Friday, May 24, 2024

EVs are 4 times as efficient as gas cars. They could get even better.

When the Toyota Prius cruised into North America for the first time in the early aughts, drivers were shocked. At a time when the average sedan got just 23 miles per gallon (and the average passenger car just 20 miles per gallon), the Prius got 48. Thanks to regenerative braking and the little electric motor, its city mileage was better than its highway mileage.

That was then. Now, when it comes to miles per gallon, electric vehicles blow hybrid cars out of the water. The average electric car in the United States today gets the equivalent of 106 miles per gallon. And, according to a new report, that number could more than double in the next decades, to the equivalent of more than 200 miles per gallon.

That growth in efficiency — possible with technologies that exist today — could help ease the strain that electric vehicles are expected to place on the grid, extend battery range and even limit the need for public car charging. With a concerted push, the U.S. transition to EVs could be made smoother and billions of dollars cheaper for consumers, experts argue.

Without it, the country could face increased electricity demand equivalent to about a quarter of all current U.S. electric power use.

“It’s like walking by money on the sidewalk,” said Luke Tonachel, a senior strategist at the Natural Resources Defense Council and one of the authors of the report released Wednesday by NRDC and the Electric Power Research Institute. “We’ll miss out on savings that are right there in front of us.”

The groups’ analysis finds that increasing the efficiency of EVs could cut energy consumption per mile in half by 2050 — and in so doing, reduce pressure on the grid by about half.

For decades, vehicles have been getting more efficient. In 1975, when fuel economy standards were first introduced in the United States, the average car or truck in the country got just 13 miles per gallon and belched pollutants that wafted into the atmosphere and peoples’ lungs. Now, the average car, truck or SUV gets around 25 miles per gallon — although the popularity of larger SUVs has slowed progress.

EVs change the calculus. Electric cars start with a huge advantage: They don’t create waste heat. In a gas car, only 16 to 25 percent of the fuel energy actually goes into the wheels — the rest is lost mostly in the form of heat and friction. In an electric car, on the other hand, 87 to 91 percent of the energy in the battery goes to power its wheels.

That’s why electric cars start with staggeringly high miles “per gallon,” in some cases over 100 miles per gallon equivalent. (Miles per gallon equivalent is a metric developed by the Environmental Protection Agency; a gallon of gas has about 115,000 BTUs of energy, or about 33.7 kilowatt-hours.)

Sandy Munro, an automotive engineer and the head of the consulting firm Munro and Associates, says that EVs have the potential to make greater efficiency gains, but internal combustion engines do not. “We’ve wrung out the ICE vehicle as far as it can go,” he said.

Munro helped develop the gasoline Vulcan V6 engine for Ford, which, he says, dramatically lowered engine costs — but the engine is now basically obsolete.

“Now, it’s a boat anchor,” he said. “If I had one, I’d just throw it overboard.”

But even among EVs, there can be big variability in efficiency. While drivers of electric cars are more focused on range and the distance between charging stations, efficiency matters as well. The Ford F-150 Lightning, for example, gets just 70 miles per gallon equivalent, while Tesla Model 3 can get up to 142 MPGe. Even within cars of around the same weight and size, some EVs can be much more efficient than others.

In the new report, researchers found that a combination of increasing battery density, reducing tire rolling resistance, and cutting the weight of vehicles through high-strength steel or carbon fiber could double efficiency by 2050. As a guide, the study authors looked at the Mercedes EQXX, a concept car that recently drove the 627 miles from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to Dubai on a single charge.

The study modeled those improvements for passenger cars, SUVs and pickup trucks. The result, they projected, could be vehicles that got the equivalent of 277 miles per gallon by 2050, or over 8 miles per kilowatt-hour. If those efficiency leaps happen, it could save $200 billion annually in electricity costs by 2050 and save over 1,000 terawatt-hours in electricity demand, the researchers projected.

“If we want electric vehicles to succeed, if we can reduce the burden on the grid — that would be hugely beneficial,” said Marc Wiseman, the founder of Oberon Insights and a report co-author.

The question is whether automakers are planning to move toward that greater efficiency. Although the EPA requires EVs to have the same fuel economy stickers as gas-powered cars, experts say neither consumers nor automakers are looking closely at the efficiency of electric cars right now.

Frank Menchaca, president of SAE Sustainable Mobility Solutions, says that the shift to more efficient cars will depend on how quickly automakers can change their manufacturing to electric cars and secure supply chains, and how fast consumers adopt the vehicles. Automakers need to know that the transition is progressing, he said, to push for advanced efficiency.

But, he said, automakers will be motivated. “The more efficient the vehicle is, the more of a selling point it is,” Menchaca said.

Ultimately, some analysts say the United States may need to create specific fuel economy standards for electric vehicles. Right now, fuel economy standards are largely targeted toward gas-powered cars — EVs help any company raise the average miles per gallon of its fleet.

“That’s a relic of a market dominated by gas vehicles,” Tonachel said. “But in the future, EVs will be the main market, and standards need to keep up with that reality.”

The EPA recently released new standards for emissions from tailpipes; the Transportation Department is expected to set new fuel economy standards in the next few months.

Many EV owners might not have as much motivation to push for greater efficiency because switching from gas lowers their fuel costs so dramatically. But better efficiency can also mean Americans won’t need as many public chargers — one of the largest hurdles to U.S. adoption of electric transportation.

“The efficiency thing is a bit of a surprise — people think, ‘Oh we’re done,’ when you move to electric vehicles,” said Wiseman. “But you forget that there’s all these other benefits.”


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