For Formula E motorsport, the 2020-21 racing season has been a transformation. Seven years after the first electric single-seater race, Formula E has achieved the high “championship” status enjoyed by Formula 1, World Endurance, World Rally and World Rallycross.
Then came the embarrassment, the “absolute disaster”, at the Valencia E-Prix in April. The Grand Final got chaotic when five safety car appearances forced an extra lap and the riders lacked the battery charge to compete at high speed. Only nine of the 24 qualifiers finished legitimately and three of these drivers crawled to the finish. Three more cars came to a stop in the middle of the last lap when they ran out of charge while five more were disqualified for exceeding energy limits to finish.
Don’t be put off by electric cars, as an event featuring the option of emission-free driving highlighted some of the challenges holding back the shift to green cars. In the decades to come, electric vehicles are set to become so reliable that they will sell better than cars powered by fossil fuels. The race is on to move on to cars in which an electric motor, battery and one-speed gearbox replace an internal combustion engine, radiator, fuel tank and multi-speed transmission and clutch, as the Fossil fuel vehicles make up about 10% of the global greenhouse. – gas emissions causing climate change.
Governments around the world are encouraging or mandating change. Automakers have pledged at least $ 300 billion to go electric and compete with Tesla Motors, the leader in companies created to build electrics.
But there are issues that need to be addressed to speed up the switch to electric. The first is that batteries have power and therefore distance limits. But battery improvements should overcome this handicap before too long. Another is that the infrastructure for nationwide charging needs to be built – it will be. Another hurdle to overcome is that while EVs are simpler to manufacture because they have fewer parts, a backseat-sized battery makes cars more expensive to produce. The 60% higher price on average slows down sales even though electric car owners save money on energy costs (up to 70%) and maintenance (electric cars only have 20 moving parts against approximately 2,000 for fossil fuel vehicles).
Another challenge is that while green cars emit no local pollution, their environmental benefits come with caveats. The first is that producing the electricity they need to recharge produces emissions. But emissions from power generation will decrease over time as grids become more renewable based. A second qualification is that batteries make electric vehicles more polluting to manufacture. Part of the reason is that the raw materials needed for battery cells, especially cobalt, lithium, and rare earth elements, give off emissions during the smelting required to extract them from the ore. (Another could be that batteries are a challenge to recycle.)
The switch to electric, it must be recognized, has social costs. The typical electric car requires six times more mineral inputs than its fossil-fueled counterparts by weight, and getting triple the number of raw materials can be problematic. A notable social cost is that more than 60% of the world’s supply of cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where children get sick and die in mining for US $ 2 a day to reach the ore – although Western companies are looking to improve conditions. Another possible side effect is that securing the supply of key ingredients for batteries, located in far fewer countries than oil, could increase tensions between the West and China.
Electric cars are currently more of a luxury purchase because of their higher price tag. But already 30% of world sales of mopeds, scooters and motorcycles are electric because the price differential compared to gasoline equivalents is smaller. Car sales will evolve similarly if the price gap to fossil fuel is closed as planned this decade, as batteries become cheaper and greener grids dedicate the climate benefits of electricity. Of the three future driving trends, namely carsharing which makes ownership redundant, fully autonomous driving and electric vehicles, a world of green cars is the most credible.
Certainly, further progress in fuel economy from fossil fuels would undermine the case of electric vehicles. A shift halfway to hybrids could slow the shift to all-electric, while unexpected leaps in hydrogen power could make electric cars outdated. Governments could remove green subsidies to straighten their finances (especially as some will lose revenue from fuel excise duties). Any delay in improving the battery would slow down the change. The ban on conventional cars could fail if the masses cannot afford electricity. Electric vehicle sales could be disappointing if people adopt a mindset that green cars will be cheaper and better in terms of distance in a few years.
While the pace of change is questionable, the world of electric cars is coming. The Valencian E-Prix debacles aside, the mainstream breakthrough should prove to be as seamless as the switch from manual to automatic.