What technologies make electric motor vehicles superior to internal combustion engine vehicles?

In the future, we’ll be driving purely on electric power – at least that’s what politicians have planned. But the hype surrounding electromobility also raises many questions. What about range, charging infrastructure, and sustainability? How negative is the impact of large high-voltage batteries on the ecosystem? And is the e-car really that much better than a modern combustion engine? These are questions that Professor Peter Pfeffer from Munich University of Applied Sciences has now addressed in an interview with the stern magazine. We have taken up the topic. Electric motor vehicles will be equipped with artificial intelligence, advanced sensors, and in-vehicle camera systems that will replace the best dash cam helping to improve the self-driving car system.

The sense and nonsense of electric cars are the subjects of much debate. For some, they are ecologically necessary, for others they bring problems. The first question is how environmentally-friendly electric mobility really is. Electric cars are often described by manufacturers as “emission-free” because, unlike internal combustion engines, they produce no direct emissions. However, it should not be forgotten that CO₂ emissions and pollutants are emitted during electricity production and must therefore be included in the overall balance. In order to be able to compare all drive concepts fairly with each other, the ADAC has taken into account the energy consumption from the fuel source to the wheel, also known as well-to-wheel (WTW). In the life cycle analysis, the CO₂ emissions generated during the production of the respective vehicle are also taken into account.

According to the ADAC, this shows that electric cars carry a CO₂ backpack that is significantly larger than cars with combustion engines. The resource-intensive battery cells are to blame. The ADAC has calculated that the CO₂ disadvantage of battery-powered cars is only offset from mileages of 50,000 to 100,000 kilometers. Only then are e-cars more environmentally friendly than modern combustion engines. But why is electromobility being pushed so hard by the automotive industry? Professor and vehicle technology expert Peter Pfeffer from Munich University of Applied Sciences explained to the stern magazine that this is due to EU legislation. This is because emissions targets of currently 90 grams per kilometer of CO2 are required. In 2030, this value is to fall to 60 grams. “You can only achieve these targets if you have electric vehicles in your fleet. In any case, this is not possible purely with internal combustion engines for the vehicle concepts that customers like to buy – namely, particularly rather large vehicles. That’s why the automotive industry is forced to increase the proportion of electric vehicles in the fleet, otherwise, they won’t be able to meet the laws.”

Range depends on various factors

So far, so good. But another point of criticism for many who are thinking about a new car is the range. And that depends on various factors: “On the use of electrical consumers, the respective outside temperature and, above all, on individual driving behavior,” the ADAC knows. A cause for concern: The e-cars tested by the automobile club according to the current measurement procedure achieve on average 15 to 20 percent higher power consumption and consequently lower ranges than the manufacturer’s state according to the WLTP cycle. In addition, the range can be expected to be reduced in very cold or warm months – by around ten to 30 percent. Nevertheless, more and more electric cars are achieving ranges of 300 to 400 kilometers and fast-charging capacities of up to 150 kW (and more), making it increasingly possible to cover longer distances purely electrically.

When asked how difficult it would be to do away with the combustion engine, Pfeffer has a clear answer: “Theoretically, the possibility is already there – at least for passenger cars. It’s also possible in practice, even if it is sometimes impractical for the end customer. It’s also technically possible for trucks, but it simply doesn’t make sense from an environmental point of view. A modern truck has a total weight of 40 tons, of which 15 tons is the unladen weight of the vehicle and 25 tons is the payload. If you were to electrify it, you would need a huge battery. The truck would then have only 20 tons of payload and 20 tons of curb weight. That would be a load loss of over 25 percent, and at the same time you would be driving a much, much heavier vehicle around – even when it’s empty.”

If you look at the gross list prices of electric cars, they are quite expensive – if it weren’t for the environmental bonus. This in turn makes electric cars quite affordable. Even when all operating costs are taken into account (including taxes, insurance, maintenance, energy costs, wear, and tear) and due to the subsidy, electric cars are often cheaper than cars with conventional combustion engines. The fact is that, according to the ADAC, electric cars can definitely pay off. However, this depends on the personal usage scenario, especially with higher annual mileages and with a favorable charging current. And this is the crux of the matter: Not only does the charging infrastructure still leave a lot to be desired for many, but the prices are also opaque and often overpriced.

Those who can charge at home at a wall box and, for example, at work, are the ones who drive the cheapest and also the best. Electricity prices of 79 cents per kWh at public fast-charging stations are not uncommon while charging at home is usually possible at the household electricity rate (approx. 34 cents per kWh). Marcus Fendt of “The Mobility House” knows why this is so in an interview with a stern: “It’s because it’s a free market. At the beginning of the year, for example, Ionity raised the price for a kilowatt-hour at a CCS fast-charging station to 79 cents. But that doesn’t apply to drivers of the car brands that have a stake in Ionity: BMW, Ford, Daimler AG, the Volkswagen Group including Porsche, and Hyundai and Kia. Those pay a much lower rate, below 30 cents. Competitor EnBW charges 39 cents per kilowatt-hour at normal charging stations and 49 cents at fast-charging stations – and that’s without a basic fee.”

Twice as many charging points needed

According to the ADAC, a well-developed charging network of over 35,000 normal and 5,700 fast-charging points has now been created in cities, rural areas, and on highways – and the trend is rising. “If we look at the distribution of charging points, it is noticeable that the density of charging points is decreasing in eastern Germany. According to estimates by the German Association of Energy and Water Industries (bdew), 70,000 normal charging points and 7,000 fast-charging points are needed for one million e-cars,” Professor Pfeffer continues. One of the biggest drawbacks of electric cars remains the long charging times, which is why many electric mobilities do not yet seem practical. Even a high-tech Porsche Taycan, which can charge at up to 270 kW, needs more than half an hour at best to charge to 80 percent. Beyond that, the charging power decreases rapidly from 80 percent (SoC) to protect the battery. For many interested parties, this is already too much, which is why a rethink is needed here.

“Currently, different plugs are still in use for charging stations. Basically, a distinction is made between columns that charge with alternating current (AC) and those where direct current (DC) flows into the car. If you charge immediately with direct current (DC), the onboard charger of the e-car is superfluous, because the battery and the charging pole are on the same wavelength and thus electricity can be pumped quickly into the batteries,” Pfeffer knows. Did you know that charging station density is statistically best in cities with 100,000 to 500,000 inhabitants? Wolfsburg, for example, secures the top position with 493 charging points, followed by Regensburg with 282 charging points and Karlsruhe with 260 charging points. Looking further east, the charging network is thinning out considerably. There is a need to catch up here.

This also raises the question of where all the electricity will come from. Will the networks collapse at some point? ADAC explains: “Based on the current situation of the electricity market in Germany, no major problems are likely in the medium term. 10 million electric cars would mean an additional electricity demand of about 5.6 percent, or 30 TWh. (…) In 2020, however, an electricity surplus of 18 TWh was exported. In purely mathematical terms, this would have been enough to power six million electric cars. In addition, steady efficiency improvements and energy savings in lighting, buildings, and industrial plants should compensate for part of the additional demand for electromobility.” But with the nuclear and coal phase-out, the expansion of wind and photovoltaic plants as well as additional storage solutions will be necessary for the future. Because as the number of electric vehicles increases, so does the risk of grid overload. For this reason, a notification requirement has been introduced for home charging stations with a capacity of up to 11 kW, and a permit requirement for those with a capacity of over 12 kW.

The battery as a factor of uncertainty

Manufacturers also advertise long warranties and guarantees for batteries. They are supposed to last eight years and/or 160,000 kilometers. Nevertheless, over the course of a battery’s life, its performance and its storage capacity will decline. This depends on normal physical aging and also the number of charges. The traction battery is by far the most expensive component of an electric car. If a defect occurs after the warranty has expired, most manufacturers promise to be able to replace individual cell modules. In that case, the battery would not have to be completely replaced – which could be extremely expensive and would be tantamount to a total economic loss for most electric cars. “Only below 70 percent would be replacing the battery make any economic sense at all. Most drivers in Germany drive less than 15,000 kilometers per year. So theoretically, this group would only have to think more about a new battery after 14 years,” explains Professor Pfeffer. Nevertheless, vehicle manufacturers should offer repair solutions in the future, because batteries that cannot be recycled have to be disposed of and are considered hazardous waste.

According to the ADAC, recycling processes for lithium-ion drive batteries are already possible and available today. Through recycling, up to 95 percent of the relevant functional materials cobalt, nickel and copper can be recovered from the traction batteries. The recovery of lithium is also possible but is currently uneconomical due to favorable raw material prices. Incidentally, spent traction batteries can still be used for many years as stationary power storage units (second life). But are there actually enough raw materials for all the batteries that are now needed? According to Öko-Institut e.V., global deposits of lithium, cobalt, nickel, graphite, and platinum clearly exceed demand. But there could be bottlenecks if the extraction sites are not developed in time. ADAC also knows, “However, the extraction of raw materials for building electric cars is associated with environmental and social problems – as is the extraction of many raw materials for other uses.” These include, for example, a high energy demand, limited water resources, or questionable working conditions in mines. It should also be noted that petroleum is consumed for combustion engines, whereas the raw materials of a battery can be recycled and reused at the end of its life. This is an important point in favor of electric cars.

In conclusion, it can be said quite clearly that current electromobility is still in its infancy in many respects. But this has always been the case with new technology, which first has to develop and establish itself. Nevertheless, some advantages are already becoming apparent. Those who drive a lot – especially short distances – and often have the option of recharging, at best with green electricity, will enjoy an ecologically sensible drive. For all other areas of application, such as heavy-duty traffic or frequent long-distance journeys, the conventional internal combustion engine is still recommended. But this could also change in the future. It must also be borne in mind that there is still a lot to come in terms of batteries, charging infrastructure, charging times, and so on. Together with the automotive industry, policymakers have already created incentives to switch. Keyword: environmental bonus. Incidentally, on December 13, 2021, it also became official that the innovation bonus in its current form will be extended until the end of 2022. It will continue to provide up to 9,000 euros for e-cars and up to 6,750 euros for PHEVs.