Fake news’ is in the spotlight these days, but ‘prediction’ remains reliably newsworthy, symptomatic, no doubt, of our collective yearning to see the way forward in our ever-changing world. Generally, the sources are experts able to monitor the unfolding of, for example, progressive technological developments.
In the automotive universe, prediction continues to focus on the self-driving or driverless car, and the electric car or EV, which are increasingly overlapping, prototype EVs also containing autopilot features. Lately, experts are predicting that significant uptake of EVs is a mere decade away, despite their having accounted for only 1.2% to 1.4% of total market share over the past three years.
Automotive industry forecasters are saying “the 2020s will be the decade of the electric car” based on many factors. Of course, battery technology developments are key. The current state of lithium-ion battery development has enabled achievement of acceptable and ‘affordable’ (at the luxury end of the market) performance.
Intensive research and development are predicted to produce, however, on the one hand, a more affordable option—Tesla, Chevy, and Nissan are all currently planning to sell long-range EVs in the $30,000 range— on the other, a continuing progression of development making it increasingly difficult to predict where this technology will go and what the inevitable correlative changes will be.
Size, power, weight, range, components, charging time and method, durability, cost—all are in flux. As a recent article attempting to overview the latest advances puts it: “Future batteries, coming soon: Charge in seconds, last months and power over the air.” Incorporating these ever-evolving advances into a marketable product with a set production platform will be an ongoing challenge.
‘Early adoption’ of EVs may prove, if this isn’t the case already, a very extended stage as the ‘latest iteration’ becomes ‘upstaged old’ before it can ever penetrate the market more extensively. Some forecasters are now saying the plug-in hybrid may be more durable than expected, persisting as a transitional technology meeting traditional driving range, performance, and pricing needs.
The development of charging infrastructure is another important but inconclusive factor, presenting a particularly challenging example of the ‘chicken and egg’ conundrum. Growth in commercial charging stations is one of the keys to enabling longer range driving, but how battery technology evolves also affects how this infrastructure needs to be designed and deployed. An estimate from late 2016 says there are currently 30,000 charging stations across the US compared to a Wall Street Journal estimate of 90,000 gas stations.
Analysis of the environmental benefits of a significant shift to EVs—surely one of the key motivators for doing so—also remains surprisingly inconclusive. The larger the scale of the view, the more complex this determination becomes. Presumably electric power generation must increase on some basis. The capacity to do so and its environmental impact will presumably vary based on geography, and resource and population base. And this also involves the ‘wild card’ of potential new technologies surrounding electricity generation.
Perhaps, at this point, the safer prediction is that the 2020s may be the decade of the electric car.