A greener tomorrow : Electric vehicle

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One quarter of global emissions are caused by the transport sector and the impact of pollution generated by transport is especially important in cities where the population is high, and many vehicles are driven within a small geographical area. Therefore, the transport sector must diminish carbon output to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution in order to meet overall climate goals. In this perspective, major companies have quickly responded to this need by producing more and more Electric Vehicles (EVs).

In this interview, our consultant/ research engineer responded to nine questions that we’ve asked him regarding Electric Vehicles and its possible challenges.

Can you please introduce yourself ?

My name is Bernhard Westerhof. I graduated from the Delft University of Technology in 2018 with a specialization in Vehicle Engineering. I’ve worked at Dana on Vehicle Dynamics & Controls for electrified vehicles and at Flanders Make as Research Engineer on several topics including vehicle driveline design and optimization.

In a sustainable point of view, what should the car of tomorrow look like?

Bernhard : The sustainability should really be analyzed in its totality, from development and production to recycling the car at the end of its lifetime. The use case of the car plays in important role in this regard. Higher rates of utilization, like in car-sharing applications, increase the level of sustainability of the car. The car will also be tailored to its application: urban deliveries require a completely different concept than long-distance hauling. A greater variety in car configurations is therefore to be expected. When the time comes that vehicles can be driven autonomously, driving algorithms focusing on energy efficiency can further decrease the ecological footprint of driving. In short, I expect that the cars will become more specialized for their purpose and rely on autonomous driving for a reduced ecological footprint.

« When the time comes that vehicles can be driven autonomously, driving algorithms focusing on energy efficiency can further decrease the ecological footprint of driving »

According to you, what is one of the biggest contributing factors to a truly sustainable vehicle ?

Bernhard : Light-weight design. Making a car lighter will always have a positive impact on its ecological footprint. Not only on its mileage, but also during production and recycling, independent of its energy source.

There are a growing number of companies that are specializing in upcycling internal combustion vehicles by retrofitting electric powertrains. What are the eventual challenges on this ? 

Bernhard : When this can be done in a production line capacity, it might be cost effective and help modernize a specific vehicle series. But if these conversions are on a one-off basis, the total impact will be insignificant. One of the challenges is that OEMs would rather put R&D investments on new production vehicles than on retrofitting previous generations of vehicles. Customers, on their turn, might not want to invest in a car that is otherwise functioning perfectly. Large scale economic viability remains to be seen. Small scale conversions have no meaningful environmental impact.

What major challenges does the Electric Vehicle industry face and how will it overcome them ?

Bernhard : The relationship between hardware and software is changing compared to ICE vehicles. The traditional supplier-OEM interaction is changing due to reduced lead times and higher pace of innovation. This makes it easier for new players to enter the market which further increases the competition. Investment in software development and R&D will be needed to keep track with the current

developments but conventional supply chains make this harder for traditional players.

Just as fossil fuels are a limited and diminishing resource, does the raw materials used in EV’s also face these kinds of challenges ?

Bernhard : Well, yes and no. Lithium-ion batteries require many expensive and rare resources, are hard to recycle and will suffer the same fate as fossil fuels. Fortunately, extensive research is being done in new battery technologies and solutions will be found to replace the current generation of batteries. New and more sustainable battery technologies will be found long before we have minded the last bits of Lithium.

Battery or hydrogen fuel cell : which one is best ?

Bernhard : In some cases batteries, in other cases fuel cells. This will depend on the type of vehicle and type of travel. For long distance transport, hydrogen might be better suited as it’s quicker to recharge and has a higher energy density. In other cases, batteries are a better choice as the system energy efficiency is higher and sufficient range is achieved. We will need both.

The request for the introduction of electric mobility in other types of terrestrial and marine vehicles is constantly rising. What are your thoughts on this ? Could we say that Electric Vehicles and hybrid vehicle are helping to create a greener tomorrow ?

Bernhard : Currently, no. Hybrid vehicles don’t change much for the environment at all and while energy production still relies heavily on fossil fuels such as coal or gas, the benefit of electric vehicles is also very limited. On the other hand, if we continue investing in solar, wind and other renewable energy sources, current developments will pay off and electric mobility will be substantially more sustainable than current fossil fuel technologies.

Did the growing electrified vehicle market spark new needs in electricity and power ? 

Bernhard : Yes. Typical electric vehicles require around 15 kWh/km and a typical Belgian 4-person household uses 3500 kWh a year. If you would drive 30.000 km per year, your total consumption of electric energy is increased by more than 50%. Increased electric vehicle usage therefore significantly increases the strain on the electrical grid. On the other hand, electrical cars could serve perfectly as a buffer for renewable energy sources such as wind and solar. The logistics of this is another challenge though.

Would you like to add something to finish this interview ?

Bernhard : While writing the above comments, I couldn’t help but remind myself of my dislike of SUVs. These inefficient heavy vehicles with poor vehicle dynamics properties do not deserve a place in the current automotive landscape, if you would ask me. It does show, however, that there will always be a discrepancy between theoretically better options and what people like and buy.

About the authors

David de Brouwer
Founder / Managing Director Engibex

Bernhard Westerhof
Research Engineer