The demand for greener military practices is driving the armed forces to seek alternative technologies, with electric vehicles (EVs) being a potentially valuable asset.
Below are the top technology trends impacting the topic of electric vehicles, as identified by GlobalData.
Battery technology improvement speed
The automotive industry is used to product cycles that last seven to ten years, with new technologies beginning the testing process years before they are considered production-ready. However, as electrification accelerates, automakers and suppliers are finding that the pace of technological change is now moving a little faster than before.
This is particularly evident in the field of EV batteries. While combustion engines have been so refined that even the most significant breakthroughs bring only a small improvement in efficiency, batteries are making great strides. For example, when the Tesla Model S was first launched in 2012, its range of 265 miles was considered extremely impressive, but the updated Model S can now go over 500 miles while offering twice the power and a second driving axle.
Cathode chemistries based on nickel-manganese-cobalt oxide (NMC) and lithium-iron phosphate (LiFePO4)
While the debate between lithium-ion and solid-state batteries rumbles, another debate has arisen between two competing cathode chemistries for current lithium-ion cells.
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The first, NMC, is used in many EV batteries, especially in higher end models with larger batteries. NMC chemistry generally offers greater energy density for a given cell size and weight, which means an NMC battery can ultimately store more energy than LiFePO4. As the name suggests, this chemistry requires an amount of cobalt that can be expensive to extract and carries a known risk of using child labor in its extraction.
The second, LiFePO4 or LFP, is more common in low- and mid-range electric vehicle batteries, as well as utility vehicle batteries. Although LiFePO4 cannot quite match the outright energy density of NMC, it is a more stable material with a higher thermal runaway threshold, making it safer in operation .
Tesla’s rivals are closing in
The most efficient assembly lines in the automotive industry belong to Toyota, Honda, GM, BMW and VW, and they are preparing to challenge the Californian company at its own game. Although these incumbents may have been caught off guard by Tesla’s first lead, each has the experience and infrastructure in place to manufacture up to 10 million cars a year.
By contrast, Tesla has fought hard just to reach annual production of 500,000 cars in 2020. Tesla’s relative inexperience and small footprint make it vulnerable to unexpected changes in vehicle markets. Moreover, as a public company, it faces pressure from its shareholders to maintain its aggressive expansion strategy, which leaves it at risk of spending too much or spreading too thin.
EV technology as a competitive advantage
As noted earlier, China sells the most electric vehicles, manufactures the most electric vehicles, and has access to the majority of the raw materials needed for the batteries to build them. Thus, China has become the dominant country in the landscape of electric vehicles. This will sting the old European, Japanese and American automakers who enjoyed nearly a century as the leading combustion engine builders.
Some efforts are being made in the west to ensure the global competitiveness of electric vehicles. These include the construction of lithium battery manufacturing facilities in North America by companies such as LG Energy Solution, SK Innovation, Panasonic and Tesla.
Threat of hydrogen fuel cells
Currently, most electric vehicle projects in the automotive industry are for battery electric vehicles. However, as we have seen, hydrogen fuel cells are a viable alternative if more research and development is undertaken.
Two factors make fuel cells particularly valuable. One is their fast refueling times, meaning a hydrogen electric vehicle could pull up to a gas station, refuel and continue on its journey in minutes, while a battery electric vehicle owner should charge much longer. The second is its lighter weight. A fuel cell configuration can be much lighter than a battery electric configuration, and while this is reasonably beneficial for a passenger car, this benefit is exaggerated in a much heavier vehicle such as a heavy truck.
Challenges remain before hydrogen can reach the mainstream. Hydrogen production is still too expensive, and since most supplies are generated by the breakdown of hydrocarbons, the process is not as environmentally friendly as it could be.
Improve battery management systems
Much of the attention in the development of battery electric vehicles (BEVs) is on the expensive components that buyers are familiar with, namely the battery and the electric motor(s). But, for a BEV to get the most performance and efficiency from its components, all must be optimized for the role. One system that needs improvement is the Battery Management System (BMS).
In a BEV, the BMS is responsible for maintaining the health of the battery, monitoring its state of charge, and deploying that charge to the motors when requested by the driver. The BMS is also responsible for the efficient charging job of the battery, ensuring that the charge is shared evenly among all groups of cells in each pack. The BMS also monitors battery temperature and makes adjustments to the battery’s heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) system to keep it within the optimal thermal range.
Battery swap stations
Among the many challenges posed by EV batteries is the time it takes to recharge. Although this problem may eventually be solved with faster chargers and larger capacity batteries, some car manufacturers are investigating the possibility of swapping batteries.
This sees a vehicle arrive at an interchange station and park in a dedicated bay before an automated system removes the depleted battery from underneath the vehicle. The same system then replaces it with a fully charged unit, allowing the driver to walk away with a fully charged battery, making ‘recharge’ times comparable to filling a petrol car from a pump. The station itself houses charging infrastructure and an inventory of spare batteries ready for use in customer cars.
Battery price parity with combustion engines
Estimates at the end of 2020 put the average price of an EV battery at $137 per kWh. For illustration, this would mean that a 100 kWh battery like those in the Tesla Model S would cost the manufacturer about $13,700 in total. This is a considerable reduction from the prices of EV batteries in 2010 at the start of the growth phase, when they cost around $1,100 per kWh.
Levers available to manufacturers looking to reduce the cost of batteries include reducing the cost of raw materials through larger-scale mining, reducing process costs, or increasing speed to increase savings. of scale, and technical improvements that optimize battery design and performance.
This is an edited excerpt from Electric vehicles (EV) in Defense – Thematic research report produced by GlobalData Thematic Research.