In the near future EVs (electric vehicles) will increasingly replace ICE (internal combustion engine) vehicles as our primary form of transportation, and that pace is going to accelerate. I am convinced that this is inevitable for three main reasons: the economics of EVs, the pace of innovation in EVs, and the ERoEI (Energy Returned on Energy Invested) of solar and wind vs. oil.
At this point it is very unlikely that any other technology under development has the potential to replace EVs as the way we're going to get around in the future. Any other technology would not only have to beat ICE cars on price, performance, and efficiency, but it would have to overcome the large and growing gains that EVs are already making in these areas.
Soon EVs Will Cost Less Than ICE Vehicles - Outright
This year GM dropped the price of the Chevy Volt by $5,000. Nissan dropped the price of their Leaf models by $2,500-$3,500 and introduced a new economy model starting at only $28,800. That's before the $7,500 federal rebate. Some states offer substantial tax credits on top of that, and now that the Leaf is more widely available, you can easily walk out of a dealership with a Leaf S for $20,000 or less. Compare that to a similarly equipped Toyota Prius II with an invoice price of $23,700, and you can see the edge that the Leaf is quickly developing against other cars even before fuel costs are tallied.
You can still get a Corolla, Civic, or similar car for less than a Leaf S, but for how long? In only two years the Leaf's price has dropped substantially, and other EVs are following suit. The Chevy Spark EV is starting at $27,500 and the BMW i3 is starting at $28,500 - both before incentives and credits and way sportier to drive than a Corolla or a Civic. The reason for these low and falling prices is likely the comparatively simple design. EVs are pretty much a battery driving a motor with a charger tacked on. Certainly, there are sophisticated electronics in the mix, but every modern car has a healthy dose of electronics. The electronics in EVs just serve a different function. Instead of controlling fuel injection and valve timing, it's managing a battery and a motor. The battery is where most of the cost is currently, but we are already seeing that drop as economies of scale start having an effect. There is a lot of room in EV production to wring out cost inefficiencies, whereas with ICE cars, most of those price reductions are long gone.
When more than half the price of an EV is in the battery, and the battery price has plenty of room to fall, ICE cars are going to find it tough enough to compete. But then you have to pay at the pump, too. According to the EPA at fueleconomy.gov, the average annual fuel cost of a typical 2013 vehicle with 23 MPG driven 15,000 miles per year is $2,350. For a car that averages 30 MPG, such as a Toyota Corolla, that comes down to $1,850 per year. For a Prius with 50 MPG, you can get down to $1,100 per year. The Leaf blows them all away with an average charging cost, according to the EPA, of $500 per year!
That means the Leaf can cost over $100 less per month to drive than a typical economy car, and remember that there's essentially zero maintenance on it as well. With gasoline prices more than likely to continue going up in the future, and battery costs going down, ICE cars will only get more expensive as EVs get cheaper. The idea should not be that EV prices will eventually converge with ICE prices. Instead, we are quickly reaching a crossover point where prices between the two diverge with EVs handily beating ICE cars on price as well as comfort and performance. The Leaf S can arguably already claim that position, and a real tipping point is not far off.
EVs Are at the Point Computers Were in the Early 1980s
EVs have a couple of major drawbacks that currently stop most people from considering them as their primary car: charging time and range. To that I say, EVs are in the early stages of a new technology wave similar to where computers and the internet were in the early 1980s. Think about how fast computer technology advanced in the 80s and 90s. They were slow and clunky and couldn't do much by today's standards, but their performance and capabilities were doubling every 18-24 months, courtesy of Moore's Law.
Batteries don't have a similar doubling law, but the amount of effort going into increasing their capacity will likely yield major improvements in the next decade. Technologies like lithium-air and sodium-air batteries and super capacitors show good promise, and the range really only has to double twice from the Leaf's 75 miles before it's comparable to a typical ICE car. That could easily happen in the next 6-10 years while battery prices hold at their current price or continue to drop. One more doubling past that, and EVs really start to make ICE cars look irrelevant.
Charging will become a non-issue even more quickly. Nissan already cut their charge times in half at Level 2 charging stations - from 8 hours for the 2011-2012 Leafs to 4 hours for the 2013 Leaf - with a 6.6 kW on-board charger. Other manufacturers have similar charge times, and there's also the Level 3 quick chargers that can charge a battery to 80% in 25 minutes. One thing is clear; EVs are advancing at a rate that is repeatedly making last year's models obsolete, similar to what was happening to computers over the last few decades.
If the EV of the near future has a 300-mile range and can be charged in 4 hours or less (the Tesla Model S is already there, but at 2-4 times the price of other EVs), the only real place that ICE cars still hold an advantage is with long road trips. If you want to drive 600 miles in a day, even an EV with a 300-mile range could be inconvenient. I think it would still be quite doable if the charging infrastructure was in place so that when you stop every hour or so to stretch your legs you can charge for 25 minutes. That would extend the range enough to go the whole day, and then you would charge overnight to start again the next day with a full battery.
I think there's a better solution, though. Most of that driving time will be spent under the sun, and solar panels are improving rapidly. What better way to extend the range than to slap some high efficiency panels on the car's roof and drive all day long? I'm sure that solar panels will reach the point where it would be possible to have an EV with infinite range as long as the sun is out, and on cloudy days you could fall back to plug-in charging or maybe inductive charging. If and when solar panels get good enough, they could provide the electric power for the motor directly to save some charging and discharging of the battery. Any extra power generated when the motor doesn't need it - either when coasting, stopped, or parked - could be stored in the battery for later. If you think about how often cars are just sitting outside parked in the sun, solar panels would be a huge win.
Clearly EVs are still in their infancy, and they are developing quickly. In 2011 the Leaf was the first EV intended for mass market sale to private consumers. The Chevy Volt was the first PHEV (plug-in hybrid electric vehicle) that same year. Now there are over a dozen EVs and PHEVs to choose from, and more are being announced every month. Nissan alone plans to produce 5 EV models. It won't be long before consumers will have EV options in every size class of car. The current state of EVs and the rate of innovation is truly reminiscent of the early days of personal computing, and in 30 years we will be as amazed at how much the automotive industry has changed as we are now with the telecommunications industry.
There is More Sunshine Than Oil
We have developed a massive infrastructure built on oil over the last 100 years that has enabled tremendous economic growth, but also a short-sighted dependence on a limited natural resource. Our transportation infrastructure is especially dependent on oil, and it is becoming clearer by the day that the amount of oil left in the ground is likely less than what we've already pulled out and is increasingly hard to get at. That means that every barrel of oil we suck out of field reserves costs more than the last one. That is why shale oil and tar sands are now economically viable oil fields to develop. If crude oil was still $40/barrel, those unconventional oil sources would be economically off-limits, but at $110/barrel they're profitable.
But stop and think about what crude oil really is. It is a concentrated and stored form of sunlight. Over millions of years, plants converted the sun's rays into organic material and animals fed on those plants, creating more organic material. All of that organic material died, decomposed and made its way into the oil reserves that we are now drilling and pumping out of the ground. The process takes so long and is so indirect that these reserves are a one-time deal. We are expending an enormous amount of effort digging sunlight out of the ground, and all the while it is shining us right in the face. There are much more immediate forms of energy that we can harvest more directly from the sun, and we already are doing so in limited quantities.
Growing crops that can be used to produce ethanol is one more direct method. It cuts out the time needed to decompose, concentrate, and store the sun's energy in the form of oil. However, the process of making ethanol takes more energy, produces a fuel with less energy content, and uses land that could be used to grow food instead. Hydroelectric dams and wind turbines are even more direct ways to generate usable energy from the sun through the water cycle and air currents, respectively. Both of these mechanisms are byproducts of the sun's rays shining through our atmosphere.
The most direct way we can convert sunlight into energy is by using solar PV (photovoltaic) panels to generate electricity. New concentrated PV panel arrays can be over 80 times more efficient than ethanol produced from sugar cane when comparing energy generation per acre of land. Even a new advance process of ethanol production that cultivates a form of algae that actually sweats the stuff is less than 1/5th as efficient as these CPV panels, and more electronics advances are coming down the pipeline to make CPV even more efficient.
If you look at the amount of energy returned on energy invested for each of these energy sources, and even more important, the trajectory of each of them, it becomes painfully obvious that oil is on its way out and solar and wind are on their way in.
While various forms of oil are becoming less ERoEI efficient, solar and wind power are becoming more efficient, and the amount of potential in these new renewable energy technologies is incredible. That means gasoline can only get more expensive in the future. It may stay even with its current prices as more people make the switch to renewable power, reducing the pressure on oil demand, but it can't get cheaper because there is a large and growing cost to extraction. Oil companies are not going to sell for less than it costs them to deliver the oil to market. Electricity generation is already one third to one quarter of the cost per mile as a vehicles power source, and solar and wind power will only make those costs drop further as more efficient renewable power plants come online. They are going to not only be able to replace oil as a source of energy, but also drive economic growth for the foreseeable future.
Solar and wind power are also a great match for EVs for three main reasons. First, they can generate the car's fuel directly with much greater efficiency. Oil production has efficiency losses every step of the way from drilling and extraction of harder to reach reserves, transportation of crude oil, the refining process, transportation of gasoline, and finally burning the fuel in an engine that's 25-30% efficient. In contrast, an EV hooked up to solar panels is directly converting solar energy to electric energy and dumping it in a battery that powers an electric motor that can be over 95% efficient. There are some losses going into and out of the battery, but they are nothing compared to the losses involved in the ICE car supply line.
Second, the extra storage capacity in EV batteries can smooth out the sporadic nature of renewable energy sources. Imagine if we had millions of EVs in the US with batteries that could collectively store hundreds of Gigawatt-hours of energy. This amount of extra storage in the grid would smooth out most of the intermittent supply problems of solar and wind power, and with most cars being charged at night, they would also help regulate total energy consumption during off-peak hours for hydroelectric and wind power so that it doesn't go to waste.
Finally, once EVs have enough range, consumers could reserve a portion of their battery power to source back to the grid during peak energy usage hours, but that may not even be necessary. As batteries get retired from service in vehicles, power companies are already planning to use them for extra storage, neatly solving the battery recycling issue. This could also be done on a smaller scale by individuals. My Leaf's 24 kWh battery is almost enough to cover my home's electricity needs for an entire day. If I could convert it to be used for storage for solar panels or a wind turbine, I could go completely off the grid and still be able to weather temporary power generation shortages from cloudy or calm days. My home would become a self-sufficient power plant. The combination of renewable energy and EVs gives people the possibility of true personal energy independence for the first time since the industrial revolution started.
The Future is Now
EVs are the future of transportation, and as their prices drop, battery technology improves, and renewable energy advances, it will become undeniable. Right now there are a lot of people who refuse to believe that EVs will actually succeed or actively want to see them fail. I can only say that these people are on the wrong side of history. Don't underestimate the power of technological progress. In thirty years those naysayers are going to look like the people that thought the internet was a fad. EVs are a big part of the next technology wave that's currently building strength. Are you ready to ride that wave, or are you going to let it wash right over you?
The Rest of the Leaf Series:
Part 1: The Acquisition
Part 2: The Summer Drive
Part 3: The Winter Drive
Part 4: Frills and Maintenance
Part 5: The Data
Part 6: The Future
Part 7: The Energy Efficiency Meter