What If We Are Wrong About Electric Cars? Part 4 – A Convenience Discussion

CATL developed battery swapping with modules: Choco SEBs can be added to deliver more range 21 photos
Photo: CATL
CATL Choco-SEB can be swapped and offer the range an EV really needsCATL Choco-SEB can be swapped and offer the range an EV really needsCATL Choco-SEB work as a regular battery pack: you can charge them at home, for exampleCATL Choco-SEBs are compatible cars in all sizesIt takes only one minute to replace each CATL Choco-SEBIt takes only one minute to replace each CATL Choco-SEBThis is the CATL Choco-SEB swapping stationEach CATL Choco-SEB swapping station can have 48 modulesEach CATL Choco-SEB swapping station occupies the equivalent to three parking spacesEach CATL Choco-SEB has 26.5 kWh and can deliver around 200 km (124 mi) of rangeEach CATL Choco-SEB has 26.5 kWh and can deliver around 200 km (124 mi) of rangeThis is a CATL Choco-SEBShell Holland Hydrogen I plantShell Holland Hydrogen I plantHydrogen refuellingHydrogen refuelling stationHydrogen refuelling stationHydrogen refuellingNoordzeeWind wind farm, NetherlandsShell Holland Hydrogen I plant
The idea of permanently avoiding gas stations seems attractive to most people wondering about EVs, especially those who can charge these cars at home. However, that may suddenly change if these folks ever plan to make a road trip. Will they have where to charge their vehicles? What if we are wrong about electric cars?
When Tesla released the Model S, it knew these EVs needed to have somewhere to recharge. The company’s stroke of genius was providing these places with the Supercharging network. It is this charging infrastructure that made Tesla vehicles desirable despite their several quality and reliability flaws. Just check Nissan’s case with the LEAF: it sold way less than it could due to the low range and few public chargers it could rely on to make a road trip.

Anyway, some companies decided to invest in EV charging infrastructure. Volkswagen was forced to do so with Electrify America to compensate for Dieselgate. That encouraged other carmakers to offer electric cars to compete with Tesla vehicles. The problem is that, until very recently, they could not use Superchargers, which were exclusive to Tesla’s products.

Fast charging depends on each vehicle’s capacity to take more electrons. The charging speed is calculated in kW: the more, the better. If you have a car that only accepts 50 kW, attaching it to a 240-kW charger will not help much: it will demand around one hour and a half, depending on how big the battery pack is. It may also be frustrating to have a car that takes 265 kW – such as the Audi e-tron GT – and only have 50-kW chargers available: it will take the same time to recharge as the EV that only accepts 50 kW. For someone who could leave the charging station in around 20 minutes, waiting one hour and a half will look like a massive waste of time. Anyway, most EV owners will be grateful to even find somewhere to charge: many users complain that stalls are frequently out of order.

That paints a complex scenario in which you have much more vehicles competing for charging poles, which do not proliferate at the same pace as electric cars. You’ll soon have people accusing those with cheaper EVs of making them wait for more time than they should to get some juice. We already have EV owners that simply park in these exclusive charging spots just because they offer a more convenient location. They do not even care to pretend to charge by plugging in their electric cars.

Suppose we had a vast charging network, that would still not help. The truth is that fast charging stresses battery packs, making them last less time – at least with the current battery technology. Solid-state cells and LFP are expected to have a longer lifespan, even under constant fast charging, but it will take a while for us to be sure about that. Perhaps ten more years after they arrive at dealerships.

The truth is that even fast charging makes people waste a lot of time on road trips. You may have to wait even longer on holidays just to find a charging stall. People sometimes just want to make a quick stop and keep traveling. Only EVs with swappable batteries offer that possibility, such as NIO vehicles in China and some European countries.

CATL is trying to establish its Choco-SEBs as an even more interesting standard: you only add the modules you want for a given use. Drivers taking their kids to school and going to work may need only one, which allows their EVs to be lighter and charge faster than if they were carrying three. The issue is that this is an expensive solution for automakers and battery manufacturers proposing it.

Another one is to have a small battery pack, a fuel cell, and a hydrogen tank. The battery pack would ensure driving electric on daily needs, while the gas and the fuel cell would help in road trips. Putting hydrogen in one of those tanks takes around 5 minutes, which makes it a fast refueling solution that is pretty convenient for travelers. Without a hydrogen network in place, NamX proposed to distribute the gas in bottles that can be bought everywhere. Toyota is developing a similar concept.

Despite that, you will often hear that a massive battery pack is all you need – not only from people who sell and invest precisely in that but also from those who are convinced that is the only solution. They said the same as more than one hundred years ago with early electric cars and their lead-acid batteries. They were wrong because they did not consider how inconvenient it was to have low range, high weight, and time-consuming charging sessions. What if we are wrong about electric cars? Again?
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About the author: Gustavo Henrique Ruffo
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Motoring writer since 1998, Gustavo wants to write relevant stories about cars and their shift to a sustainable future.
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