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Audi R8 E-Tron: Electric Vehicle Limitations

Electric Vehicle Limitations

The simple truth is that presently EVs are not a comprehensive solution for all our transportation needs, instead it’s an option that will satisfy only some of our basic requirements.

Current Electric Vehicle (EV) limitations are beyond obvious. The challenges of short ranges, long charge times, and hefty price tags indicate that answering the “How far, how long, how much?” EV riddle is still a complex one. As in:

– How far can I drive my EV on a single charge?
– How long does it take to completely charge my EV?
– How much does my EV cost me?

For EVs to become benchmark transportation solution there are certain compromises that have to be made. In layman’s terms EVs will simply have to be the most convenient and economic solution. Considering the benefits consumers would consider most compromises reasonable. Let’s ignore conspiracy theories and the behaviour of responsible automotive accomplices. Let’s overlook their obvious attempt to retain oil-based profits and structures for as long as possible. These industry players would suffer colossally if consumers truly pursued alternative energy transportation solutions.

On paper the final consumer probably has less to lose, and based on history, the automotive industry always moves at the beat of evolution and not revolution. But in particular, it is frustrating to watch our inability as a society, with predominantly oil-based transportation choices imposed upon us. Genuine oil alternatives are just around the corner, but at what cost for future generations? The fascination with the potential of EVs and promises of alternative-energies reflect the society’s refusal to face the practical limitations of alternative energy – limitations which reflect stubbornly on us – our own society.

Despite their potential benefits, widespread adoption of EVs faces several hurdles and limitations. A major factor discouraging the adoption of EVs are the lack of public and private recharging infrastructure and the driver’s fear of the batteries running out of energy before reaching their destination (range anxiety) due to their limited range. Another major obstacle is the cost of EV batteries. The good news is that this may soon change. Expectations have been that those costs will fall with increased production, and there have even been predictions of battery oversupply in the near future. Combine that with the rising cost of oil and limited supply – somewhere down the line – it appears that purchasing an EV is a great bet. But will full vehicle electrification ever become truly affordable?

Using batteries in a hybrid makes sense, and it’s a proven concept in the real world. Using batteries to enable energy efficiency technologies is also a sensible option. The most obvious advantage of EVs is that they don’t produce the pollution associated with internal combustion engines. However, they still have high environmental costs. The electricity used to recharge EV batteries has to come from somewhere, and right now, most electricity is generated by burning fossil fuels. Although some of the electricity on the grid can be generated from a variety of alternative sources; such as hydroelectricity and nuclear. Power sources such as roof top photovoltaic solar cell panels, micro hydro or wind may also be used, but still represent minimal quantities. Most of the running cost of an EV can be attributed to the maintenance of the battery pack, and its eventual replacement, because an EV has minimal moving parts, compared to an internal combustion engine vehicle that has hundreds of parts. EVs have expensive batteries that must be replaced but otherwise incur very low maintenance costs, particularly in the case of current lithium-based designs.

The major disadvantage of battery-powered vehicles, as mentioned in the last section, is the time required to recharge the batteries. With lithium-ion battery technology, a fully charged EV can travel a distance comparable to an internal combustion engine vehicle with a full tank, but it still needs to be placed on a recharger at the end of that trip. At present, this means a drained EV will be out of service for several hours before its fully recharged. Of course, this is a serious disadvantage. In the future, faster recharging technology may become available, but in the near term, EVs won’t be the choice for long trips. Another disadvantage of EV batteries is their weight. Because they need to do more than traditional car batteries, EV batteries need to be linked together into arrays, or battery packs, to provide additional power. These collections of batteries are very heavy.

One solution that can extend the short range of EVs is by building them with battery switch technology. An EV with battery switch technology will be able to go to a battery switch station and rapidly switch a depleted battery with a fully charged one. The process is cleaner and faster than filling a tank, and the driver remains in the car the entire time. Unfortunately because of the high investment cost, its long-term economics are still unclear. Another solution is the installation of DC Fast Charging stations with high-speed charging capability from three-phase industrial outlets so that consumers could recharge the battery of their EV to 80% in about 30 minutes. Some types of batteries such as Lithium-titanate, LiFePO4 and even certain NiMH variants can be charged almost to their full capacity in 10-20 minutes. Careful charge management is required to prevent damage to the batteries through overcharging. A similar idea is that of the range-extension trailer which is attached only when going on long trips. The trailers can either be owned or rented only when necessary.

An automotive business model based on oil is unacceptable. A business model based on cars of the future is needed, and most are gambling on what that future will be: plug-in EVs. But is this the right bet? What about vehicles with their own fuel cells? EV advocates insist that mass production and scales of economy would allow EVs to compete legitimately. Four decades after the oil crisis, this logic is now wearing thin. Therefore, are we reaching the limits of battery science, or just the limits of politics and economics?

The recent confirmation by Audi that the launch of its all-electric R8 E-Tron has been delayed indefinitely might be further evidence of this logic. The Audi R8 based concept was originally scheduled to arrive in 2012; unfortunately it seems that it will now be treated purely as a technical exercise to advance EV technology for models lower down the range. Audi built 10 cars which will continue to be evaluated internally. Apparently Audi was concerned about short range and long charge times with existing battery technology, and think their customers were unwilling to accept such compromises. Volkswagen is undoubtedly waiting for the technology to mature and improve before pioneering into a project that perhaps didn’t truly represent the Audi brand. And although claims have spoken of its demise, we believe the Audi R8 E-Tron may still come to fruition, though only in very limited quantities. A strategy favoured by Volkswagen while pioneering and testing new technology in the real world. A small production run along the lines of the R8’s platform-mate, the Lamborghini Sesto Elemento, isn’t entirely out of the question. But it is more likely that Audi is going to wait until battery technology reaches a level they feel is appropriate for an electric supercar. Audi also cancelled in 2012 plans for its A2/A1 E-Tron electric variants, suggesting that Volkswagen isn’t counting on EVs for its future plans. To be fair, Volkswagen and Audi never promised production versions. When the concepts debuted at Frankfurt in 2009 and 2011, Audi claimed they were just ‘concept technology studies’. Apparently study time is now almost over. The E-Tron plans may be frozen, but their core achievements should appear in future Volkswagen group production vehicles. Including some of our more down-to-earth technology favourites like lightweight construction, digital rear view mirror system, and battery management system.

At the moment pursuing the Tesla hype simply does not make sense for Volkswagen, as Tesla’s subsidized business model simply does not stand up to scrutiny, and their struggle raises serious doubts about the future of EVs. Even with government loans and backing from major players in the industry, Tesla’s business model defies all business logic. So far these general concerns have been brushed aside by bullish securities analysts naively caught up in the excitement and promise of an EV revolution. Therefore let’s reiterate, are we reaching the limits of battery science, or just the limits of politics and economics?

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