The Economist recently ran an extensive, special report on the state of electric vehicles touching on issues ranging from technological development to market conditions, as well as those concerning legislative pressures and climate requirements. The Economist’s reporting provides a detailed overview of the state of the industry from a variety of key perspectives and, as such, proves a comprehensive summation of the industry’s progress thus far.

Legislative pressures

The Economist’s report provides an extensive overview of the efforts of the world’s major governments in their various campaigns to ensure the environmental sustainability of our societies. The four most significant governmental institutions in this respect are, according the article, the United States, China, the European Union, and Japan. The governments of these four regions have displayed a remarkably consistent resolve in their efforts to pressure car makers into reducing CO2 emissions rates despite a slow start which has noticeably weakened the resolve of even the world’s most well established and profitable car companies.

The above mentioned four governments have all consistently tighten legislative restrictions on new vehicles, introducing new standards which automakers must meet at roughly five year intervals. The European Union leading the way, relative to its current emission rates; the “Euro 6” standards set for 2014 are set to enforce strict new requirements on a variety of greenhouse emissions which would have been inconceivable when the authorities began setting regulations over a decade ago. With average CO2 set to fall “130g per km now to 95g per km in 2020” and governments already planning further reductions by 2025, with predictions suggesting limits as low as 70g, car makers are left with little choice but to continue investing in low-carbon technology and production, despite the currently anemic market trends.

Technological development

Despite the legislative and environmental realities facing automakers, current market trends and consumer surveys have seemingly led many of the industry’s major influencers to taper expectations for the future of electric vehicles, at least in the immediate future. The Economist suggests despite the much publicized cost efficiency of operating an electric vehicle, the current cost of an electric vehicle nonetheless still outweighs the potential savings. As such, the Nissan Leaf, a vehicle often touted as the savior of the mass market electric vehicle industry, failed to sell anywhere near its maximum capacity of roughly 150,000 cars a year, selling  less than half of its modest 20,000 initial target for American markets. Even industry experts cast a harsh light on the reality of electric vehicle adoption at present, suggesting that the most practical use remains “short and predictable commutes or school runs” or for businesses “Light delivery vans are another potentially strong market.”

The prevailing trend in technological development among major automakers has been in alternative powertrain research, with automakers exploring the efficiency of a variety of different solutions in an effort to find one which would provide an easier route to emissions reduction. However, it would appear that none of the solutions on the horizon at present offer a clear advantage over advancing traditional petrol and diesel engines, due in large part to the prohibitive cost of many of these alternatives. Next in line are the hybrid engines which have seen considerable support over the last decade, the market leading Toyota Prius selling as many as 1.2 million units worldwide in 2012, among both environmentally conscious drivers as well as automakers. Interviews with automotive insiders also suggest that this preference is unlikely to shift too drastically in the near future, with a senior engineer at GM indicating that the company is unlikely to transition its Volt hybrid to pure electric operation, preferring instead the relative stability of hybrid sales and thus choosing to reduce battery size and therefore price, while offering the same range estimate.

However, some companies remain optimistically inclined, exploring such far off technological potentials as a fuel cell solution which would create electric and water out of hydrogen gas or others which utilize compressed or liquefied natural gases. Despite this willingness to explore future technological possibilities, the ultimate responsibility does not lie in the hands of automakers alone. The article also addresses the infrastructural demands for sustainability in traffic systems, a responsibility which falls to public authorities and energy companies.

With estimates suggesting that new CNG (Compressed Natural Gas) cars, which boast production costs that rival those of traditional diesel vehicles, could achieve effective CO2 rates as low as 30g per km, local authorities are given considerable incentive to establish the infrastructural requirements necessary to produce the biomethane necessary to run these vehicles. However, many respected industry insiders continue to believe in the potential of pure electric vehicles, despite their rough start, arguing that even the world’s most efficient fuel technologies would none the less be best put to use in producing the electricity necessary to power the sheer simplicity of pure EVs.

In the meantime, however, the commuter landscape will remain a patchwork of outdated technologies, current trends and future potentials in which the choice is ultimately left up to each individual motorist. Therefore, the current surge in automotive industry related innovation, signified by a notable rise in patent filings between 2006 and 2011, is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.

Source: The Economist

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