Emerging Technologies

Will this breakthrough see an electric car in every driveway?

University of Delaware Professor Willett Kempton removes the power plug from an electric-powered Toyota Scion near his office at the university in Newark, Delaware, March 25, 2010. Kempton, who is leading the university's Vehicle to Grid (V2G) program, believes electric car batteries will represent a vast, reliable source of energy for the grid in a future when the national power supply will increasingly rely on renewable but fluctuating sources like sun and wind. Picture taken March 25, 2010. To match Reuters Life! CARS-ELECTRIC/ REUTERS/Tim Shaffer

Image: REUTERS/Tim Shaffer

Joe Myers
Writer, Forum Agenda
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Emerging Technologies

Rapidly falling costs for the batteries needed to power electric vehicles could soon see electric cars become a much more common sight on our roads.

Batteries have traditionally been one of the most expensive parts in the manufacture of electric vehicles. In order to see electric cars on every driveway, car companies have been striving to develop batteries that bring costs level within (or indeed lower than) current petrol or diesel powered models.

Research now suggests that rapidly falling costs present an “optimistic outlook for battery electric vehicles contributing to low-carbon transport.”

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How cheap are batteries becoming?

Previous studies have suggested that the cost of batteries would need to fall below $150 per kilowatt hour (kWh) in order for electric vehicles to match petrol engines. New research suggests we are approaching this tipping point.

The cost of electric vehicle batteries has fallen dramatically over the last five years, according to a new UN-backed report – Global Trends in Renewable Energy Investment 2016. From a global average of $1,000 per kWh in 2010, this figure now stands at around $350. The following chart taken from the report highlights the extent and speed of this decline in prices.

Image: Global Trends in Renewable Energy Investment 2016

It is believed that once costs fall below $150, electric vehicles will become much more popular, which could lead to a “potential paradigm shift in vehicle technology.” With the market already doubling annually, electric cars are set to become a much more common sight.

The environmental impact

Critics of electric cars say they’re not as good for the environment as they claim. The electricity needed to power the car has to come from somewhere – quite possibly from the burning of carbon. The extent of the environmental impact will depend on the sources your local grid uses – if it is reliant on coal-fired power stations then the impact will be worse than if it incorporates a lot of renewable energy.

However, while this is certainly a valid point, electric car manufactures believe on average the numbers favour their vehicles. Tesla, for example, says its Model S produces around 4 times less CO2 per mile than a petrol-equivalent.

Another argument centres on the materials needed to make electric cars. Parts like batteries require high-performing, and often rare, metals such as lithium. These metals often come from environmentally damaging mines.

But, you have to consider the situation across the board. All cars contain a number of these potentially problematic metals, so electric vehicles definitely aren’t the only ones to blame.

The future

Electric cars certainly aren’t perfect. However, there is plenty of room to reduce their environmental impact.

Electric grids around the world are becoming less reliant on fossil fuels – last year investment in renewables reached record levels. In addition, as electric cars become more popular, their production will become more efficient, and techniques for recycling parts such as the batteries will improve.

Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors, believes “the auto industry will change more in the next five to 10 years than it has in the last 50.” Electric cars are part of this evolution of car-making.

With the rapid technology advances associated with the Fourth Industrial Revolution, all these factors, including cheaper batteries, mean that electric cars could be driving us towards a more sustainable future.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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