Electric car production is increasing worldwide, provoking changes in the automobile industry and promising to transform urban mobility. The number of electric and hybrid cars (the latter meaning models that use an electric motor in conjunction with an internal combustion engine) exceeded 2 million vehicles worldwide in 2016, a 60% increase over the previous year. The largest manufacturers are based in the key markets of China, Japan, the United States, and Europe. The number of electric vehicles in the world could reach 70 million by 2025, according to the Global EV Outlook 2017 report by the International Energy Agency (IEA). Another projection, by Morgan Stanley, estimates that about 16% of all passenger vehicles will be powered by batteries by 2030. Today, they represent 0.2% of the global market, which totals 947 million vehicles.
The advance of electric vehicles, currently more common in rich countries due to their high cost, is motivated by environmental concerns and the prospect of oil depletion. Exhaust fumes from fossil-fuel vehicles are the primary cause of pollution in large urban centers and account for a fifth of the global emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2), the main greenhouse gas (GHG). In order to address this situation, the governments of several countries have proposed placing limits on the production of these vehicles, and are encouraging the use of electric cars, which in theory are less damaging to the environment.
French and British authorities have recently announced their intention to ban the sale of gasoline or diesel models from 2040 onward. In Norway, 37 percent of the new cars sold in January this year were powered by electricity, and in the Netherlands, the ban on gasoline and diesel cars is expected to come into force even earlier, in 2025, while in Germany the ban is scheduled for 2030. On the industry side, all of the largest manufacturers already offer electric and hybrid models. Volvo announced that from 2019, all of its cars will have electric motors.
The global wave is slowly reaching Brazil, which needs to overcome several obstacles before it can make the transition from internal combustion to electric. “A lack of public policy and recharging infrastructure are the main obstacles to the widespread use of these cars in Brazil,” says Ricardo Guggisberg, executive president of the Brazilian Electric Vehicle Association (ABVE). He believes the government needs to offer incentives to encourage the use of electric vehicles in Brazil, just as other countries have done (see more about the challenges faced by the electric car in Brazil).
There are currently around 50 different models of electric car available around the world, with a jump to 120 expected within the next three years. These vehicles can be classified into three groups according to the form of energy supply. The first is fully electric battery-powered vehicles (BEVs). Powered by one or more electric motors, batteries are the sole energy source. “The battery must be recharged by connecting to the electricity grid, but it can also use energy regenerated by the car during deceleration and braking,” explains electrical engineer Raul Fernando Beck, head of Energy Systems at the Telecommunications Research and Development Center (CPQD) in Campinas, São Paulo, and coordinator of the Electric and Hybrid Vehicles Technical Commission at the Automotive Engineering Society (SAE Brazil). They are ideal for urban use because they offer limited range. “Current batteries allow cars to travel an average of 250 kilometers before they need to be recharged,” says Beck.
The second group is hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs), which have at least one electric motor and one internal combustion engine. Hybrids do not need to be recharged with an electricity outlet, because they are powered exclusively by a generator driven by the combustion engine that is used to move the car. The vehicle, therefore, is refueled at gas stations. While hybrid vehicles offer greater range, they are not totally emissions-free. The third group is plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs), which combine pure electric and hybrid features. These models also have two distinct engines (combustion and electric) and can be powered by traditional fuels such as gasoline and diesel (there are not yet any ethanol-fueled PHEVs) as well as by electricity from the grid (see graphic).
The major advantage of electric vehicles is the zero or reduced emission of pollutants and greenhouse gases. The significance of this benefit, however, depends on the energy sources utilized by the country in question. In many European nations, most electricity is generated by polluting, non-renewable sources, such as coal burned at thermoelectric plants. Thus, even if electric vehicles do not directly contribute to atmospheric pollution and global warming—since their emissions are zero or very low—the energy that powers their batteries was produced by a “dirty” source. This increases their carbon footprint. A carbon footprint is a measurement of how much impact a given human activity or technology has on the environment based on the amount of CO2 emitted.
The issue is controversial and divides expert opinion. If we also consider the energy spent manufacturing a car and its components when calculating its carbon footprint, the advantage of electric vehicles decreases even further. “Making batteries requires a lot of energy. If this energy is generated by fossil fuels, there are considerable CO2 emissions involved and the electric car’s overall carbon footprint rises,” explains mechanical engineer Francisco Emílio Baccaro Nigro, a professor at the Polytechnic School of the University of São Paulo (POLI-USP) and an advisor to the São Paulo State Energy and Mining Department. Even so, Nigro points out, generating electricity to power electric vehicles is still more environmentally friendly than burning fossil fuels in combustion engines, because electric vehicles are more energy efficient than those powered by fossil fuels.
But there are some who think otherwise. Physicist José Goldemberg, an energy expert, believes that manufacturing electric vehicles is only worthwhile if a country’s energy mix is mostly based on renewable sources, as is the case in Brazil. “For the United States, whose electricity is mostly produced from fossil fuel, I see no advantage in replacing the combustion engine. Here in Brazil, there would be benefits,” says Goldemberg, the president of FAPESP. The Brazilian energy mix is based primarily on clean and renewable hydraulic energy, which accounts for 64% of the electricity generated. Electric cars would therefore be environmentally advantageous compared to those powered by gasoline or diesel. This advantage remains even when compared with vehicles that run on ethanol, a sustainable fuel that is less damaging to the environment. “The carbon footprint of electricity production in Brazil is very similar to that of ethanol. But this relationship could change if the country starts using more thermoelectric plants to complement hydroelectric power,” says Nigro.
He believes an ethanol hybrid car may be the best solution for the country. “This kind of model would make perfect sense here,” says Nigro. Electrical engineer Ricardo Takahira, director of the ABVE Research Center and a member of the SAE Brazil Electric and Hybrid Vehicles Technical Commission, has a similar opinion. “Supporting hybridization of flexible-fuel engines is a step forward in technological terms. But without significant sales of electric vehicles in the country, it is difficult for multinationals to justify investing in research and development (R&D) and production here,” says Takahira.
Silent and efficient
Electric vehicles also create very little noise—they do not burn any fuel, which is what makes gasoline and diesel cars so noisy—and they are cheap to run. A study by CPFL Energia showed that the cost per kilometer for a combustion car is R$0.31[US$0.10], while it is just R$0.11 [US$0.03] for an electric vehicle; three times lower. Electric cars are also much more efficient. “While the energy efficiency of internal combustion cars is about 25%, electric cars start at 85%, depending on the model,” says the ABVE specialist. The energy consumption of a vehicle is the amount of energy supplied by the power source (battery, gasoline, diesel, ethanol, etc.) used to move the vehicle. Some energy is lost in the form of heat during this process.
Despite the environmental appeal and booming sales overseas, it is not all good news in the electric vehicles industry. “The batteries are the Achilles heel of these vehicles. Current battery models offer a limited range before they need to be recharged. They are heavy, expensive to produce, and account for a good portion of the vehicle cost,” explains mechanical engineer Marcelo Augusto Leal Alves, from the Automotive Engineering Center (CEA) at POLI-USP (read more about the research into batteries).
Leading global battery manufacturers, such as Panasonic, Samsung, LG, and NEC, are racing to overcome this obstacle. American electric car company Tesla, which has become one of the world’s most successful luxury car manufacturers (its Model X costs from US$83,000 in the United States and sells for almost R$1 million in Brazil), entered the battery market this year, opening a battery factory called the Gigafactory in the state of Nevada together with Panasonic. Elon Musk, the owner of the company, expects the factory to help reduce battery production costs by more than 30% when it begins operating at full capacity next year.
For the experts, the environmental advantages offered by electric vehicles, especially given current concerns about the depletion of fossil fuels, make electric cars very promising for the future. “The world is headed toward electric cars,” says Nigro. But the technology still needs to overcome certain barriers—such as the limited range offered by the batteries, and the price, which is still too high for most consumers—in order to become widely used around the world.Republish