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How you'll know the EV breakout is here
Dispelling some myths about electric vehicles, dependence on China, and the end of history.
I live in an area that’s ahead of the EV adoption curve. Just a year or so ago, I counted three Teslas in our subdivision. Now, I’ve lost count. Seeing Teslas on the road around here—north metro Atlanta—is like finding old Toyotas in a college town, or counting pickup trucks in my former home of central Georgia. The best descriptive word is “ubiquitous.” I am also starting to see, with more frequency, other EVs. There have always been a small number of Priuses and Leafs; I am now seeing electric Porsches, Mercedes-Benzes, Volkswagens, Audis, and, yes, Kias on the road. (As I’ve written about before, I own a Kia EV6 First Edition, a numbered one of the first 1,500 sold in the U.S.)
In Alpharetta, Georgia, the EV breakout is in full swing. I know there are lots of political arguments over what “liberals” and “greenies” in the White House are doing to “force” EVs upon the nation. There’s merit to some of these points. Most liberal (politically, Democrat-leaning) Americans believe that internal combustion engines should be phased out as passenger vehicles. But about half of Republican-leaning Americans believe that government EV incentives is a good idea. Nationwide, about 55% of adults aged 18-29 say they’re seriously considering an electric vehicle. This ranges from just under 30% in rural areas to 55% in urban.
There’s a good number of Americans who love their rumbly, throaty, gas-consuming engines, and would not give them up, period. I’m all for freedom and liberty to own things you like (within some limits (you shouldn’t own a nuclear bomb for instance), so if you like your 1987 Callaway Twin Turbo Corvette, you can keep it. There’s also many Americans who need the performance, range, and utility of a gasoline or diesel engine. Pickup truck performance—never mind styling—is not where it needs to be for full battery EV adoption. However, Ford has a three year backlog for its F150 Lightning, and has added a third shift to produce them at its Dearborn-based Rouge facility.
But none of these indicators, despite illuminating an emerging market, mark the inflection point—the cultural shift that tolls the bells for crankshafts, cylinder heads, fuel-injectors and gas tanks. Somewhere, at some point, the culture itself moves, and what was a familiar sight becomes an anachronism, a quickly fading vestige, like flip phones and iPods today. You can still see them, maybe even buy them, but the world has moved on.
The same will happen with internal combustion engine vehicles. Though petroleum products still have the best bang for buck energy storage for moving small mechanical engines, we’ve barely gotten beyond scratching the surface of what battery-powered electric vehicles are capable of. And don’t hit me with the “end of history” line of thought that we’ve exhausted the limits of engineering, or Moore’s Law is about to break, or graphene is an impossible dream. There’s always more to learn, and apply. Twenty years ago, nobody outside of science fiction writers envisioned flying motorcycles or giant coordinated flocks of UAVs. Tesla was founded 20 years ago, in 2003, and didn’t produce the Roadster until 2008.
Battery EVs have come a very long way in a very short time. There will come a time when the explosion hits, and suddenly, seemingly overnight, many gas powered things will be antiques. You just have to know what to look for.
I know, I know. You’re skeptical. EV range is too short. Batteries will make us dependent on China. Making the cars isn’t as renewable as it’s been touted. EVs are too expensive. Some of these claims have some truth; but mostly they are talking points for people who want to extend internal combustion engines, or folks who are tired of having the Green Agenda shoved down their throats. I’m tired of that too. But the adoption of EVs won’t be at the hands of government action. It will be because the market wants EVs. And there are solid reasons for that, which will continue to grow the EV customer base.
Let’s start by looking at battery technology and China.
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The Humble Cell
Most EV battery chemistries in use today involve the element lithium. The U.S. is not a world power in lithium reserves. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates our reserves at 3.6% of global, while China has about 75% of lithium battery production capacity. Outside China, Chile, Australia, and Argentina have significant lithium reserves. The talking points say China has a lock on lithium reserves but that’s not true.
China has lots of production capacity; that’s true. But the U.S. can easily catch up in this regard. A huge SK battery plant opened off I-85 east of Atlanta. SK is a South Korean battery maker, and the prime supplier for Hyundai/Kia. Hyundai is teaming up with South Korean tech giant LG to build an enormous plant in rural Bryan County, outside Savannah. Bringing battery production in the U.S. is one of the goals of President Biden’s incentives contained in the “Inflation Reduction Act” (I always use quotes because that title is literally Newspeak). Hyundai and Kia, which were written out of the previous $7,500 incentives, are playing hard to catch up with Tesla, and will make their future electric cars in the U.S.
Meanwhile, Tesla is playing for China’s business, but making little headway as Chinese manufacturers including BYD and Nio dominate that market. Most Chinese domestic vehicles can’t compete in features with European and American models, but Nio is trying some new tech, namely battery swap. Elon Musk looked into that method but abandoned it in favor of using the cells as structural components of the car chassis. The question, however, is will making EVs in America make us more dependent on Chinese lithium, and the answer is no.
Not China, but Chile has nearly half the known world reserves. Combined, China and the U.S. make up about 10% of the world’s reserves, but the U.S. may have more than we know right now. To little fanfare, the Biden administration in late 2022 announced a program to incentivize domestic lithium extraction.
The DOE program envisions extracting the element from brines found in places like California’s Salton Sea, though it’s a long shot to extract significant amounts. There’s better sources, like in the mineral crystal rich granite of western Maine. A $1.5 billion deposit of lithium was blocked from exploration and extraction by the state’s environmental regulator, due to a law prohibiting open pit mining of metal. Despite the “rock hounds” who own the site explaining—along with technical experts—how harvesting lithium from crystals isn’t open pit metal mining, the badly crafted law is being enforced with Javert-like precision by state officials.
The ugly head of NIMBYism will raise itself again and again in the hunt for lithium. And the next foreign crisis with China could very well involve Chile, though half of the world’s known lithium is in our hemisphere.
However, lithium is a carburetor-and-points 200-horsepower technology in a world heading toward 500+ HP fuel-injected turbochargers, to borrow a gear head metaphor. Battery tech is moving beyond lithium, and that might even the playing field for lithium-poor nations.
Multiple companies are working on new electrolyte formulas using ceramics or other solid materials to make a solid state battery, versus the liquid-filled ones we have now. The advantages of solid state are heat management—meaning faster charging—and safety, since liquid-filled cells can be susceptible to dangerous fires. The solid state batteries being engineered today are mostly based on lithium metal.
Chinese battery maker CATL is moving away from lithium altogether, and reportedly will begin making sodium-ion batteries as early as this year. It’s unclear if sodium-ion batteries will offer the same energy density as lithium-ion, but they might fit for applications such as e-bikes and lawn equipment.
The greatest hope for non-lithium batteries is an element the U.S. is rich in: iron. Iron-based battery chemistry and engineering is moving forward rapidly, with several companies set to begin manufacturing here in America. Tesla has begun using a battery chemistry called lithium iron phosphate, or LFP. Ford and VW are planning to use that technology, which according to MIT Technology Review, makes up about 40% of the market. Other more exotic battery chemistries are being evaluated, along with the solid state options; any of these could lead to a breakthrough, yielding 1,000-mile EV ranges.
Even if one of those breakthroughs doesn’t happen, or doesn’t happen soon, America will not be relying on China for its lithium. Cobalt, another ingredient for many current battery chemistries, is a different story, however China is very dependent on global markets for its cobalt, which has lost about 60% of its value in the first quarter of 2023.
Also, remember, every EV battery is ultimately recyclable. No material is consumed in its use, like hydrocarbon fuels. When the battery degrades, the lithium, iron, nickel, and cobalt can be recovered and made into new batteries. EV battery recycling is in its relative infancy, but it will become a very large market in the future.
Long story short: There will always be some demand for materials or resources America doesn’t have. But we’ve faced that problem before and beaten it.
Let’s go back to the birth of motor cars. In order for cars to be a thing, there first had to be quality roads. Then there had to be quality tires. Now, rubber had been around for a long time, and in the 1830s Charles Goodyear developed a process for heating raw rubber so it didn’t crack or deform; he called it “vulcanization.” Though Goodyear obtained a patent for his process, he didn’t profit from it, and died in 1860 a poor man. The company that bears his name wasn’t founded until nearly thirty years after his death. The Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company brings in over $12 billion a year, and is one of the five big tire makers along with Bridgestone, Michelin, Continental and MRF. Between them, they own most of the recognizable brands in the world.
But what they have in common is rubber, a plant that primarily grows in Southeast Asia. In the 1920s and 30s, when cars were taking over America, rubber came over from large plantations. Then the storm clouds culminating in World War II intervened, and rubber became a problem, since jeeps, trucks and airplanes needed tires. A full-fledged effort at synthetic rubber consumed thousands of workers and man-hours. In 1931, DuPont invented Neoprene, and in the war years, we made Butyl Rubber. By the 50s and 60s, Dupont developed Hypalon and Viton while Bayer (yes, the aspirin giant) made Polyurethane. In the decades since, all manner of thermoplastic elastomers and other inventions followed.
In fact, the modern passenger car tire contains less than 20% natural rubber. About half the tire is made of synthetic polymers and fillers; the rest is composed of textiles, steel and other elements engineered for ride quality, sound, and extended life. Though most natural rubber still comes from Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia, we don’t hear a lot about losing the tire advantage to China. Where the rubber meets the road, cars need tires, and that’s for gas powered, electric, or any other way to make the wheels spin. Tire tech has reduced America’s dependence on foreign imported rubber, not increased it. Why not with battery tech?
As EVs become more popular, just like roads were an issue in the age of horses and Model Ts, infrastructure will become the biggest hurdle.
The U.S. EV charging market was $3.15 billion in 2022, according to Grandview Research. It’s expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 29.1% over the next seven years, with fast chargers making up about 80% of the market. The goal is for charging an EV to be like getting gas at a gas station. The experience is not there yet—even Tesla with its 12,000-plus superchargers, immaculately maintained, can’t compete with the local QuikTrip.
The U.S. Department of Energy maintains a database of all alternative fuel charging infrastructure. For most of 2022, the quarterly increase of charging ports of around 5%. This is an increase over 2020 and 2021, which averaged around 2.5%. As companies like Electrify America build out their private networks, the number of station locations continues to grow. EA has its locations, generally, at 80-mile intervals on major interstates, located mostly in Walmart parking lots. I’ve used them—they are not always reliably maintained, and sometimes the phone-based app tech fails. But this is the beginning.
As charging technology, notably Tesla’s proprietary charging port, normalizes on a standard (CCS2 is what most non-Tesla manufacturers use), and Tesla opens its network to CCS2-based vehicles to unlock the cash from Biden infrastructure programs, things will improve for EV drivers.
It might take five years to get there, but the combination of battery tech, charging tech, and locations will hit an inflection point. And, remember I mentioned Nio’s battery swap? It takes three minutes. If it works at scale, I can imagine battery swap will become the go-to method for long trips; that is unless we get to 1,000-mile EV ranges first.
On the Farm
One place where EV tech will mark a change in our culture is on the farm. Big Farm operations are depending more and more on remote-operated, GPS-controlled vehicles, and John Deere is right there in the zero-emission space. The compact 1R Series can mow your lawn with a 4.5 hour battery capacity on a single charge (you still have to ride it). While current handheld electric lawn gear and push mowers lack the power to cut tall or wet grass, this tractor has plenty of juice.
But it’s not the riding mowers which will transform farming to EVs. It’s the autonomous vehicles. Like a drone pilot, a farmer will be able to control multiple autonomous, electric-powered tractors, harvesters and sprayers from their office, or from the beach. This isn’t “future tech.” It’s ready to be engineered and deployed right now.
Greenies will be more worried about cow farts and fertilizers for many years, but farming operations are going to go electric one day in the next ten years. Your granddad’s tractor may still run, but it will be an antique.
The Last Fire Horse
But here’s how you’ll really know the EV revolution is complete. You want to know what to look for? This.
Yes, that’s a horse-drawn fire wagon. You can still see them in museums, in parades, and in some old New England barns here and there. The golden age of fire horses was from 1860 to 1920. Before the second half of the 1800s, steam-powered fire pumps were hauled by firemen, and villages without a steam pump had hand-powered pumps, or bucket brigades. During that 60 year period, a whole industry popped up to train, equip, and care for these fine animals. In rural areas, where roads were muddy and rutted, where the only reasonable transportation was on horseback or your feet, fire horses persisted. But in a city like New York, where between 170,000 to 200,000 horses lived among the three million human inhabitants, streets became an open sewer, and manure became an intolerable emergency.
The fire horses were among the first to go when motor vehicles came on the scene.
“Once more, the picturesque is to yield to the utilitarian. That thrilling sight – three plunging fire horses drawing engine or hook and ladder – one of the few thrilling sights to be seen in our prosaic streets, is soon to become a thing of the past. Within the next five or six years, there will not be a fire horse in Greater New York. The gasoline motor will do the work of these old favorites.”– New York Times, February 19, 1911 (via The Hatching Cat of Gotham)
Eleven years later, the last fire horses were retired. The average service life of a fire horse was somewhere between five and seven years. The average life of a modern fire engine is 12 to 15 years. The largest producer of fire trucks in America is Pierce Manufacturing in Appleton, Wisconsin. What is Pierce selling these days in addition to the regular old pumpers, ladders and rescue trucks? The Volterra platform of electric vehicles is what.
Cities like Madison, not far from the factory, and Portland, Oregon have purchased these new trucks. While the majority of new fire truck purchases are still equipped with Detroit Diesel or Cummins motors, the number of electrics will continue to increase.
And one day in the next 20 years—maybe even 10 years—we might see the last diesel-powered fire truck making its last run in America. In fact, we probably will. Then, you’ll know.