All the buzz surrounding electric vehicles (EVs) in recent years can easily give you the impression that they are the industry’s future.
Yet EVs have actually been around for longer than many people might think. For instance, as you scout the listings of new Nissan cars for sale, you’ll find dealers that have been offering the Leaf for the past decade.
In fact, the concept of an EV was actually developed way back in the 19th century. They enjoyed success before the 1920s and saw periodic revivals of interest and innovation from the 1960s onwards.
Thus, despite the latest surge in EV popularity, it seems fair to question whether this trend is for real anytime soon and why we should adapt to it.
The oil connection
If EVs have been around for over a century, what’s been holding them back?
The simple answer would be “gas-powered automobiles.” But even that answer is tied to several other factors.
You can’t separate the history of the EV, or its fossil fuel counterpart, from the history of oil itself. While scientists such as Faraday or Edison had been experimenting with electricity for much of the 19th century, the first oil well was only drilled in 1859. Subsequently, it took some time for producers to sort out further issues of refining and transportation.
Once petroleum was widely accessible, it proved to be a game-changer throughout most industries, especially in transportation. It was cheap, inexpensive, and easy to transport through pipelines. This commenced a rapid shift in the market, relegating EVs to the background.
Fossil fuel use, in turn, must be considered within the global environmental context. And in the modern age, we’re painfully aware of the realities and dangers of climate change and its undeniable link to fossil fuel consumption.
Once again, the change in our relationship with oil has had a knock-on effect on the market sentiment towards EVs. This time, it’s been positive.
Innovations heading the right way
Nonetheless, people seem hesitant to jump on the EV bandwagon. Humans are, in general, reluctant to change.
It doesn’t help that EVs tend to be more expensive upfront or that other concerns have been raised. These mostly revolve around the battery technology and the closely related need to charge within a range of distance covered.
Still, there are indications that the industry is heading in the right direction. Innovations in EV technology seem to be aimed at addressing precisely these concerns.
Current battery packs tend to contain heavy amounts of rare minerals like cobalt. Unfortunately, these are often mined in unstable countries with unethical practices and processed with poor regulatory oversight. Industry leaders are developing batteries that use less cobalt, while some are using none at all. This will help ensure sustainability, stability, and lower costs.
Another area of improvement is battery safety. Liquid electrolytes are highly flammable, as evidenced by recent high-profile incidents like explosive Samsung phones or Boeing 787 Dreamliners. It’s hardly a pleasant thought for EV drivers, and thankfully solid-state batteries are now being made on a commercial scale.
Most pleasing to the average consumer, however, will be the continued innovation in battery energy density. The shift from graphite to materials like silicon and lithium is already underway, allowing EVs to effectively run more miles with each charge.
At the tipping point
One more aspect in which the EV is narrowing the gap on its gas-powered competitors is infrastructure.
When EVs fell out of favor in the early 20th century, infrastructure played a significant role. Long and smooth roads were being laid down that gave drivers the ability to cover vast distances. It offered an indirect incentive to choose vehicles that ran on cheap petroleum that could easily be refilled at any gas station.
The equivalent for EVs would be charging stations. Thanks to companies like ChargePoint, the number of charging stations continues to grow, along with apps to help drivers locate the nearest plug-in station. Faster charging stations are also available to cut the amount of time to fully charge an EV, from overnight down to a matter of hours.
When change happens, it’s rarely a linear process. All the little things start to add up until we reach a point of inflection, and from there, the growth is exponential.
We may be nearing that tipping point for EVs. As innovations continue to address the major stumbling blocks, accompanied by matching infrastructure support, fewer legitimate objections will be raised.
In the end, it may be the user who must overcome their own entrenched habits. When will we realize that feelings of ‘range anxiety’ can be mitigated by charging EVs regularly, just like the phones we use every day?