What should we expect for the future of electric vehicles?
Updated: Jan 28, 2018
Just two years ago, the Energy Information Administration estimated that by 2025, there would be just about a million plug-in electric vehicles on the road. EIA updated their estimates in 2017, and now they estimate there may be something like 8 million plug-in electric vehicles on the road by 2025. Two years, and an 800% increase in the projection. And that projection was made before all the major car companies began making huge announcements, and battery prices took another huge plunge. EIA has been historically really bad at forecasting things like renewable energy expansion, and now it's clearly bled into EV projections. So if we can't trust EIA (yet), what's the next big thing in EV's? Here's a few things on my LIDAR (because, let's face it, radar is so outdated).
Electrification of everything
We're already starting to see all the major car companies jumping on board with electrification. A quick note about that term - "electrification" - it doesn't only mean a strictly battery electric vehicle (BEV), it also includes hybrid-electric vehicles (HEV), plug-in electric vehicles (PHEV) and fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEV). Ford, General Motors, Nissan, Toyota, Volvo, VW...you name it, they're electrifying to some degree. Tesla, of course, is America's EV sweet-heart company.
When EV's first started showing up, there wasn't a lot of public places to plug in, so folks necessarily charged at home. There weren't a lot of fancy charge station options, so quite a few at-home charge stations were installed without much ability to communicate. In short, a bunch of dumb charge stations were installed in the early days (like all the way back to 2011). How many of these dumb chargers exist? Well...we don't know. That's just the thing. Dumb chargers don't communicate. New wifi enabled or fiber connected charge stations are beginning to roll out. Why do we want chargers that communicate? Well, it'd be nice to know if a public charger is working or being used, before you roll up with just five miles of charge left, and expect to be able to charge. Eventually driver-to-car-to-charger-to-grid communication is going to open a floodgate of possibilities.
Right now, EV charge stations look like desktop computers from the 1990s. Big boxes with tons of wires jutting out in all directions. They're big. They're bulky. They get in the way. They're ripe for vandalism. But what if you could integrate charging into already planned infrastructure - like streetlights, parking meters, signs, or curbs? Sound crazy? Nah. London's already doing it.
Time of Use charging rates
After "sexy charging", you've got to let me talk about this super boring (but super important) issue - electric rates. In order to maximize EV benefits, by lowering charging costs to customers, while reducing negative impact on the local distribution grid, electric companies have got to open up the door to rate design changes. A number of utilities already do this, where they charge a different price during different times of the day and during different seasons. Peak power demand is usually in summertime afternoons, so utilities could offer super discounted charging rates during off-peak times - usually nighttime (when EV's are likely to be charging at home anyway). These time of use rates can be super helpful in encouraging EV adoption.
Remember how I said most EV's will charge at night, and utilities tend to have high peak power demands during the afternoons? Well, EV's could help play double duty - electricity demand at night time, and electricity supply during the day. EV owners would sign up to allow the local electric grid to discharge their batteries, maybe 10% or in some increment, and in return, EV owners would get paid as if their vehicles were tiny power plants. In Texas recently, electric prices on the grid hit over $2 per kilowatt hour (yes, over $2,000/megawatt hour). If you've got an EV that could spare 10 kilowatt hours at that time, your car would have earned $20 for sitting there. Sure, you could have lost about 30 miles in range, but your car basically just turned into a stationary Uber. Five stars.
As formerly military-quality tech makes it into the commercial market, and prices plummet, vehicles are adding as much tech as a fighter jet. LIDAR (lasers!), radar, infrared cameras - technology can "see" much better than the human eye - and can process more information, the more tech is added. Humans can't do that. We complain about backseat drivers. We ignore dangerous situations, and over-estimate how good of a driver we actually are (this is called the Dunning-Kruger effect, where our ignorance means we can't recognize our own deficiencies). Eventually, insurance companies are likely to penalize human-only drivers as exceptionally unsafe, compared to computer-driven, autonomous driving.
So, we've got all these crazy tech'd up cars driving themselves around by themselves. How do they get charged? Wirelessly. Wireless charging pads could be installed at parking spots - eliminating a lot of exposed wires, and the need to physically plug-in. And then there's "dynamic" wireless charging - where charge strips could be installed in the road, and drivers could get a boost while bumping along at 60 MPH. These aren't the things of science fiction anymore. They're happening. Wireless charging company, Energous, recently won FCC approval for their charging platform. That's a big step towards commercialization.
Repurposing old batteries
Currently, the resale value on a number of EV's is pretty terrible (you can pick up a used '14 Nissan Leaf for just about $7k...initially a $30k vehicle). Battery degradation is a primary culprit for devaluation, or at least the perception of battery degradation. EV batteries can still have a fair amount of usefulness, after their primary use in a vehicle has long since passed. Utilities could patch together enough of these previously-loved batteries to be used in power management applications. Homeowners could patch in their used battery packs, to serve as back-up generation, for emergency situations. In Puerto Rico, where the island's electric grid is still in shambles after Hurricane Maria, islanders have begun hooking up their internal combustion engine vehicles to inverters and running some minor electrical appliances and devices. Imagine what resiliency would be provided by a battery pack that still has 20-40 kilowatt hours of usefulness, capable of being re-charged by the sun.
Blockchain technology has a lot of (potential) implications for the EV market. From billing and charging, to power flow control and mapping, and targeted marketing and ratemaking, blockchain could help ease EV transactions and truly create a smart system for electrification. If multi-way communication (see #1) is like friends waving to each from other across the hall (a nice communication gesture), blockchain is like telepathy: a whole different level of communication, trust and intimacy.
Now, when I was a kid, I was promised flying cars by the year 2000. And did you know that Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea submarine, the Nautilus, was a battery electric vehicle? Marty McFly's DeLorean in Back to the Future was a hybrid powered by gasoline and electricity...fission, Mr. Fusion, and lightning. 1.21 Gigawatts, to be exact. I was promised a lot as a kid.
But a self-driving, self-communicating, laser-driven, internet-on-wheels vehicle that gets its electricity through the air? That's pretty okay.