Industry Voices: Automakers need to Reimagine a Decades-Old Industry

Opinion piece by Thomas Goetzl, vice-president and general manager, automotive and energy solutions at Keysight Technologies.

In 2021, electric car sales surpassed 6.7M worldwide. That’s a 108% increase from the previous year and a number expected to rapidly accelerate over the next decade, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), a Paris-based intergovernmental organization that monitors the global energy sector.

By the end of this decade, the IEA projects that more than 300M electric vehicles will be on the road and account for 60% of new vehicle purchases – up from 4.6% today. While the electric vehicle marketplace has continued to grow, the recent sharp increases in oil prices further highlight this coming change.

Over the next decade, many automakers plan to transform their fleets to electric power, with some announcing goals for fully electric lineups within five years. Automakers are making products that meet evolving industry standards for safety, emissions testing, and energy efficiency. They require electric powertrain and HEV/EV solutions that address safety, regulatory and environmental issues. This significant transformation represents a seismic shift in thinking as well as operations and introduces several challenges like pressure on the power grid and a need for sustainable, environmentally friendly material.

Pressure on the power grid

The surge in electric vehicles comes with infrastructure, manufacturing and regulatory challenges that will impact the automotive industry. The stark difference between the century-old technology of the combustion engine and that of battery-powered electric vehicles presents enormous obstacles, none more important than the power grid.

The energy and automotive sectors have operated independently since their inception. Electric vehicles, of course, require an electric charge to use, and recharging stations, which could power a car in less than 10 minutes, use a tremendous amount of energy.

The volume of electric cars that will be added to the current grid presents a disaster recipe. The existing electric grid has operated primarily on coal-fired plants that offer a minimum level of sustained power that provides energy certainty and electric utilities know how to use the current power usage pattern.

Moving from coal to renewable energy sources such as solar and wind in the power grid may create a less consistent power supply. Electric vehicles plugged into this grid will upset the traditional power use schedule with increased demand that could help push demand over supply, leading to system-wide failures.

Building standard power grid practices

The power grid is perhaps the most complex machine on Earth. The power grid combines not just power plants but an extensive network of transmission lines and distribution centers that transport power across the country. The power grid is near its capacity and requires modernization to improve efficiency and resilience. With this complexity, power grid stakeholders must operate in a standardized, more imaginative fashion to manage the influx of electric vehicles in the next decade.

We must create standards allowing vehicles to interact directly with the power grid. That includes meeting existing grid standards for pulling and pushing charge in a way the car owns that connection point. Vehicles currently must employ an intermediary to charge, which reduces efficiency and further strains the grid. Instead, new power converting technology built into the vehicles would allow cars to connect directly to the grid. They could charge but also disperse excess power back to the grid, improving overall resilience. Additional support must be given to power providers to make it easier for them to change production frequency to meet shifting demands.

Shifts in materials, manufacturing

Traditional automobiles feature large amounts of metal in their construction, both in their body and engine parts. Electric vehicles require large amounts of other elements, including nickel, manganese, carbon and lithium (for the batteries).

These materials are in short supply, both from existing global supply chain challenges and the lack of these resources to support something as significant as the global automotive industry.

Crucial to the changes in manufacturing and materials are the car batteries themselves. Battery cells account for about 30% of an electric vehicle’s cost and feature a level of complexity mainly unknown to most manufacturers regarding testing, cell measurement and other factors.

Lithium-ion car batteries have performed better than experts originally predicted. Early tests pushed many manufacturers away, feeling it would not become a viable technology. While some companies, like Tesla, forged ahead and many now find themselves playing catchup.

Electric vehicle batteries must not only operate the vehicle but also not become a scourge on the environment. The car batteries must remain safe for use but also safe 30 years after a second life. The goal is 50 years although that will be difficult to reach. That requires still more testing, measuring, standardization and data and analytics to perfect these technologies.

The goal of electric vehicle and cell manufacturers should not only be to take emission-emitting vehicles off the road but to also improve manufacturing processes to create a green sustainable product. Along with production, these batteries and other car components must feature highly recyclable elements to ensure long-term sustainability.

The road forward

Electric vehicles offer a tremendous opportunity to reshape transportation and lessen the automotive industry’s impact on the planet. Stakeholders must continue to find innovative solutions to solve the numerous ancillary concerns that come with the influx of electric vehicles into the marketplace.

Standardizing energy use, updating manufacturing processes and battery creation will go a long way toward creating a sustainable industry. We must remember that electric vehicle technology is still nascent, especially compared with its combustion-engine f

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