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June 6, 2019

A deep dive into the history of the electric vehicle movement

EV charging station graphic

History of EVs

Over the past decade, the world has seen rapid and accelerating growth within the electric vehicle (EV) sector. EVs are quickly securing a major foothold in the global vehicle market, with an average international year-over-year growth rate of over 60% since 2012. The chart below documents the growth of plug-in hybrid electric (PHEV) and battery electric vehicles (BEV) from 2010 to 2018 with the top ten countries included for reference.)


Per the graph above, it would seem that electric vehicles only became relevant in the past decade or so – after all, in 2010 there were virtually no PHEVs or BEVs on the road anywhere. And yet there was a time in the early 1900s when around one third of all cars on the road in the United States were electric – these vehicles dominated the market even before the iconic Ford Model T was popularized. In fact, Henry Ford and Thomas Edison may have actually been collaborating to mass produce an electric version of the Model T before that partnership fell apart and the concept disappeared.

What happened since then? How did such a promising technology with such a dominant portion of the North American market share seemingly vanish from the industry over the preceding century?

Barriers and Challenges

The earliest versions of electric vehicles had extremely limited ranges – even by the 1970s, a single charge could only take you around 50-60 miles. In the early 1900s this was not a significant concern to people living in cities with extremely limited road infrastructure beyond their local municipalities. However, as transportation infrastructure improved, along with the availability of cheap gasoline to power increasingly advanced internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles, prospects for electric vehicles grew increasingly dim. On top of this, by 1912 the economic comparison between electric vehicles and their gas counterparts was bleak. A Model T cost $650 while the average electric car sold for $1,750. Mass production of ICE vehicles quickly resulted in EVs being priced out of the North American market. This combination of factors ultimately resulted in the almost total disappearance of electric vehicles for most of the 20th century.

Regulatory Landscape and Impact on Climate Change

In response to growing global understanding and urgency regarding the threat carbon dioxide/CO2 emissions pose to the health of our planet, countries around the world have begun implementing aggressive goals aimed at promoting and supporting the EV industry. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that 14% of the total GHGs emissions on earth come from the transportation sector. Within North America, that figure is even greater – the transportation sector accounts for 24% of GHG emissions in Canada and 29% of GHG emissions in the United States.

As early as 1976, the United States Congress decided to pass the Electric and Hybrid Vehicle Research, Development and Demonstration Act, which was integral in supporting early stage development efforts by the private sector in the field of EVs. More recently, both Quebec and British Columbia have passed aggressive zero-emission vehicle (ZEV) mandates with ambitious targets for the percentage of all new car sales that must be either battery electric or plug-in hybrid electric. These mandates, combined with both provincial and state level EV rebate programs that provide incentives of up to US$ 5,000, are part of an ongoing collective effort to incentivize consumers to begin making the transition toward electric cars.

North America is certainly not alone in this respect, and in fact, is generally lagging behind the electric vehicle penetration in several other jurisdictions globally. In 2017, China announced its New Energy Vehicle (NEV) mandate, which included a plan for the sale of 4.6 million EVs nationally by 2020 as well as a planned phase-out of ICEs over the subsequent decades. This policy was the first ZEV policy ever rolled out at the national level.

Furthermore, several European countries have announced plans to entirely phase out the production of ICEs – the UK has committed to doing so by 2040, and France has set even more ambitious goals to accomplish the same by 2030. These targets reflect the growing global sentiment in support of electrified transport.

Further assisting this process is the increasingly available charging infrastructure available for consumers with EVs. The graph below tracks the number of charging outlets available worldwide – the rate of growth for these stations has risen in lockstep with the number of EVs being sold.

Given the necessity of a widespread network of publicly available charges to facilitate the viability of an electrified transportation sector, continued expansion of this network is critical. However, it is promising that there is already such an extensive support network in place that serves to facilitate the continued growth of the EV industry.

Lithium-ion battery technology

The commercialization of the lithium-ion (li-ion) battery in 1991 and subsequently the continuous cost reductions in the li-ion batteries revolutionized the playing field in the electric vehicle industry. Li-ion technology has advanced to the point where previous constraints with respect to battery range, cost, and longevity have improved substantially. Early generation electric cars began hitting the market in the 2000s, sparked by Tesla’s release of the Roadster (with a 240 mile range on a single charge) and Nissan’s Leaf, the latter which remains to this day the bestselling all-electric vehicle in the world. Production and demand have continued to scale since then, and the world’s largest EV producer, BYD Auto Co., is projected to sell 655,000 new EVs in China this year alone.

These cars are made possible thanks to the ability of li-ion batteries to provide between 25-50% more energy density than the closest competitor, nickel metal hydride batteries. Nickel metal hydride batteries were utilized in the earliest versions of the first hybrid electric vehicles including the Toyota Prius. This advance in battery performance made it possible for electric cars to finally have the range required to make them a viable and competitive alternative to standard ICE vehicles in the eyes of the consumer.

The second critical aspect to li-ion technology that allowed for the commercialization of electric vehicles in the 21st century was the substantial reduction in cost, particularly over the last 10 years. The robust cost reduction in li-ion batteries continues to be a key enabling factor for electric vehicles to reach economies of scale. When Tesla released the Model S in 2012, it is estimated that the battery comprised up to 42% of the car’s total cost. The graph below plots the average price of li-ion batteries from 2010 to 2017, divided between 4 distinct applications/verticals.

Over a 7-year period, the average cost of li-ion batteries used in electric vehicles has dropped an astounding 79%, from over $1000/kWh to ~$209/kWh. Extensive reductions in the cost of li-ion technology have lowered the overall cost of EVs, while the performance and range enabled by li-ion batteries has improved through evolutionary technology changes.

Lithium-ion battery resource recovery

Since their inception more than one hundred years ago, electric vehicles have promised a cleaner, healthier alternative to the gasoline powered cars that are now so common on our planet. However, without a sustainable and economically viable means of recycling end-of-lifecycle li-ion batteries, the case for electrified transport is severely diminished due to the environmental hazards posed if li-ion batteries are improperly disposed of. Furthermore, incumbent li-ion recycling technology often uses a pyrometallurgical (smelting) approach, which limits recovery rates to 30-40% and can emit harmful pollutants into the atmosphere. Li-Cycle Technology™ bridges this gap through a unique and innovative resource recovery process that safely processes all li-ion batteries and achieves unprecedented recovery rates of 80 – 100% for all battery constituent materials, which in turn provides an additional supply channel for metals such as cobalt and lithium which are critical to the li-on supply chain. Securing long-term supply of these materials remains a key priority for li-ion manufacturers as demand is expected to continue to increase over the coming decade driven largely by proliferation of EVs worldwide.

The future

Thanks to revolutionary advances within the field of li-ion battery technology, electric vehicles have seen immense and sustained growth in the international market over the past decade. With the long-term potential to reduce global GHG emissions and shift our dependence away from fossil fuels, EVs provide a source of hope for a bright future. To make them a sustainable long-term alternative, however, it is critical to create a safe and environmentally friendly end-of-lifecycle pathway for the li-ion batteries. Li-Cycle provides this solution via a revolutionary closed loop resource recovery process for all li-ion batteries, thus acting as an enabler to the long-term viability of the global shift toward electrification powered by clean and renewable energy sources.