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Are the barriers to electric cars lower than we think?

Electric cars are seen as a luxury means of transport requiring city investment in addition to consumer expenditure. However, the barriers may be lower than we think, argue Prof Sergio M. Savaresi and Prof. Silvia Strada.

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Autonomous, shared, electric. These have been the megatrends of the car sector for some time but how has the coronavirus crisis changed them?

 

The advent of the autonomous car, expected by the first part of this decade, is being pushed back due to safety and liability concerns. Car-sharing, the most promising and easily-implementable new mobility trend, is facing an abrupt stop due to Covid-19. The easiest and quickest answer to social distancing is the return to the traditional personal-car model. The electrification of the car is hence getting momentum, since an increase of personal cars in metropolitan areas is sustainable only with a major shift towards car-electrification, to mitigate CO2 and pollutants emissions.

 

Electrification of personal cars has been considered largely unfeasible due to the under-developed public recharging infrastructure and the high cost of electric cars. However, no quantitative estimation based on actual data has yet been done, meaning this unfeasibility is more of a “perception” than a real fact.

 

We recently tracked almost 150 million trips made by private passenger cars in Italy last year through installed telematic devices. It revealed that the barriers to electrification are lower than perhaps thought. Respondents were asked to establish the feasibility of them swapping their petrol car for an electric vehicle by considering the three typically cited concerns about the technology – the “functional feasibility”, in terms of a potential disruption to their habits, and considering both the availability of charging stations and the economic break-even as opposed to a traditional car.

 

These three aspects were separately assessed and analysed in depth. In terms of functional feasibility, we classified an electric car as functionally feasible if a driver was able to travel their usual daily journey on one charge, topping up the battery overnight and assuming a daily maximum distance of 300 kilometres.

 

The result of this analysis, outlined in the chart below, surprisingly demonstrates that almost half of the cars never, during a full year, exceed the 300km daily range of travel. Moreover, allowing drivers to exceed the 300 kilometre limit up to five days each year, something that could be managed by a holiday car rental or second family vehicle, led to an astonishing 92 per cent of them staying within the daily travel range.

Functional “range” feasibility. Cars with over-range days per year
Functional “range” feasibility. Cars with over-range days per year

Secondly, we assumed charging-feasibility was limited to the availability of private parking or a garage for overnight-recharging, removing the need for public charging infrastructure.

 

Lastly, in terms of economic-feasibility, we considered a panel of mid-size car models, the most attractive for electrification, with both gasoline and full-electric versions available. At current prices, a gasoline car in this class has a cost of about €15-18k, which increases by €12-15k for the equivalent electric car. We built a complete cost model, considering government incentives to buy the latter cars, depreciation, ownership taxes, insurance, electric-energy cost, gasoline cost, maintenance cost, and analysed two cases.

 

By merging the three feasibility conditions, we were surprised to find that the barriers to electric car adoption were much lower than we anticipated. Assuming a break-even time of eight years(the average time an Italian car-owner keeps their car before selling it), 13 per cent of cars could be replaced by an equivalent electric vehicle at today’s technical, infrastructural, and economic conditions. This percentage goes up to 34 per cent if we give drivers the buffer of exceeding the allowance a maximum of five times each year.

Percentage of cars in Italy which are ready for electrification, without limitations for the owner,
Percentage of cars in Italy which are ready for electrification, without limitations for the owner,

This result shows that while a public-recharging infrastructure will be needed for the mainstream adoption of electric cars, today there is already a solid base of cars ready for electrification. Drivers are clearly overestimating the number of charges needed between miles, as well as the cost of an electric car over its lifetime.

 

This analysis raises a key question: is a large and capillary public recharge infrastructure the right way to invest public (and private) money and resources (which seems the direction taken by some policy-makers around Europe), or should these resources be invested in supporting and facilitating private night-recharge?

 

Our findings suggest that investing resources in supporting and facilitating private night-recharge infrastructure, in addition to a few “emergency” charging points, is the optimal choice. Private night recharging via simple and cheap wall-mounted boxes installed in home garages appears to be not only the most economic option, but also the easiest and most efficient one. According to our estimates, overnight recharging in private spaces would cost around €0.20/kwh, compared to a fast daytime recharge of €0.50/kwh. Along with the advantage of low energy costs, night charges also prevent the overload of a city’s electricity network, a significant benefit that avoids the need of modifying network peak-capacities.

 

Electrification of vehicles is just one means of reducing the impact of transportation on climate change. However, while the perception of the technology has been of one with too many barriers to entry, our findings have revealed that drivers are much more open to adopting electric cars than first thoughts. However, more needs to be done to educate drivers about just how accessible electric cars are in order to generate the first wave of demand. Manufacturers and cities could also subsidise the adoption of overnight charging ports to fuel adoption. Doing so would lay the foundations for a sustainable and broad car electrification and generate momentum for an exciting and environmentally friendly technology.

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