Electric Cars Are Only The Beginning

Electric cars are already taking off, but the potential for electric mobility is much, much bigger

Brayden Gerrard
Jun 10 · 5 min read
Photo by Ross Parmly on Unsplash

Electric cars are taking off. In 2020, they represented 4.6% of global sales — up from just 2.7% in 2019 and less than 1% in 2015. At the current pace, electric cars will capture an increasingly large share of the market.

However, electric cars are just the beginning of the transition to electric mobility. As batteries become cheaper and more advanced, many forms of transportation will turn to electric. Perhaps the most advanced is electric buses, of which 600,000 are currently on the roads around the world. Sales remain concentrated primarily in China, but have begun to pick up traction in Europe and North America as cities pledge to reduce emissions in their public transportation systems.

Then there is heavy duty trucks. None have attracted more attention than the Tesla Semi (pictured below). Though the model has yet to make it to production (it’s currently slated to begin late this year after considerable delays), CEO Elon Musk has claimed the range on the long-range version will comfortably exceed 500 miles (800 km) on a charge.

Yet, even while the market waits for the arrival of the Tesla Semi, competitors are quickly filling the space. Industry heavy-weights like Volvo and Freightliner (owned by Daimler), Peterbilt, and Kenworth have also introduced electric models. Amidst this frenzy — and despite the effects of the pandemic — heavy duty trucks sold a new high of 7,400 units in 2020. Though sales remain a small portion of the overall market, the potential is large.

Photo by Steve Jurvetson on Flickr

Even more exciting is the prospects of electric mobility in the water and sky. Electric ships have already begun to take to the water. Back in 2017, a Chinese vessel became the first electric cargo ship – used to transport coal, ironically enough. Since then, a variety of electric ferries and ships have either been deployed or are currently being built. Earlier this year, the largest-ever electric ferry launched in Norway — capable of carrying 600 passengers and 200 vehicles along its 10 km route.

Image by Magnar Lyngstad on MarineTraffic

Yet, the most impressive of them is Yara Birkeland (pictured above), which made it’s maiden voyage in December of 2020. Originally ordered in 2017, the project was delayed last year before finally being completed. While it is currently being prepared to begin operations, it will be the world’s first fully autonomous (designed to have no crew aboard) container ship after it begins hauling fertilizer down the coastline. The fact that it’s fully electric is pretty neat as well.

Of course, major challenges remain. Most of the electric ships deployed so far are designed to cover only short distances — even the Yara Birkeland has a route of just 56 km. It will take monumental improvements in both battery cost and density to cover trans-Atlantic routes. Still, we are witnessing the beginning of disruption in the shipping industry.

Electric airplanes are perhaps even more primitive, yet hold even more potential. In 2020, the Pipistrel Velis became the first electric aircraft to be type-certified in Europe. At the start of this year, the manufacturer had successfully delivered over 100 units to customers.

Impressive as this is, the Velis remains a very limited aircraft. It’s capable of carrying just two (not particularly heavy) people, and can fly for less than an hour before needing a charge. Due to these limitations, the plane serves mainly as a training airplane for new pilots.

However, there are efforts to get more serious electric planes into the sky. A promising Israeli startup named Eviation aims to make their first flight this year. Their aircraft (named Alice, pictured below) is positioned as a short-distance business jet, and will carry 9 passengers up to 815 km. The company claims operating costs of just $200 per hour, compared to $600 to $1000 from comparable aircraft.

Image by Matti Blume on Wikimedia Commons

Further out but much bigger in scope, European low-cost airline easyJet partnered with Wright Electric to develop an electric commercial airplane capable of hauling 186 passengers. The plane aims to enter service in 2030.

Whether Wright Electric can pull this off remains to be seen — it would be an enormous technological and engineering feet if they’re successful. But if they can, the potential is enormous. Short distance flights (defined as those less than three hours in length) represent 85% of all flights, and more than half of all distance flown. Any manufacturer that can design an electric aircraft capable of covering these distances could achieve huge savings in operating costs.

The potential of electric aircrafts has lured in sizable investments from major players like Boeing, JetBlue, Airbus, and even the US military. Even Elon Musk has mused about the possibility of electric flight on a few occasions. Still, the technology remains more promise than reality. Among the largest barriers to electric aircraft is battery density. Currently, batteries are too large and heavy to store the power needed for a large number of passengers.

Due to these challenges, it could be decades before the massive 737 airliners (where density matters the most) turn electric. Still, there are reasons to be optimistic. The fast progress in battery technology suggests disruption in at least short-haul flights may not be far out. Musk claims that a density of 400 Wh/kg would be needed for viable electric aircraft. Interestingly enough, the batteries used in a Tesla Model 3 as well as the Eviation Alice are about 260 Wh/kg. Progress in solid-state batteries could provide a density of 400 Wh/kg or even greater. And as we have witnessed in the electric vehicle market, once the technology catches on, progress becomes nearly unstoppable.

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