If you didn’t care about electric vehicles (EVs) before, the current gas prices might have you rethinking your stance. With EV sales on the rise, we are seeing the beginning of an automotive revolution; one that will likely change the framework of American transportation in the next few decades.
In this post, I am going to discuss the history of EVs, the challenges and benefits of the EV revolution, and why you should care (if you don’t already).
A Brief History of Electric Vehicles
When most people think of the automotive industry they think that the internal combustion engine (IC) was the beginning of our lineage; however, it was really the electric vehicle that was first on the scene. In the 1830s, Robert Anderson invented the first concept of an electric carriage. The carriage utilized a single-use water-electric battery that worked with electromagnets to turn the wheels. This invention spurred a new age of locomotion.
The next significant jump was in 1881, when the first human locomotion was invented in France. The EV tricycle could go up to 3.6 miles per hour (mph) under its rechargeable electric power.
Eight years later in Europe, the Flocken Elektrowagon was invented. The Flocken Elektrowagen was the first true electric car. A fancy two-seater with electric headlights, it could get up to 15 km/hour (9.3 mph).
America, a bit behind the technological times, did not invent its first electric vehicle until 1890 when William Morrison invented the Morrison car. The Morrison car could go up to 14 mph and was another promising step in EV evolution. However, in 1908, Ford released the Model T, the first internal combustion (IC) engine automotive, and EVs were effectively eliminated as a viable competitor.
The Model T proved that IC vehicles could outperform EVs in both time and range. This was especially appealing for Americans, given the sprawling, spread-out nature of America at the time. With an IC vehicle, you could bring a container of gas in your trunk and explore the countryside at your leisure.
However, EVs weren’t completely killed. In the 1970s, when gas prices began to rise, there was a mild resurgence of EV home conversions. Individuals in garages began converting their IC cars into EV hybrids. The major manufacturers joined the party in 1997 when the Toyota Prius (hybrid) and General Motors (GM) EV1 (full-electric) were released. The Prius was especially popular, and it became an icon for hybrid cars. Tesla released its first vehicle in 2008, and the EV movement has experienced both innovation and growth ever since.
Modern Electric Vehicles
There are several types of modern electric vehicles:
- Hybrid (HEV): As the name suggests, hybrid vehicles utilize a combination of gasoline and electric power. The hybrid is only fueled with gasoline, which is used by the engine to propel the car forward. When the car slows, it uses regenerative braking to charge a battery pack. The vehicle then harnesses the energy in the battery pack for acceleration later. The most popular example of the HEV is the Prius.
- Plug-in Hybrid (PHEV): The PHEV follows the same operating method as the HEV, but it has an electric charge port in addition to its fueling port.
- Fuel Cell (FCEV): The primary fuel source of FCEVs is hydrogen. A hydrogen motor converts the hydrogen to electricity, which powers an electric motor. The FCEV comes with a battery pack that additionally stores energy generated via regenerative braking to assist with acceleration.
- Battery (BEV): The BEV is a full-energy EV. Its primary source of energy is energy, so the conversion is better.
Yearly Cost of Fuel
The primary benefit of EVs can be seen in this figure from the Department of Transportation:
Though these numbers are no longer indicative of today’s prices, they do highlight the savings you accumulate when you have an electric vehicle.
We are all feeling the burden of elevated gas prices right now. However, I’m happy that they are going up because it means that Americans are finally pushing the EV revolution forward. We, as a society, tend to be comfortable and complacent until something pushes us in the right direction. It appears that the high gas prices have become the thing we needed to make the move to hybrids and EVs.
The government also released these stats on hybrids and EVs:
We can see from the graph above that there are significant gains in emissions reductions and fuel costs when switching to an EV.
And as the above graph clearly indicates, for those of us who care about having oxygen to breathe, the CO2 to atmosphere percentages seem to be far more beneficial for all-electric vehicles.
What are the Parts?
The EV is actually surprisingly simple. While the average internal combustion engine has 315 moving parts, the EV electric motor has only one.
In addition to the motor, each EV has several other standard parts, including:
- Battery Pack: The battery pack is typically laid very low below the floorboard of the vehicle.
- Control Module: The brain of the operation, the control module takes energy from the battery pack and determines how much energy needs to go to the motor.
- Ancillary Systems: These include things like the thermal system.
- Onboard Charger and Auxiliary Battery: The auxiliary battery is used to power smaller components of the car, such as the headlights and turn signals.
- Transmission: Most EVs don’t actually have transmissions. Transmissions are typically seen as a major failure point of IC vehicles, as they are faulty and extremely expensive to fix. The vast majority of EVs are single-speed and use a reduction gear housing, eliminating the need for a transmission altogether.
- DC/DC Converter: The converter takes the high voltage from the battery pack (typically 440V) and steps the energy down to the various 48V, 24V, and 12V systems that the car might require. To keep the vehicle efficient, the motor is not included in this system, and instead runs on the same voltage that the battery pack provides.
- Charge Port: You have to charge an EV. You can learn more about charging ports below.
Here’s another breakdown of how the different parts come together:
As you can see, you start with the battery pack on the left. Energy runs from the battery, through a fuse as a safety precaution, to the contactor. A contactor is an electrical device that comes with a couple of magnets inside of it and two high voltage connections. A small 12V wire connects the contactor to the auxiliary battery and key switch; when you turn your key in the ignition, the 12V wire closes the contactor, bringing the whole loop live with electricity.
Past the contactor, you reach the controller, which takes input from the pot box and determines the voltage that the motor should receive. While the motor always receives full energy from the battery pack, the controller dictates the frequency of the pulse that the motor consumes. The higher the frequency, the more the electromagnets inside the motor will react and reverse, thus creating more thrust.
Charging is a big part of the EV system. If you have an IC car, you can go to any gas station and fill it up. Everyone has the same gas, and it all goes in the tank the same way.
Charging for electric vehicles is very much in its infancy. As such, there’s a lot of differentiation in what is available.
As of today, we have three levels of charger:
Level 1 charges at 4-7 mph. Level 1 charges are typically seen in home charging stations that use a basic wall charger. The amount of energy collected from the Level 1 charger is low, but is sufficient if you don’t use your vehicle very often.
Level 2 charges at 10-25 mph. Level 2 requires a charging port that can produce up to 240V, such as the plug you would use for your dryer vent. With a Level 2 charger, you can reach a good charge overnight.
Level 3 charges at 60-90 miles per half hour. This DC fast charger is most well-known as the chargers used in the Tesla Supercharger Network. The Level 3 charger is currently the fastest charge on the market and is the critical number as we, as a society, continue adopting this technology. The quicker we are able to charge, the more viable the EV option will be.
More than the lack of fast chargers, the availability of chargers represents a major hurdle that EVs must overcome. The map below shows all the supercharger stations Tesla has in North America:
While many of the cities are well-covered, the availability of chargers in rural areas is lacking. And this is if you have a Tesla and can use the supercharger network. If you have another EV, these are the only charging stations available:
For people, like myself, who enjoy traveling and road-tripping, the current EV charging constraints present an insurmountable obstacle.
There are also additional challenges to charging:
- No standardization: As highlighted in the image below, there is no standardization of plugs, API, or billing.
- The majority of chargers are slow: Percentage-wise, most of the chargers you encounter are Levels 1 or 2. Even Level 3 chargers aren’t as fast and efficient as a gas station.
- Strains to the Grid: Electricity has to be transmitted via lines, which are expensive to install. You can’t just fill a tanker truck with electricity and drive it down the road.
- Missing home charging mindset: Unlike an IC, which you can fill up at a moment’s notice, you have to plan your EV’s charging carefully. This can be hard for a lot of people who are used to topping off when the empty warning light comes on.
- Orders of magnitude less saturation vs. gas stations
There are a couple of bills in the works right now, so this may be improved in the upcoming years, but there are not currently any concrete solutions.
Additional EV Challenges
EVs have a number of challenges, including:
- Range/Battery Tech: The range and battery tech were the cause of the original EV extinction, and they continue to plague EVs today.
- Charging Infrastructure: The pivotal technology of the 21st century isn’t energy generation; it’s critical advancements in energy density and energy storage.
- Repair Costs: Repair costs tend to be significantly higher than in IC cars. Because there are so few parts in an EV, each repair is significant. The motor and drive train system is built inclusively, so if there are any issues in the system, the whole system has to be replaced.
- Weather effects: Especially for people in colder climates, whether can have unpredictable impacts on the electric grid and, by extension, the EVs.
- Some humans fear change and project that in… sub-optimal ways.
- Legacy manufacturers: These manufacturers keep dragging their feet while trying to figure out how to keep both their service departments and the promises made to big oil for the last 60 years. The majority of GM’s profits aren’t from vehicle sales; it’s from service after sales. EVs don’t have much maintenance, which directly impacts the service departments.
Despite the challenges with EV technology, there are a lot of advantages as well:
- Cleaner/Quiet: This is especially appealing to those of us who breathe in the city commute exhaust on a daily basis.
- Efficiency Gains: EVs are more efficient, partially because of how they are designed but also partially because they have to overcome their range issues.
- Zoom Zoom > Vroom Vroom
- Vehicle to Grid (V2G) Potential: Just as you can charge your car via your home, you can power items in your home via your car. For example, if you have an excess charge in your car, you could power your home during peak hours with the car, and then charge the car once it’s no longer peak pricing.
- Autonomous locomotion becomes viable: In general, having an electric drive train makes autonomy viable. With an IC engine, there are so many things that can go wrong and they need so much upkeep and maintenance. However, with an electric vehicle, the potential to program it is much more possible. In fact, your EV could be programmed in a way not unlike the Roomba that cleans your home.
- Significant reduction in moving parts: This reduction reduces maintenance and increases longevity.
In 2015, the Department of Energy generated the following graph documenting EV’s projected numbers from 2015-2050. According to the graph, they predict EVs will overtake ICs in 2048.
In my opinion, this graph is conservative. The rate of adoption is already higher than analysts were predicting a few years ago, so there is a good chance that EVs will surpass ICs much sooner.
The moral of the story is that you should strongly consider an EV when purchasing your next vehicle. There’s going to come a time in the not-so-distant future where that classy IC you have is going to be very difficult to sell on the secondhand market.