The problem with the electric car and the reason that the Detroit Electric (1907–1939) and other early electric automobiles ceased production was the battery, which fully justified the description of an electric car as a vehicle for conveying a large quantities of batteries a short distance — to which, if you want to go further, you have to add more batteries.
From 1907 onward, for about 100 years, nothing changed: electric cars could not compete for lack of a high density electric storage device. Progressive development of the lithium ion battery, first conceived of by British chemist M. Stanley Whittingham in the 1970's, yielded, by the early years of the present century, an electrical storage medium sufficiently dense to make the electric automobile once again competitive. But only just.
Lithium ion batteries that power today's electric cars are still massive compared with a tank of gas, and extremely expensive. Hence, the development of the modern electric auto has been from the top end of the car market downward, with the first all electric mass market vehicles such as the Nissan Leaf and the Chevrolet Bolt still costing thousands more than a comparable ICE-powered vehicle.
Two lines of development will extend the penetration of the electric drive in the auto market: one is continued improvements in battery chemistry that will deliver as yet undetermined improvements in power density and cost; the other is the emergence of vehicles designed solely for urban use, and likely prohibited from highway use.
A radical improvement in battery performance and economics could result in the wholesale displacement of ICE-powered cars. However, when or whether such a radical improvement in battery performance occurs is impossible to predict. If improvements in battery design occur, as in the past, only slowly, the greatest scope for growth in demand for electric automobiles appears to be in the market for short-range, light-weight, low-cost, vehicles designed solely for urban transportation.
|Lit Motors, gyroscopically balanced two-wheel electric car.|
Low cost will reflect the need for only a small battery to drive a light vehicle to a maximum distance of no more than, say, 100 km, and the relative simplicity of achieving adequate passenger safety in a vehicle restricted to a maximum speed equal to the city speed limit.
To many, such a car may seem unappealing. However, at a price in the under fifteen thousand dollar range, the urban electric becomes attractive to anyone concerned primarily not with status but convenient city transportation. Combine the emergence of the UEC with restrictions on ICE-powered vehicles in urban areas, and the demand for cars that serve both for cross-town commuting and transcontinental transportation could well collapse.
Viewing the world market as a whole, the demand for conventional cars has probably already peaked with the emergence in the Third World of tens and hundreds of millions of first-time car buyers, many of whom are purchasing micro-cars, either electric or gas powered.
In the Western world, the transition to UECs will depend on the commitment of manufacturers to the production of such vehicles. Major players in the industry may be slow to act for fear of undermining sales of larger and more expensive vehicles. However, there are many other potential entrants to the market, including high tech companies such as Google and Apple, which are already deeply involved in research and development in the transportation field. Thus, if the major auto companies fail to seize the market for UECs others appear ready to do so. The prospect is, therefore, that the UEC will become for the 20`s what the smart phone has been in the teens.
Urban electric vehicles are likely to receive a further boost in demand from the emergence of affordable autonomous driving systems. Then it will be possible to separate use and ownership of UEC's, with the emergence of autonomous taxis that can be summoned to almost any urban location in a matter moments.
It is the emergence of such light-weight, low speed electric vehicles that will allow the electric car to make a real contribution to carbon emissions reduction by virtue of increased energy-use efficiency. Compared with a Tesla roadster or a BMW or Ford F150, travel by UEC would have a carbon footprint of less, perhaps, than one tenth the size. In addition, a transition ot UECs would yield many other benefits: less crowded streets, fewer toxic fumes, less rubber dust to clog the human respiratory tract, and much less noise.