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Batteries are streets ahead

Batteries, not fuel cells, biofuels, or natural gas, are winning the race to power the next generation of cars

The market seems to have decided. In the race to power zero-emission vehicles, high-capacity batteries firing electric motors will dominate over all others including hydrogen fuel cells. Between now and 2020, auto-makers will produce about 120 new EV models. If the technology isn't going to prevail, it's one colossal consensus fail.

The plunging cost of manufacturing batteries is the main reason EVs are streaking ahead, says Warwick Business School's Frederik Dahlmann, assistant professor of global energy. Battery efficiency is improving by about 20% a year. Governments are helping out, especially in Europe, where the infrastructure is rolling out to support the transition.

Crucially, technological advances have narrowed the price gap between EVs and international-combustion engine (Ice) vehicles faster than experts predicted even 18 months ago. As McKinsey, a consultancy given to spotting such trends, notes: "Through continuous improvements in battery technology and cost, EVs are expected to gain more and more market share from conventional vehicles. With battery costs potentially decreasing to $150 to $200 per kilowatt-hour over the next decade, electrified vehicles will achieve cost competitiveness with conventional vehicles, creating the most significant catalyst for market penetration."

Demonstrating the forecasts of professor Dahlmann and McKinsey, the latest vehicle to narrow the price and range gap is Opel's $35,000 Ampera-e. Released unexpectedly earlier this year, it has a range of 520km, or more than 300 miles, similar to the Tesla S P100D (but at a quarter of the price).

Are the competing technologies dead in the water? Continuous improvements in Ice cars have kept pace with increasingly stringent clean-air regulations, particularly in Europe. "Ultimately, we believe that most [automobile manufacturers] should be able to meet 2020 emissions targets through a combination of modifications to Ice technologies and other levers such as reductions to vehicle mass and be able to do so in a cost-effective manner," predicts Boston Consulting Group (BCG), another consultancy.

But the development and installation of new technology carries a price. As BCG adds, although weight-reducing measures, for example, could reduce CO2 emissions by 5-6%, it would add about $500 to the cost of each vehicle.

The development of alternative fuels, an option being pursued by the oil and gas industry, could come too late to forestall the coming wave of EVs. Even if second-generation biofuels can be produced at a rate of 46bn gallons a year by 2020, as predicted, this will only be enough to power a fraction of the world's passenger fleet.

Compressed natural gas could offer more potential for high-mileage Ice vehicles, like buses and taxis. Although the upfront costs are high, at roughly $4,000 more per vehicle than equivalent gasoline-driven ones, CNG is cheaper at the pump and its environmental credentials are good. According to BCG's calculations, "well-to-wheel" CO2 emissions of CNG-fueled vehicles are 15-25% lower than those of gasoline guzzlers. And some European countries, notably Italy, already boast significant CNG-powered fleets and infrastructure.

Although professor Dahlmann recognises that fuel cell technology is also likely to improve along with battery technology, he expects it will be used more for niche applications rather than for mainstream car sales. The likely dominance of battery power has a scientific basis. EVs deliver higher miles per gallon equivalent—that is, the distance an electrically-powered vehicle can travel on the same amount of energy contained in a gallon of gasoline. This is because hydrogen consumes too much energy to create. For example, the Honda Clarity Fuel Cell consumes more than three times more electricity per mile than the 2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV, according to researchers.

Eventually, consumers will make the decision about the future of EVs and HEVs. And their preferences won't become apparent until more models are rolled out. We won't have long till we know—the coming flood of EVs means we'll have an answer within a year or so.

Meanwhile, Ice-powered vehicles in some form will be around for a long time yet. As McKinsey predicts: "It is important to note that EVs include a large portion of hybrid electrics, which means that even beyond 2030, the internal-combustion engine will remain very relevant."

This article is part of a report series on Electric vehicles. Next article is: EV's good vibrations

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