Building EVs: Most of the Challenges Lie in the Batteries

Tesla promises to have a more affordable electric vehicle (EV) ready for market in just a few years. Nissan, Ford, Chevy, and all the rest are working as hard and fast as they can on their own EVs. To those of us not involved in the automotive industry, it might seem like it is taking a bit too long. But there are challenges. Most of those challenges are related to batteries.

We have had access to hybrids for quite some time now. The advantage of a hybrid is that it doesn’t rely fully on battery power. Yet if we are to eliminate the internal combustion engine completely, hybrids have to go the way of the dinosaurs. We need something else.

A Big Difference in Motors

The big difference between gasoline-powered vehicles and EVs is in their respective motors. An internal combustion motor, or engine, is a highly complex piece of machinery with thousands of moving parts. By contrast, electric motors are comparably simple. They are far less complex and contain far fewer moving parts.

Electric motors are considered more efficient simply because they make better use of their power sources. However, internal combustion engines produce more of the raw horsepower you need to move a vehicle down the road. The task before EV makers is to combine the efficiency of an electric motor with the power and range of an internal combustion engine. Therein lie the challenges.

Key Challenges for EV Makers

Car companies certainly have come a long way in the quest to build a viable and affordable EV. Compared to where they were just a decade ago, today’s cars are significantly better. Yet some key challenges remain. Here are just a few of them:

1. Range

A typical gasoline-powered car can go between 300 and 400 miles on a single tank of gas. The range is affected primarily by engine efficiency – when all other things are equal. Unlike EVs, you do not have to add weight to a gasoline-powered vehicle to increase its range.

In the EV world, range is increased by adding more batteries. But every battery adds weight. The more weight you add, the more electricity is expended to move the car. Thus, you reach a point of diminishing returns. EV makers are trying desperately to keep the weight of their vehicles down.

2. Charging Times

Utah-based Pale Blue Earth explains that lithium-ion batteries charge much more quickly than other types of rechargeables. In fact, one of their USB rechargeable cells can fully recharge in about an hour. NiCad and NiMH batteries can take 4 to 8 hours.

All of that is well and good, but you can fill your tank with gasoline in under 5 minutes. EV makers need a faster way to recharge their batteries if they hope to compete with the internal combustion engine.

3. Battery Recycling

Last but not least is recycling. Lithium, like any natural resource, is limited in terms of total supply. It is also exceedingly difficult to mine. In order to keep up with demand, the industry really needs a better way to recycle the material from spent batteries. Otherwise, it is highly unlikely that EVs powered by lithium-ion batteries will never completely replace the internal combustion engine.

Car companies are working as hard as they can to come up with the EV consumers want to buy. Their success or failure rides largely on how they develop battery technology. Should they succeed, EVs will be the thing within the next few years. Should they fail, they will have to look at some other technology to replace gasoline-powered vehicles.

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