10 Jun 2019

More than 250 public electric vehicle (EV) charging stations are scattered across Dallas,1 in small clusters of two or three at grocery stores, hotels and shopping centers. It’s a patchwork infrastructure of park-and-plug spots in major cities around the United States.  

But we’ll need many, many more as the number of EV drivers in the U.S. and around the world grows over the next decade.

One forecast estimates  40 million chargers will be needed across the U.S., Europe and China — a capital investment of $50 billion — to accommodate 120 million EVs on the road by 2030.2 The U.S. alone, which is home to fewer than 56,000 public and private EV charging outlets today, will need 13 million by then.3

If years for the reign of the internal combustion engine are numbered, we should see more EVs on the road today. But the global market can’t flip the switch quickly. Vehicle charging must become more convenient – with more than just a handful of stations in public parking lots – and carmakers must create production lines for a new kind of car.

“Combustion vehicles won’t go away anytime soon," said Nagarajan Sridhar, a marketing manager at our company who works on high-voltage power solutions. “The charging infrastructure EV drivers will need must still be built out. Charging infrastructure solution manufacturers and carmakers must jointly work toward proliferating infrastructure solutions to make EVs pervasive.”

Until then, carmakers that want to survive the looming paradigm shift are already making gradual changes to vehicle engine design. The transition to EVs — an automotive revolution, really — won’t happen overnight, but technology is moving it to the fast lane in stages:

Stage 1: Build better gas-powered cars

Governments worldwide are preparing for the shift to EVs. Automakers who sell in China will be mandated to make at least 7% of their sales electric by 2025.4 Norway adds stiff taxes to the price tags of gas-powered vehicles.5 The U.S. Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards are requiring carmakers to increase the number of miles consumers can drive their vehicles per gallon of gas and decrease emissions.

“What’s driving the move to electric is the overall need to reduce emissions like carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that are released by fossil-fuel combustion," said Karl-Heinz Steinmetz, a general manager at our company who specializes in hybrid, electric and powertrain systems. “But improving the efficiency of combustion engines is not sufficient for consumer autos to reach government-backed emissions reduction targets. You need a step change, and clearly that step is electric."

Carmakers are upgrading combustion-fueled powertrains as an interim measure—finding miles-per-gallon improvements through measures such as engine efficiency upgrades and vehicle weight reduction. They’re also deploying more accurate sensors, engine component controllers and exhaust-treatment systems that optimize the combustion engine process to reduce fuel burn and emissions.

Stage 2: Electric-gas hybrids bridge two power sources

As the technology for fully electric powertrains and other vehicle systems matures, mild hybrid vehicles offer consumers a chance to drive cars that use more electricity to offset gas consumption. Belt-driven cooling and fuel pumps and other mechanical systems are being replaced with systems powered by electricity.

“The hybrid car market is growing because it makes the combustion engine more efficient while avoiding the current limitations of all-electric vehicles,” Karl-Heinz said. “Consumers won’t get stuck if they go farther than their battery alone can take them.”

For owners who want to travel longer distances without needing to recharge as often, hybrids offer driving ranges of up to 640 miles compared to the current range of about 335 miles for all-electric cars.6

“This approach is a relatively easy way for carmakers to adapt their combustion engines by electrifying only some systems," Karl-Heinz said. “It lets them continue to produce combustion vehicles while still meeting tightening government rules on emissions."

Stage 3: Innovation makes all-electric vehicles the standard

To meet driver expectations on range, charging time and performance, engineers are harnessing the power of silicon carbide – a wide-bandgap semiconductor material that addresses the high voltage and high efficiency needs of EVs – and using innovative isolated gate drivers that monitor and manage power for fast charging and long battery life.

With these improvements, Nagarajan expects to see exponential growth in consumer demand for EVs begin sometime around 2022. At that point, electric power and management technologies will offer improved driving performance, system efficiency and power density.

Over time, vehicle electrification will open new avenues for innovation not available to combustion-based platforms. Future generations of EVs capable of delivering lots of power will create opportunities for new features and applications – such as powering your home at night while parked in your garage.

“When things really start kicking with EVs in the next few years, you’re going to have lots of new possibilities," Nagarajan said. “You’re going to start seeing the evolution of the smartphone on wheels."