• Faster charging and improved infrastructure have made EVs more attractive.
  • Consumers cannot make this transition occur by themselves, however.
  • Regulators and policy-makers can do more to incentivize the take-up of EVs.

More than a century after it was invented, the electric car is finally catching on. Germany aims to have 1 million electric vehicles (EVs) on its roads by 2022; the US is building one of the world’s largest EV-charging networks; and the UK, Norway, India and China have all announced that they plan to end sales of traditional internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles altogether in the next couple of decades.

On the corporate side, Volkswagen recently announced it intends to spend more than $36 billion on e-mobility initiatives over the next four years, and that it will build and sell an estimated 26 million EVs by 2029. Northvolt, a major Swedish manufacturer of batteries for EVs, energy storage and other industrial applications, says it will build roughly three times as many factories as it originally planned. And Harley-Davidson, an icon in its field, recently launched its first electric motorcycle.

The fact that some of the world’s largest companies and most industrialized nations are focused on EVs is not a coincidence. With the transport sector accounting for 24% of global CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels in 2018, finding a way to replace fossil-fuel vehicles with EVs is of paramount importance to global efforts to mitigate climate change.

Automotive companies fully understand this, and in recent years have worked hard to create EVs that people want to drive and own. Electric cars are now more affordable, offer longer range, and are in greater demand than ever.

There are, however, still some challenges involved in making sustainable mobility the global norm, and “range anxiety” tops the list. It’s easy to understand why. With conventional cars, no one leaves home worried about whether they will find a place to refuel. But until very recently, EVs were limited by the need to connect to a charging station for several hours at a time. The lack of adequate charging infrastructure has been one of the roadblocks to the widespread adoption of EVs. For enthusiastic early adopters, driving an electric car once required painstaking trip planning.

Turning point

Fortunately, we have reached a turning point with the arrival of ultra-fast charging systems. Technologies developed by companies like mine, ABB, make it possible to recharge an EV’s battery in a matter of minutes. More than 13,000 of our fast-charging stations have now been sold across more than 80 countries around the world, with more being added almost daily. Supported by digital network capabilities that enable billing and payments along with remote services, these charging stations are providing EV owners with new levels of confidence and convenience.

Major corporate EV infrastructure projects now have the potential to spark an e-mobility revolution. As of the end of 2019, charging network firm EVgo has rolled out fast-charging stations in 34 US states, while Electrify America’s network of open-access EV chargers has expanded to 42 states and 17 large metropolitan areas. Meanwhile, IONITY aims to build 400 charging sites along major European highways by the end of 2020. These extensive networks feature state-of-the-art technology, including ABB’s own Terra HP, which was the first full 350kW car charger to reach the market back in April 2018 and which has sold in its thousands since then. Capable of recharging EV batteries to 80% of capacity in about 12 minutes, it is compatible with a wide range of voltage requirements, giving greater flexibility to vehicle and battery makers as they devise ever more advanced EVs.

Until now, efforts to counteract range anxiety have involved building and installing ever-larger lithium-ion battery packs in the vehicles. But that increases vehicle weight, which in turn requires larger brakes and stronger vehicle structures, undermining the effort to make EVs as energy-efficient and sustainable as possible. High-powered chargers are bringing the need for that tradeoff to an end, enabling the proliferation of charging networks that can provide drivers with a day’s worth of driving range in a short visit.

EV technology has developed significantly over the past decade
EV technology has developed significantly over the past decade
Image: ABB

This is just one example of what has been achieved by research and development teams across the globe, as companies do their part to facilitate the consumer uptake of EVs. Now it is up to governments to throw their full weight behind the construction of comprehensive charging networks and the electrification of public transport and commercial trucking fleets. The primarily consumer-driven approaches taken by Europe and the US may not be quite enough. While technology and automotive companies work together to develop, build and sell EVs and associated technologies, more needs to be done to create favourable regulatory environments to drive this historic transition.

After all, we cannot expect ordinary motorists to drive us into the EV era all by themselves. To achieve the promise of electric transportation, we need policies that not only support the widespread electrification of transport fleets but also backstop the development of advanced, supportive technologies that will enable fleet electrification at scale. Replacing or retrofitting pollution-spewing commercial trucks, city buses and delivery vans would, along with the construction of comprehensive charging infrastructure, enable us to achieve our respective emission reduction targets.

In an effort to make emission-free transport both affordable and attainable, companies like ABB, Daimler, Geely, Hyundai, New Flyer, Northvolt, Proterra, Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi, Tesla, Volkswagen and Volvo have now raised the ante considerably. In terms of their time, R&D efforts and capital, businesses are clearly willing to bet that the future of transportation will be electric. It is time for fleet operators, governments and regulators to match that bet … and raise it. When both the public and the private sectors start pulling together in earnest to achieve this shared goal, I am confident that the bold vision of emission-free transportation will quickly become a reality.