefore you get a vehicle that does less and costs more to buy and the same to run.

The reason is Governments of course. No one in their right mind believes that any Government is going to give up the gravy train of revenues from taxation on gasoline. If gasoline sales drop Governments will simply move their taxation tools to the different fuel - whether that is natural gas or electricity or digested pig manure or whatever alternative you come up with.

The only and I do mean the only way this is going to work is if the vehicle itself can generate all the power it needs.Then governments would be faced with the politically dangerous area of actually having to tax sunshine. If you plug it in to any system controlled by others the result will be taxation to the same level as gasoline.

The advent of Graphene solar panels where the car body itself is made of solar collectors is a way off but certainly the potential is there to do it. I am told by experts in this field that multi-layered Graphene sheets can be configured to capture the entire range of the Suns energy. The resulting panels are stronger than steel can be formed into any shape and are extremely light.

So the current crop of electric vehicles will not change the buying habits of people where their cars are concerned. What WILL change the graphs presented here is a vehicle that does not require the purchase of fuel. Has better range, better performance and lower maintenance costs than current vehicles and yes - can be made into a great big honking truck that can get through snowdrifts better than current vehicles. Then and only then will you see the changes. It is coming - but a couple of decades off yet.

Malcolm

May, 06 2014

Jack Ellis says

Davis, you've written an excellent, well informed article.

Malcolm, apparently graphenes have a bit of an achilles' heel that might make them unsuitable for automobile bodies: http://gizmodo.com/5995046/graphene-has-a-fatal-flaw

As far as taxation is concerned, a "fix" is already being considered in the form of allowing tolls on the US interstate highway system. In our part of North America, highways are funded by a combination of fuel taxes and license fees. If the tax portion goes down over time because motorists are shifting from gasoline to electricity, we either have to raise the money some other way or watch our roads and bridges get worse than they already are.

Jack Ellis, Tahoe City, CA

May, 08 2014

Malcolm Rawlingson says

Thanks Jack, I read the article you gave the link for. It does illustrate the practicalities of the material but at 100 times stronger than steel in its perfect state at only 50 times stronger than steel in its imperfect state still seems quite a good strength to weight ratio to me. Even if it were only twice as strong as steel we'd still be on a winner. Light and strong the engineers ideal material....like titanium except a whole lot more plentiful and cheaper.

I am sure electric cars will come but not for a while yet. The big problem is battery life and range. NiCad batteries are heavy that is why LiH batteries are preferred for auto applications. The fuel "economy" of most hybrids is not that good because the cars are hauling around two drive trains so not exactly light.

The beauty of a material like graphene is that it is both strong and light and can collect energy from the Sun at many wavelengths. That means the storage battery does not have to be as large or the range is greater. Of course all that goes out the window at night and the battery is the only source of power.

Far too many disadvantages to be popular with anything but the monied enthusiast. Malcolm

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