December 1, 2022

When electric vehicles become widespread

This story originally appeared in our Nov/Dec issue 2022 as “Switch to electronics.” Click here subscribe to read more stories like this.


Long before Instagram and Twitter influencers, there were the Vagabonds, circa 1915. The exclusive group of tycoons included Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Harvey Firestone and the occasional US president or two, galloping across the country.

Together they caravanned each summer in a fleet of Ford Model Ts – support staff, photographers and reporters in tow, broadcasting the dawn of the recreational road trip. The annual races flourished for a decade until 1924, when the men had become too famous to frolic in public.

These trips gave Ford and Edison, who had jointly developed two electric vehicles, the opportunity to discuss a vision of the future: combining Ford’s assembly line with Edison’s battery to make affordable battery-electric cars. . The United States, after all, had an abundance of electric vehicles (EVs) for a brief period in the early 1900s. Ford even bought one for his wife, Clara, because his own Model T was dirty, hard to start and generally less reliable. Eventually, he turned to burning fossil fuels for his revolutionary cars, and former Edison employee Nikola Tesla went rogue to revolutionize battery technology himself. Notably, the burgeoning electric vehicle market has failed to overcome infrastructure and range limitations.

More than a century later, electric vehicles are making a seismic comeback. Sales are expected to increase 53% in the United States this year, at an exponential rate. Elon Musk may have fueled new demand 10 years ago with the launch of the Tesla Model S sedan, but now the biggest automakers are making 10-figure bets on an electric future. Technology is finally starting to define luxury cars and SUVs. And automakers have collectively invested $330 billion through 2025 in electric technology, according to global consultancy AlixPartners. These factors, combined with a series of new credits for electric vehicles in the landmark US Cut Inflation Act passed this summer, suggest that electric vehicles are moving from a niche product to a mass market.

Ready or not, this year marks the confluence of three important forces – technology, infrastructure and legislation – which Ernst & Young analysts say will have electric motors outselling their gas-powered counterparts in cars around the world. worldwide by 2033.

The F-150 Lightning arrived this spring as Ford’s first all-electric truck. Orders have been sold out, creating a multi-year waiting list (Steve Koss).

Rebranding request

While the desire to reduce fossil fuel emissions is driving demand, consumer research in recent years suggests that the price of gasoline has yet to be a key factor in the decision to purchase an EV. Currently, sales and demand are driven by the expansion of electric options in the fastest growing automotive market segments: SUVs and luxury cars.

“For many years, electric vehicles from traditional automakers tended to be small hatchbacks that weren’t exactly ambitious or desirable,” says Ed Kim, president and chief analyst at research firm AutoPacific.

“Tesla was the only automaker making compelling electric vehicles, and that’s why they ruled the electric vehicle sales charts for so long.”

Now even the most unlikely vehicles are being rebranded as electric models. After a 13-year hiatus, General Motors is relaunching its hulking Hummer SUV as a pure electric vehicle, along with an electrified version of its popular Silverado pickup. The Ford F-150 truck, the brand’s best-selling nameplate for more than four decades, now also has an electric version: the F-150 Lightning, which President Joe Biden took for a test drive last year . These milestones emerged alongside record power investments across the market.

Ford, for its part, said it plans to spend $50 billion to help it produce 2 million electric vehicles a year from 2026. The Volkswagen Group, which includes Bentley, Lamborghini and Porsche, has pledged $100 billion. Its Audi brand has pledged to electrify 30% of its US lineup by 2025. This includes plug-in hybrids, which bridge the gap between traditional cars and electric vehicles by running a short distance on electricity before tapping energy in its gasoline supply.

“We are at the point where electric vehicle sales are taking off due to regulation, availability and consumer enthusiasm,” says John Loehr, general manager of automotive and industrial practice at AlixPartners.

In 2022, Ford opened its massive, high-tech Rouge Electric Vehicle Center in Dearborn, Michigan to produce the new fleet of F-150 trucks. (Steve Koss)

Policy and infrastructure

Overall, the United States has been slower to adapt than Europe. The UK government is investing around $2 billion to build enough charging stations to meet its target of phasing out new combustion engine cars by 2030. President Biden has responded by setting the 2030 target of electrify half of new vehicles sold in the domestic market.

But two major pieces of legislation were passed in August to accelerate the adoption of electric vehicles in the United States. . Shortly after this news this summer, California approved a bold policy to ban the sale of new gasoline-powered vehicles by 2035.

To date, the infrastructure continues to present obstacles on the path to full electrification. Developing a network of charging stations strong enough to withstand the onslaught of electric vehicles has proven to be a tall order – one that first doomed electric car startups in the days of Edison and Ford. Even when a driver today is able to locate a nearby charger, it may be unavailable or in poor condition; and recharging the battery takes much longer than a quick fuel stop.

“For the past decade, electric vehicle sales have been weak and the number of charging stations across the country has been limited,” says Jessica Caldwell, executive director of information at car-buying site Edmunds. “But since we expect growth to accelerate over the next decade, pricing needs to increase to meet demand.”

Meanwhile, power outage is a real concern for consumers, especially in the case of road trips and long-haul trips. “They call it ‘range anxiety,'” Loehr says of the driver’s perennial concern. Manufacturers are finally responding with vehicles that promise a range of over 300 miles.

The companies behind the charging networks are also mobilizing. ChargePoint, the industry giant with more than 18,000 locations in the United States and Canada, is teaming up with Starbucks and Volvo to install charging stations in parking lots and bolster the infrastructure network along popular routes . Shell, the second-largest electric vehicle charging company, plans to operate 500,000 chargers nationwide by 2025 and has already installed around 100,000. Another oil company, BP, said it will manage 70,000 public charging stations by the end of the decade.

Meanwhile, Volkswagen Group subsidiary Electrify America plans to expand its portfolio of charging stations and fast chargers across the country. Tesla, of course, has its own network of superchargers so Tesla owners can charge up quickly.

Market constraints

Electric vehicles are still significantly more expensive than gasoline-powered cars — the battery typically costs $10,000 more than an internal combustion engine — but the billions of dollars spent on research and development are expected to reduce costs at the moment. course of the next decade. The rise of these cars also requires a new cohort of mechanics to fix them.

Then there are the materials. This year, geopolitical and supply constraints have pushed delivery dates for some electric vehicles far into the future, with customers waiting a year or more for their cars. Some materials needed to build lithium-ion batteries were already in short supply, and then the conflict in Ukraine made the shortage worse, forcing automakers to look elsewhere for lithium, cobalt, nickel, graphite and manganese. Automakers are now scrambling to source materials from other corners of the globe.

China’s lingering COVID-19 pandemic has also forced Tesla, Volkswagen, Toyota and other automakers to idle their largest electric vehicle factories in Shanghai to comply with sporadic mandatory lockdowns.

In the meantime, American garages might start to look more like Henry and Clara’s. Unless two-car households can revert to a single electric vehicle, the array may include a Chevy Tahoe built for family commutes alongside a Tesla strapped to its charging port.


How does an EV work?

Just like smartphones or tablets, electric cars draw their energy from lithium-ion batteries, which are recharged by plugging into the electricity grid. An internal combustion vehicle may require a stop at the gas station to refuel once or twice a week, while a drained electric vehicle may fully charge overnight in your garage.

An electric vehicle battery typically consists of many smaller modules that each house hundreds of individual battery cells. The energy extracted from these cells is routed to a traction inverter, which converts direct current to alternating current to power the car’s specialized motor.

Instead of the multi-speed transmission in a combustion engine, a small EV transmission produces enough torque over a wide speed range for the car to accelerate quickly using a single gear. The motor produces torque down to zero speed, conveniently eliminating the need for a clutch or torque converter.

This simplification means that the entire EV drivetrain contains about 1% of the moving parts you’ll find inside its internal combustion counterpart. Maintenance requirements are therefore considerably reduced. The lack of a combustion engine and associated exhaust system also means EVs create far less heat (as well as emissions), allowing for creative drivetrain packaging and often storage space. extra under the hood of the car.