Electric Vehicles: Issues the Fleet Industry Seldom Talks About
By Steve Saltzgiver, Fleet Success Ambassador
Before discussing the little-known secrets related to the electric vehicle (EV) industry, I want to be on record as a proponent of this technology. I operated my first EV at the State of Utah fleet in the 1990s and have been excited about this evolving technology ever since.
I have watched the ebbs and flows of this EV technology as the price of fossil fuels have vacillated up and down for decades to justify the return of investment of deploying EVs. But like any nascent technology there exist disadvantages to total deployment. This blog will focus primarily on the disadvantages of EV use. My intent is not to cast a negative light on the deployment of EVs but simply to point out that pros and cons we need to embrace this technology with our eyes wide open.
Infrastructure Accessibility Challenges
There are three primary challenges that impact the EV charging infrastructure throughout the United States (US). These include:
- Adequate electric power supply from available power grids,
- Lack of charging infrastructure available to charge EVs,
- Need for universal charging stations.
Unfortunately, shifting to a larger reliance on electricity requires reconstruction of the existing grid in many areas by constructing more transmission lines to adapt to surges in electricity use during daily peak periods. For instance, “the energy grid must be able to support a late afternoon surge where millions of residents may seek to charge their cars at the same time after work, especially during summer months when the use of air conditioning will also be peaking. Resiliency enhancements are also essential and needed to support EVs. Operators will need to ensure their local grids are built to withstand the pressures that expanded EV ownership will present to local electric distribution companies1”.
We’ve all seen examples where the state of California, the largest consumer of EVs, continues to have power grid challenges. These challenges include rolling blackouts and playing catchup on the grid producing infrastructure which gave warnings to EV users not to charge their vehicles during peak usage periods. Ironically, despite California’s distaste for fossil fuels according to an Associated Press article, the state had to rely more heavily on these sources to keep the grid up and running.
Despite the electric grid capacity issues, “a recent survey of 181 San Francisco Bay Area public charging stations, partially funded by the nonprofit Cool the Earth, suggests that 23 percent of them might be “nonfunctioning” at any given time, stymied by broken screens, shoddy credit card or payment systems, network connection failures, or damaged plugs. Only half of the functional chargers tested by the research team successfully completed a payment transaction with just one swipe of a credit card.” “A 50 percent success rate in any other retail transaction would not be considered acceptable, and it shouldn’t be here,” said Patty Monahan, a commissioner of the California Energy Commission, in an industry meeting earlier this month. A survey of EV drivers by one California agency found that more than a third of them, and 60 percent of those who said they used public chargers, had encountered nonfunctioning ones. Sixteen percent had run into payment problems. Nearly half had needed to call customer service for a charger-related issue.”
As every experienced fleet manager knows, a robust, documented and enforced preventive maintenance program must exist to prevent and reduce unplanned breakdowns. There are currently over 46,000 public fast charging stations in the US and experts agree this must be increased to at least 180,000 by 2030 to provide adequate charging facilities (20–30-minute chargers). Additionally, there will be a need for 856,000 slower and much cheaper level two charging stations. All this future demand creates the need for a vigorous nationwide plan to provide adequate maintenance and service necessary to maintain a 95 percent uptime rate which is expected by today’s consumers. Most recent, in a Vlog by Mike Antich, Editor with Automotive Fleet Magazine, he cited infrastructure as the weak link to EV transition.
Finally, there remain ethical issues over the manufacturer’s ability to control these EVs remotely to download software patches, or most importantly disable the vehicle without driver permission. Although this is not unique to EVs, the issue of disabling a vehicle without the driver or owner’s permission has legal ramifications that must be resolved.
Battery Production Challenges
Lithium, cobalt, nickel, and graphite are the primary elements necessary in the world’s production of EV batteries. There are additional raw minerals used in battery production like manganese, aluminum, and iron-phosphate which will not be the focus of this discussion. These same materials are used by other battery consuming products like electronics, phones, etc., intensifying access to raw materials and increasing price and competition.
The mining of some of these raw earth metals like Lithium and Cobalt present challenges to access, extract, and refine. For Tesla, the two primary elements for batteries are Lithium and Cobalt. Back in April 2022, Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors tweeted out the “Price of lithium has gone to insane levels,” There is no shortage of the element itself, as lithium is almost everywhere on Earth, but the pace of extraction/refinement is slow.” This tweet was in response to the rapidly increasing cost of Lithium which has gone up by 40 percent since 2015.
Lithium prices are up over 300 percent year-on-year and over 120 percent year-to-date 2022, and lithium producers contract prices are climbing. These sharp price increases impact the cost of producing batteries as lithium makes up about 80 percent of the raw material needed. “Most lithium mining happens in Australia from hard-rock sources and in Chile from brines. But lithium refining is dominated by China, which currently accounts for more than 75 percent of global lithium processing capacity”.
Additionally, the battery industry witnessed cobalt doubling in price in 2021. Unfortunately, most cobalt mining happens in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which, like China, has often been associated with child labor and human rights abuses, feeding concerns over supply of metals in the long term4. Because of these human rights issues, Tesla has been minimizing the use of Cobalt in its battery production and using Japan’s Panasonic and South Korea LG corporate behemoths to provide low Cobalt battery option. In addition, Tesla is also partnering with China’s CATL to produce batteries. In 2020, Tesla announced that they were looking to purchase a mine in Nevada to begin producing Lithium for their EV batteries where Musk surprised the lithium industry by saying Tesla had acquired the rights to lithium-rich clay deposits in Nevada4”. Tesla executives found a way to mine the material in a more sustainable and straightforward way — using table salt and water. However, the latter “using water” is another known dirty secret related to the production of EV batteries which conflicts with drought-stricken western states struggling over enough rights to provide adequate water resources to their citizenry.
Electricity Production Issues
Although there are no tailpipe emissions from EVs, the No. 1 producer of electricity for EV charging comes from fossil fuels such as Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) which make up 38 percent or the largest source for electricity generation.
In addition to fossil fuels, coal use is No. 2 at 22 percent to produce electricity. Diesel petroleum fuel use is now about 1 percent. Other generators of electricity include nuclear energy, renewables, biomass, geothermal, and solar thermal energy including hydro turbines, wind turbines, and solar photovoltaics.
There remains much controversy on the overall cleanliness of EVs about the total production of electricity which is still dominated by fossil fuels and coal. However, the use of fossil fuels has been declining since the 1950s, as depicted in the chart produced by the EIA.
Maintenance and Repair (M&R)
Another dirty little secret that is seldom discussed in fleet circles is what is involved in the actual maintenance and repair of EVs. I recall working at the largest beverage company with one of the largest EV and electric hybrid fleets where we told our technicians – tongue-in-cheek – “Don’t touch the orange high voltage wire!” This brings me to the point about the M&R of EVs in which the industry does not talk a lot about M&R details. In fact, when it comes to M&R of a Tesla EV, they require fleets to utilize their infrastructure and technicians.
Moreover, in a recent article talking about the challenges related to EV M&R, it posed the following questions:
- Is repair work more complicated due to the vehicle being an EV?
- How is the repair industry upskilling to meet this challenge?
- Does this mean there could be a skills shortage in the repair of EVs?
- Can minor repairs to an EV be undertaken as quickly as with an ICE (Internal Combustion Engine) vehicle?
- Have repairers experienced any unexpected issues with the repair of EVs?
While the verdict is still an open question, most of the answers to these questions are, “YES.” The EV industry has not provided detailed answers pertaining to the EV M&R. Most understand EVs have fewer moving parts than their conventional Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) counterparts, but few really know how to service EVs. Additionally, there are very few repair shops who offer these services, other than dealers. The latter begs the question of what will happen in the future to those internal repair shops who maintain ICE vehicles once the industry switches over to EVs exclusively. Little has been discussed about insourcing or outsourcing M&R related to EVs.
Moreover, little has been talked about relative to disposal of EV batteries which have been classified as electronic waste. In an article from Torque News, it stated, “Compared to ICE (Internal combustion engine) vehicles, EVs (electric vehicles) have significantly fewer moving parts and therefore can be expected to have fewer maintenance and repair issues. In fact, one survey estimates that EV owners will wind up paying a little over $4,000 less than ICE vehicle owners during the lifetime of their vehicle. However, many people mistakenly believe that EVs are maintenance-free and that there is little to do to keep one operating perfectly. Wrong!” This article contains a lot of useful tips on what users should do to better maintain their EVs.
Lastly, few have acknowledged or addressed the recent fires associated with EV batteries we have seen in the news. During Hurricane Ian, we discovered the adverse impact of saltwater mixing with Lithium-ion batteries in EVs, where spontaneous fires erupted. This caused an unplanned disaster which further exacerbated firefighter’s emergency response. Moreover, we have seen many other EV related fires in the news. The key issue with these EV fires is fire departments – and users – are ill-prepared to effectively extinguish these fires.
Since lithium-ion batteries are not made with metallic lithium, normal water fire extinguishers are ineffective. As fire fighters have discovered in recent years, lithium-ion battery fires are prone to reigniting. That is because the lithium salts in the battery are self-oxidizing, which means that they cannot be “starved out” like a traditional fire. So how do you put it out?
Because the lithium has an ignition point of 500°C, the battery must be cooled to a sub-ignition temperature. That is why it took the fire fighters in Texas 30,000 gallons (about 113562.3 L) of water and 4 hours to extinguish a recent EV blaze. Lithium-ion batteries are considered a Class B fire given to flammable liquids. Lithium-ion batteries contain liquid electrolytes that provide a conductive pathway, so the batteries receive a Class B fire classification.
These class B lithium-ion liquid-based fires must be smothered with either foam, powder, or carbon dioxide extinguishers, according to the Fire Equipment Manufacturer’s Association. These types of extinguishers work by cutting off a fire’s oxygen supply.
Like ICE – and CNG – vehicles, fires do occur with EVs, but the industry must invest time better understanding and solving these pyro-related issues effectively to maintain high consumer confidence.
Finally, national companies like Amerit Revolv have begun to offer outsource solutions to support EV M&R, but these offerings are still exceedingly rare nationwide. The Amerit CEO said, “As part of our commitment to facilitate and support rapid adoption of EVs across the U.S., Amerit Fleet Solutions will bring turnkey fleet electrification solutions to fleets throughout the country. Amerit’s nationwide footprint of highly skilled technicians will enable Revolv’s customers to adopt electric vehicles with confidence, knowing that their vehicles will be supported by the leader in fleet maintenance services.”
As can been seen, there remain many challenges to be solved before the pervasive use of EVs can be realized. Especially those little-known secrets surrounding human rights issues and accessing raw materials from unfriendly countries. Many of these exigent challenges will take some serious efforts by industry experts to resolve. Particularly, if they expect a larger EV participation rate by the public at large. With serious issues like mining challenges to access and produce raw materials along with solving scarce water resources in drought-stricken states will take some out-of-the-box-thinking along with greater financial resources. Regarding water resources, is it time to rethink how we gain more access to water resources by desalination of the ocean’s salt water and/or piping water from Mississippi River flood plains?
Afterall, we have built much larger pipelines to transport fossil fuels across North America. It is time to embrace alternative solutions and use cleaner nuclear technology to generate electricity to boost the nation’s power grid output. Likewise, placing more emphasis on both the charging and M&R infrastructure is essential for mass adoption of EV technology including technician training solutions for in-house repair operators.
Finally, in writing this piece I found very few articles in our traditional fleet industry publications referencing these dirty little secrets. Additionally, one of the mistakes most fleets make is thinking EV deployment is a panacea to lowering their carbon footprint. This is where an external audit using a third-party consult can help to conduct a “Fleet Modernization and Sustainability Study.”
An audit is a systematic assessment of specific practices, typically financial. RTA: The Fleet Success Company’s Marc Canton says, “the word ‘audit’ often instills fear into many professionals across a wide array of industries. This is because audits are usually associated with ensuring financial compliance, and therefore there can be serious repercussions if certain rules are not being followed properly. It is simply an official, detailed review of an organization’s accounts and documentation, and often, results in recommendations for improvements or tweaks in policy and procedure associated with financial transactions. Formal audits are typically performed by an independent body, however internal audits have become commonplace with many organizations developing departments specifically for this purpose. These internal audits are meant as a checkup, that is, to find issues before they become a problem. On the other hand, external audits are meant to test and report publicly the quality and health of the audited organization.”
As an industry, we need to actively participate in solving these EV challenges in our individual fleet operations and as members of industry associations so, we can provide better analysis, increase awareness, leverage this technology, and become world-class fleet organizations.
Finally, the EV technology is sound, but frankly we are far from ready to abandon all fossil fuels and implement this as a ubiquitous solution in its current industry state. Let us get to work!
What are your thoughts? I would like to hear from you. Contact me at email@example.com
To learn how RTA can help you navigate the EV world, reach out to our Consulting team!
By Steve Saltzgiver, Fleet Success Ambassador As we sit on the precipice of another year, 2023 looks to be another […]
By Mary Gerard In this week’s blog, we get to know Don Osterberg, who will be one of our featured […]
By Steve Saltzgiver, Fleet Success Ambassador What are the secrets behind being a great fleet management organization? Like any other […]
By Mary Gerard, Content Marketing Manager “It’s not that we use technology, we live technology.” – Godfrey Reggio When it […]
Get your fleet operation on the road to success with monthly tips, trends, and news. Topics this month: New Features […]