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How electric mobility is changing our daily lives

The debate on range and charging infrastructure falls short of the mark. Electric mobility requires changing more than just the engine. Electric cars are breaking down established structures. For the automotive industry, what will really count in the future is optimal networking and the right partners.

03/14/2019 Copy: Dirk Böttcher — Photos: Tobias Sagmeister Illustrations: Eva Revolver
Reading Time: 5 min

Production of electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids through 2021 (overall market forecast)

China will lead the market with the highest production volume, followed by the USA and Germany 1.

Electric mobility: Building up an infrastructure

To understand how electric mobility will change our lives, let us take a look at a streetlight. It has been standing shoulder to shoulder with other streetlights for generations, turning itself on in the evening and off in the morning. But most of the time, it does: nothing. You can chain your bicycle to it or post a message on it about lost keys, but that’s about it.

A smart streetlight, on the other hand – and here we are fast-forwarding to the future of electric mobility – is a true jack of all trades: You can use it to charge your smartphone or all kinds of electric vehicles and pay for the electricity using your mobile device. This streetlight is so smart, it not only illuminates all the traffic going by, it even analyzes each car that passes. The data gathered by the streetlight and its curbside colleagues is fed into an even cleverer computer. That computer then calculates in real time how, for instance, the city’s traffic lights should be phased to ensure traffic flows smoothly. The fact that a streetlight also illuminates the street at night is almost beside the point.

Welcome to the future? The ingredients for this scenario have been around for some time now. And they already work, right here and now. Electric mobility requires changing more than just the engine. This is why the debate on battery range and charging stations instead of gas stations falls short of the mark. Electric vehicles are triggering developments that will change our everyday lives. They are breaking down established structures and promoting cooperation between industries. New services are arising in connection with networked driving – from intelligent charging infrastructures all the way to billing models. New standards need to be created and implemented – a process in which cooperation and competition will fuse. Coopetition is the new buzzword. Both new and proven players will contribute to the best solution in order to achieve a specific goal together.

The two most important questions are: Where does the power come from? And who provides the infrastructure? That is something car manufacturers cannot do alone. The era of electric mobility will be much too diverse for that. This is by no means the only sector undergoing reorientation: The power companies are connecting buildings or even whole residential areas with the help of smart grids to ensure that electricity is always available where it is needed. Electric cars play an important role in these complex structures. In the future they will store energy, then use it or feed unused battery capacity into the network – thus becoming part of the system. Technically speaking, it is all possible today.

Electric cars: waiting for the breakthrough

What is possible must, however, be supported if it is to become a reality. For this reason, governments around the world have launched ambitious programs to promote electric mobility. They focus on these core areas: expansion of the charging infrastructure, buying incentives for customers as well as electric vehicles in government-agency fleets. Norway could serve as a role model here: Electric cars there are exempt from import tax and the 25 percent value-added tax. They enjoy a privileged status on Norway’s roads, including toll exemptions, free ferry trips and, in some cities, even free parking. The result: In 2018, nearly half of all newly licensed cars in Norway had an electric or plug-in hybrid drive system.

Larger markets still have a long way to go to achieve numbers like these. This figure was 4.5 percent in China and 2.1 percent in the United States, whereas in Germany it rose to 2.0 percent. But even if the growth curve in industrial nations already suggests a steep rise: The management consulting firm Boston Consulting Group assumes that still only 5.0 percent of cars worldwide will be plug-in hybrids or electric cars in 2020. Only in the coming decade will electric mobility really pick up speed, with the share of electric cars rising to more than one-third, and even higher in highly developed markets.

Research for better electric batteries

An end to the debate on range is one factor determining the success of electric mobility. At the moment, drivers worry that their electric cars will leave them stranded when they are trying to get somewhere. Due to insufficient range. This has led to tinkering with the charging infrastructure and plans to increase battery capacity. Solid-state batteries could replace standard lithium-ion batteries, some manufacturers swear by phosphate-based compounds, others by sodium. Then 800 kilometers should be possible.

 

Batteries are in the spotlight for another reason as well: because of the sheer number of them needed for electric mobility worldwide. If urban transportation becomes purely electric, we will need factories somewhere to manufacture the batteries. And manufacturing batteries currently requires raw materials for which sustainable mining poses a challenge.

Charging infrastructure on the right track

The debate on range will probably lose steam as soon as a reliable network of charging stations is established. Precisely this network will become even denser, everywhere in the world. In Denmark, there are now more charging stations than gas stations. IONITY is planning to operate a network of around 400 fast-charging stations in 25 European countries by 2020. The company, a joint venture of several car manufacturers, is a good example of coopetition. And of how automakers are thinking – and taking action – beyond apparent boundaries.

The product will become a part of the system and the infrastructure, in which supporting apps will be just as important as output. To develop such apps, the companies are working with software companies. To create a dense network of charging stations, they are involving power companies. Navigation systems guide electric cars to tens of thousands of charging points. When charging their cars, drivers will be automatically billed at the end of the month on the basis of only one contract that has uniform and transparent price structures – a kind of credit card for mobility. With the help of cryptographic processes, vehicles will very soon even authorize themselves when charging.

Electric mobility is moving people

In this way, manufacturers will offer their customers a comprehensive ecosystem. After all, people do not want to have their cars just sitting in front of their houses, they also want to link them to their home electricity production. Companies are developing products that contain both the necessary hardware as well as smart solutions that, for example, use electricity at the cheapest times for charging or only use self-produced solar energy.

Wisely implemented, electric mobility can and will move people – in both senses of the word. The car communicates with the driver, with other vehicles and with the infrastructure, and adjusts its driving and charging behavior accordingly. Cities will connect their systems; local public transportation, private vehicles, and car-sharing models will smoothly merge together; demand for parking areas will fall significantly; city dwellers will recover urban space. Whether or not you will still be able to chain your bicycle to a streetlight is debatable, however. After all, those streetlights will be high tech by then.

Electric mobility in numbers

Charging

30 min

to charge the e-tron to 80% at a fast-charging point

Range

371 km

is the distance electric cars can travel on average in 2019

Batteries

–73 %

cost reduction for lithium-ion batteries from 2013 to 2020

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