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The Age of Electric Cars Is Dawning Ahead of Schedule

FRANKFURT — An electric Volkswagen ID.3 for the same price as a Golf. A Tesla Model 3 that costs as much as a BMW 3 Series. A Renault Zoe electric subcompact whose monthly lease payment might equal a nice dinner for two in Paris.

As car sales collapsed in Europe because of the pandemic, one category grew rapidly: electric vehicles. One reason is that purchase prices in Europe are coming tantalizingly close to the prices for cars with gasoline or diesel engines.

At the moment this near parity is possible only with government subsidies that, depending on the country, can cut more than $10,000 from the final price. Carmakers are offering deals on electric cars to meet stricter European Union regulations on carbon dioxide emissions. In Germany, an electric Renault Zoe can be leased for 139 euros a month, or $164.

Electric vehicles are not yet as popular in the United States, largely because government incentives are less generous. Battery-powered cars account for about 2 percent of new car sales in America, while in Europe the market share is approaching 5 percent. Including hybrids, the share rises to nearly 9 percent in Europe, according to Matthias Schmidt, an independent analyst in Berlin.

As electric cars become more mainstream, the automobile industry is rapidly approaching the tipping point when, even without subsidies, it will be as cheap, and maybe cheaper, to own a plug-in vehicle than one that burns fossil fuels. The carmaker that reaches price parity first may be positioned to dominate the segment.

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Credit…Philip Cheung for The New York Times

A few years ago, industry experts expected 2025 would be the turning point. But technology is advancing faster than expected, and could be poised for a quantum leap. Elon Musk is expected to announce a breakthrough at Tesla’s “Battery Day” event on Tuesday that would allow electric cars to travel significantly farther without adding weight.

The balance of power in the auto industry may depend on which carmaker, electronics company or start-up succeeds in squeezing the most power per pound into a battery, what’s known as energy density. A battery with high energy density is inherently cheaper because it requires fewer raw materials and less weight to deliver the same range.

“We’re seeing energy density increase faster than ever before,” said Milan Thakore, a senior research analyst at Wood Mackenzie, an energy consultant which recently pushed its prediction of the tipping point ahead by a year, to 2024.

Some industry experts are even more bullish. Hui Zhang, managing director in Germany of NIO, a Chinese electric carmaker with global ambitions, said he thought parity could be achieved in 2023.

Venkat Viswanathan, an associate professor at Carnegie Mellon University who closely follows the industry, is more cautious. But he said: “We are already on a very accelerated timeline. If you asked anyone in 2010 whether we would have price parity by 2025, they would have said that was impossible.”

This transition will probably arrive at different times for different segments of the market. High-end electric vehicles are pretty close to parity already. The Tesla Model 3 and the gas-powered BMW 3 Series both sell for about $41,000 in the United States.

A Tesla may even be cheaper to own than a BMW because it never needs oil changes or new spark plugs and electricity is cheaper, per mile, than gasoline. Which car a customer chooses is more a matter of preference, particularly whether an owner is willing to trade the convenience of gas stations for charging points that take more time. (On the other hand, owners can also charge their Teslas at home.)

Consumers tend to focus on sticker prices, and it will take longer before unsubsidized electric cars cost as little to drive off a dealer’s lot as an economy car.

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Credit…Samuel Zeller for The New York Times

The holy grail in the electric vehicle industry has been to push the cost of battery packs — the rechargeable system that stores energy — below $100 per kilowatt-hour, the standard measure of battery power. That is the point, more or less, at which propelling a vehicle with electricity will be as cheap as it is with gasoline.

Current battery packs cost around $150 to $200 per kilowatt-hour, depending on the technology. That means a battery pack costs around $20,000. But the price has dropped 80 percent since 2008, according to the United States Department of Energy.

All electric cars use lithium-ion batteries, but there are many variations on that basic chemistry, and intense competition to find the combination of materials that stores the most power for the least weight.

For traditional car companies, this is all very scary. Internal combustion engines have not changed fundamentally for decades, but battery technology is still wide open. There are even geopolitical implications. China is pouring resources into battery research, seeing the shift to electric power as a chance for companies like NIO to break into the European and someday, American, markets. In less than a decade, the Chinese battery maker CATL has become one of the world’s biggest manufacturers.

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Credit…Felix Schmitt for The New York Times

The California company has been selling electric cars since 2008 and can draw on years of data to calculate how far it can safely push a battery’s performance without causing overheating or excessive wear. That knowledge allows Tesla to offer better range than competitors who have to be more careful. Tesla’s four models are the only widely available electric cars that can go more than 300 miles on a charge, according to Kelley Blue Book.

On Tuesday, Mr. Musk could unveil a technology offering 50 percent more storage per pound at lower cost, according to analysts at the Swiss bank UBS. If so, competitors could recede even further in the rearview mirror.

“The traditional car industry is still behind,” said Peter Carlsson, who ran Tesla’s supplier network in the company’s early days and is now chief executive of Northvolt, a new Swedish company that has contracts to manufacture batteries for Volkswagen and BMW.

“But,” Mr. Carlsson said, “there is a massive amount of resources going into the race to beat Tesla. A number, not all, of the big carmakers are going to catch up.”

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Credit…Felix Odell for The New York Times

The traditional carmakers’ best hope to avoid oblivion will be to exploit their expertise in supply chains and mass production to churn out economical electrical cars by the millions.

A key test of the traditional automakers’ ability to survive will be Volkswagen’s new battery-powered ID.3, which will start at under €30,000, or $35,000, after subsidies and is arriving at European dealerships now. By using its global manufacturing and sales network, Volkswagen hopes to sell electric vehicles by the millions within a few years. It plans to begin selling the ID.4, an electric sport utility vehicle, in the United States next year. (ID stands for “intelligent design.”)

But there is a steep learning curve.

“We have been mass-producing internal combustion vehicles since Henry Ford. We don’t have that for battery vehicles. It’s a very new technology,” said Jürgen Fleischer, a professor at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in southwestern Germany whose research focuses on battery manufacturing. “The question will be how fast can we can get through this learning curve?”

Peter Rawlinson, who led design of the Tesla Model S and is now chief executive of the electric car start-up Lucid, likes to wow audiences by showing up at events dragging a rolling carry-on bag containing the company’s supercompact drive unit. Electric motor, transmission and differential in one, the unit saves space and, along with hundreds of other weight-saving tweaks, will allow the company’s Lucid Air luxury car — which the company unveiled on Sept. 9 — to travel more than 400 miles on a charge, Mr. Rawlinson said.

His point is that designers should focus on things like aerodynamic drag and weight to avoid the need for big, expensive batteries in the first place. “There is kind of a myopia,” Mr. Rawlinson said. “Everyone is talking about batteries. It’s the whole system.”

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Credit…Felix Schmitt for The New York Times

When Jana Höffner bought an electric Renault Zoe in 2013, driving anywhere outside her home in Stuttgart was an adventure. Charging stations were rare, and didn’t always work. Ms. Höffner drove her Zoe to places like Norway or Sicily just to see if she could make it without having to call for a tow.

Ms. Höffner, who works in online communication for the state of Baden-Württemberg, has since traded up to a Tesla Model 3 equipped with software that guides her to the company’s own network of chargers, which can fill the battery to 80 percent capacity in about half an hour. She sounds almost nostalgic when she remembers how hard it was to recharge back in the electric-vehicle stone age.

“Now, it’s boring,” Ms. Höffner said. “You say where you want to go and the car takes care of the rest.”

The European Union has nearly 200,000 chargers, far short of the three million that will be needed when electric cars become ubiquitous, according to Transport & Environment, an advocacy group. The United States remains far behind, with less than half as many as Europe.

But the European network is already dense enough that owning and charging an electric car is “no problem,” said Ms. Höffner, who can’t charge at home and depends on public infrastructure.

Price and infrastructure are closely connected. At least in theory, people won’t need big, expensive batteries if there is a place nearby to quickly recharge. (Charging times are also dropping fast.)

Lucid’s first vehicle is a luxury car, but Mr. Rawlinson said his dream was to build an electric car attainable by the middle class. In his view, that would mean a lightweight vehicle capable of traveling 150 miles between charges.

“I want to make a $25,000 car,” Mr. Rawlinson said. “That’s what is going to change the world.”

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Slowed by the Coronavirus, China Inc. Struggles to Reopen

Airbus is slowly restarting its assembly line in China. General Motors began limited production on Saturday. Toyota followed on Monday morning.

Fitfully and painfully — and with some worried prodding from Beijing — China is trying to reopen for business.

The world’s second-largest economy practically shut down three weeks ago as a viral outbreak sickened tens of thousands of people, unexpectedly lengthening a Chinese holiday. The freeze set off warnings that the global economy could be in jeopardy if the world’s pre-eminent manufacturing powerhouse stayed shut for long.

Now, as some factories rumble back into action, the monumental task of restarting China is becoming clear. China’s efforts to contain the virus are clashing with its push to get the country back to work, requiring the country’s leaders to strike a balance between keeping people safe and getting vital industries back on track.

Chinese leaders called this past week for more emphasis on reviving the economy. But many of the factories that have reopened are operating well below capacity, say companies and experts. Quarantines, blocked roads and checkpoints are stopping millions of workers from returning to their jobs. Supply lines have been severed.

Even to start up again, Chinese officials are requiring businesses to provide masks to workers, record their temperatures and track their movements to make sure they haven’t come into contact with the coronavirus, named COVID-19.

“The kind of fear and freeze that has taken hold in terms of economic activity is likely to persist,” said George Magnus, a research associate at Oxford University’s China Center. “I don’t really see a good outcome.”

By Monday, more than 70,000 people had been infected by the coronavirus and over 1,700 had died worldwide, according to officials. New infections continue to be confirmed around the world, including an American who was identified with the disease in Malaysia on Sunday who had been on a cruise ship, raising concerns about another potential cluster outside mainland China.

Also on Sunday, Taiwan said that a 61-year-old man who had a history of poor health but not known for travel to China had died of the coronavirus, making him the fifth fatality outside the mainland.

Still, the pace of new cases officially confirmed in mainland China, the center of the outbreak, has slowed over the past three days.

The Coronavirus Outbreak

  • What do you need to know? Start here.

    Updated Feb. 10, 2020

    • What is a Coronavirus?
      It is a novel virus named for the crown-like spikes that protrude from its surface. The coronavirus can infect both animals and people, and can cause a range of respiratory illnesses from the common cold to more dangerous conditions like Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS.
    • How contagious is the virus?
      According to preliminary research, it seems moderately infectious, similar to SARS, and is possibly transmitted through the air. Scientists have estimated that each infected person could spread it to somewhere between 1.5 and 3.5 people without effective containment measures.
    • How worried should I be?
      While the virus is a serious public health concern, the risk to most people outside China remains very low, and seasonal flu is a more immediate threat.
    • Who is working to contain the virus?
      World Health Organization officials have praised China’s aggressive response to the virus by closing transportation, schools and markets. This week, a team of experts from the W.H.O. arrived in Beijing to offer assistance.
    • What if I’m traveling?
      The United States and Australia are temporarily denying entry to noncitizens who recently traveled to China and several airlines have canceled flights.
    • How do I keep myself and others safe?
      Washing your hands frequently is the most important thing you can do, along with staying at home when you’re sick.