Electric Vehicles: What’s Holding Them Back?

EVs are yet to eclipse traditional vehicles

Alongside autonomous drive systems and the decline in ownership models, electrification is one of the biggest trends in mobility. Hybrid cars are already becoming commonplace, and while they are still in the minority, they are a reminder that manufacturers are riding the electric bandwagon. The gradual adoption of hybrid vehicles shows that consumers are turning away from traditional internal combustion engines. Given the benefits, it’s not hard to see why. The uptake of electric vehicles, tentative as it is, suggests that existing models will eventually be phased out. It seems that the days of traditional fuel providers could be numbered… But Roy Williamson, BP‘s Vice President of Advanced Mobility, begs to differ.

Energy giants and electrification

As one of the world’s leading energy companies, BP has a serious interest in alternative power. Four years ago, the Advanced Mobility Team was set up to track and understand disruptive trends in mobility – one of which being electrification.

“We recognise that we are one of the major energy providers and we expect to be a major energy provider to vehicles in a low carbon future, irrespective of that power train,” says Williamson. “We have made a number of investments in that space and we are looking to make more, and participate very actively.”

This active participation includes investing in infrastructure and technology, as well as looking at how existing non electric vehicles could be improved. According to Williamson, cutting CO2 levels to the necessary limits won’t just be achieved through EVs.

“We are looking at more efficient fuels that will provide lower CO2 emissions, and lubricants that will reduce friction in internal combustion engines,” he says. “We’re also quite focused around the bio agenda, particularly in our Fulcrum venture, where we have invested in a company that is looking at converting household waste into jet fuel.”

BP aren’t the only ones making significant strides towards electrification. Last year, Shell opened its first EV charging ports after acquiring NewMotion, a major charging port provider.

EVs everywhere?

At one stage, it was thought that new mobility trends would arrive at the same time, creating a perfect storm for disrupted travel and transport. However, it’s becoming increasingly clear that autonomous systems, emerging mobility models and electrification will not happen in synchronicity, but electrification on its own might happen sooner than has been suggested.

“The next significant change will be in electrification, both in hybrid plug in vehicles and then with battery electric vehicles,” says Williamson. “The big shift will start in the early 2020s, when the vehicle manufacturers bring on new models and when battery costs come down to a level where the cost of a battery electric vehicle meets the cost of a combustion engine vehicle.”

So, electrification certainly isn’t going to happen overnight. Before EVs really are everywhere, they will need to get around a number of roadblocks. First of all, there are technological challenges – particularly when it comes to batteries.

“One of the key challenges is that if you put a 350 kilowatt charger down on a fuel station today, there are very few vehicles that can take that charge without providing damage to the battery. Manufacturers need to adopt batteries that are better configured for fast charging.”

As part of an effort to remedy the battery barrier, BP has invested in Israeli battery company StoreDot. The startup is developing a superfast solution called FlashBattery, which aims to provide a full electric charge in around 10 minutes. When it comes to infrastructure, BP has also acquired Chargemaster, a leading EV charging port provider in the UK.

Investing in EVs at such an early stage can cause numerous problems, however. Companies want to invest ahead of the curve to make sure that infrastructure can support new EVs, but investing too soon can be counterproductive. Technology moves so fast that committing to a full infrastructure today could lead to outdated charging technology tomorrow. Another major challenge is finding a balance between the availability of vehicles and consumers willing to buy them, because, in Williamson’s words: “It’s customers that will determine the future of this industry, not the manufacturers or providers.”

Williamson states that policy issues are also stalling electrification. Policy favours battery electric vehicles, which means that companies are shifting their investment in that direction. Ironically, this has led to a reduction in the level of investment behind more efficient internal combustion engines, which could be a helpful stepping stone towards EV adoption.

The crossroads of change

Building the right environment for electric vehicles is going to take time. Over the next couple of decades, companies will need to chip away at infrastructural and technological issues. This includes working on stepping stone technology, like more efficient fuels and better internal combustion engines. Williamson explains that collaboration will also play a critical role in enabling change. With so many challenges ahead, no single company can solve them alone.

“It’s interesting because collaboration is not the natural habitat of many companies that are entering this space. Traditionally, they have developed IP internally, and have kept everything to themselves. We’ve done the same thing, but the way of working is changing. It requires a very different outlook – a much more open perspective – and it requires businesses to take some risk.”

By focusing investment on the areas that need it most, and teaming up with other companies to find the best solutions, legacy companies can keep up with fast moving trends. From BP’s perspective, this is how they are pivoting from an oil and gas giant into a leading mobility disruptor. The Advanced Mobility Team is a clear indicator that the company has recognised the need to change, and is spearheading industry wide developments to stay ahead. That being said, the internal combustion engine isn’t bust yet. There will still be a place for traditional engines in service vehicles until battery electric models become as economically viable as their less carbon friendly counterparts. Luckily, major industry players are working to make the transition as smooth as possible.

“The transition to electrification is a challenge,” says Williamson, “But BP has always been a technology leader and will continue to invest heavily in this space. We need to look at consumer uptake, provide the vehicles and build the infrastructure with the right phasing.”

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