Skip to main content

Greenville Business Magazine

The days of the internal combustion engine may soon be coming to an end

By Rajendra Singh

Driven by advancements in the technology of lithium batteries, namely a reduction in cost and increase in energy density, and the availability of clean, low-cost, sustainable electric power, transportation is going through fundamental transformation. 

An increase in manufacturing is mainly responsible for the cost reduction of lithium ion batteries, with the volume of cumulative manufacturing doubling, leading to a cost reduction of about 22 percent. Similar to Tesla’s Gigafactory in the United States, a number of manufacturers in China, Japan, and South Korea are setting up ultra-large-scale operations manufacturing lithium ion batteries. 

Because of these advancements, the time before the one millionth electric vehicle (EV) is sold is getting closer. This growth trend is in line with the historical disruptive growth of telephones, televisions, personal computers, and cell phones, etc. 

In the United States, EV sales in 2018 totaled 361,307, an 81 percent increase over 2017. In essence, the progress made in the last couple of years has reached the point where electric vehicles are becoming commercially viable and approaching the point where the total cost of ownership is competitive with that of their internal combustion engine-powered counterparts. Virtually every major auto manufacturer in the world is involved in bringing EVs to the market as early as possible. According to some analysis, the sale of internal combustion-based vehicles likely peaked in 2018, with a permanent decline expected to begin soon.

At the moment, three key developments are converging. The first one is the use of mobile apps providing ride-hailing services. The second is electric cars. The third, and potentially most transformative, is driverless autonomous vehicles, which will most likely be EVs. These three innovative technologies will progress independently, but their impact on surface transportation will overlap.

In addition to cars and buses, battery-powered electric trains are being introduced. As an example, Bombardier has produced a battery powered train with a range of 45 kilometers; a range of 100 kilometers is planned for the next generation of products.

Other than surface transportation, advancements in battery technology are also impacting air transportation. Last year, Boeing unveiled a new unmanned electric vertical-takeoff-and-landing (eVTOL) cargo air vehicle prototype that will be used to evolve Boeing’s autonomy technology for future aerospace vehicles. It is designed to transport a payload up to 500 pounds for possible future cargo and logistics applications. 

On January 23, Boeing announced that it had conducted the first test flight of its all-electric autonomous passenger air vehicle. The unpiloted vehicle took off vertically, hovered for a few seconds, and then landed at the designated site. Boeing says the prototype, powered by an electric propulsion system, is designed for fully autonomous flight from takeoff to landing, with a range of up to 50 miles (80.47 kilometers). Measuring 30 feet long and 28 feet wide, its airframe integrates the propulsion and wing systems to achieve efficient hover and forward flight. 

A number of startup companies are developing eVTOL-based urban air mobility vehicles. Eviation Aircraft and Siemens will jointly develop propulsion systems for the all-electric Alice, a nine-passenger commuter plane.

Working with the Norwegian shipyard Fjellstrand, Siemens also has developed technology for the first electric car and passenger ferry. The ferry is powered by two 450 kilowatt electric motors that receive their energy from lithium-ion batteries. No carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxide are emitted into the air.

The electrification of transportation based on clean, sustainable, and nearly free electric power—whether it comes from photovoltaics, wind turbines, or lithium batteries—continues. And it’s bringing disruptions and business opportunities along with it.  

Rajendra Singh is the D. Houser Banks professor in the Holcombe Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Automotive Engineering at Clemson University. In 2014 he was honored by President Barack Obama as a White House “Champion of Change for Solar Deployment” for his leadership in advancing solar energy with photovoltaics technology.