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The impact of COVID-19 on the electric vehicle market

Author : Paige West, Group Editor, DPA

17 June 2020

DPA speaks with Doron Myersdorf, CEO of lithium-ion battery company StoreDot, to find out the long- and short-term impact of COVID-19 on the electric vehicle (EV) market.

The lockdown, as a result of COVID-19, has changed nearly every aspect of life. Fewer vehicles on the road has resulted in less air pollution and so, in the short term at least, the UK looks set to become a more environmentally friendly place. However, it is no exaggeration to say that the pandemic has brought the global economy to a standstill, with repercussions likely to be felt for decades to come.  Amongst the many questions being asked is: what will it mean for the development of the EV market in what was predicted to be the Year of EVs

The short-term impact on the market is expected to be quite significant. People are buying fewer vehicles in general, car makers are holding off on promoting EVs because they want to sell through the combustion engine vehicles in their inventory, plus it’s more cost-effective to continue manufacturing combustion engine models. In addition, the price of petrol is so low that there is less motivation for drivers to make the switch to the ordinarily more cost-efficient EV option. 

Against this background, the EV industry is proving to be incredibly resilient. Global sales of EVs remained in growth right up until March 2020, when, it is reported, EVs recorded their highest ever market share. Sales declined in April and then again in May; however, the rate of decline has been far slower than for the automotive industry overall. 

The reality is that it will be some time before we see the full impact of Covid-19 on the EV industry. Nonetheless, car makers continue to maintain their long-term plans. In fact, anecdotal evidence suggests that those working on new designs are actually benefitting from the lockdown because it means they have more time to work on their projects – even from home.

“The overall transition from combustion engine to EVs remains on track. I believe that in 2021-22, there will be a rebound in production and the release of new EV models – the demand will be there,” says Doron Myersdorf.

The major driver will be the improved levels of air pollution seen during the lockdown. People have seen the benefits less pollution can bring, and it will be a major driver, not only for car makers but local governments, to push the EV market. 

Can the UK meet its 2035 target?

At the start of the year, the ban on selling new petrol, diesel or hybrid cars in the UK was brought forward from 2040 to 2035. Even then, some believed that there would still be millions of fossil-fuelled vehicles on the road well into the 2030s and 40s. So, what’s the situation now? Is the UK still on track to meet its target? 

The major point to consider is the readiness of the infrastructure. People need to charge their cars and not everyone has a garage or a driveway, therefore, forecourts need to be repurposed. Super-charging stations need to be available in cities, with a similar experience to fuelling (quick and simple) and there needs to be investment in upgrading the grid.

Plus, where is all this power going to come from? The problem isn’t the power generation, power stations are very efficient and there are various options (wind, solar, etc.), but the real challenge is how to deliver it in a cost-efficient fashion. 

Let’s take the centre of London as an example; say there are five gas stations that need to be repurposed to charging stations, with each charging point roughly half a megawatt. If each station has 10 of those, you’re looking at 5 megawatts per station with dozens of megawatts needing to be brought into the centre – today, that just isn’t possible. 

Sub-stations need to be built in close proximity to city centres in order to deliver this power effectively, and these need to be in construction now. The trouble is, all of this requires money – billions just for London alone! How much effort and resources are the Government and private sector willing to invest to make this a reality? 

Myersdorf feels there’s a lack of urgency when it comes to building the infrastructure needed, especially from the Government: “It’s going to require changes to the layout of streets, major projects that can take up to a decade. The thing to remember is that infrastructure projects like this will have a positive effect on the economy post-crisis – they will create more jobs which means more people will be working. Building the necessary infrastructure is certainly achievable but these projects need to start in the next year or two and, most importantly, they must be sufficiently funded.”

Not only that but there needs to be a battery that can handle all the power that will be thrown at it – the technology just isn’t there yet. The issue at the moment is safety – if you try to charge a battery too fast, then a reaction occurs. Batteries with traditional chemistry have reached their maximum speed of charging and you can’t push it further, otherwise it will explode. Take Samsung, for example, and its Note 7 – it tried to increase the rate of charging but there wasn’t enough space for the heat to dissipate, which created a short in the battery. 

So, StoreDot is looking to create a new kind of battery chemistry. The company is working with a number of partners, including British Petroleum (BP) and Daimler, to optimise the chemistry of EV batteries, to pave the way for ultra-fast charging (UFC).

The technology behind lithium batteries at the moment uses graphite as the main element to hold the charge. StoreDot is researching ways to replace the graphite with metalloids (e.g. silicon, germanium) which can take all the charge without a reaction occurring.

The key point here, notes Myersdorf, is that batteries need to be optimised for fast charging in order to allow for mass adoption of EVs. 

“Away from issues such as infrastructure readiness, range anxiety is one of the biggest barriers to achieving mainstream adoption of EVs. We are working to overcome this problem by developing UFC technology that is proven to charge an EV in just five minutes – the same amount of time it takes to refuel a conventional combustion engine car. Our technology enables drivers to travel over 400 kilometers on a single charge, completely eliminating range anxiety and paving the way for much greater uptake of EVs.”

StoreDot has already proved its technology works. In June 2019, it successfully demonstrated the world’s first full charge of a two-wheeled EV in just five minutes, in partnership with BP. It now has its sights firmly set on the next stages of its journey. The company’s 120-people-strong R&D team, based in Herzliya, Israel, is currently preparing to release the company’s first-generation battery in a small form factor, for applications like drones, power banks, wearables, medical devices and tools. Meanwhile, Myersdorf predicts StoreDot is on track to reach its final destination – the successful full charge of a four-wheeled vehicle in just five minutes – as early as the end of 2021. 

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