Barriers to electric car uptake

6 min read

Viewpoint Taking a deeper look at the electric car market, Craig Rice, Frazer Nash’s expert on the development of electric cars explores the barriers to entry in this arena and the biggest factors that could create a step change.

There is no denying that the plug-in electric vehicle (PEV) market has grown significantly in the past three years but sales are not rising as fast as many people predicted. This is not ground-breaking news as the numerous stories focusing on the low uptake of charging points attest to.

However, what is interesting to look at more deeply are the oft cited barriers to entry into the PEV market such as cost, fear of obsolescence and range anxiety, the last of which is the biggest issue by far. From here, we can examine the potential solutions and required innovations that could create a step change in usage and make PEV’s a more popular mode of transport.

Firstly, cost.  PEVs are expensive compared to an equivalent sized vehicle using a normal, internal combustion engine (ICE). Currently, the Government offers up to £5,000 towards the cost of a PEV. A recent study by the Electric Power Research Institute indicates that, if this and other incentives are considered within the total lifetime costs, then the difference is within 10 per cent of a conventional vehicle. Furthermore, given the current trajectory of fuel prices, this comparison is set to swing in favour of the PEV in the long term.

As with the cost barrier, fear of obsolescence due to outdated technology is a valid reason for concern, but hardly a unique issue. Obsolescence in this sense can be expected on all white goods, IT equipment etc. However, as regards obsolescence of the PEV as a mode of transport, it just won’t happen. The global level of investment and political will is too high. Not only are the car making giants fighting for leadership in this strategically-crucial area, but so are the technically-savvy and automotive-oriented nations of the US, Germany and Japan. For example, America aims to put one million electric vehicles on its roads by 2015 and the UK Government’s vision is that by 2050 almost every car and van in the UK will be an ultra-low emission vehicle.

Most people's everyday driving needs could be met by plug-in hybrids such as the Nissan Leaf, but many are put off by the expected difficulty of occasional longer trips

The majority of people’s day to day driving requirements match what the current generation of PEV’s have to offer. Studies have shown that between 70 and 80 percent of drivers in urban areas can easily use the 100 mile capacity that PEV’s have for their daily commute and small additional trips each day. However, when thinking of the exceptional journeys sometimes taken which exceed 100 miles, in the context of a limited charging network, eliminates the PEV as a valid choice for some.

Clearly then, technological advancements are one of the biggest challenges facing innovators in this field, with the majority setting their sights on the silver bullet of a 500 mile range. Current contenders in this field include Carbon Nanotube Electrode Lithium and Lithium Air Carbon.

”At some point in time, there will be a solution that effectively eliminates range anxiety for 99 per cent of people. The million dollar question is when and whether it will be economically viable

Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are using layers of carbon nanotubes, to develop the Carbon Nanotube Electrode Lithium battery that can store and release more energy than a conventional lithium battery. The nanotubes used by MIT are commercially available, but are at least five years away from being fully developed into large scale production.

IBM is developing a lithium-air battery with the potential for far more energy density than current batteries. IBM says its battery can last much longer during a charge because it uses carbon electrodes in which the ions react with oxygen (think of it as a breathing battery). The battery technology, however, is not expected to be commercially available to electric car makers until 2020.Finally, to complicate the market further, the Office for Low Emission Vehicles (OLEV) recognises that a portfolio of solutions will be required to decarbonise road transport and this is becoming a reality. For example, Toyota plans to launch a hydrogen fuel cell car next year.

At some point in time, there will be a solution that effectively eliminates range anxiety for 99 per cent of people. The million dollar question is when and whether it will be economically viable. In the meantime the focus needs to be squarely placed on the development of a universal charging network that’s as easy to use as our network of petrol stations. People need to know that they will be able to find a charging point quickly and easily when they need one, and that when they do it will be compatible with their car. This is simply not the case in the UK at the moment.

The current PEV marketplace is extremely fragmented. Firstly, there are multiple charger types, although type two is effectively becoming the standard. The long term goal of the British Electrotechnical and Allied Manufacturers Association (BEAMA) is for all future charge points to be multi-standard (direct current (DC) including CHAdeMO,CCS as well as Type2 and the BS1363 domestic socket for “legacy” vehicles etc.). Secondly, regionalised offerings and local government level schemes add complexity (in part due to OLEV’s plugged in places – PIP – scheme). Finally, there are many different manufacturers and providers operating in the space, many of whom are small agile companies that can move faster than bigger firms. Therefore, there is a case for stronger regulation to ensure that if identical charging devices can’t be delivered, then they should at least be fully adaptable.

Ensuring that the Open Charge Point Protocol (OCPP) is utilised wherever possible, will be integral to the long term change needed. The OCPP is an application protocol for communication between EV charging stations and a charging station network which means customers can use multiple charging stations and networks can be easily formed.

”As it stands, only Estonia has managed to create a full electric infrastructure for its PEVs despite the level of attention this technology has

One of the most promising charging networks is the Charge your Car (CYC) network. Launched in 2010 as part OLEV’s PIP scheme, it is now a national network with over 1500 free-to-use or pay-to-use charge points. A single radio-frequency identification (RFID) card linked to a debit account provides access to all charge points on the network and allows people to pay for charging easily and quickly, much like the oyster card does for London travel. While this is convenient, it stops short of OLEV’s long term vision which is to enable people to charge using a credit or debit card at all public stations. This would radically improve accessibility and is being pushed forward with economic incentives - public charge point funding is only available where credit cards can be used.

As it stands, only Estonia has managed to create a full electric infrastructure for its PEVs despite the level of attention this technology has. Evidently then, the goal of a universal charging network is a long term one. There are a relatively large number of charge points that operate on modes one (slow domestic charge) to three (slow or fast charging using a specific EV socket-outlet as seen in most public charge points).

Currently, I believe the biggest need is for development of more mode four chargers (high power DC) along major trunk roads in the UK and in city centres. Mode four chargers can now take PEV batteries to 80 per cent in just 15 in minutes in some cases a greatly reduced time when compared to the slow domestic charges that would typically be done over a number of hours. Expanding the number of mode four chargers would mean that, on the odd occasion a PEV driver needs to make an exceptional journey, they would be able to recharge quickly and efficiently in their driving breaks. Indeed, BEAMA recommend opening up the mode four criteria to allow for a wider range of DC charging as lower power DC solutions can provide a very useful charge as well. Essentially, flexibility is high on the list for charging options.

In summary, it will take time to overcome both cost and fear of obsolescence in the minds of potential purchasers. The real issues are linked to range. Better batteries with greater ranges are inevitable but the universal charging network is more uncertain and more pressing. If regulators were to make standardisation of chargers,  charging points and their operating systems mandatory we could be sure that we were well on the way to delivering a high quality, competitively priced network of charging options rather than simply relying on industry to self regulate effectively.

Regulation would help to remove the real and imagined range barriers. Once everything is standardised and easily accessible, it is not too difficult to see the electric station becoming as common as the petrol station. Once we reach that stage, then take-off in the PEV market will be impressive to watch.

Craig Rice is an expert on the development of electric cars at Frazer-Nash, who formally advised on the Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Project as part of BEAMA.