"I think we'll soon see various customer segments for electric cars"

Aug 17, 2023

In 2022, EVs surpassed fossil-fuel cars for the first time in new car sales in Sweden. However, for electric vehicles to become widely adopted, lower prices, shorter charging times, and longer range are crucial. Researchers from Uppsala University and Chalmers University of Technology now share their insights on what we can expect in this field soon.

EVs such as plug-in hybrids and pure electric cars have seen a steady increase in new car sales in recent years. Despite this, there is still a way to go before the majority chooses an electric option. Some of the reasons include the price of new and used electric cars, as well as battery capacity. Another vital aspect is the charging infrastructure, which still needs further expansion in Sweden.
Broad research in new battery technology
Currently, extensive research is underway to improve existing electric car batteries. One example is the development of lithium-sulfur batteries, which could pose a challenge to current lithium-ion batteries, primarily due to their environmentally friendly and cost-effective materials, as well as higher energy content. Daniel Brandell, Professor of Material Chemistry at Uppsala University, states:
– The major challenge with lithium-sulfur batteries lies in solving the issues of energy losses and shorter lifespan. However, it's through understanding these weaknesses that we can also develop new strategies and materials to enhance battery performance.
Two other emerging battery types are sodium-ion batteries and lithium iron phosphate batteries , often referred to as LFP. The latter are lithium-ion batteries based on LiFe-phosphate and can withstand several thousand charge cycles from zero to 100 percent. An important environmental factor is that the absence of cobalt in both of these technologies reduces the carbon footprint, as well as the costs associated with raw material extraction and manufacturing.
The drawback of sodium-ion and LFP batteries is that their energy density is lower compared to NMC lithium-ion batteries, resulting in a shorter driving range for electric cars.
Utilization of different battery cell formats
Batteries can be categorized based on their chemical composition, such as lithium-ion, lithium-sulfur, sodium-ion, as well as older lead-acid and nickel-metal hydride batteries. Another way to classify batteries is by their cell format: cylindrical, prismatic, or pouch.
In the automotive industry, the preferred cell format and size for electric cars have not yet been definitively established. Tesla employs the cylindrical format for its Model Y, and BMW is currently experimenting with cylindrical cells. By integrating more batteries structurally as part of the chassis, BMW believes it's possible to increase the range by 30 percent for future generations of electric cars.
– With regard to battery cell formats, they have varied among car manufacturers and have often been influenced by trends. Therefore, I don't think we will see a general standard in the near future. Opinions differ since each cell format has its engineering advantages and disadvantages, Daniel Brandell continues.
"Solid-state batteries" - an important puzzle piece
Several car manufacturers, including Ford, are considering partially replacing the current lithium-ion technology with solid-state technology for upcoming electric car models. Solid-state, also known as the fourth generation of batteries, has significant potential to reduce emissions from battery manufacturing by up to 39 percent, if sustainable raw materials are used.
Unlike lithium-ion batteries that rely on liquid electrolytes, solid-state batteries use a solid ceramic material to transport ions between the battery's electrodes. This enables the storage of more energy, faster charging, and improved safety. Aleksandar Matic, Professor at the Department of Physics at Chalmers University of Technology, explains:
– While some obstacles remain to make solid-state batteries sufficiently stable, it is an important step towards being able to produce efficient, safe, and environmentally friendly batteries on a large scale for many of the future electric cars.
Daniel Brandell doesn't believe that solid-state technology will eventually replace lithium-ion batteries on a larger scale, but he sees it as filling a crucial gap in the premium electric car segment:
– Solid-state batteries won't make electric cars cheaper, but they have the potential to become a competitive option in the premium segment, provided they can achieve the desired level of performance. Range is a key factor for electric cars in this context.
The emergence of new customer segments for electric cars
Many within the research community agree that lithium-ion batteries will continue to grow in volume and are likely to dominate as the battery system for most commercial products on the market, including electric cars.
– What we've observed so far in the development of EV batteries is that electric car drivers can now travel longer distances for roughly the same cost as before. However, since range is still a priority, electric cars remain relatively expensive, Aleksandar Matic adds.
Currently, electric cars compete with internal combustion engine vehicles because customers have been reluctant to change their driving behavior. This has led electric car manufacturers to focus on making batteries as energy dense as possible. The consequence of this approach is higher prices and greater negative environmental impact from the batteries. Daniel Brandell believes that this is changing as more people consider electric cars:
– In the short term, we'll need to compromise. What we gain in cheaper and more environmentally friendly batteries, we lose in performance and range, which will be compatible with smaller, lighter electric cars that have a lower price tag.
– We are already seeing tendencies towards the appearance of different customer segments for electrified vehicles. Tesla remains the largest electric car manufacturer and innovative in many aspects. However, traditional European premium manufacturers are struggling, while Asian budget brands are currently achieving significant success. It's an exciting progress. Time will tell who has the best business model.