Zero Emission Vehicles – We Are Not There Yet

Kevin Parmenter, Director, Applications Engineering, Taiwan Semiconductor North America



Regardless of which analyst organization provides the information, the future looks bright when it comes to zero emission vehicles, or ZEVs. On average, they predict electric vehicles (EVs) accounting for approximately 60% of all passenger vehicle sales by 2040. Also forecasted is that 30% of the global passenger vehicle fleet will be ZEVs, the umbrella term for EVs, hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs) and even hydrogen vehicles, assuming they become ready for consumer use. However, it will take many R&D dollars and leaps in innovation to solve the biggest challenges that need to be overcome to realize this electrifying future.

North America has approximately 350 thousand gas stations that will need to be replaced or refitted with ZEV chargers. (Otherwise, how will we get our Slim Jims and monster thirst-quenchers at ZEV-only charger stations?) First, it will take carbon emissions to do the work to retrofit gas stations. Second, greenhouse gases and other pollutants will continue being emitted by power plants that make the electricity used at the charging stations. At least for the near future, unless charging energy comes from nuclear, solar, or even wind (which has its own environmental issues), carbon emissions will be involved in the generation and distribution of the power that charges electric vehicles.

Another problem: The mining and production of the EV batteries, and their plastic cases, results in carbon emissions. And using big, yellow diesel-burning heavy equipment to dig and extract battery materials is far from green. Moreover, the materials themselves are toxic. Organizations are working on recycling them, but part of the process involves soaking the batteries in a vat of acid for prolonged periods of time. Where does that acid go after it’s used? (It doesn’t turn into Unicorn dreams.) And how about transporting heavy batteries to vehicle production plants and disposal sites when they reach their EOL recycling point? Near term, all this hauling will be done with fossil fuels. 

Of course, whatever type of batteries are used, they will need to be charged properly, which leads to the issue of battery chemistries. At one time I was to lead a battery management IC product definition & development and applications team, comprising one electronics engineer and nine Ph.D. chemical engineers – clearly batteries are mostly a chemical engineering problem. They made it clear that battery cell management presents engineering challenges. And the chemicals themselves aren’t made of tofu – they are reactive, toxic and nasty. Unless something new is invented to replace them, toxic chemicals are yet another technical challenge that needs to be addressed.

The future of zero emission vehicles is still very promising, indeed, and the opportunity for power electronics engineers and associated organizations to solve their downside issues is huge. We will need to solve the challenges of eliminating fossil fuel emissions used for charging and building a ZEV infrastructure, as well as dealing with battery chemistries and toxic chemicals. It’s true that EVs, HEVs – and maybe someday hydrogen vehicles – are here to stay. But despite the rosy reports on the electrification of transportation, we are not there yet.