It’s an exciting time to be building electric cars. Auto manufacturers are pushing them out at a record rate. In the first half of 2017, year over year sales increased by 40%. And the trend only seems to be picking up speed. But what goes into building an electric vehicle (EV)?
Let’s have a look at electric cars and the underlying tech over time. Then we’ll look at the process. Finally, we’ll take a peek into into the future, to see what might be coming in the world of EVs.
Electric Cars: Science and Innovation
Electric cars have been around for a long time — nearly two hundred years, to be exact. But they didn’t start taking off until recently, thanks to major advances in car batteries.
Scotsman Robert Anderson invented the first electric carriage in 1832. By 1900, twenty-eight percent of automobiles on American roads ran on electricity. But by the 1920s, gas-powered autos had pushed electrics out of the market. And the reasons would keep the electric car in the background for nearly a century.
First was the issue of range. Drivers demanded their vehicles be able to travel longer and longer distances. And the electric cars of the time couldn’t keep up. Second, there was the problem of power. Gasoline engines could provide the horsepower consumers wanted. Electric cars could not. Finally, gas was cheap and abundant. So no one cared if there was a less expensive alternative. And of course nobody, at that time, was predicting the effects gas-powered automobiles would have on the environment.
The Hybrid Revolution
Manufacturers began to toy with EV technology again in the 1970s, due to the oil crisis and new environmental concerns. But they wouldn’t start building electric cars for the mass market until 1997. In that year, Toyota debuted the Prius hybrid in Japan. Sales were brisk — 18,000 units in the first year. It would take another three years for the Prius to take off in the United States. But take off it did. The hybrid technology, which uses a gas engine as a backup for the electric engine, addressed the problems of power and range. And everyone loved the fuel savings.
In 2006, Tesla debuted its $98,000 roadster at the San Francisco International Auto Show. Over the next few years, a spike in oil prices would cause auto manufacturers to focus on smaller cars, and to add more hybrids to their offerings. The Federal Government would focus money and attention on the development of EV and hybrid technology. And in 2009, Nissan debuted its Leaf, the first all-electric vehicle to become successful on the mass market. More manufacturers added EVs to their ranges. Today there are dozens of all electric and hybrid vehicles available on the mass market.
The battery has been one of the main factors holding EVs back from dominating the market. For a long time, electric car batteries couldn’t store enough energy to take an automobile very far. In addition, batteries have traditionally been heavy. They take up a lot of space. And they take a long, long time to charge — sometimes more than a day. But new developments in battery technology are changing all of that.
Many electric cars can now go several hundred miles between charges. Others offer quick charge options. And most recently, Henrik Fisker, whose startup is building electric cars, is claiming a breakthrough in battery technology. Fisker hopes that his new battery will be able to power a car for 500 miles between charges. In addition, he believes he can build a battery that will charge in one minute.
How Electric Cars Work
Automobile engines turn stored energy into kinetic energy. The stored energy, whether gas, diesel, hydrogen, or electricity, is the fuel.
In a fossil fuel powered vehicle, the energy is stored in chemical form — gasoline or diesel. Chemical reactions inside the engine burn the gasoline to release heat. And the heat pushes the pistons that turn the wheels. An electric car uses energy stored in a battery. The energy is released electrochemically, without burning fuel. This is why electric cars don’t release pollution.
If you want to know more, the Union of Concerned Scientists has an excellent, detailed description of how electric cars work.
How Electric Cars are Made: Design Issues
How are electric cars made? With regard to the assembly line, building electric cars isn’t that different from building gas-powered vehicles. The process is actually quite interesting. However, there are a few design issues that electric car manufacturers have to consider, which aren’t issues in traditional vehicle manufacture.
Weight has always been an issue in building electric cars. The heavier the body of the car is, the larger the battery will have to be to move it. And batteries themselves weigh a lot. In addition, they take up space and can be expensive. At the same time, manufacturers have to keep safety in mind, and not use materials that are too flimsy. Today’s electric cars make use of lightweight high tech materials like aluminum, magnesium, and advanced composite plastics. These materials are light enough to not tax the battery overly, but solid enough to be safe for passengers.
Other issues that manufacturers have to consider include:
- AC vs. DC power: Both have their advantages and disadvantages.
- Braking systems: Electric cars can use any kind of brakes. But regenerative braking systems conserve energy by feeding it back into the battery system.
The Future of Electric Cars
As of 2016, over half a million electric cars were zipping up and down American streets. Though the U.S. lags behind other parts of the world in EV adoption — most notably Norway and China — sales are booming. Battery technology is improving, driving range up and prices and charging times down. Oil prices are high — as is concern about climate change. it’s only a matter of time before electric cars overtake gas-fueled vehicles in the U.S. market.
Self Driving Cars
Auto manufacturers are investing heavily in research on autonomous vehicles. Companies building electric cars are already including semi-autonomous features in some models. Nissan recently unveiled its ProPilot system for the Leaf. The technology will help with acceleration control, braking, and steering during single-lane highway driving. Tesla’s Autopilot system contains all the necessary hardware for fully autonomous driving. Testing irregularities have, however, delayed the release of the technology in the United States. Tesla has also recently unveiled a semi-autonomous freight truck.
Other Developments and Predictions
Bloomberg makes the following predictions about electric vehicles:
- Electric cars will be as cheap as gas-powered cars by 2025. This is already coming true, with manufacturers like Hyundai and Chevrolet building electric cars in record numbers.
- Battery manufacturing capacity will triple in the next four years.
- Electric vehicles will make up 58 percent of the American market by 2040.
In addition, Forbes Magazine predicts that electric vehicles will make up 75 percent of all new vehicle sales by 2050.
Business has never been better for companies building electric cars. Design and battery technology have reached new levels that allow EVs to meet mass market demand for range, power, and price. State and local governments are stepping up to support EV use through laws and infrastructure. And consumer demand has never been higher. Will electric vehicles finally be able to fulfill a promise two hundred years in the making? Only time will tell. But right now, the future is looking bright.
Featured Image CC 2.0 by Brian Snelson, via Wikimedia Commons.