Charging Toward an Electric (Vehicle) Future
Automakers and tech firms drive acceleration of electric vehicle development while autonomous innovation has a longer journey
We’re in an electric vehicle arms race—that’s what one industry insider is calling it.
Wedbush analyst Daniel Ives said recently General Motors (GM) and Ford are continually trying to outdo each other with announcements about investments in electric vehicles (EVs). “There is an EV arms race going on in Detroit with Ford and GM competing for market and mind share.” And this arms race is also extending beyond our shores, with European OEM icons such as Volkswagen investing heavily in electric vehicles.
Even though EVs accounted for less than 2% of U.S. vehicle sales last year, automakers are wired for an electric future. Want some examples? EV investments rose by 41% just between 2020 and 2021, and will total $330 billion between 2021 and 2025. GM and Volkswagen will spend $35 billion and $42 billion respectively on electric and autonomous vehicles from 2020 to 2025. Jaguar plans to sell only electric cars by 2025, Volvo by 2030. Ford said its entire Lincoln luxury lineup would be electric or gas-electric hybrid by 2030, and the car company recently doubled its investment in EV to $22 billion by the end of 2025. GM hopes to be selling only electric passenger vehicles by 2035.
Online car-shopping site Edmunds reported that consumers will see a deluge of new models entering the market in the next year: 30 EVs from 21 brands, up from 17 models in 2020. See "Following the Numbers" sidebar for more EV stats.
Beyond the large automakers, a plethora of startup, tech-forward companies are also key players in all segments of this market: EVs, AVs, battery technology, charging infrastructure, and more. Tesla, of course, is the pioneer of these modern automakers. But there’s also Rivian, Lordstown Motors, and Nuro. And, beyond carmakers, automotive technology startups abound: GhostWave, which makes radar sensors used in AVs; Neteera, which is also developing sensors for AVs; EV Safe Charge; Mighty AI, which produces software for AVs; and hundreds more. As several industry sources claim, we are in the middle of the biggest revolution in motoring since Henry Ford’s first production line started back in 1913.
With the electric revolution in mind, we’ll take a look at:
- The shift to EVs and why electric cars will take over sooner than we think
- The struggle this segment currently finds itself in as companies try to sustain major development work that’s required without profitability in the short term
- Innovation emerging from tech and car companies collaborating with each other
- Battery technology and a needed, new EV infrastructure that will be pivotal to this segment’s success
- How the EV trend is influencing industrial and commercial vehicles
- The various levels of autonomous vehicles and how AV innovation needs more R&D time.
An EV Future: Investment, Development in High Gear
A striking factor in GM’s major investment in an all-electric future isn’t only the large dollar amount—it’s the timing. GM’s foot is firmly on the accelerator toward an EV future.
“We are making these investments so we can move faster and grow in ways that deliver value to our shareholders and our stakeholders,” GM Chair and CEO Mary Barra said recently. “Our strategy to pursue an inclusive, all-electric future is the right thing to do, the necessary thing to do, and critical to the growth and long-term viability of our business as the world transforms.”
In fact, global sales of EVs raced ahead in 2020, rising by 43% to a total of 3.2 million, despite overall car sales slumping by a fifth during the pandemic.
By 2025, 20% of all new cars sold globally will be electric, according to a forecast by the investment bank UBS. And by 2040, virtually every new car sold globally will be electric, UBS predicts. That’s fast considering the EV market share in 2020 was just 2%.
Why this acceleration? Credit engineers’ learning curve. BBC News: “The more we make something, the better we get at making it and the cheaper it gets to make.” That’s why computers, kitchen appliances, and oil- and gas-powered cars became so affordable.
A Speed Bump for EVs? Development Without Profit—For Now
EVs are bolting into the future, thanks in part to that learning curve, but that education requires research and development. A lot of it. Automakers are investing in electric vehicles, but at least for now, EVs won’t generate the profits of conventional vehicles, according to a report by AlixPartners Consulting. “You have to invest now in a business that’s less profitable than the one you’re replacing.”
This spending on development is also taking place as automakers struggle with higher raw material costs and a global semiconductor shortage.
Plus, the R&D phase may be taking longer because carmakers are, in a sense, starting from scratch. With standard cars, most OEMs are operating from an existing line, so they already have a lot of the components in place. When developing a new model, for example, they are basically just evolving their design with a few new features. By contrast, electric vehicles are starting with a clean slate.
The R&D, innovation, and accelerated learning curve through rapid iterations that is needed in this stage can be streamlined through digital manufacturers such as Protolabs with quick-turn prototyping and low-volume production—benefits that are well-suited for R&D’s iterative development process. Digital suppliers can help with a broad portfolio of components, from connectors, terminals, and charging inlets to sensors, wireless solutions, and power distribution units, to name a few applications.
Car and Tech Companies Connect
As automakers move to EVs and autonomous vehicles (AVs), tech companies are now playing larger roles in this segment. Investors have long viewed electric-car pioneer Tesla as a technology company, and its stock price has been supported by its continued superiority in battery costs, software, and the profitability of its electric cars.
Examples of big tech’s presence in cars abound: voice-activated navigation, live-streaming media, heads-up displays, rear cameras, lane and parking assist, and other tech that makes our driving experience better and safer.
Carmakers are also teaming up with tech companies, in some cases taking on the role of contract manufacturer. In 2019, Fiat Chrysler partnered with Google spinoff Waymo to produce up to 62,000 self-driving, electric hybrid minivans. Waymo also partnered with Renault and Nissan for a fleet of robo-taxis in France and Japan.
Software giant Autodesk has collaborated with GM on design innovations and works closely with other OEMs on design simulation, virtual and augmented reality tools, advanced software systems for vehicles, and more.
You see this trend everywhere—even car commercials. A recent spot for Nissan boasted that, “The most exciting tech you own is in your driveway.” Even the big, showy, annual CES trade show in Las Vegas, which typically hosts the latest in new consumer electronics and technology, has been dominated in recent years by the automotive industry.
A prime example of what tech companies are bringing to the automotive sector is the concept of the connected car. This will likely prove to be a game-changing innovation. Recently, Tesla was having some issues with the brakes on one of its models. Accordingly, Tesla sent out a software upgrade—a software fix—to all of the affected cars, and the issue was fixed literally overnight. Compare that to the amount of time and money it would take for a recall of a standard, internal combustion engine car: email and regular-mail notifications to hundreds of thousands of car owners, vehicles brought back to dealerships worldwide, and on and on.
This type of revolutionary technology, whether it’s for EVs and AVs themselves, or related products such as batteries and charging stations, is accelerated to market with the help of digital manufacturing. Whether the companies are major automotive OEMs, tech-driven startups, or trusted Tier 1 automotive suppliers, they all find support from responsive, agile manufacturers that provide rapid iteration, quick-turn low-volume production, quality assurance systems, and more.
An Appetite for Infrastructure
Lost in all of the talk about EVs and the future of mobility, is a much-needed discussion about the infrastructure that’s required to make the widespread adoption of EVs a reality. Residential vehicle chargers are needed. A vast network of commercial charging stations, like gas stations, throughout the country are needed. This is not unlike how Ford Motor Company figured out in the early days of its vehicles that gas and service stations were needed to keep those early Model Ts rolling down the roads—such as they were at the time.
Again, digital manufacturers are poised to supply needed components for things like battery packs, energy storage/charging stations, and light detection/ranging (LIDAR) cameras for AVs as well as more traditional automotive parts like seals, gaskets, and sound dampening technology. Just as the price of EVs is a concern with some consumers, batteries and the mileage range of a charge are also challenges.
“Cost is still a factor and range anxiety will be partly addressed by education,” Stephanie Brinley, an industry expert at IHS Markit, said recently. “There’s no reason a consumer can’t adjust to an electric vehicle.” True, but it would sure help if readily available charging stations were around, too.
As a result, this infrastructure need is spawning hundreds of startup companies that see opportunities in this segment.
Additionally, the big OEMs themselves are getting into the act. GM recently announced two new Ultium Cells LLC battery plants in the U.S. (locations not disclosed) in addition to two plants already under construction in Ohio and Tennessee. Volkswagen is adding six battery-making “gigafactories” in Europe that will open by 2030. In fact, the only true differentiators in this brave new EV marketplace may end up being batteries and software (see earlier Tesla example).
Plugging Into Commercial, Industrial Vehicles
The commercial, industrial, and fleet segment of the auto industry is often overlooked, yet it’s a sizable piece of vehicle sales for automakers and other OEMs. And, as with everything else automotive, EVs and AVs are being planned for this segment, too. In fact, heavy machinery companies such as Komatsu, Caterpillar, and Volvo Trucks are already using autonomous heavy equipment vehicles in mining and other operations around the world.
Additionally, technology developer Waymo has teamed up with J.B. Hunt Transport Services on an initiative focused on an intra-Texas test run shipment of freight for a J.B. Hunt shipping customer.
Oh, and two-thirds of Ford’s commercial vehicle sales are expected to be all-electric or plug-in hybrids by 2030. So there’s that.
AVs Trail But Are Picking Up the Pace
While the investment and development of EVs continues at an accelerated pace, most industry observers say that AV technology will take longer to develop and launch.
That said, major strides have already been made in this sector. You don’t have to look too far to see these advances—probably just out in your driveway. In other words, autonomous elements are already embedded in your car. Cruise control? Of course. Lane assist? Check. Facial recognition and mirror/seat adjustment based on identification? Sure. Well, you get the idea.
Several sources talk about AV development as being more of a step-by-step or gradual journey. When it comes to autonomous cars, the five steps toward full autonomy include:
Level 1: Feet off. Think cruise control. Already been around for decades.
Level 2: Hands off. The car automatically maintains a safe following distance or stays within lanes.
Level 3: Eyes off. This allows the driver to read or do other activities, but still intervene in an emergency.
Levels 4 and 5: Mind off, which translates with the fourth step, high automation, and finally, the fifth step, which is fully autonomous driving, with humans as passengers.
Did someone say mind off? Well, that’s the piece that may take some getting used to. Probably fine for the aforementioned heavy machinery operating dump trucks and earth movers in remote, uninhabited mines, but on crowded urban streets or interstate highways? That’s the question.
|Following the Numbers|
EV sales account for less than this percent of U.S. vehicle sales in 2020. Associated Press
EV investments rose by this amount just between 2020 and 2021. EV investments will total $330 billion between 2021 and 2025. Alix Partners Consulting
The number of vehicles that will be on the road with some level of autonomy by 2035. IHS Markit research
33 million units
By 2040, this will be the number of annual sales of self-driving vehicles. IHS Markit research
EV industry expected to soar to this amount by 2030. Wedbush Securities
$35 billion and $42 billion
The amounts that GM and Volkswagen, respectively, will spend on electric and autonomous vehicles from 2020 to 2025. CNN
The number of battery-making gigafactories in Europe that Volkswagen plans to open by 2030. CNN
The targeted year GM has set as a goal of selling only electric passenger vehicles by. Associated Press
By this year, virtually every new car sold globally will be electric. UBS Investment Bank
An Emissions-Free Future, A New Automotive Landscape
Ultimately, this EV/AV trend means a greener future. As mentioned, GM’s Barra referenced this in her recent LinkedIn article when she said an all-electric future is “the right thing to do, the necessary thing to do.” Emissions-free vehicles mean a cleaner planet and a more sustainable energy source.
What will happen to the oil and gas industry? It remains to be seen. For now, traditional gas-powered cars still dominate. Remember, EVs only own 2% of the marketplace. Elon Musk, the well-known founder of Tesla, recognizes this situation: he is actually competing against the oil and gas industry, not against fellow EV manufacturers. That’s part of the reason he has made his patents and other proprietary information available to EV startups. To move the needle on EV market share, he believes the industry needs to shift away from fossil fuel.
There are skeptics. As outlined in this report, a shift to an all-electric future is a giant disruption, complete with building a whole new infrastructure. Some experts have said better fuel economy and more advancements in electric hybrid technology are more realistic answers to the industry’s future.
However, that thinking may be short-sighted. It conjures up comparisons to the famous quote, allegedly said by Henry Ford: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”