Another recent piece here at CleanTechnica went over a way to get 5 electric cars built with the same lithium that goes into an EV today. What George said is definitely true, but I wanted to add some thoughts on how we could actually make it happen.
One non-starter I saw in the article was a cheap low range EV with a maximum speed of about 60 MPH (100 km/h). In developing countries, some people will buy that, but in the US and most of Europe, I don’t think very many people would take that vehicle very seriously, even if it does cover their needs and a little more. To get people to accept a small battery EV and actually purchase it, you can’t have so many compromises to the point where many would consider it a “clown car” or “golf cart.”
Before we get to that, let’s talk about what you can do with that small battery.
How Far Can You Go On 16 kWh?
Let’s use the Tesla Model 3 as a fairly standard electric vehicle today. The better range option (that many go for) is 82 kWh. If we decide to set a limit at 1/5 of that (so that more cars can get built using the existing lithium supply), we get about 16 kWh.
This works out to:
- 32 miles at 2 miles/kWh
- 48 miles at 3 miles/kWh
- 64 miles at 4 miles/kWh
- 160 miles at 10 miles/kWh (the estimated efficiency of the upcoming Aptera)
In other words, the EV can be barely usable if efficiency is poor, as 32 miles won’t cover many people’s commute both ways. At 4 miles/kWh (a good number for most of today’s EVs), 64 miles is getting to the point where it would serve many people’s daily needs. If we get an extremely efficient EV, that relatively small battery can give us more range than my 2018 LEAF does today.
In other words, efficiency is one great path to making vehicles people want (more on this below).
Daily vs Overall Range Needs
There’s one problem, though. One’s daily range needs aren’t really the best yardstick to use when buying a vehicle.
I used to have a 1st generation Chevrolet Volt. It had an all-electric range of 20-30 miles, and did this on about 10 kWh of battery. I would drive down a stretch of highway to take the kids to school in it, and at highway speeds, the range was more like 20 miles. It was enough to go to their school and back home in the morning, with only a couple miles to spare. Once I got home, I’d plug it in and it would be fully charged again by the time I needed to pick the kids up, and it had enough capacity to do that again. It was pretty cool, because I would only very rarely have to use gas.
Not needing gas, I got to the point where I would let the gas tank get very low and not worry about it for months. In other words, I was using it as a short-range EV with no range extender. And it was doing the job!
One day I got home from dropping the kids at school, pulled the Volt into the garage, and plugged it in. Right after plugging it in, I got a phone call from the kids’ school — one of them forgot a backpack and it had important stuff in it. I grabbed the backpack, stopped at a gas station to fill up so I wouldn’t get stranded, and drove out to the school to drop the bag.
That’s the basic problem with only having enough battery to barely cover your daily needs. If your routine gets messed up for any reason, you’re SOL in a battery EV with a tiny battery. My current Nissan LEAF has a range of about 130 miles in the city (it’s a 2018 with 15% degradation), and while I don’t use the full range most days, there are days I’m very glad that the extra range is there to use in a pinch. On occasion, I even use the whole battery for in-town driving.
In other words, you need a lot more range than you need to cover your daily needs.
One Way To Solve This Issue: PHEV
I know it’s not everyone’s favorite solution, but a plugin hybrid is one good way to solve this conundrum. A generation 2 Chevy Volt (the generation after the one I had) gives the driver 14 kWh of usable battery and had a more efficient electric motor. That gave it an electric range of about 50 miles, which would cover the needs of most drivers on nearly all days.
On the rare occasion that the driver runs into an edge case and needs more range, they can burn a little bit of gas. Given that they’ll only do this a few times a year in their daily travels, the environmental impact of doing that will be minimal. Add in the occasional road trip, and the impacts are still quite low.
When you consider that this means there’s now enough spare lithium for four other drivers to replace their gas cars and drive them on electric 90-95% of the time, the overall environmental impact of those five drivers is drastically lowered.
Plus, they don’t need to buy a second car and insure it to make sure they have sufficient range for road trips and edge cases. Keeping that second gas car from being manufactured further lowers the environmental impact.
Another Path To Smaller Batteries: Efficiency
There’s a way to satisfy the needs of all drivers on small batteries without burning a drop of gas or carrying the dead weight of an ICE 90% of the time: greater efficiency.
A super-efficient vehicle like the Aptera isn’t going to suit everyone’s needs, as it only has two seats and relatively limited cargo room, but for a commuter who travels alone, a vehicle that gets 10 miles/kWh and thus gets 160 miles with a small battery is a very compelling option. On top of that, the vehicle would be quite cheap with that small of a battery.
Even with a level 1 US outlet, you could charge that whole battery every night and cover most of your edge cases. Add DC Fast Charging, and you end up with a vehicle that can take many road trips if you don’t have kids to haul along.
To make sure this vehicle could actually get to nearly all destinations, it’s probably going to need to have a 20-25 kWh battery, though. There are still many stretches of roads where you need that extra battery to make it to the next rapid charger.
No matter what you do, you can’t achieve efficiency by making a “clown car.” The vehicle needs to be able to go 90-100 MPH, have room to comfortably seat the driver (and preferably the driver and a passenger), and it needs to have reasonable acceleration, going from 0-60 in under ten seconds. Compromise at this, and you end up with a vehicle that people won’t want to buy.
There’s No One-Size-Fits-All Here
I’m sure there are other options that can cover the needed range while still giving the driver a “plan B” they can rely on for those unusual days and road trips. The important thing here is to have options, because everybody is different. If there’s no need to haul children around or tow, the efficiency option is very compelling. If you need a larger vehicle, you’re probably going to need some form of range extension to keep that going on bad days.
No matter what, don’t expect most people to go for the “clown car” approach. That’s just a recipe to not sell cars.
Featured image: the Chevy Volt I used to have. Photo by Jennifer Sensiba.