With growing awareness of the climate consequences of travel, one might have expected to see the transport’s CO2 emissions to fall after the stall caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. But it is the other way around! Today, road transport alone is responsible for one-sixth of global emissions. Decarbonization of this sector is thus a priority.
All the more so given that the solution seems to be staring us in the face: the mass transition of the fleet to electric vehicles! This trend continues to pick up pace, with over 10 million units sold in 2022, 14 million forecast for 2023 and 43 million by 2030. This will amount to 45% of the market by 2030, compared with just 4% in 2020. Three competitors are currently vying for pole position: China, with 6 million vehicles sold in 2022; Europe with 2.7 million; and the USA with 1 million electric vehicles.
So what is the barrier to electrification? To convince those who are still reluctant and take the lead, there is a need to address three main concerns: access to charging terminals, the vehicle purchase cost and battery performance, particularly in terms of safety.
Charge! The growing network of terminals
Regarding the supply network, 2.7 million charging points – a station may comprise several points – were in service worldwide by the end of 2022, one-third of them installed during the previous year. China has a clear lead, especially when it comes to fast-charging stations: 470,000 out of a world total of 569,000. Everywhere, private players are reinforcing public action. From supermarkets to oil companies and automakers, they see charging terminals as a lever to attract and retain customers. Among them, carmaker Tesla already claims to have over 50,000 “superchargers” in service.
Electric versus internal combustion: just a question of price?
Regarding the purchase cost, a well-documented article in the New York Times predicted in February 2023 that US electric vehicle prices would be in line with their gasoline competitors before the end of the current year. Nevertheless, the average price of an electric vehicle remains higher, at an average $61,488 compared with $49,507 for an internal combustion vehicle. But carmakers, with Tesla still in the lead, continue to lower their prices in order to fall below the tax threshold set by the recent federal Inflation Reduction Act. This financial incentive is reserved for cars costing less than $55,000 and utility vehicles costing less than $80,000.
This policy is very similar to the one successfully adopted by China in 2014. It has just been extended for a further three years, with a budget of 520 billion yuan (around $80bn). With its Climate Plan, Europe has chosen a more radical path. By allowing only new electric vehicles to be sold from 2035, it is putting the brakes on internal combustion and hybrid vehicles.
How can we make future megacities become smart as well?
Everywhere, local initiatives are complementing central government measures. Many cities, such as Oslo and London, ban polluting vehicles from their city centers. With its Advanced Clean Cars program, California, like the European Union, is aiming for zero carbon emissions for all new vehicles sold by 2035. “The conditions are now in place to create a virtuous circle, in which increased volumes fuel diversification of the offer, lower prices and the development of recharging infrastructure,” says Gaurav Assat, Strategic Project Manager, Electric Vehicles for High Performance Solutions at Saint-Gobain.
A battery of safety measures
When it comes to the safety of batteries, which are almost exclusively lithium-ion, every incident makes the headlines. This makes it essential to take great care in their design and manufacture. “Highly effective adhesives and insulating foams are now available to protect batteries from the outside environment and prevent thermal runaway,” explains Sarra Jhinaoui, Strategy Director, Electric Vehicles Program Lead. To get them to market more quickly, Saint-Gobain Tape Solutions has just grouped them into a complete package for manufacturers.
Hydrogen, driving the “green” revolution
Batteries remain perhaps the greatest challenge for electric vehicles. Global lithium production will have to increase 40-fold between now and 2040 to keep pace with the predicted electrification of the automobile fleet. In addition to developing new deposits, particularly in Europe, it is essential to find alternatives to current technologies. To this end, manufacturers are investing heavily in research. For the time being, they prefer solid lithium batteries, which have twice the energy density and are safer, with no flammable liquid electrolyte. Saint-Gobain Ceramics is in the race to develop solid electrolytes, through its Franco-American teams working with an Israeli start-up. Several universities are also investigating the potential of calcium, magnesium, sodium and lithium-sulfur, some of them showing very encouraging results.
Watch the video to discover Saint-Gobain's offer for electric vehicles
Another area of research being explored intensively is the recycling of used batteries. Their number is set to follow the exponential growth in vehicle sales, with a time lag of a few years. Gigafactory projects are springing up all over the world. The start-up Mecaware, founded in the south of France by a university professor, has taken up the challenge. It claims to be able to recover metals from used batteries using a chemical process based on industrial flue gases. What’s more, the CO2 contained in these flue gases is captured during the process, which for decarbonization is like killing two birds with one stone.
“Charging terminal numbers, vehicle costs, safety and battery power: we have good reason to believe that all these challenges will be met in time for the electric car to make its expected contribution to the decarbonization of society,” concludes Sarra Jhinaoui.
Photos credits: husjur02/ Shutterstock, moreimages/Shutterstock