Environmental considerations and technological developments have propelled the energy storage industry into hyper development mode, resulting in smaller carbon footprints, lower battery costs and increased Electric Vehicle (EV) car mileage. These developments have steered the industry towards newer Li-ion batteries, and away from Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) vehicles and classical rechargeable batteries like lead acid.

The Great Race

In November 1895, the Chicago Times-Herald sponsored a race to promote and grow the automotive industry. Of the 83 cars registered for the race, only 6 cars made it to the start line. Many automobile developers who had planned to participate were foiled by either mechanical difficulties or by the snowstorm which took place the night before the race. Two of the entries were electric, the Morrison Sturgis and the Electrobat II. The other four participants were gasoline powered cars, three of which were powered by Karl Benz’s novel engine. A snowstorm blanketed the 54-mile course, already rutted, with eight inches of new snow. Despite cold temperatures, ranging from 30 to 39 degrees, crowds lined the course. In a telling outcome, neither of the electric vehicles managed to finish. It marked the beginning of the end for electric vehicles, a technology which had initially been superior and far more popular than ICE vehicles. Lead acid batteries did not have the energy density to provide a competitive range against combustion engines.

Morrison-Sturgis EV

The Times They Are a-Changin'

For the next 100 years, the ICE vehicles reigned supreme. However, not everyone was happy with the status quo. Environmental concerns highlighting the automotive industry’s role in global CO2 emissions and fluctuations in the oil price, such as those found in the 1970s with the OPEC embargo and Iranian revolution, made finding a new solution a matter of urgency. Batteries started their automotive comeback with hybrid vehicles, typified by the Toyota Prius. This new breed of car incorporated batteries as a means of reducing fuel consumption when accelerating, and using regenerative charging when breaking. However, this new solution limited the car’s mileage when relying solely on electric power.

The king is dead, long live the king

In order to create a realistic alternative to combustion engines and hybrid cars, EVs need to overcome two major problems. (a) Provide a car with decent range (b) Provide a cost competitive solution The first problem was the easier of the two to solve. By swapping car batteries from lead acid to Li-ion, a technology that became commercially viable in the early 90s, cars could finally achieve the desired range. Li-ion batteries have considerably higher energy density than lead acid batteries. The Wh/kg for lead acid is in the 30-50 range, while Li-ion is 110-160. These smaller lighter batteries finally provided EVs with a long range, without a huge weight burden. The second problem, cost-competitiveness, was more of a challenge to solve. Companies from Japan and Korea lead the way in mass manufacturing of Li-ion cells, helping reduce the cost per kilowatt. McKinsey estimates that battery costs have fallen from 1,000 per kWh in 2010 to $227 per kWh in 2016. While these prices are still too high to make EVs cheaper than combustion engines, it has at least made them competitive, especially when incentives and subsidies are added to the mix.

The Future

While the future is hard to predict, Li-ion EVs look like they are here to stay. Dropping prices and improved efficiencies are greatly benefiting EV’s ability to compete with ICEs. It increasingly seems likely that regulation will spell the end of ICE vehicles with countries like Norway banning new sales by 2025 and France by 2040. Many other countries are also starting to implement legislation banning ICEs. In addition, many traditional automotive companies are also making the switch, such as Volvo, which promises to only make EVs or hybrid cars from 2019.

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