The electric vehicle revolution | The week

Battery-powered cars and trucks are selling out fast. Will they soon rule the road? Here’s everything you need to know:

What changed ?

Electric vehicles have become the most popular cars on the market. The demand for battery-only vehicles is so great that some buyers are forced to post deposits months before their car is available. In a recent Pew poll, 39% of Americans said they would likely make their next car electric. With car tailpipes being the biggest source of emissions in the United States, the federal government is strongly encouraging the switch to electric, offering $7,500 in federal tax rebates. Tesla, the reigning electric vehicle (EV) king, sold nearly a million cars globally last year, up 87%, while sales of internal combustion vehicles from Ford and GM soared. fall. Europe, with electric vehicles representing 14% of all vehicles sold in 2021, and China, with 9%, are more advanced than the United States, which had 3%. But U.S. automakers are moving quickly to electrify their fleets as the industry globally invests $500 billion in new factories and technologies. “This is probably one of the greatest industrial transformations in the history of capitalism,” said Scott Keogh, CEO of Volkswagen Group of America. The New York Times. “The investments are massive, and the mission is massive.”

Why are buyers so keen on electric vehicles?

Eliminating tailpipe emissions remains the main reason to go electric, but electric vehicles have evolved rapidly. With their futuristic design and high-torque motors, electric cars are now widely seen as powerful, high-tech and cool, even a status symbol. Ford’s all-electric Lightning version of its F-150 pickup truck is the fastest F-150 ever built, going from 0 to 60 mph in 4.4 seconds, and it can tow up to 10,000 pounds. Ford had to cap pre-orders at 200,000. “We’re going to be able to sell whatever we can build,” a Ford official said. Tesla’s Cybertruck, which starts at $39,900 and looks like it came from a sci-fi movie decades away, generated 250,000 orders within days of its debut. Not only does the average electric vehicle save owners $500 a year on fuel costs, but vehicle prices have dropped 10.8% over the past year. Some buyers like the fact that EVs, which don’t have a motor under the hood, offer a second trunk. Others like the ability to use the battery as a portable generator and power source. Ohio business owner Eddie Berry plans to use his Lightning to power an electric smoker and television at Ohio State football tailgates. “I’m going to be the guy everyone’s talking about,” he said.

What is the battery life?

It varies widely, with a full charge powering 110 miles of driving in a Mini Cooper Electric, to 373 miles for some Teslas. GM says its next generation of lithium-ion batteries will have a range of up to 450 miles. But there are many variables, including speed and even weather, because it takes a lot of juice to heat an EV without the heat output of a traditional engine. Therefore, the biggest barrier to EV adoption is “range anxiety” – the fear of running out of power, especially on long journeys. There are now around 50,000 charging stations in the United States. Last year’s infrastructure bill allocated $5 billion to build 500,000 charging stations, but it will take years to reach that target. Expensive chargers can fully charge an electric vehicle battery in as little as 15 minutes, while the more common types take up to 20 hours.

How green are these cars?

Only as green as the grid that charges them. In Poland, driving an electric vehicle actually generates more carbon emissions because the network is so dependent on coal, while in France, which runs its network largely on nuclear power, driving an electric vehicle saves 96% of carbon. In the United States, the average electric vehicle emits 200 grams of carbon dioxide per mile, compared to 385 grams for the fuel-efficient Toyota Camry or 636 grams for a gas-powered F-150. The benefits are already visible, with Southern California – which has embraced electric vehicles – seeing a 4% drop in nitrogen oxide emissions from passenger cars. Mining the lithium, cobalt and nickel needed for modern batteries also consumes a lot of energy and water, although scientists say the environmental impact of oil drilling and pipelines is much worse.

What does the future hold?

It will take years and a major cultural shift to replace the 280 million cars and trucks on American roads, but automakers plan to make their fleets fully electric by 2035. There are plans for more than a dozen electric vehicle and battery plants in the United States, including four new GM plants in Michigan and others in Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina and Tennessee. FedEx, Walmart and Hertz have placed huge orders for electric vehicles. Change hasn’t come so quickly since the Model T rolled off the assembly lines. It’s “like going from horse to car,” said Andy Palmer, a former Nissan executive who helped launch the first mass-produced electric car. “It’s that seismic.”

The problem of battery minerals

Industry analysts say it’s only a matter of time before “battery security” becomes a geopolitical priority like “energy security” is today. Countries and companies are racing to take control of mines in mineral-rich countries such as Bolivia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Australia and parts of the South Pacific. This raises a myriad of humanitarian concerns, including the reliance on child labor in a politically unstable Congo, as well as toxins and air pollution resulting from the mining of certain metals. Prices for lithium, cobalt and nickel are skyrocketing, and China – with its government pumping $100 billion into the new industry – controls 80% of the lithium battery supply chain, including the factories that refine the raw metals that go into battery cells. Even with Tesla and Panasonic’s colossal battery manufacturing “gigafactory” in Nevada, and plants planned by other automakers in the South and Midwest, the United States may be forced to outsource battery manufacturing. to Chinese companies. “China’s problem with internal combustion engines was that they were always playing the catch-up game,” said Bill Russo, a former Chrysler China chief. “Now the United States needs to catch up with electric vehicles.”

This article first appeared in the latest issue of The week magazine. If you want to know more, you can try six risk-free issues of the magazine here.

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