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Nissan Leaf. Click image to enlarge

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Optimism is high, but big questions still to be answered

Article and photos by Gerry Frechette

Photo Gallery:
Electric Vehicle Conference, 2010

In the past decade, Vancouver, British Columbia has been home to several conferences that focused on the future of vehicle propulsion systems, with particular emphasis on hydrogen fuel cells. Unfortunately, motorists of the world are no closer to having a fuel cell-powered vehicle in their driveways than they were ten years ago, as there are a few big hurdles yet to be overcome.

Electric vehicles, though, are in their final stages of development by several vehicle manufacturers, with roll-outs beginning next year – the recent EV 2010 Conference and Trade Show, put on in Vancouver by Electric Mobility Canada, was a timely look into the near-future.

Ironically, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are technically electric too, as they simply generate the electricity needed to spin the motors and drive the car in a different way. But there was nary a mention of fuel cells at EV 2010, so the message is clear – electric vehicles in 2010 are defined as those where the energy to drive the motors and move the vehicle down the road is stored in an onboard battery.

That power comes directly from the electricity grid, in whole or in part, in the case of the three new technologies we’ll see within the next year – plug-in hybrids (PHEV), extended-range electrics (E-REV), and pure battery electrics (BEV). The existing full and partial hybrid technology, of course, gets no power from the grid. With all the above new-generation EVs displayed in drivable pre-production form at EV 2010, there is little doubt that the technology, in particular the latest generation of lithium batteries, is ready to hit the road and deliver at least acceptable driving range in an urban setting.

Toyota Prius PHEV
Toyota Prius PHEV (top); FutureVehicleTechnologies’ eVaro. Click image to enlarge

But there are still a few major questions that remain to be answered. Will there be an adequate and secure supply of lithium and rare earth elements needed to produce the batteries? Will there be enough electricity available to fuel even the most conservative estimate of the number of EVs on the road by 2020? And, will motorists be able to afford them, and be happy with the ownership experience? Those questions were the subject of most of the discussion at EV 2010.

An adequate supply of the needed material to make batteries for vehicles (and almost all other electronic equipment) is not a sure thing. If hybrids account for 20 per cent of new vehicle sales and BEVs ten per cent by 2020, as is predicted by some, the world demand for lithium will increase five-fold over current production levels. The race is on to find new lithium supply, in politically stable jurisdictions, before the price skyrockets.

As for the rare earth elements, of the 17 obscure and specialized metals that are also essential in various combinations for almost all electronic applications, about 90 per cent of the world’s supply is in China, and their availability is currently very restricted via export quotas.

As with the hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, fuelling infrastructure is an issue and will be long into the future, with the time frame shortening up if the EV is a success on a world scale. Obviously, there are various views in the industry as to what percentage of sales EVs will represent moving forward, but if we assume that ten per cent of the new vehicle fleet by 2020 will be electric, there are already some big concerns being expressed by the major power companies.

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