Experts on Camera

Dr. Lewis Fulton: Electric vehicles

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Many Americans are weighing the costs and benefits of electric vehicles (EVs) as gas prices surge, technological innovations bring down costs, and state and federal tax credits are offered.

On August 2, SciLine interviewed: Dr. Lewis Fulton, the director of the Sustainable Transportation Energy Pathways Program (STEPS+) at the University of California, Davis. He discussed topics including: recent improvements in EV technology, such as range and charging infrastructure; status and potential role of fuel cell vehicles; factors affecting public acceptance of EVs such as costs, gas prices, and marketplace competition, and how various policies affect these factors; how EVs fit into a broader transition toward renewable energy; and technological and infrastructure challenges the EV industry continues to face.

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LEWIS FULTON: I’m Lew Fulton. I work at the University of California at Davis in the Institute of Transportation Studies here. And I lead our Sustainable Transportation Energy Pathways program, which is a cluster of research groups that include one that I also directly lead called Energy Futures. That is a forecasting and modeling group that looks out at the kinds of energy transitions we might expect to see for transportation systems in the United States and around the world. We also have the Plug-In Hybrid & Electric Vehicle Center and other research centers. So, I manage in a very soft way all this different kinds of research on sustainable transportation.

Interview with SciLine

What are some notable recent trends in EV technology and the EV marketplace?


LEWIS FULTON: The big changes in the last couple of years to electric vehicle technology is in the range of the kinds of models that are coming onto the market and what those models have. I mean, we’re finally getting light-duty truck electric vehicle models. There’s three really important ones now that are selling well. Still don’t have Tesla yet. It’s coming on the truck side. And we’re seeing vehicle models with more range, more driving range. Quite a few now over 200 miles of driving range on a charge. Sometimes, other ones are getting cheaper. The average price of a new electric vehicle is still very high. It’s around $66,000 in a nominal sense in terms of the—across the different models. But there are plenty of sedans that are available for under $45,000 now before tax incentives. So, that’s getting there. That’s getting toward more competitive upfront pricing of vehicles. But we still need to see more of that happen.

And I’d say the other thing is we’re getting more fast charging. The investments are happening. About half of the fast chargers out there in the United States are Tesla. So, that’s a restricted group. But we’re getting other companies coming along, but there’s way more fast charging that will be needed over the next 10 to 15 years. So, that’ll be a big push. I think for families that can charge at home, that’s not such a big deal except for long-distance driving. But eventually, we’ll have other kinds of households that don’t have access to home charging as easily, so that’ll become a big issue. But anyway, it’s—we’re making good progress there. And electric vehicles are now about 6% of sales in the second quarter. That’s not bad. That’s a big improvement compared to last year.

What factors contribute to public acceptance of EVs? Is public acceptance shifting at the moment?


LEWIS FULTON: So, public acceptance of EVs is definitely improving. I mean, you can see it with the improved sales level. Sales are up so far 60% over their—this time last year. And last year was pretty good. So, there must be some movement in public acceptance going on here. But at the same time, we still have data that shows that large segments of the population are either unaware or uninterested in electric vehicles. Even in California, which is the leading state, with around 15% market share of electric vehicles—at least through 2020, we found that about half the people in the state were not very familiar with the technology or even in many cases not aware that you can walk into a dealership and buy them. So, there’s work to be done there. I’m not sure how that work best happens. There could be government-sponsored awareness programs. Canada just recently launched a new awareness kind of program to reach out to people around the country. But probably the best way is just through the word of mouth, neighbors getting the vehicle. They’re happy with the vehicle. You see it. You learn that way. So, hopefully, this just builds on itself, and eventually, this problem goes away.

How do EVs fit into a broader transition toward renewable energy?


LEWIS FULTON: I think electrification of vehicles is really about the only way that we’ve got to reach the targets of a very low CO2 transportation system, which the U.S. and other countries are committed to doing by 2050, if not sooner. California wants to be completely carbon-neutral by 2045.

What technological and infrastructure challenges does the EV industry continue to face?


LEWIS FULTON: If we could double the energy density of batteries and cut the cost in half—again, we’ve brought the cost down about 80% in the last eight years. So, that’s already incredible. If we could cut it to 90% reduction, I think then we’re going to see that these vehicles are really competitive. And, you know, there’s no more major issues if we can get to the sort of 300 to 400 mile range vehicle. And we have some models that do that, but they take a lot of battery space right now to do that, and it’s expensive. So, I think we’re heading in the right direction. And probably sometime between 2025 and 2030, we will see—we will reach those kind of milestones.

On the charging side, again, I think we have to find the sweet spot in terms of fast charging. We’re getting—especially for trucks now, we’re starting to look at very fast charging because truckers want to refuel quickly. So, there’s a lot of work going on 1 megawatt charging, which is a lot of power. It takes a huge draw on electricity systems in the location if you put a few 1 megawatt chargers. But for cars, maybe a 50 kilowatt charger is already pretty good. You have to have cars that can absorb that energy as quickly as it’s being offered. And I think those things are coming. Again, there’s going to be challenges with the provision of power and pricing that so that you don’t have to pay an enormous amount to draw that power in a location where it’s a big impact on the power system. But I think, again, within three or four years, we’re going to have resolved many of those kinds of issues.

How do the costs of operating an EV compare to a gasoline-powered vehicle?


LEWIS FULTON: Electric vehicles are cheaper to operate. They have definitely much lower maintenance and, you know, regular servicing, as well as unexpected kind of repair costs. Their record is already pretty well-established there compared to gasoline vehicles. And their energy costs are half or lower than gasoline vehicles, especially with current oil prices. They’re probably less than—well less than half for most models compared to a comparable gasoline model. So, you’re saving a lot of money by operating it. But still, if we can get that first cost down, the purchase price down, I think then we’re going to see many, many people making that choice.

How are reporters doing covering electric vehicles?

(Posted August 8, 2022 | Download video)

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