Ani May, Contributor.
In part one of this two part series, contributor Ani May gives us the lowdown on the cost and performance of electric vehicles.
Queen’s University and friends received celebrated environmentalist Jonathon Porritt earlier this month at the Clayton Hotel in Belfast. Discussing the future of environmental strategy in Northern Ireland, the reception often compensated for its lack of direction and clarity with enthusiastic – yet at times unhelpful – rhetoric.
Put simply, Jonathon would have Northern Ireland immediately and entirely ban the internal combustion engine in favour of investment in EV infrastructure. This would act as a steppingstone to the abolition of private transportation altogether. I was hoping that agricultural reform and supply chain optimisation would be higher on Jonathon’s agenda (or at least on it at all), and that the recommendations from the ‘young voices of the future’ might have extended further than reductively asking the deputy mayor to ‘plant more trees’, but for the purposes of this piece, I’ll address his most immediate recommendation: vehicular electrification. During my analysis of EV viability, I will be referring exclusively to category 1 fully electric vehicles as the most efficient representation of the electric revolution.
A panellist at the climate breakdown event made the excellent point that climate advocacy should not be reserved for the educated middle class. To analyse the EV question effectively, we’ll have to be able to cut through the ever-present noise of government lobbyists and address the humble concerns of the average Joe: what is the cost and are there performance limitations?
To the consumer
‘Accessibility’: a persistent buzzword in the media cloud surrounding EVs, yet a barrier to global roll-out. With big names like Tesla, BMW and Nissan long at the forefront of this industry offering their respective introductory models (the Model 3, i3 and Leaf) at a meagre £30-35k, it’s no wonder the average person believes EVs are out of reach to them. Fortunately, the UK government has subsidised up to £3500 off category 1 vehicles and axing congestion and road tax charges on investments that eventually pay for themselves through cost-per-mile and cheaper maintenance costs. What’s more, with ever-improving technologies leading to cheaper production and growing competition, market share for cheaper models and accessible brands is developing alongside an exciting landscape for the future of EV. Electric is the future with brands like VW launching their explosive new ID concept boasting glossy visuals and revolutionary designs spanning a broad performance range – a bold response to the 2015 emissions scandal fall-out.
The consumer base is slowly severing the psychological link between electric transport and luxury branding, for instance, dynamic players such as the Peugeot iOn (17k) and the Renault Zoe (20k) have emerged in a rapidly expanding lower-range market. With pioneering electric models trickling down into a strengthening second-hand market as well as insurance premiums plummeting as repair and maintenance data is collated, the economic case for consumer viability is well made.
To the manufacturer
It’s a well-known fact that the true cost of manufacturing an EV lies within the battery. A rounded century’s worth of mining and processing iron into steel for internal combustion engine (ICE) car parts has resulted in an efficient, low cost-per-unit mass-manufacture business model for the biggest players in distribution. They are served by an established supply chain, leagues ahead of its optimistic successor. Not only do EVs still require the use of materials processed for ICE cars, they have the added pressures of raw battery material supply constraints. A study cited by Forbes predicts a double-digit growth in demand for essential materials including lithium, nickel and cobalt culminating in a potential resource crunch in the mid-2020s – worrying as most manufacturers plan on total electrification by 2050. However, current predictions suggest the earth’s lithium supply as able to facilitate production of 4 billion total units. With continuing development into shrinking and optimising each unit size, it is estimated that by 2025 the battery will fall from 57% of total vehicle cost in 2015 to 20%, leading to a cross-over point where EVs will become cheaper to produce than ICE cars as regulations over their production tighten and fossil fuel resources deplete.
A possible offset to the cost of the battery is its impact on manufacturing jobs. The Financial Times cites a study conducted in 2017 by UBS financial analysts in which the production cost of the electric Chevrolet Bolt was compared to that of the well-loved VW Golf. It found that the Bolt had 125 fewer moving parts due to the exceptionally simpler design of its electric motor as opposed to that of its complicated ICE competitor (a difference which can now reach around 2000 as designs improve). Not only is the motor itself comprised of fewer parts, it can produce maximum torque at any RPM rendering the need for a bulky manual transmission obsolete. Furthermore, the benefits of this design also include a more robust product with cheaper repair costs and increased longevity. Streamlining the production process to the design of an EV will inevitably lead to a devastating restructuring of the manufacturing workforce – the extent of which is hard to predict at this time. It is reasonable to assume however, that this deficit will be covered by the increasing need for specialists in the chemical, electrical and software sectors as the workforce is forced to diversify.
To the government
Aside from glaring cost of subsidising EV ownership, the UK government has committed to £1.5bn worth of investment into UK zero emissions strategies. The growing energy demands of electrification and need for infrastructural overhaul provide also substantial outgoings for the UK government. As part of its commitment to having one of the ‘best electric vehicle infrastructure networks in the world’, the government has introduced a £400M ‘Chargepoint Infrastructure Investment Fund’ to increase electrical capacity while maintaining a market-led approach to regulation and development. Further investment into specialised teams working between local councils and commercial charging point providers will be required to efficiently allocate structural changes. This would allow the market to dictate which/how many locations would be most useful to the consumer without affecting adversely existing infrastructure. Yet, having a privately-owned charging network presents its own challenges: standardising payment options and charging methods will be critical in ensuring a uniform and easy consumer experience for a viable transition to EV. Further to this, the potential of additional strain on national power generation poses real fears as predictions show the current grid capacity would be unable to support simultaneous charging at peak times for a vehicle force in its current size. Options like smart charging (varying charging rates during peak times) and flexible charging (incentives for customers to charge outside of peak times) have been proposed, but a lot of work is still needed to smooth out the details.
The switch to EV may also carry with it a humanitarian cost. An estimated 80%-90% of lithium production occurs within the ‘lithium triangle’: Argentina, Bolivia and Chile. With depressed economies, vulnerable indigenous communities and relatively poor working conditions and infrastructure, this region will undoubtedly struggle to match projected demand over the coming decades. Finally, perhaps the most pressing cost of going electric is the diplomatic complexity of negotiating trade with governments facilitating human rights violations – a kick in the teeth for those hopeful for a departure from the ruthless politics surrounding OPEC ‘trade negotiations’ that have plagued the Middle East for at least as long as I’ve been alive. Albeit following decades of ravaging of its natural resources at the hands of Western imperialist powers, the Democratic Republic of Congo controls over 70% of global cobalt supply, with an extensive record of labour exploitation under Chinese traders to match. As recently as two months ago, the Kolwezi mining collapse during a clandestine operation in which at least 36 labourers died illuminated the extent of the situation as it currently stands. 10,000 illegal miners were subsequently removed by state authorities, bolstering records of child-labour rights violations and large-scale destruction of entire villages being brought to the attention of manufacturers and consumers in a manner that is becoming harder for the industry to navigate. Mining engineer David Lenigas has declared lithium the new oil, and this statement could be extended to other essential raw battery materials.
Currently, the EV with the longest range is the formidable ‘Tesla Model S Long Range’ managing 375 miles and sitting at £77,200. Speaking within Northern Irish constraints, that’s good for travelling from Belfast to Derry and back just under three times – a very comfortable allowance for Six County dwellers. Zooming out a little, and you wouldn’t be able to make it to Cork and back on a single charge. Lowering the vehicle price and battery size to slightly more accessible parameters leaves the average charge time for a product like the current Nissan Leaf (£30-35k, 30kWh) at around 4 hours. Nevertheless, how often would one need to drive from Belfast to Cork and back without a 4-hour charging break? With an expanding charge point network and home-charging options, public range anxiety seems a little over-exaggerated considering current capabilities are well with the realms of average consumption – and will continue to increase with technological development. Although rapid-charge options and ICE combo range-extenders are already available to help the transition, managing a consistent charging routine will still require some element of pre-planning and organisation which may or may not prove easy to assimilate to. Essentially, electric power is remarkably cheaper than unleaded petrol (British Gas puts the difference at 70% per 100 miles), and with cheaper servicing and projected insurance costs, the extra wait seems like a reasonable trade-off.
The instant torque generated by an electric motor creates powerful, direct forward motion right out the door, meaning you could feasibly smoke a diesel hyper car in a small electric hatchback within a 5m stretch. The weight of an ICE and the inefficiency of transmitting energy by moving heavy parts with combustion forces severely hinder its performance at low speeds, but EV motors are less able to sustain their power at higher speeds. In short, EV’s surpass their competition when it comes to start-stop city and in-traffic driving due to not having to waste energy as heat, but ICE vehicles still take the edge on the motorway. In terms of pure top speed, at present the fastest production car on earth is the gas-guzzling Bugatti Chiron Sport boasting a mighty 261mph, however with up-coming technological marvels such as Croatian manufacturer Rimac’s C Two allegedly able to reach 258 mph, that advantage is becoming less worthy of note to the average car buyer.