New tech holds promise for EVs

Charging time is the final hurdle for electric vehicles.

To many who predict future technology trends, it is already accepted as inevitable that electric vehicles (EVs) will obsolete those with internal combustion engines. The big question remaining is, “when?”

There are still some significant hurdles to overcome before that future is likely to be realized, not the least being the time it takes to recharge today’s EV batteries.

Several automakers seem to have accepted the apparent inevitably of EV dominance, already shifting much of their concept car and corresponding media focus, as well as future development budgets, to battery-electric vehicles. And many now have or soon will have dedicated EVs on the market, in China and the EU if not in North America.

None other than Porsche recently shone the world-wide media spotlight on electric power by revealing its new Cayman EV right here in Canada, against the backdrop of Niagara Falls, chosen for that honour because it is one of the world’s greatest hydro-electric generation sites.

As has been discussed previously in this column, the reasons for this rapid shift in focus are as much regulatory as technical. Perhaps more so. But that doesn’t make the reality any less valid. Nor does it address the impact it will have on new-vehicle buyers who have, until now, failed to embrace EVs in anything more than token numbers, relative to the overall market.

While they may reluctantly accept a five-minute stop to refuel with gasoline, the idea of waiting a half-hour or more for a battery to recharge is simply a non-starter.

Bit by bit, however, mainstream buyers’ longstanding reasons for rejecting EVs are being diminished if not totally eliminated. The idea that they can’t compete in terms of performance has long been proven erroneous.

The limitations of range are gradually being reduced, with 200 km now a widely achievable baseline and up to 400 km, or more, at least attainable. While still short of typical gasoline-fuelled ranges, they’re getting within the range of everyday acceptability.

Of course, EVs still cost significantly more than their conventional counterparts. But those price differentials are likely to decrease as production volumes accelerate.

Which leaves two big hurdles remaining — those of charging infrastructure and charging time. The infrastructure issue is almost certain to be addressed as EV volumes increase sufficiently to warrant the necessary proliferation of charging stations. A combination of government support and private profit motivation should guarantee that occurrence.

The bigger issue is recharge time. In today’s frantic world, nothing is more valuable to most individuals than their time. While they may reluctantly accept a five-minute stop to refuel with gasoline, the idea of waiting a half-hour or more for a battery to recharge is simply a non-starter. And even that is a best-case scenario with most of today’s technologies.

EV devotees will argue that the issue can be avoided by installing home-based chargers, which is true where that approach is both possible and affordable. But only as long as one doesn’t venture far from home. And people tend to buy vehicles not just to suit their everyday needs but their anticipated deviations therefrom, however infrequent.

What is needed to make EVs truly competitive with conventional vehicles is the ability to recharge their batteries in as little time as it takes to fill a tank with fuel. That capability isn’t here yet, but there is plenty of activity geared towards making it possible, both within the staffs of automakers and established battery producers and outside them.

One such effort is that of GBatteries of Ottawa, which claims to have developed technologies that can enable ultra-fast Li-ion battery charging without reducing battery cycle life. While some such batteries can already be quick-charged, the faster they are charged the faster they degrade, leading to premature end-of-life. To avoid irreversible damage, manufacturers often limit the charging rate of their batteries, resulting in the slow charging speeds we have come to expect.

The GBatteries technology employs a proprietary, adaptive, self-learning algorithm that generates complex charging pulse profiles based on real-time monitoring and analysis of a battery’s internal state, so it can be charged faster without compromising cycle life. That technology is said to be applicable to any product with an existing Li-ion battery, from smartphones to electric vehicles.

It’s a different approach from some others, which require different battery materials and/or manufacturing processes, and it sounds promising. But so do many others. What matters at this stage is that multiple minds, all over the world are now working on solutions to the problem. So it is highly likely that one, or more, will be found in a relatively short time. In which case the long-standing promise of electric vehicles to revolutionize the industry may finally be realized.

About Gerry Malloy

Gerry Malloy is one of Canada's best known, award-winning automotive journalists.

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