Electric cars and battery power: the future of transport?

Posted on 14/07/2017

Volvo announcement comes as Government opens 'vehicle to grid' fund.

Electric cars are in the spotlight again as a new funding competition launches.

By Tessa Darley

The focus is on the future of transportation again with Volvo’s decision to make all of its cars electric or hybrid from 2019.

In an industry that accounts for 14% of global greenhouse gas emissions, where most of the energy comes from petrol and diesel, a zero-emissions car manufacturer is very big news. Volvo’s new electric fleet will include plug-ins and hybrids as well as pure battery-powered cars and the Swedish company say it plans to sell one million vehicles by 2025.

It’s a bold promise, particularly as the brand’s chief executive had suggested two years ago that electric cars were not ready for primetime. But now, with rapid change in both market and appetite, corporate attitudes are changing too. Volvo explains that customer demand is increasing, battery costs have come down and advances in the charging infrastructure make the concept more viable.

And Volvo aren’t the only ones scoping out the market. Renault-Nissan position itself as the worldwide leader in sales of electric vehicles, with 469,000 sold. Speaking at the international Intelligent Mobility event in London last week, a spokesperson for the brand claimed the car of the future is electric, connected and autonomous. Renault-Nissan has also revealed it is partnering with Microsoft and has acquired Intel’s French embedded software division to move forward in this area.

Speaking at the same event, Toyota outlined its vision of the automotive future: where small electric cars are used for short distance travel and home deliveries, hybrid vehicles cover commutes and medium range journeys, and a fuel cell vehicle – a type of electric vehicle that uses a fuel cell instead of a battery to power its motor – will transport larger numbers of passengers and heavy freight.

Creating a future filled with electric cars comes with its challenges of course, placing new demands on physical and digital infrastructure and calling for new commercial and funding mechanisms. There are also issues around providing infrastructure in rural environments.

But plans are underway. ISO 15118 is a protocol proposed by the automotive industry working with the International Organization for Standardization to work out key infrastructure needs for the electric car industry, addressing material charging stations and service providers, alongside managing payments and optimising energy load management.

And this is only the tip of the iceberg. As we move towards service – rather than product – based environments, cars will no longer be a means of transport from A to B but could help balance the electricity load across the built environment – how to use plugged in cars as mobile battery storage is the focus of a new “Vehicle to Grid” £20million funding competition.

Electric cars will also be enablers of a connected living ecosystem. Health and wellness is poised to be a big supplier in this market, with in-vehicle services potentially including steering wheels and seat belts that monitor heart rate and track breathing rate, with massage seats easing muscle tension and wearables monitoring glucose. Information on outside air quality and pollen count can be beamed directly into the car.

Electric vehicles themselves have a direct impact on the quality of the air, and are an antidote to the pollution caused by conventional combustion engine cars. Cities such as Paris, Madrid, Athens and Mexico City have said they will ban diesel vehicles from 2025 to cut air pollution. Electrification is one of the major focus areas of government in India, with its vision for 100% electric vehicles by 2030.

It’s a vision of the future. Sitting in your intuitive, personalised, connected home that is automatically charging your electric car, selecting your favourite film to screen, closing the blinds and adjusting the heating, all while monitoring energy use for efficiency and low carbon emissions. And it’s starting now.