The demand for greener military practices is driving the armed forces to search for alternative technologies, where electric vehicles (EVs) are a valuable potential asset.
Listed below are the main technical trends affecting the topic of electric vehicles, as identified by GlobalData.
Battery technology optimization speed
The auto industry is used in product cycles that last seven to ten years, with new technologies beginning the testing process years before they are considered production ready. However, with the escalation of electricity, automakers and suppliers are finding that the pace of technological change is now moving a little faster than they used to.
This is particularly evident in the field of electric vehicle batteries. While combustion engines have been so greatly improved that even the most significant breakthroughs have resulted in only a small improvement in efficiency, batteries are making great strides. For example, when the Tesla Model S was first launched in 2012, its 265 miles of range was considered too impressive, but the updated Model S can now travel more than 500 miles while offering twice the power and a second drive axle.
Cobalt-Nickel-Manganese Oxide (NMC) vs. Lithium Iron Phosphate (LiFePO4)
While controversy rages between lithium-ion and solid-state batteries, another controversy has arisen between two competing cathode chemists for current lithium-ion cells.
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The first, NMC, is used in many electric vehicle batteries, particularly in high-end models with larger batteries. NMC chemistry generally provides a greater energy density for a given cell size and weight, which means that an NMC battery pack can ultimately store more energy than LiFePO4. As the name suggests, this chemistry calls for an amount of cobalt that can be expensive to mine and carry with it known risks of using child labor to extract it.
The second, LiFePO4 or LFP, is more common in low and mid-range EV battery packs, along with commercial vehicle battery packs. While LiFePO4 cannot exactly match the explicit energy density of NMC, it is a more stable material with a higher threshold for thermal escape, making it safer to operate.
Tesla rivals are getting closer
Toyota, Honda, GM, BMW and VW have the most efficient assembly lines in the auto industry, and they prepare to challenge the California company to its own game. While these incumbents may have been surprised by Tesla’s early lead, they each have the expertise and infrastructure to manufacture as many as 10 million vehicles a year anywhere.
In contrast, Tesla has struggled hard to reach an annual production of 500,000 vehicles in 2020. Tesla’s relative inexperience and small footprint make it vulnerable to unexpected changes in the auto markets. Additionally, as a public company, it faces shareholder pressure to maintain its aggressive expansion strategy, which puts it at risk of overspending or spreading itself too thinly.
Electric vehicle technology as a competitive advantage
As mentioned earlier, China sells the most electric vehicles, produces the most electric vehicles, and has access to the majority of raw materials for batteries to manufacture them. As such, China has emerged as a dominant country in the electric car scene. That would sting for the European, Japanese and American automakers who enjoyed a century of era as the leading builders of combustion engines.
Some efforts are being made in the West to secure global competitiveness in electric vehicles. This includes the construction of lithium battery manufacturing facilities in North America by companies including LG Energy Solution, SK Innovation, Panasonic and Tesla.
The threat from hydrogen fuel cells
Currently, most electric vehicle projects in the auto industry are concerned with battery electric vehicles. However, as discussed, hydrogen fuel cells are a viable alternative if further research and development is undertaken.
There are two factors that make fuel cells particularly valuable. One is fast refueling time, which means a hydrogen electric vehicle can enter the service station, refuel and continue its journey in a matter of minutes while the electric battery owner has to recharge for longer. The second is its light weight. The fuel cell setup can be much lighter than the battery electric setup, and while that would be reasonably useful for a passenger car, this feature is exaggerated in a much heavier vehicle such as a heavy-duty truck.
There are still challenges before hydrogen reaches the mainstream. Hydrogen production still costs a lot, and given that most of the supplies are generated from decomposing hydrocarbons, the process isn’t nearly as environmentally friendly as it could be.
Improved battery management systems
Much of the focus on developing battery electric vehicles (BEVs) is concerned with the big-ticket components that buyers are familiar with — the battery pack and electric motor(s). But, for BEV to extract maximum performance and efficiency from its components, they must all be optimized to fulfill this role. One system ready for improvement is the Battery Management System (BMS).
At the BEV, the BMS is responsible for maintaining the health of the battery, monitoring its charge status, and posting these charges to the motors as requested by the driver. The BMS is also responsible for the task of charging the battery effectively, ensuring that the charge is shared equally across all groups of cells in each package. The BMS also monitors the battery’s temperature and makes adjustments to the HVAC system to keep it in the optimum thermal range.
Battery replacement stations
Among the many challenges posed by electric car batteries is the time required to recharge. While this issue may eventually be remedied with faster chargers and batteries with a larger capacity, some car companies are looking into the possibility of battery swaps.
This sees a vehicle arrive at a switching station and pull into a designated slot before the automated system removes the spent battery pack from under the vehicle. Then the same system replaces it with a fully charged unit, allowing the driver to pull back in with a fully charged battery — making “recharge” times similar to refilling a car with fuel from a pump. The station itself contains a charging infrastructure and inventory of spare batteries ready for use in customer vehicles.
Battery price parity with combustion engines
It is estimated at the end of 2020 that the average price of an EV battery pack is $137 per kWh. To be clear, that could mean that a 100 kWh battery pack like the one on the Tesla Model S would cost the manufacturer about $13,700 in total. This is a significant drop compared to 2010 electric car battery pack prices at the start of the growth phase when they cost about $1,100 per kWh.
The levers available to manufacturers looking to reduce the cost of battery packs include lowering the cost of raw materials through large-scale mining, decreasing process cost or increasing speed to increase economy of scale, and technical improvements that improve battery pack design and performance.
This is an edited excerpt from Electric Vehicles (EV) in Defense – Objective Research Report by GlobalData Thematic Research.
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