Waiting for the Electric Car Tipping Point

By · May 01, 2012


April 2012 electric vehicle sales numbers are in, and frankly, they are disappointing. Shouldn’t numbers be climbing every month by now? Regardless of any specific sales figures for any single month during this period of the EV market—too much shouldn’t be read into them— the larger global economic and technological factors are creating a head wind against widespread adoption of plug-in cars. Still, folks who expect (or for various reasons really want) EVs to take off believe there will be a future tipping point—nobody knows the exact year—when the fundamentals of cost and convenience will dramatically sway in favor of electric cars over gas-powered vehicles.

What kind of tipping point are they talking about? One or more of these:

Gas prices will quickly spike. Global economic forces, terrorist activity, or acts of nature will make today’s nearly $4 gas seem quaint. If the oil supply is disrupted, the price at the pump will shoot up to $5, $6, or higher. At that point, consumers will flock to cars powered by cheaper domestically produced electricity.

Battery prices will drop. For a few years, we’ve been locked in a pattern where the price per kWh for an EV-grade lithium ion battery packs (fully installed with profit margins for makers) is hundreds of dollars away from some magical tipping point—at which time the price premium for a pure electric car will disappear. Real prices for EV battery packs are tightly guarded corporate secrets, so knowing what the packs cost is a guessing game. I hear anywhere from $200 to $800 kWh today. Regardless, cheaper batteries will give carmakers and consumers the choice to dramatically reduce cost or keep prices roughly where they are now while extending range.

Range will expand. Today’s real-world driving range of 80 miles or so is plenty good for most US drivers—if they only give it a chance. But let’s say there’s a 50 percent jump to 120 miles, or for extra money, a bigger leap to 200 miles—then it’s a game-over tipping point in favor of EVs, according to tipping-point theorists.

Quick charging will mean fast ubiquitous fill-ups. A big battery pack with longer range for a relatively affordable price is fantastic, but on some days and for some drivers, he ability to re-fuel in a time period that comes anywhere close to a gas car could be the lever to mass adoption. There are at least 100 DC Quick Chargers slated for the Bay Area in the next three to four years. Is that the tipping point?

This is my quick list of potential tipping points. (You might see other levers, like passage of smart carbon policy.) Will any of these happen? Nobody knows with absolute certainty. Can some combination of these—slightly higher gas prices with slightly cheaper batteries that offer slightly more range that can be charged at slightly more Quick Charge stations—line up to form the tipping point? Or will EV adoption follow the same very slow and modest curve experienced by hybrids over the past dozen years?

Dust off the old crystal ball and tell us what you see. Your guess is probably just as good as the next guy’s.


· · 6 years ago

Is there an EE in the house? Why can’t EVs be charged the same way electric trains are – from the surface on which they run? I have heard talk for a long time about the desirability of burying electrical cables. Would it be possible to construct a new grid that uses underground power lines to keep an induction charging capability powered while at the same time transmitting power? If induction charging is still too inefficient, is there a possibility of a direct connect system powered by those buried cables? Could that be done safely?

(Wouldn’t that be great? A separate lane for EVs on the interstates?)

· Max Reid (not verified) · 6 years ago

There are 9,000 EV charging stations in US so far. This is a rapid development since a charger costs only between 20 - 50 K for Level 3. But in the vehicle side, prices are so high and for sure, the automakers can reduce a little bit to push the sales.

· · 6 years ago

The tipping point is happening now for bev, it's already rejected by consumers and car manufacturers had lost billions. Only the volt make sense because it mix bev with gasoline. But the tipping point for all of this will happen when they will start to sell hydrogen cars for cash somewhere.

· · 6 years ago

@world2steven - Trains are powered by conduction, either by a third rail or by overhead wires. You'd need two points of contact to complete the circuit and with trains the running rails usually play that role: Power in through third rail, out through the steel wheels.

I'm at a loss for how you would safely incorporate high power contacts into a roadway where the vehicles are not confined to set tracks (change lanes, make exits etc), must share that road with incompatible vehicles, where the vehicles that do use that system can be used on normal streets, and where those contacts need to be protected from physical damage, debris, weather, etc.

Induction is a whole lot easier, but for induction charging you need coils. For optimal efficiency you need properly matched and spaced coils. This would be damn near impossible to control on highways where the alignment, road clearance and power requirements of each vehicle would vary wildly. You'd have a very inefficient system. You also wouldn't want to power coils with no car over them, or with incompatible cars over them, so you'd need sensors or something to power a moving target... now you have a complex, inefficient system.

Then there's the sheer amount of power you'd need. Each vehicle using say 15kW at highway speeds (plus losses - say 60% efficiency so we're at 25kW per vehicle), times tens of thousands of vehicles along a stretch of highway?That's a lot of power. Conventional charging eases this by having rate of charging much less than rate of consumption (that's why it can take 8-12 hours to replenish 1-2 hours of driving).

As long as we're dreaming, it seems much more practical to beam power to cars via high powered lasers. Protective eye wear not included. ;)

· · 6 years ago

@Smidge204 - Thanks for the info! (It is a lot easier for people like me who don't know what they are talking about to solve complex problems.)

· · 6 years ago

I'll second that thanks, Smidge, for that very detail technical answer regarding electrified and/or inductance roadways (far better than I could have done.) I'll only add that it would be hideously expensive to dig up millions of miles of road to pull off something like this.

gorr, buddy . . . as usual, I'm at a loss as actually find a starting point to compose a rebuttal to your outrageous claims. Please take a break and read this little tidbit on hydrogen. Get back to us when you're done.


· Smithjim1961 (not verified) · 6 years ago


I'm an EE but it does not take an EE to understand that in road inductive charging would be enormously expensive. It may happen someday but it's at least a decade away from being practical.By that time battery storage density will have gone up considerably which would negate the need for in road inductive charging.

· · 6 years ago

I'm in Orlando, Florida. We got our area's EVSE infrastructure mostly installed in Q42011...which was when EVs arrived. I think we have about 30 Leafs, 100 Volts, and a handful of Teslas and Fiskers running around now. As a native, I'm happy as hell that Central Florida (who's ass got kicked in the downturn...and has many Fox News watchers) has this much support for EVs. Speaking for this area, I think it will take some time for people to trust their benefits...and by then our economy will have healed somewhat so more can afford one. Nearly everyone I've shown my Leaf to has been impressed with it and love how cheap it is to fuel.

All that said, and I think it's job security, trust in technology, EV/Battery price, gas prices, and range are all moving in the right direction to the tipping point. Q32013???

· Smithjim1961 (not verified) · 6 years ago


I'm an EE but it does not take an EE to know that in road inductive charging would be enormously expensive to implement even if the technology existed to do so. We may have in road inductive charging in the future but it's at least a decade away. In a decade battery density will be higher and battery costs will be lower which will negate the need for in road inductive charging.

· · 6 years ago

Don't forget that gasoline is $5, $6, $7, even close to $8 per gallon in much of Europe already. In theory, if gasoline prices are the real tipping point, there should be very strong EV demand in the countries with the highest gas prices.

· Anonymous (not verified) · 6 years ago

There are alternatives possible in urban areas. Do a search on "personal mass transportation" or "J pod." For that matter, weather permitting, I bicycled to work for years.

· · 6 years ago

@ Smidge204 - This was really interesting:
Then there's the sheer amount of power you'd need. … Conventional charging eases this by having rate of charging much less than rate of consumption (that's why it can take 8-12 hours to replenish 1-2 hours of driving).
It sounds like the need for batteries will be with us for a while even if all the other problems you listed for on the fly inductive or conductive charging could be solved.
@ Smithjim1961 – I think you underestimate what many of us out here DON’T know about basic physics:
“I'm an EE but it does not take an EE to know that in road inductive charging would be enormously expensive to implement even if the technology existed to do so.”
I was wondering if you could just turn the whole power grid into an induction coil, then turn it on and leave it on with cars only taking what they needed (according to Smidge204 ‘everything and more’). But your point:
“In a decade battery density will be higher and battery costs will be lower which will negate the need for in road inductive charging.”
seems to be valid as well.
Thanks to both of you for the education!

· gregsfc (not verified) · 6 years ago

I've been looking at the newest, mainstream electrics on the market; not to shop, but just as an interest for our future. I drive a VW diesel and avg. 46 mpg on my 56-mile, round trip commute on state highways. The car is a modern compact, but still seems grossly excessive for single transportation as a way forward.

Automakers are underutilizing diesel technologies in America. We have no diesel choices under a 2.0 displacement engine. An economy car with a 1.5-liter diesel could return 60 mpg. All the concept diesels on the horizon are 2.0 and larger in 3000 lb plus cars. My next car won't be a diesel if that marketing trend continues, and my next car definitely won't have spark plugs.

There is a lot to like about the EVs, but the only one not excessive for a single passenger, every day commuter, is the Mitsibishi i, but it's marketed as a city car with a range that's too close to call for my needs, especially as the batteries age. It's also reviewed to be very weak above 50 mph. Why do Americans think that hwy. travel should not be in small cars? Its on the hwy where people need to save the most fuel, because that's where folks log lots of miles and spend lots for fuel. Shedding the curb weight can vastly improve fuel economy, but there is hardly any good engineering in small cars marketed for America.

My biggest worry with electrics is that I think of cordless tools. They always under perform and have poor durability related to power output and holding a charge as they age. Same with lap top batteries and cell phones. When I think of electric motors, I have positive images; much more than even a diesel engine, but when you add the cordless factor, I'm not yet tipped. I don't won't a car that is as reliable as a cordless drill with only one battery pack.

· Objective (not verified) · 6 years ago

OK, Brad. Here's what I see: uncertainty. Political and socioeconimic changes are driven by so many factors that no forecast can really be a guarantee. In spite of that, Thomas Edison had some confidence not only that he would develop a working light bulb, but that it would be a commercial success and change the world.

Now, providing that the barriers to entry do not prove too high and rigid for me to overcome, I will successfully complete development and commercialization of the next revolution in transportation. Batteries will not play a significant part in it, because they are THE piece of what is currently being marketed that is preventing any meaningful market penetration, and also because there are feasible ways of achieving success without a strong dependency on them.

I can foretell a lot of things that won't happen, becaue they aren't feasible. They are too numerous to list here, but one is of the best examples is Daryl Oster's ETT (or ET3, whatever.) Most of the remainder of these untenable ideas can be found here: http://faculty.washington.edu/jbs/itrans/
Although, a couple from that site have fit into one or two novelty applications and special niches, none of them will ever become any kind of true mainstream design or method.

Instead of focusing on any of the above as me being negative, realize that it is me being honest, which is what was asked for by the author. Fooling ourselves by going along with things that won't work, because we wish they would, isn't going to help.

I'm not trying to prove anything I've said here. To prove it requires that I finish the project and deliver on this promise of a transportation revolution.

· Ryan Allway (not verified) · 6 years ago

Mass adoption of Electric vehicles might only be a few years away. The key to adoption of electric vehicles is the acquisition cost, infrastructure and range of the vehicles. Current range of most Electric Vehicles (EV's) in the market is equivalent to having a 2 gallon fuel tank. Although most of us do not use 2 gallon of gasoline in our everyday commute, we would all have a range anxiety if our cars had only 2 gallon fuel tanks. We would immediately demand gas stations are built near our workplace, shopping centers, airports and homes, before we purchased an automobile.

Similar is the case of range anxiety with electric vehicles. Lot of consumers, are not aware that we are only one generation of battery chemistry away from a six (6) gallon fuel tank equivalent. The next generation battery will also solve the infrastructure issues related to electric power grid. Imagine a 6 gallon tank equivalent EV, which would be equivalent to 250 mile range on a single charge, sufficient for EV users to come home charge their vehicles during off-peak hours. This would require much smaller home chargers that do not need upgrade of home infrastructure, and does not impact electric grid during peak hours. Similarly, businesses will be able to adopt EV's for distribution applications, charging their trucks, vans or other vehicles at their business facility during the night.

Mass adoption of this next generation of electric vehicles will result in investment capital moving away from innovation phase of EV's (and batteries) to integration phase of EV's. Flow of capital investment will increase towards construction of new manufacturing plants, hard tooling of components and assembly automation resulting in cost reduction of EV's below gasoline vehicles.

This scenario of rapid transition (within 10 years) to EV's has been proven before in the industry. Let us take for example the golf cart industry that started in 1954 where all golf carts introduced were electric powered. In 1970's golf cart industry transitioned from electric golf carts to gasoline powered golf carts due to lack of control and charger technologies. It was in early 1990's where solid state controllers and automatic chargers were introduced, leading to rapid reversal of the industry from gasoline powered golf carts to electric golf carts. Today, it is very rare to find a gasoline golf cart globally, resulting in over 90% of the golf cart market controlled by electric models. Today, not only electric golf carts control majority of the market, but also electric golf carts are 25% lower in price than its gasoline competitors.

Similar stories can be found in forklift, ground support airport equipment and industrial equipment industries. One thing common in all these industries was that the transition to electric technologies was very rapid (within 10 years), once the relevant technological issues were resolved. Another thing common in these transitions was that the price of electric vehicle was always lower than the fossil fuel powered vehicles once some scale was established.

Most automotive pundits that predict demise of electric vehicles, fail to recognize that repeatedly consumers and businesses have adopted electric vehicle technologies once relevant technological issues are resolve. Electric vehicles are inherently energy efficient, lower costing and reliable when produced at certain scale. With lower operating costs of up to 80% when compared to diesel or gasoline vehicles, the adoption will be led by economics and not by environmental concerns alone.

Similar to computer industry, electric vehicle battery technology has doubled its energy density every 24 months. It was only five year ago, industry was using 50 whr/kg lead acid batteries and today 200 whr/kg lithium batteries are available at reasonable cost with prices dropping every six months. With promise of technologies such as Lithium-Thionyl Chloride at 750 whr/kg only 24 months away; and Lithium Air at 1100 whr/kg only 60 months away from commercialization, it is clear that the range issue will be solved shortly.

Due to efficiency of electric drive train, energy density of 2300 whr/kg would result in energy density parity with diesel fuel, which means 100% of the industry can convert to electric drive trains without any weight penalty. Considering improvements made in past five years in battery technology, it is certainly conceivable that during the next 10 years majority of the products will be electric powered.

Meanwhile car companies like Nissan, Ford, GM, Toyota, BMW continue to invest into propulsion systems and vehicle platforms that will reap the benefits of these innovations. Similarly companies like Navistar, Protera and Balqon Corporation continue a similar effort towards development of zero emission solutions for heavy and medium duty commercial truck and bus markets.


· · 6 years ago

The adoption of the microwave oven, I believe, will prove to be a reasonable proxy for the adoption of the EV in America. The microwave oven wasn't an overnight success. It took nearly two decades for the microwave oven to out sell gas ranges in the U.S. Early on older Americans wouldn't use microwave ovens because, "That's not how you cook!" (sound familiar?) There was also fear of microwave ovens because most people didn't understand how they worked. (sound familiar?) But, like the EV, you can't hold a good idea down forever. They were able to get the pricing down, and enough people no longer feared them, that sales in the mid 1970's began to grow. They then were bundled in the kitchen of every new home. An ecosystem then grew up to provide food products specifically for microwave cooking. (remember microwave popcorn when it came out?)

In 10 years or so EVs should cost less than comparable ICE vehicles. Demand will naturally increase at that point. Fear will diminish as more people actually see them, use them, as younger people adopt them as normal form of transportation, and the elderly (stuck in their ICE mentality) die off. And finally, what if new home builders bundled an EV, EVSE and solar system with each new home?

· · 6 years ago

@indyflick: "And finally, what if new home builders bundled an EV, EVSE and solar system with each new home?"

Would love to see this, and, I think if it was marketed as 'grab a hold of fueling independence with your own solar gas station', it would prove to be a big draw. If only a critical mass of home builders would see this tremendous opportunity and, dare I say it: Plug into it ;-)

· · 6 years ago

A lot of the push back on EVs is unfounded fears and misinformation. The most common being "EVs actually are worse, due to mining the rare earth materials and the coal based power". Of course there are other "I won't buy one unless it gets 300 miles on a charge" or "batteries catch fire". Those talking points can stop people from even investigating an EV as an alternative. I was talking to a co-worker and he brought up the same issues, and all you need to do is discuss the reality of those talking points. I showed him the Telsa Model-X and now he wants one, real bad. He's trying to figure out how to convince his wife to let him get one (although it really won't be available for another 2 years). When you do the math, the cost of gas adds another $2000+ a year to the cost of your vehicle, vs. about $250 added to your electric bill (for the year or $20/month).

· · 6 years ago

I would really love to see some statistics and maybe an article discussing what is indeed "unfounded fears and misinformation" regarding range anxiety for the average driver. There may in fact be no average driver but a set of numbers including:
. daily mileage driven
. the number of times per year this daily mileage would exceed the range of existing EVs like the LEAF
. the effects of grade and temperature on that range
would give prospective EV customers some hard numbers to determine if in fact an EV 'makes sense' for them.

If it does not right now, a list of the criteria on which current EVs fall short would give them some numbers to watch and manufacturers to to target in product evolution.

· · 6 years ago

@world2steven, here ya go...




· · 6 years ago

@anybody - what I would really, really like is a cashier's check for $50 million.
@indyflick & plugincars - Thanks!

"U.S. daily travel averages 11 billion miles a day — almost 40 miles per person per day" - who says GM can't do anything right?

· · 6 years ago


I enjoyed your comparison of EVs to adoption of microwave ovens. I know many people who are still afraid of the radiation (some even believe it "lingers" long after you're done cooking, or worse, it lingers in the food somehow). There is one flaw in your comparison though. Unlike microwave ovens, EVs are actually a superior product to the ICEs they replace ;) (be honest - would you rather eat microwaved food or oven-cooked food? Microwaves are only popular because of their convenience).

· phil.manke@yahoo.com (not verified) · 6 years ago

So, for a driver who now spends about two grand a year on gasoline or diesel fuel, a comparable offset in PEV types would take about 20 years, allowing some for charging. My solar electricity is free, but I cannot justify the purchase hit of the new technology that must first make all stockholders vastly rich "before" consumer pricing the product. The Tesla "S" is really kewel, but, can I justify a second mortgage with it? Without a simple cash rebate that incentivizes distributed solar energy and EV purchase in one cash vehicle purchase rebate, I see no real willingness to move forward on carbon abatement.

· · 6 years ago


How did you arrive at that 20 year figure? It sounds like you're taking a high estimate cost of the new vehicle ($40K) and dividing it by annual fuel costs ($2K/yr). This is a misguided approach on many levels.

For starters, you should include the cost of a new ICE car to be even remotely fair and base any subsequent calculations on the difference between a new EV and new, equivalent ICE. It's not fair comparing a Model S to the cheapest econobox you can find. Features, style (eg sedan vs hatchback), quality and performance need to be roughly equivalent. So that $40K is now maybe $20K or less.

Then you need to consider how you're paying for it. I've argued in the past that if you are leasing then it's possible for a new EV to have lower per-month cost than an equivalent ICE.

Finally you need to consider driving habits and fuel costs. Since fuel savings are the biggest part of the savings (second being maintenance) how and how much you drive has a huge impact on "payback."

You barely manage that last part alone, so I recommend you consider the argument more carefully.

· Isidra Jervey (not verified) · 5 years ago

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