The shift toward electric cars is picking up pace, but the road ahead has plenty of obstacles still.
PARIS — The car of the future will be electric. That is now a certainty. Or rather a consensus. Unless it's an illusion?
Let's start at the beginning. A symbol of the industrial revolution of the 20th century, the automobile has nonetheless one flaw: it pollutes. And in fact, it has now become the symbol of pollution, even if the one billion cars in use around the world emit less carbon dioxide than agriculture or coal-fired power stations.
Under pressure from voters, governments are imposing ever lower emission ceilings. The movement has grown with the "dieselgate" scandal and the Paris Conference on Climate Change. France and the United Kingdom have announced their intention to ban sales of new petrol and diesel cars by 2040. The City of Paris is banning old diesel vehicles starting next year.
China, the world's largest market, goes further. It turns emission standards into a tool for industrial reconquest. Late on the petrol engine, it will, as early as 2019, impose an electric-car quota on manufacturers, and will increase the quota as it makes progress on batteries.
After a long period of resistance, carmakers are making the switch. "I've changed my mind," the head of a major European company admits. "I'm now convinced that the car of the future will be electric." Renault began 10 years ago. Newcomer Tesla is shaking up the market. Volvo will stop producing models equipped with internal combustion engines in a few months. BMW and Toyota are accelerating.
Despite this impressive convergence, the electric car will not speed up on the highway of progress. That's because it still has to navigate a lot of tricky chicanes. The first is the battery. The electric car that is imposing itself today runs on the energy stored in huge batteries. And to build those batteries, manufacturers need certain key — and increasingly expensive — metals.
The price of lithium has tripled in three years and that of cobalt has almost doubled in one year. Available in vast quantities, the former nevertheless poses technical issues. Resources, for instance, are located in desert areas; and yet it takes a lot of water to extract it. The vast majority (two-thirds) of cobalt, for its part, is produced in the highly unstable Democratic Republic of the Congo.
If the sector is equipped to meet current demand (1.2 million rechargeable electric or hybrid cars were sold last year), huge investments will be required to increase supply 10 times, or even 60 or 80 times if we want to electrify all of the production.
The average car will be driverless before it's electric
Cobalt and lithium have two other annoying characteristics. First, their resources are finite. With what is relatively accessible, there is enough to equip the world's car fleet once or twice... but not more. Also, it takes a lot of energy to produce an electric car, just as it does for recycling. According to consultant Jean-Marc Jancovici, an electric car that will drive 200,000 kilometers will have emitted the equivalent of 50 grams of CO2 per kilometer before it even drives the first meter!
To reduce CO2 emissions, the energy used to produce the battery itself must be carbon-free. That's no easy task: the first large battery factory in Europe is set to open in Poland, a country where coal is the main source of energy. Hence the second chicane, electricity production.
Charging batteries requires huge quantities of it. Just to give you an order of magnitude: to charge just 1% of the French fleet at night, while motorists are sleeping, it takes the production almost of an entire nuclear unit. Since this is a time of day when the sun no longer hits the panels, and when there's often less wind, it will be necessary to build either new nuclear power plants or... carbon-emitting plants.
If we consider the Chinese energy mix — and calculate "from well to wheel" (with the gas emitted before the energy reaches the car) — a Tesla vehicle emits more CO2 than a good old gasoline car.
The third chicane is the transport of this electricity. Charging stations are only a tiny part of the issue. A fleet of 200 buses to be recharged at night requires the same amount of power as 50 five-story buildings. Unless we want to install wires on pylons in the streets to transport this electricity, we will have to dig trenches, if not install extremely expensive superconducting cables, as was tested in New York.
All these problems have solutions. Progress can be made in lithium or cobalt mining, as seen in shale oil. Researchers are working on other electrodes. Solar energy can be used to raise water levels in dams during the day so that the water can be released and activate turbines at night. Cars can be charged at the office, buses by induction during a brief stop.
Problems could even become solutions. With digital technology, it becomes possible to turn electricity networks into "smart grids." And electric companies could use the electricity contained in batteries to smooth consumption peaks. But all these solutions will require a lot of time, money, and investment.
"The average car will be driverless before it's electric," the director of a major car equipment manufacturer predicts. While we wait for the advent of the other electric car, the one where energy comes from hydrogen, the all-battery car will undoubtedly remain a niche market. Nowhere near the universal solution it embodies today.