Little by little, electric vehicles are displacing their internal combustion counterparts. The environmental impact and the need for new energy sources have been a determining factor. Nonetheless, there are more than a few challenges in terms of the economic, technical and social aspects. Changes in the business paradigms, the need to lower battery costs, and adequately managing the labor impact are just some of the challenges that emerge for a transition, which is already a reality.
The transportation sector is a crucial aspect in the development of modern societies. Its advances have been essential when it comes to designing and consolidating our cities. Nevertheless, as with all technologies, every man-made solution carries new problems with it. The automobile is a good example. While many regard it as the great invention of the 20th century, its consolidation as a means of transport has not been without its issues. Safety, traffic jams, and pollution are, perhaps, the most relevant ones.
A large part of the development in the automobile industry has been aimed, especially in recent years, at improving these three aspects. However, one element stands out in the sector’s development. In spite of all the advances, at its core, vehicle manufacturing has changed very little. Internal combustion continues to be the focal point. But that reality is about to change.
The big environmental challenge
The industry is currently at a breaking point. It is facing factors that demand a change of paradigm. On one hand, environmental and energy efficiency regulations are getting increasingly stricter, in addition to higher prices and lower availability of fossil fuels. This situation encourages countries to strive for energy independence.
It is all forcing manufacturers to look forward to a future in which electrical systems appear as the alternative. More than a few are forecasting a completely electrical automobile fleet in a not so distant future (2030-2040).
More and more nations are committing to a fossil fuel-free world. The implications of this transition are, in addition to the technological aspects, economic and social. In view of this, the process itself requires not only political will to undertake these goals, but also the capacity to prevent the solution from turning into the source of more problems.
New demand for staff training
From the industry’s standpoint, the change in technology will demand a drastic adaptation of the drive system’s design and fabrication. This entails a complete modification of the work methodology. Changes are not only in infrastructure, machinery, and equipment but also personnel selection.
Hybrid and electric vehicles include a large number of electronic components. Given electric vehicles’ easy electronic integration, some mechanical aspects will be eliminated, including the transmission and the steering shaft.
Dropping some of the vehicles’ mechanic parts will directly impact part suppliers. Companies will be forced to adapt to the new demands. In order to do this, they must strive to achieve market diversification, specialization or adaptation to manufacturing the specific components that the technology requires.
The effects of this situation will not only have a financial impact, but also a labor and, therefore, social impact.
This will be particularly crucial in countries which economies are highly dependent on the automotive industry and its related sectors.
Impact on jobs
In Spain, for instance, the automotive industry creates 300,000 direct jobs and 2 million indirect jobs. This is nearly 10% of the economically active population. The country’s 17 factories, owned by different brands, manufacture 43 models. Furthermore, this industry accounts for nearly 14% of Spain’s total exports and 8.65% of its GDP.
Labor demand will vary significantly. On one hand, the number of employees in EV factories will be reduced, given the lower amount of pieces.
On the other hand, these vehicles need less maintenance, given that they do not have a combustion engine and, therefore, require less lubrication.
This workforce will be migrated to other areas that generate jobs but will require different knowledge and abilities, which will entail challenges in terms of training.
Batteries are a weighty reason
Batteries carry the greatest weight in this shift, which is not just a metaphor. Despite the subsystem reduction in some models, overall, electric cars are heavier than their internal combustion counterparts.
The difference lies mainly on the batteries. An internal combustion engine weighs around 100 kilograms. An electric engine weighs on average 50 km. However, while the gasoline stored in the tank can add another 50 kg, an EV battery can weigh up to 150 to 250 kg.
The main cause of this difference is that, although in continued development, the battery technology’s efficiency rates are still well below the performance of gasoline and diesel. In view of this, it takes 25 kg of battery to generate the same energy produced by 1 kg of gasoline. As a result, increasing the driving range of an electric vehicle entails an exponential increase of its weight to a point where it is not viable or unprofitable.
A second aspect is, at the moment, that the battery constitutes nearly 30% of the total cost of an EV. This puts electric cars in a price range that makes it hard for them to win over audiences, at least for now.
France and Germany join together in the manufacture of batteries for electric cars with PSA and Saft – Motorpasión
— EMFI Securities (@EmfiSecurities) May 4, 2019
The search for resources
Additionally, it is important to keep in mind that battery manufacture requires enormous energy, technological, and financial resources. Its fabrication entails the extraction and transportation of the raw materials used for the battery. Lithium, cobalt, and nickel are strategic minerals with prices exposed to high volatility. Moreover, a lot of energy and water are used to extract them from far off sites.
It is estimated that the global lithium reserves are in the 16 million tons and are mainly located in Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile. Cobalt is even rarer, with reserves estimated at eight million tons. It is found primarily in the mines of Congo, Australia, and Cuba.
According to a study conducted by Swiss company Glencore, a multinational focused on commodity trading and mining, if all existing vehicles were replaced with electric cars, the industry would need around 14 million tons of cobalt. That is 6 million tons more than the global reserves of this metal.
The extraction sites of the other component, nickel, are located in Australia, Brazil, and Russia, with 78 million tons.
The battery system nowadays constitutes the main obstacle for the definitive take-off of electric vehicles.
A vast research field has emerged as a response to this obstacle, with continuous advances and the introduction of new materials such as graphene, which manufacturers are currently testing.
However, even with the rise of the batteries’ power density and lighter weight, designers must still minimize the global mass of the EV. Only then will they be able to guarantee optimum performance and increase the driving range.
Redefining the safety elements
Another challenge that the sector faces in light of technological change is safety. The tensions and intensities required for an optimum EV performance are quite high. This entails risks that need adequate prevention measures. EV safety standards are much stricter than combustion vehicles’. Their manufacturing and assembly process entails new safety aspects that must be considered, including electrical risks. An especially critical element is the batteries’ assembling process, which requires specialized staff and isolating tools that guarantee a safe mounting.
To a large extent, modern society revolves around the automobile. Streets, buildings, and other spaces have been adapted to the “king of motoring”. In this sense, fuel supply plays a crucial role.
It is not just about service stations. Fuel transport, storage, distribution, and management are based on a complex structure that is an integral part of cities and industrial centers.
The shift to electricity, therefore, implies a significant transformation of this service network. It also entails challenges in terms of employment. Workers in this field must adapt and migrate to other areas that require different abilities.
Another aspect to keep in mind is energy itself. The transition will spark greater electric demand that must be met.
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Adopting electric technology in vehicles constitutes a change that goes beyond merely replacing an engine. The growing challenges faced by not only manufacturers but also society at large will require defining new processes for manufacture, assembly, services, safety, and regulations.
The final word on this subject has not been written. As with any technological change, this transition will imply the appearance of new problems as the new solutions are implemented.
For more information, check Energía16