Range anxiety. Consumer confidence in EVs going the distance is key to phasing out gas and diesel

January 25, 2023

For well over a century, development of our transportation infrastructure has been dictated by vehicles powered by internal combustion engines (ICE) and fossil fuels. Combine that with a strong culture of individual vehicle ownership, and today, transportation accounts for approximately 14% of global greenhouse gas emissions. In metropolitan areas, that number rises dramatically.

As our reliance on fossil fuels increasingly hits our wallets, and the dramatic consequences of climate change are felt in nearly every region of the world, the race toward developing more green technology has led to rapid advances in plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEV), battery-electric vehicles (BEV), hydrogen fuels cell vehicles, and ultra-low emissions vehicles.

It wasn’t that long ago when environmentally conscious celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio were making headlines for buying the Toyota Prius, one of the first mass-production hybrids in the U.S. Today there are 28 different models of electric cars available in the U.S. And according to Automotive News, during the first three months of 2022, EV registrations in the U.S. skyrocketed by 60%, even as the overall market was down by 18%. 

These are certainly good trends as governments around the globe have begun mandating aggressive timelines for phasing out new ICE vehicles. However, a recent survey from Consumer Reports found that the lack of available public charging stations is a significant deterrent as buyers consider an EV for their next vehicle purchase. This is especially true in more rural communities and among businesses with busy fleet vehicles.

Moving from a call for change to real action.

In the U.S., President Joe Biden has called for half of the vehicles sold to be BEVs by 2030. To facilitate this, President Biden has allocated $174 billion from his infrastructure plan to bolster domestic supply chains for electric vehicles.

In California, vehicles (cars, vans, medium and heavy-duty trucks, and off-road vehicles) are the largest sources of pollution across the state, accounting for about 40% of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions. Gov. Gavin Newsom directed California’s Air Resources Board to mandate all new cars, pickup trucks, and SUVs be electric or hydrogen powered by 2035.

In September, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul announced New York will join California in requiring all new vehicles sold in the state to be zero-emissions by 2035.  

This past spring, Washington state lawmakers passed legislation requiring “all vehicles of the model year 2030 or later that are sold, purchased, or registered in the state must be electric,” making it the most ambitious in the country.

Transport is one of the U.K.’s largest sources of pollution, accounting for nearly 30% of national carbon emissions. In response, during the fall of 2020, Britain announced a ban on the sale of new diesel and gas cars and vans beginning in 2030. Last summer, the U.K. government expanded the ban, confirming it will also prohibit the sale of smaller, medium-duty, diesel trucks beginning in 2035, and larger, heavy-duty, diesel trucks (those weighing over 26 tons) beginning in 2040.

And truly ahead of the curve, is Norway. Despite being a major oil exporter, with massive oil and gas reserves in the North Sea, Norway is on track to become one of the first nations to phase out ICE vehicles. Driven by strong tax incentives for electric vehicles, strong taxes on fossil-fuel-powered vehicles, and a general cultural shift, Norway is seeing the fastest move away from ICE vehicles. In fact, EVs account for 80% to 90% of new car sales each month this year.

Yet, despite increases in consumer appetite for EVs, and despite auto manufacturers’ attempts to roll out more EVs as quickly as possible, without significant changes to our transportation infrastructure and power grids, we may not make the transition as quickly, or smoothly as is hoped.

The real challenge: batteries.

As governments phase out ICE vehicles, they simultaneously impose mandatory minimums on battery range – essentially, how far a fully charged battery must be able to travel before requiring a recharge. This is to spur innovation and to address “range anxiety” among consumers as we don’t yet have sufficient public charging stations to meet demand. Efficiencies are being made, but there is no escaping the reality that BEVs will only be as successful as our ability to frequently charge them. The prevailing trend is to fund the building of more fast charging points (15–45-minute charge times) in our homes, parking garages, fueling stations, and other locations throughout cities and along roadways.

With a limited charging infrastructure and a power grid poorly suited to accommodate the number of fast charging points needed, we may be stuck with heavy, expensive batteries for some time.

While batteries are being designed to eventually rely less on rare earth materials such as cobalt, the global demand for other components such as battery-grade graphite, a key element in lithium-ion (Li-ion) anodes, is surging at record levels. EV batteries can contain 100 to 150 pounds of graphite. While the supply of natural and synthetic graphite is abundant, the vast majority is sourced from China, causing concern for global supply chains. Some experts believe mining output from Africa could surpass China by 2026, helping to alleviate anxieties. However, unless there is sufficient investment in building the processing capabilities outside of China, it will maintain its near monopoly in graphite processing.

To better improve supply chain concerns, increased diversification of suppliers is needed. With this in mind, Toyota and Panasonic recently announced that their joint venture, Prime Planet Energy & Solutions, had entered into a new supply agreement with Ioneer’s  Rhyolite Ridge mining project, based in the U.S. Ioneer will supply 4,000 tons of lithium carbonate a year for EV battery production. Additionally, Toyota and others are investing in solid-state batteries which many in the industry hail as a game-changer with their faster charging times, ability to hold more energy and are smaller and lighter.

Want smaller batteries sooner? Make charging easier now.

Increasing the ability to charge batteries would allow for smaller batteries, therefore lighter vehicles, and a reduction in the price of vehicle ownership. We can get there several ways, but it won’t be overnight.

Increased infrastructure spending to develop a massive expansion of static charging stations along roads, parking structures, and homes seems to be the preferred tactic for governments. As such, fleet operators, transportation authorities, and commercial spaces such as malls and entertainment venues will need to invest heavily in real estate and facilities to provide charging points. The most likely first step will be increasing the number of in-home charging points. In preparation for the launch of its all-new 2023 bZ4X battery electric SUV, Toyota has partnered with ChargePoint, Inc., a leading EV charging network, to allow customers to purchase a ChargePoint® Home Flex Level 2 charger for home installation which allows for charging electric vehicles up to nine times faster than a standard outlet.

President Biden’s infrastructure plan proposes using some of the funds to build a national EV charging network of 500,000 stations by 2030. However, according to a state report, in California alone, nearly 1.2 million charging points will be needed for the 8 million BEVs expected in the Golden State by 2030. Currently the California has only about 70,000 with an additional 123,000 underway. The nation’s largest commercial operator of fast charging stations, Evgo, has over 850 charging points across the U.S. and in July announced a major expansion to provide 2,000 more at Pilot and Flying J locations in more than 40 states.

While it’s believed grid operations across the U.S. will keep pace as EV usage grows, this increased reliance on electricity will require substantial investments for safeguards against natural disasters, weather, or even attacks.

Fearing “EV charging blackspots,” the U.K. government has set forth an ambitious plan to increase development of rapid charging points and requires all new homes, offices, supermarkets, and buildings undergoing major renovation to install charging points.

Heavy goods vehicles account for 25% of all transport CO2 emissions in Europe. In an attempt to supplement charging points, Germany has been testing a system that has been in use for over a century by trains and trams: overhead electrical wiring. Best for long-haul trucks on highways, the trucks are equipped with retractable pantographs which automatically detect the overhead powerlines and begin powering the truck and charging the battery as they travel.

Let’s not forget equitable access to electric vehicles.

As charging points proliferate across the country and around the world, funded by government and private sector investment, the expansion and upgrades to electric grids will be passed on to consumers. And tax revenues lost from gasoline taxes to build and maintain roadways will need to be replaced. In the U.S., as the electric grid will require varying levels of investment, a question of equity arises.

Not only are there concerns about access to, and affordability of EV ownership, but there is also question of how we guarantee access to charging points. As electric vehicle service providers (EVSPs) seek to build charging points and win contracts, how do we ensure sufficient charging points are placed in low-income neighborhoods or in rural areas? Perhaps government subsidized charging points could become a social service, provided free in low-income housing developments or accessible through retail locations via EBT (electronic benefits transfer) cards.

Additionally, safeguards may be required to guarantee customers are charged fairly across different regions and providers. True, market forces will dictate prices to an extent, but the electricity one buys at a charging point is regulated quite differently than gas at the corner station. We already see a number of charging point networks offering subscription plans with rates that vary throughout the day to help alleviate higher prices, but will areas with less access to sustainable energy, such as wind and solar, face higher prices, overall?

Also, as technological advances in batteries and charging systems advance rapidly, considerations will need to be made to ensure owners of older model EVs will still be able to use charging points and not be left behind.

We’ll address some of these issues in an upcoming article about alternative charging solutions when, used in conjunction with conventional charging points, might just be the answer. It's a brave new frontier and certainly very exciting times as transportation infrastructure makes its next big evolutionary leap!

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