This article is part of the On Tech newsletter. You can sign up here to receive it on weekdays.
It is great to envision a future of efficient and enjoyable transportation that does less harm to our planet. But let’s get real: revolutions are not easy.
Today I’m going to answer a few questions from readers about my interview with my colleague Neal Boudette about electric cars this week: When will the cars have longer battery life and more charging options? And will old electric car batteries be a danger?
Let me first emphasize this: most environmental experts say that switching to electric vehicles, especially when coupled with generating more energy from renewable sources, can make a big difference in slowing the effects of global warming.
Where is the infrastructure? Readers like Stacy Elwart of Venice, Fla., And Tom Rowe of Stevens Point, Wisconsin, had similar concerns: How can electric cars reach a tipping point when charging is not generally accessible, convenient, and range is still well below? Which gasoline cars get per tank?
Brad Plumer, a reporter for the New York Times climate team, explains what is happening to address the charging and battery life challenges:
Many newer electric models, like the Chevrolet Bolt and Tesla Model 3, can travel well over 200 miles before needing to be charged. This can be very useful for most daily journeys, but not for long journeys or people who don’t have space to hook up their cars at home.
Some companies, like EVGo, are now building hundreds of fast chargers that can typically reach a range of around 100 miles in 20 to 30 minutes. This is slower than filling up at a gas station, but it can make a road trip more practical. It is hoped that further advances in the battery could significantly reduce charging times. Automakers are constantly trying to improve range.
Many local governments and electricity companies are also trying to develop public charger networks, but it is a big undertaking and many cities are far behind. It’s the chicken and egg dilemma: companies are reluctant to invest in chargers until they have a critical mass of electric vehicles. However, some people are wary of buying an electric vehicle without better charging options.
It can also take some time for utilities to upgrade their grids to meet the increased demand for electricity.
In the short term, these challenges are unlikely to prevent electric cars from becoming more popular as battery prices drop and more governments turn away from conventional vehicles. According to analysts at BloombergNEF, electric vehicles are expected to account for 20 percent of new sales in the US by 2030.
However, the analysts warned that revenue could potentially reach a bottleneck without the need to significantly expand the charging infrastructure. Expect charging to get a lot more attention in the years to come.
What if batteries in electric cars have outlived their use? This came from Steven Permut in Tucson, Arizona.
The lithium-ion batteries that power smartphones and other devices can pose an environmental and safety risk. (Fires in recycling centers are a problem.) Electric cars have really big lithium-ion batteries. It sounds like a potential disaster if a large number of electric vehicles are put into the pasture at some point.
But Adam Minter, a columnist at Bloomberg Opinion (where we were coworkers) and author of two books on reuse and recycling, told me that electric vehicle batteries can have a useful second life.
Old stuff, Minter told me, is “a source of an incredible amount of innovation – and you’re starting to notice that in batteries for electric cars.”
He pointed to eBay listings where used Tesla car batteries cost hundreds or thousands of dollars. Lifetime vehicle batteries are being refurbished in some countries to convert conventional cars to electric cars, or they are being converted into generators and energy storage devices, Minter said. In China, the world’s largest auto market, major investments have been made in recycling infrastructure for vehicle batteries. (Though Greenpeace recently said China has done nowhere near enough.)
Minter still has concerns about the potential environmental damage caused by the manufacture of electric vehicles and their batteries. But he added, “I’m confident there are good uses for dead batteries.”
(Listen to this episode of The Daily for more on reducing American emissions.)
Auto newcomers worth seeing
Neal also told me about some of the younger companies that he believes have promising approaches for vehicles of the future – although they are by no means guaranteed to be successful. Here is Neal’s take on three of them:
Rivian is a really interesting company. It plans to make its own software electric cars like Tesla – it bought an auto plant in Illinois that had closed. But Rivian is more pragmatic and will follow many established steps in automotive engineering that Tesla ignored and then regretted.
Another company, Lucid, believes it has found a way to get the last bit of power out of the batteries and plans to bring out a car that it says will travel up to 500 miles on a single charge. Lucid’s cars will likely be very expensive – $ 100,000 or more – but it’s an interesting concept.
There is another company called Arrival that is taking a unique approach to electric vans and buses: their vehicles will use giant plastic sheets instead of sheet metal. Robots and workers effectively assemble a vehicle each with simplified processes and parts.
On arrival, vehicles are also manufactured in “micro-factories” that are close to the future vehicle buyers. I don’t know if it will work, but it’s a completely radical view. This isn’t just another vehicle that doesn’t use gasoline.
Before we go …
A tax law that is about much more: Maryland is about to approve a statewide tax on Google and Facebook digital advertising, reported my colleague David McCabe, and there is a likelihood of litigation over how far American communities are trying to tax Big, can go technology.
A place for effective and terrible conversations: Bloomberg News wrote about black medical professionals who found the audio chat room app Clubhouse was an effective place to hear and dispel misinformation about the coronavirus, but the efforts also exposed them to harassment or bullying.
An unwanted plug for your local library: Public librarians and readers (including myself) love the Libby app for borrowing and reading e-books. However, the protocol reported that since e-books are regulated differently than physical books, e-books cost libraries a fortune.
Big Bird introduces us to some of its cousins around the world, including the dashing Abelardo from Mexico and the slightly menacing Garibaldo from Brazil. (Don’t worry. Bird Bird says he’s nice.)
We want to hear from you. Tell us what you think of this newsletter and what else you would like us to explore. You can reach us at email@example.com.
If you do not have this newsletter in your inbox yet, please register here.