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Ferro: Is it an electric future for automobiles?

By David Ferro - | Sep 29, 2021

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David Ferro

On Sept. 17, Weber State University Automotive Technology hosted an event to celebrate a new program in electrical vehicle mechanics. Everyone there confidently predicted the end of petroleum-powered, internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles on American roads. Like any technology, however, electric vehicles (EVs) come with pluses and minuses, and there are plenty of critics. Are we really headed to an electric-vehicle future?

The critiques are plentiful: range anxiety; the lack of charging infrastructure, especially in rural areas; the cost of installing 220 volts and higher amperage in a home to get more than a 110 volt “trickle charge”; the difficulty for apartment renters to install chargers; the cost of electricity, depending on where you live; the inevitable replacement cost of new batteries at around 100,000 miles; the expense, although that is less the case every year; and the embedded environmental cost in vehicle manufacture and electricity generation.

The responses to these critiques are also plentiful. While many EVs have more limited range, some can go up to 400 miles on a charge, and technological improvements will increase those ranges. Additionally, the average daily drive for Americans is approximately 37 miles. Only when going long distances do those range limits really come into view.

Driving long distances does require a change in behavior, including stopping more frequently and charging for longer than it takes for a fill up. However, many Tesla drivers have noted the benefits in just taking a break, sitting down for something to eat and chatting with fellow Tesla owners.

Infrastructure continues to improve. Tesla, ChargePoint and other companies will allow you to roam on any interstate. Apps help find chargers. Teslas are smart enough to figure out where and when to charge (including charging at home during the cheapest times). Also, electricity is all around us and comparatively easily tapped into. Analysts anticipate many chargers where you stop for extended periods such as work, living and shopping places. Other options promise even greater ease, such as Perdue’s pavement-embedded wireless charging test this summer. It is also cheaper — potentially a quarter of the cost per mile compared to petroleum. Americans spend on average $3,500 per year on gas.

Car batteries can be replaced. Companies like the fast-growing Sila Nanotechnologies (started by a former employee at Tesla) have begun recycling lithium ion batteries and making them 20% more efficient and using less-precious materials in the process. The cost — generally less than the typical cost of lifetime maintenance for an ICE vehicle. Also, a few Tesla drivers have already gone more than a million miles using the original batteries.

Other benefits include less pollution and carbon into the atmosphere; much quieter running, although some criticize them as too quiet; a low center of gravity makes them handle better; air conditioning and heat work even when the car is “off”; EVs require less maintenance of oil and other fluids, transmission, timing belts, filters, spark plugs, etc. They are simpler and easier to both manufacture and maintain, which makes them attractive as fleet vehicles.

Obviously, it takes energy and raw materials to make any technology, and EVs do require some rare earths — just like your cellphone does. Additionally, if your primary source of electricity is from coal-fired power plants then that isn’t optimal for clear air. But, if you look over time, EVs are better for the environment because of the ongoing discovery of cleaner materials for their manufacture, including recycled ICE cars, and the lowering costs of sustainable generation technology for the grid. One study found that driving an EV is greener in 95% of the world even with the embedded environmental costs.

In August 2021, President Biden, through an executive order, laid out a plan for half of all cars sold in the U.S. to be electric, plug-in hybrid or hydrogen-powered. The latter two might burn petroleum, natural gas or hydrogen (or utilize a hydrogen fuel cell similar to what spacecraft use) to generate electricity to power electric motors to extend range.

While one executive order doesn’t irreversibly create the future, manufacturers take years to focus on designs, and that trajectory has barely slowed no matter what presidents have ordered. Dozens of EV options exist currently, and manufacturers will release 100 new electric vehicles by 2024. New companies like Tesla, Rivian, Lucid, Polestar and Canoo have arrived and joined almost every manufacturer to offer electric vehicles. Volvo has declared it won’t sell ICE vehicles after 2030. Three-wheeled options like Solo, Arcimoto and Aptera are on the edge of release. The Aptera, covered with solar panels and made from ultra-light materials, promises a 1,000-mile range.

One final reason for the likely ascent of EVs — the excitement shown by the incoming Weber State automotive students. Classic cars don’t have the same nostalgic pull for them as for those of us around when the cars were new. The future belongs to those students.

Dr. David Ferro is dean of the College of Engineering, Applied Science & Technology at Weber State University. Twitter: DavidFerro9


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