The Age of the Electric Car?

Gillian Harrison

In this article we explore what is an electric vehicle (EV), how owning an EV may differ from our current conventionally fuelled personal passenger cars, and what we should expect in an age of the electric car.

electric car


In 2016, worldwide stock of electric vehicles (EV) rose over 2 million, currently with 750,000 sales in that year alone (IEA 2016). Although varying across countries, Norway by far leads the world in electrifying its fleet with a 29% share of new registrations, due to a series of political efforts. Many countries have ambitious targets for EV market penetration, with China setting a target of 10% of sales by 2019 and 20% by 2025. Various other countries have proposals plans to phase out conventional vehicle sales including UK and France by 2040 and Norway by 2025. In the EU 1.5% of all new vehicle sales were electric in 2015. This is supported by a network of around 120,000 public charging points across Europe (EAFO 2017).

Figure 1: Total EV Sales in EU28 (EEA 2016)Figure 1: Total EV Sales in EU28 (EEA 2016)

What is an EV?

An electric vehicle (EV) is powered by an electric motor as opposed to the fossil fuel internal combustion engine which powers conventional vehicles. There are four distinct versions of electric vehicles available.

1. Conventional Hybrid Electric Vehicle (HEV)

The HEV is the most common form of EV that exists today, having been commercially available for twenty years when the first HEV model, the Toyota Prius was released. The HEV remains in many ways similar the conventional petrol or diesel car, and the drive train consists of both an internal combustion engine and an on-board electric motor, either of which can provide the power. The electric motor can drive the car at low speeds, hence HEV’s being usually zero-tailpipe emissions in urban driving. Solely fuelled by conventional fuel (predominantly petrol), the ICE will generally power the vehicle. The electric motor is powered by an on-board battery which is charged by regenerative breaking.

Figure 2: Schematics of vehicle types (OLEV 2011) (FCEV adapted from original)Figure 2: Schematics of vehicle types (OLEV 2011) (FCEV adapted from original)Figure 2: Schematics of vehicle types (OLEV 2011) (FCEV adapted from original)

2. Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle (PHEV)

Similar to it’s conventional counterpart, the PHEV differs as the electric battery can be externally charged (ie plugged-in). Generally a PHEV would have a smaller ICE and larger battery and can spend longer periods on its pure electric range. There are two types of PHEV – parallel, which is as described, and series, which more closely resembles the BEV, and is sometimes referred to as an Extended-Range Electric Vehicle. In this mode, the car is always driven by the electric motor powered directly by the battery, however, the battery itself is charged during driving by an on-board generators – essentially an ICE.

3. Battery Electric Vehicle (BEV)

Commercially available since around 2010, the BEV is driven by an electric motor powered by a battery, itself solely charged by externally plugging into to a power source. BEV currently make up less than half of European EV sales, which varies significantly by country. A number of BEV models exist, the most prominent being the Nissan Leaf, Renault Zoe and Tesla S. Most BEVs can expect to have a range of up to 100km, but the luxury brand Tesla S can achieve up to 400km.

4. Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle (FCEV)

The final type of electric vehicle is the FCEV. In the FCEV, the electric motor is powered by a hydrogen fuel cell. Within the fuel cell, hydrogen gas is combined with oxygen drawn from the air to create water (H2O). This process creates energy that powers the electric motor. FCEV has the advantage that it can be fuelled in similar method as conventional vehicles and achieve similar ranges. However, the technology is still under development and safety concerns remain regarding hydrogen storage and delivery. Although a limited number of models are commercially available, such as the Honda Insight, it is not yet a credibly on the market.


Figure 3: Automobile sales by technology 1876 – 1965 (Struben and Sterman 2008)Figure 3: Automobile sales by technology 1876 – 1965 (Struben and Sterman 2008)

Although the EV is just now making a credible break-through in the car market, it is by no means a new technology (though recent developments have catapulted its utility and usability). Experimental EVs first appeared in the 1830s, 50 years before the first ICEV. In fact, in the early days of the automobile at the start of the 20th Century, electrically powered vehicles were the market leader. The advantage of the EV at this time were much the same as now – they were viewed as cleaner, quieter and provided much greater instant torque resulting in a smoother and more exciting ride (important, bearing in mind automobiles were exclusively a play thing of the rich rather than the functional transport artefact of today). However, as the automobile became more widespread, with increasing interest in ‘touring’ rather than just racing, the advantages of the ICEV over the EV emerged and resulted in the conquering of the market and first demise of the EV. This included the lower range and slower recharge of the EV and the mechanical nature of the ICEV that lent itself to being more easily mended. During the First World War the EV flourished due to petrol shortages, ICEV acquisition and the newly installed power stations and electricity network. However, during the Great Depression of the 1930s many burgeoning EV businesses collapsed. A brief resurgence was witnessed during the Second World War to conserve resources and due to the low maintenance, however, by the mid-20th century when the automobile began to be embedded in our transport system, the EV would seem to have been confined to being no more than a milk float. Environmental concerns of the 1960s and oil crises of the 1970s led to some prototypes that were never developed, so the EV remained a niche technology. At the end of the 20th century, not only was the conventional ICEV the king of the road, but also the car itself was the centre of the mobility system. However, following a renewed international focus on sustainable development and climate change, attention once again turned to the potential of the EV. Hybrids were developed in earnest to help meet new environmental regulations related to emissions and in the early 21st century commercially available BEV and PHEVs began to appear on the roads, and since then the market has grown.

Recent Developments

So what has been the game changer for the EV over recent years that has led to its current market success? A number of factors have come to the fore which have supported the EV.

1. Environmental argument

Since the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the subsequent progressive Climate summits , there is scientific consensus on the role of man-made carbon emissions in the observed phenomena of global temperature increases and that this will lead to potentially irreversible changes in global climate, effecting all nations but particularly many of those that are already the most vulnerable and make the smallest contributions to global emissions (IPCC 2013). As such, through COP talks, there is generally agreement that there is responsibility to reduce emissions in an aim to limit global temperature rises to 2oC. Transport contributes to the around 25% of GHG emissions, with road transport the main contributor to this, as well as being the main contributor of urban air pollution (EC 2016). Further to climate change, there are also concerns of local pollution causing issues with air quality, environmental degradation and public health. As such, the EU wish 2050 transport emissions to be at least 60% lower than 1990 level, and for the removal of conventional fuelled cars from cities. Governments are setting targets on emission reductions and in particular on car manufacturers to reduce the average tailpipe emissions. Although many efforts are made to increase efficiency of ICEV, assuming continued use of private cars at current levels, the targets will not be achieved without zero tailpipe vehicles entering the fleet in substantial numbers.

Figure 4: Battery price reduction (McKinsey 2017)Figure 4: Battery price reduction (McKinsey 2017)

2. Technology improvements

Over the past ten years there has been significant advances in battery technology, particularly the Lithium ion battery, which have lead to an increase in the efficiency of the battery leading to longer ranges, alongside a reduction in the size, weight and cost of the battery (McKinsey 2017). Alongside this, battery chargers have become increasingly effective and efforts are being made to install a standardised public charging network across Europe under the Alternative Fuels Infrastructure Directive.

3. Political aspirations

Recognising the potential role of the EV in environmental targets, conscious political efforts have been made to support the transition, this includes purchase subsidies, company car tax relief, fleet placement and charging infrastructure support (IEA 2016). In London for example, the congestion / low emission zone charge has been focused towards zero tailpipe vehicles.

Remaining Challenges and Opportunities

Despite these developments, barriers remain to the EV for being widely adopted.

1. Cost

All forms of the EV remain more expensive to purchase than their conventional counterpart. The second hand EV market remains somewhat uncertain in its immaturity partly due to the uncertainty over the lifetime of batteries, the most expensive component of the EV. Therefore, despite the lower running costs, EV ownership maybe perceived to be outside the budget of many individuals (McKinsey 2017).

2. Charging Infrastructure

There are now around 120,000 charge points across Europe, but their placement and spread are inconsistent (EAFO 2017). Although most EV owners may be relatively certain of finding an available charging point when required, supported by the use of smart technologies, as the market grows this may become more of an issue. Further to the provision of public charging infrastructure, is the ability to charge at home. The majority of European urban populations live in residences without private off-road parking that would allow this.

Figure 5: European installed charging points (EAFO 2017)Figure 5: European installed charging points (EAFO 2017)

3. Range anxiety

Related to access and provision of charging infrastructure is the recognised concern of ‘range anxiety’. With a medium sized conventional vehicle an individual may expect a driving range of up to 500 miles on a single fuel tank. Fuel stations are abundant, and widely accessible in all but the most remote parts of the country, with a refuelling time, including payment of less than 10 minutes. Limited by the size and weight of a battery pack, the most common fuel BEV on the market can expect a maximum driving range of around 100km (with the notable exception of the Tesla, a high end model that can offer around 400km). This can be reduced significantly by driving conditions and use of auxiliary systems. Although rapid EV charging (c. 30 mins) is possible, it is currently expensive, sparsely available and possibly detrimental to battery life if used repeatedly. An individual should expect to use a slow charging facility overnight / workday that would charge to full over 8 hours, and on-the-go charging in public facilities of over 1 hour.

4. Preferences and Habits

Individuals with a private car are used to having it available to (more or less) go anyway, at any time. An EV clearly does not offer a direct replacement of this. It is therefore perceived unacceptable. However, few people require an average daily range over that of a standard EV. For journeys which may be longer, or to destinations without guaranteed charging coverage, other options are available, such as hiring a car or using an alternative mode such as a train. These have other societal benefits as well. Due to the environmental motivations of the transition to zero tail pipe vehicles, alongside advances in smart technologies, the perceptions of what a car provide could realistically change in society to support the technological capabilities.

Figure 7: Comparative Life-cycle emissions (mid class vehicle, 220,000km) (EEA 2016)Figure 7: Comparative Life-cycle emissions (mid class vehicle, 220,000km) (EEA 2016)

5. Upstream and life cycle emissions

Although full EVs have zero tailpipe emissions, thus eliminating concerns of local pollution related environment and health issues, they can only be classed as zero carbon if the electricity comes from a fully zero carbon source, such as renewable energies. Currently, over half of the installed electricity capacity in the EU is low or zero carbon (Nuclear (12.4%), hydro (15.5%), Wind (14.4%) and Solar PV (9.7%)) (EC 2017) and as electricity becomes increasingly decarbonised, then electric vehicles could part of the solution to reducing GHG emissions. Similar to upstream emissions, an EV cannot be considered zero carbon when one also considers the embedded emissions form the constituent parts and resources involved in the process of building and decommissioning the vehicle. For the chassis of the vehicle this will be more or less comparable to conventional vehicles, with small differences (for instance an EV may be heavier due to the battery and require sturdier materials). For instance, some metals incorporated, such as Aluminium are higher energy intensive and therefore have high levels of embedded carbon. To what extent the user accounts for the embedded emissions is related to the vehicle lifetime and mileage.

6. Other resources

Materials currently being used in the production of EVs may also become scarce or uneconomical (especially if energy intensive industries are discouraged due to emissions). A prime example is Lithium, a key component of the battery. Although research is being undertaken to discover efficient methods of recycling used batteries or the lithium itself, as well as identifying new battery materials and technologies using more abundant or recyclable materials, this could remain a concern. One avenue of interest for chassis material is the production of biomaterials.

7. Power Grid and Energy Storage

The Power Grid across Europe has developed with the growing electricity network and energy demand of the past century. Furthermore, it is currently entering a stage of change as various fossil fuel and nuclear power stations reach their end of life and require replacement, and renewable energies are brought into the energy mix. Alongside is the power grid itself if reaching end of life requiring upgrading and replacement to cope with increasing demand from consumers. Should a significant transition to EVs occur with many people regularly charging their vehicles, the load on the grid will shift substantially requiring extra capacity and upgrading. Further, it is likely that this demand will occur over night, which is traditionally the time of low demand, and may trigger paradigmatic shifts in operation of the network. Although this may also be an opportunities for positive change towards a more efficiently used network, and connected vehicles could also be used to share power to the grid or as a form of energy storage, a whole system approach will be required, which itself sets up further challenges.

8. Congestion, road safety and social exclusion

Although the EV may offer many technical and environmental advantages over the conventional vehicles it in itself does not offer any solutions to existing traffic and transport related issues such as congestion, road safety and social exclusion. In many ways regarding such factors the EV is comparable to conventional vehicles, as there will be the same number of vehicles on the road used in a similar manner (especially in urban settings), and the same groups of the most vulnerable people will not be able to participate or benefit in car ownership (eg certain disabilities, the most poor). In some cases EV could impose further issues – for example without the sound of a combustion engine pedestrians and cyclists may be more at risk of road traffic injuries.


The story of the Electric Car has been going for over a century, and been close to ending many times. However, the EV is currently flourishing, and with many prospects for the future, both near and far. The internal combustion engine has been the dominant technology throughout the history of the automobile, and responsible for its position in society, but as fossil fuels become scarce and environmental concerns become greater, there has been no other time that the future of the EV has looked so promising. Despite the many remaining challenges to EV technology, the automobile and indeed the wider mobility system is facing a period of great change. With the increased use of connected and smart technologies in our daily lives, our need to get between places and our preferences on how we do so are changing. Lower take up of diving licences on the younger age groups is already being witnessed, as is the increased adoption of shared ownership especially in the bigger urban environments. New and disruptive technologies are poised to enter the transport system, from autonomous vehicles that are already being tested on our roads to entirely new concepts of travel such as the hyper loop. Public health agendas encourage more active forms of transport for the shortest journeys and demand reduction in local pollution. Together these suggest that the role of the automobile in our daily lives may be very different in the generations to come, with technologies complementing rather than competing within our mobility services. The EV will likely be the technology that continues to fill a new position, especially in an urban environment.


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