Here’s the good news: The number of electric vehicles on our streets is increasing. Even the number of e-trucks in the EU increased by 26.6% in 2021 as compared to 2020 – although the numbers are still quite small. And here’s the bad news: Although the EU has specified that no more combustion engines will be manufactured starting in 2035, the global energy crisis caused by the Ukraine conflict and the higher percentage of coal used to generate electricity currently means that the carbon footprint of electric vehicles is worse than was previously reported. Even the eco-electricity label on the charger doesn’t produce the expected environmental benefits because renewable energies are not sufficient to satisfy the country’s demand. The public charging infrastructure is also insufficient in many places; many new investments will be required to expand electromobility (e-mobility). Experts at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology therefore still regard the carbon footprint of a modern, hybrid combustion engine as unbeatable. Is that the end of the transformation of transportation?
Dr. Matthias Pfriem has many years’ research experience in the e-mobility sector – in an interview, he explains why this isn’t the case.
Russia’s gas supply cuts and the global energy crisis they have triggered are hindering the expansion of e-mobility. Is the transformation of transportation in danger?
“Definitely not. Of course the energy crisis – what you might even call the energy war – presents a big challenge for all of us, also for the transformation of transportation. Essentially, it’s good that our focus is now on dependencies and that we’re beginning to eliminate them. To accomplish this, we must urgently speed up the expansion of renewable energies for electricity production in Germany. However, for e-mobility, now as before, it’s necessary to say: We’re not doing this because it’s cheap! The point of electrifying transport was never to make individual mobility cheaper than it is today. The central motivation for the change to electric vehicles is the decarbonization of the transport sector. Another goal is to reduce CO2 emissions for the long term because we want to limit man-made climate change. With the modification of the climate protection act, the German government has anchored the goal of greenhouse gas neutrality by 2045 and is planning to reduce emissions by 65% by 2030 (as compared to 1990). Electrification is the most effective measure for the transport sector. Even if sharply increasing electricity prices are currently slowing progress and the ad hoc conversion of supply chains are currently making electricity dirtier: Nothing about this strategic orientation should be changed, for in the medium term, we have obliged ourselves to make electricity cleaner.
The sights of the automobile industry have also been set on electrification for a while already. Typically, it takes five years’ development work for manufacturers and suppliers to put a new vehicle generation on the market. The “model offensive” that is happening step by step on the market now has been in the development pipeline for a long while.
Gradually, I’m still anticipating more attractive and sustainable automobiles: In addition to the drive changeover in existing popular passenger cars, the comparatively simple, compact electric drives will make entirely new vehicle types and categories possible, especially small ones. This will offer us significant potential to increase the efficiency of motorized individual transport. My recommendation: Offer electric vehicles in sizes ranging from small to large and with various ranges, because then we will have the best possible purpose-designed solutions for different usage profiles.”
The coalition agreement mentions at least 15 million completely electric passenger cars by 2030: How much electricity will this number of e-vehicles require?
“It’s possible to make a rough estimate of demand: We know from studies that a car in Germany drives approximately 14,700 kilometers per year on average. And to drive 100 kilometers, a sensibly designed vehicles needs about 20 kilowatt hours, or perhaps less. This means that I would need approximately 3,000 kilowatt hours per vehicle. 15 million e-vehicles would require 44 billion kilowatt hours or 44 terrawatt hours. To put this in context: In 2020, electricity consumption was 550 terrawatt hours – that is, eight percent more electricity would be required for 15 million e-vehicles.”
And where’s that electricity supposed to come from given that there’s currently a shortage or at least the threat of a shortage?
“To answer this question, we have to take a look at the past: Between 2003 and 2008, average consumption was 660 terrawatt hours. Thanks to targeted savings measures, this was reduced by about 10% by 2020. So Germany has already experienced consumption on a level that corresponds to today’s level plus 15 million e-vehicles. And surely there are more ways to conserve. However, there is also new demand due to heat pumps. We simply can’t avoid an expansion of renewable energies. However, because the urgency and therefore also the regulations have changed, it’s a higher priority to expand the possibilities for generating this energy today.
Politics has set a new goal for the expansion of renewable energies, making it especially important: By 2030, 80% of gross demand should be supplied with these energies.“
What promising additions or alternatives to battery-electric drives are there in the medium term?
“Of course gasoline and diesel will remain the central sources of energy for mobility until 2030, simply because it will take so long to replace the current inventory of approximately 47 million automobiles. And until then, e-mobility will be only a growing add-on. Hydrogen is also on the increase in Germany because hydrogen is a promising source of energy for many industries. In certain domains, combustion engine vehicles will complement battery-electric vehicles very well. As compared to battery-electric vehicles, vehicles with combustion engines have the advantage – as do today’s diesel and gasoline vehicles – that they can be filled up with hydrogen, which provides them with large quantities of energy in a short time. The hydrogen can be stored and therefore it does not have to be generated when the filling is done. This means using electricity for hydrogen production when there is enough or even too much of it, which doesn’t put any additional load on the grid. However, there are also some significant disadvantages. On the one hand, as things look today, combustion engine vehicles cost more than battery-electric vehicles since their drive system is much more complex. On the other hand – and for me, this is the most important issue – some of the energy is simply lost due to losses during the conversion processes. Instead of incurring losses making hydrogen from renewably generated electricity and then incurring losses in the fuel cell making electricity for the electric drive out of hydrogen, it makes more sense to put the electricity in the battery of the e-vehicle. If there are no unanticipated breakthroughs with regard to costs or efficiency, I believe that on the roads, this drive system will most likely be used for commercial vehicles, for example, for long-distance buses or long transport routes, so in places where quick fill-ups and high energy density are extremely important. I do not regard fuel cell vehicles as a general alternative to battery-electric vehicles, but they can be a sensible complement to them.”
The main point of criticism of e-mobility is the charging infrastructure. Currently, there are about 60,000 charging stations in Germany. According to the coalition agreements, the number should be one million by 2030. But do we need so many? Currently, there are only about 14,000 gas stations.
“Do we want a system change or just a technology change? A technology change would mean expanding quick-charge stations for e-vehicles like gas stations. It would have to be possible to reach these, if necessary via detours, and wait there while the vehicle is charging, as happens today. Of course in the future there will also be quick-charge hubs, which would be accessible on long-distance routes. However, a true system change would enable us to increase ease of use and eliminate such detours in everyday life by creating a charging infrastructure wherever the vehicles are going. Generally vehicles are at home for many hours of the day, so that drivers can charge their vehicles completely there, even with connections with relatively low charging power. And similarly, it might be possible to charge vehicles when they are not being used while people are working. In the end, the question of the charging infrastructure will also be a question of operative mobility management. If we can make use of long idle times for charging, this would be a very user-friendly solution. And a large number of vehicles connected to the grid might provide a possibility for feeding electricity back in, so-called bidirectional charging. As distributed storage, such vehicles would unburden and stabilize the grid. For due to the increasing share of comparatively volatile renewable energies in electricity generation, the need for storage on the grid will also increase.”
What are the most important aspects of e-mobility – today and in the future?
“Unfortunately, we tend to focus on the alleged disadvantages, and we fail to examine the opportunities that electrification offers. E-mobility enables clean, sustainable individual mobility with existing or entirely new vehicle concepts such as e-scooters, which could hardly succeed with small combustion engines. Electric vehicles are quiet, they run well, and – if desired – they demonstrate exceptional driving dynamics. It’s precisely wheel-by-wheel drives that offer new possibilities for improving driving dynamics and driving safety with torque vectoring. The focus here is on the specific division of the drive torque across the individual wheels in order to support steering and increase agility and stability. From the point of view of new drivers, e-mobility will also be simpler. The vehicles are easy to handle, you don’t have to operate a manual transmission, there’s no oil level to check, etc. Assuming a private charger, I can spare myself the drive to the gas station. And we have by no means reached the end of development, precisely with respect to integration into the energy system.
Essentially, with e-mobility, it will be possible to maintain our motorized individual mobility and make it much more environmentally-friendly. With the increasing share of renewable energies in our electricity mix, the carbon footprint of eco vehicles will improve automatically. In addition, we will be less dependent on gas and oil imports.
For me, however, a true transportation revolution means more than just changing out the drives in automobiles and leaving everything else as-is. We must rely on other forms of transport where they make sense. So, for example, take the train for longer trips across Germany or use a bicycle for shorter routes in the city.”
Background information on the topic of e-mobility
- Podcast ARD Audiothek (in German) “High electricity prices – is an electric car still worthwhile?“
- Article “EVs: Is the future of transportation electric?”
- Press Release “Efficient management of e-fleets” (in German)
- Analysis of the real use of electric vehicles in commercial fleets for the definition of customized vehicle design (in German)