The cost of lithium-ion batteries has declined by 87 percent since 2010, making electric vehicles (EVs) increasingly competitive with their gas-powered counterparts.
Over the same period, annual sales of electric passenger vehicles in the U.S. have grown from under 10,000 a year to more than 360,000. Electric buses and electric trucks are also beginning to hit the streets and the market.
Nonetheless, if EVs are going to change the overall trajectory of U.S. emissions, they must be supported by key technological innovations. These include batteries with ranges competitive with internal combustion engines; market reforms, such as well-designed market-based standards to accelerate vehicle deployment; and smart public policies, such as greater investment in public, private, and fleet charging infrastructure, specifically in marginalized communities.
As a transportation fuel, electricity still faces high levels of public uncertainty. Consumers tend to resist new technologies that can be considered unproven, and they often express anxiety over electric vehicles’ range and charging. While long-range EVs currently meet the average workweek mileage of Americans and battery costs are steadily decreasing, public perception continues to limit EV market penetration. In addition, traditional vehicle dealerships are often unequipped to provide consumers with information about the benefits of EVs, further hampering adoption. Additional outreach on the benefits and remaining utility of used EVs should also be prioritized to encourage widespread EV adoption in low-income communities and expand equitable access to clean transportation technology.
As home charging is not feasible for many drivers and vehicle owners, a robust network of public charging infrastructure is required to expand equitable access to EVs. One recent survey found that grocery stores, restaurants, and shopping malls are the most convenient public charging locations. Yet to date, the build-out of chargers at these and other public sites has not overcome this anxiety over the vehicles’ range. Access to public charging infrastructure lowers the barriers to adoption for EVs, since low-income communities often include more renters who cannot make structural changes to their homes. Public charging infrastructure also provides an avenue for those residing in apartment complexes to access this service, which in turn could lead to greater EV adoption.
Price and availability of electric vehicles are major barriers to widespread adoption. From 2010 to 2019, the cost of lithium-ion batteries has dropped by 87 percent and current projections show that costs will reach the $100/kWh mark by 2023. Nonetheless, batteries are currently the most expensive component of an EV. Despite these falling costs and fuel savings, high EV purchase price continues to be a barrier to wide-spread adoption, specifically for low-income drivers. In addition, the costs of building EV infrastructure can delay public charging options that would mitigate public perceptions of range anxiety.
Technology Innovation Examples
One of the most promising opportunities to reduce emissions in transportation lies in electrifying cars and trucks. But to make plug-in vehicles ubiquitous, they will need to approach the performance, cost, range, and fueling time of today’s gasoline and diesel-powered vehicles—which will in turn require continued dramatic improvements in battery and battery-charging technologies.
The development of a new generation of extremely inexpensive, energy-dense, and quick-charging batteries would allow electric cars and trucks to replace traditional vehicles much more rapidly. Examples of long-range battery technologies include all-solid-state lithium-metal batteries (which use lithium metal as the anode and a solid electrolyte) and comparatively lightweight lithium-sulfur batteries. Commercialized versions of these could result in smaller batteries that are cheaper on a dollars per kilowatt-hour basis.
As demand for electric vehicles grows, demand for battery materials—particularly cobalt, nickel, and lithium—and the need for battery disposal will grow. New approaches to digitizing and leveraging geological data could identify and open new supplies of cobalt, although human rights concerns have promoted a move away from cobalt towards other materials. Lithium, meanwhile, is found in brine and hard-rock deposits and is extracted via evaporation ponds or hard-rock mining respectively. Evaporation ponds, however, are land-use intensive and difficult to develop, while hard-rock mining has high environmental impact and higher costs.
Directly extracting lithium from brines could enable lithium production at a lower cost. In addition, battery recycling can serve as an important source of materials for new batteries and enable responsible end-of-life treatment for used ones. To enable widescale battery recycling, collection systems must be improved and recycling technology and capacity must be developed.
Technologies that expand and expedite electric and hydrogen vehicle charging are also needed to achieve deep decarbonization in the transportation sector. Innovations that advance hydrogen storage and transport, including cold or cryo-compressed hydrogen storage and cryogenic liquid tanker trucks or gaseous tube trailers, are required for large-scale deployment of fuel cell vehicles.
Technology advancements for electric vehicle and equipment charging include increased deployment of DC fast chargers, advancements in vehicle-to-grid (V2G) connectivity, and inductive charging. These can reduce charging time, optimize the use of renewable electricity, and improve transit efficiency.