The Ford F-150 Lightning is making a splash as the electric vehicle that could move the mark forward for a big segment of motorists across the country.
Ford is far from alone on the electrification stage, as automakers around the world have been making big shows this year of their latest electric models and new technology.
Ford’s F-150 pickup stands out because it has been the best-selling vehicle — and not just in the truck segment— in Canada and the U.S. for years, and is being touted as the one that could shift electric vehicles from the niche market to the mainstream.
However, whether it’s Ford’s widely popular truck or Winnipeg-made buses, every inch of the electric transportation industry is underpinned by one thing: batteries.
For people who aren’t regularly tuning in to the advancements in this realm, it can be confusing, dense and full of misinformation.
The same technology that powers the smartphone in your hand also powers electric vehicles — the lithium-ion battery. This battery technology was first put into commercial production by Sony in 1991 but has advanced by leaps and bounds over the last three decades.
"The ways that batteries differ are in their chemistries. And so whenever you see a major revolution in batteries, it’s because the chemistry is completely 100 per cent changed," explains Michael McDonald, the operations manager at NFI Group Inc.’s innovation centre.
NFI, previously known as New Flyer, is an electric bus manufacturer based in Winnipeg.
Batteries using other chemical combinations, like the lead-acid battery, are still used in internal combustion vehicles. That technology was invented in 1859. So revolutions in battery technology happen in leaps, but infrequently, McDonald says, with most of the advancement and innovation more incremental.
"It’s the lithium-ion battery, right now, that’s just taking everything to a whole new level. Looking back to the ’90s, it was really rudimentary. There was a lot of promise in them, but no one really cared about batteries that much. And what made people start caring — and what drove the innovation of them — was the proliferation of personal electronics," McDonald says.
Smartphones, laptops, tablets all sparked the charge to advance batteries and to make them smaller and more powerful. But in the last decade or so, the industry has gained new motivations; the critical nature of the climate crisis has come into focus, along with the need to quickly taper the use of fossil fuels.
"The main investors have been really the car manufacturers," says Christian Kuss, an assistant professor at the University of Manitoba. "And petrochemical companies as well who are trying to find a new niche inside the energy market."
Advancements in the last decade have been remarkable. According to the Canada Energy Regulator, the average range of a passenger electric vehicle grew from 219 kilometres to 386 km between 2013 and 2019. Those advancements were principally due to battery-technology improvements, though structural vehicle improvements have also played a role.
At NFI, these battery advances have meant the newest generation of electric transit buses has an increased range of 13 per cent, and is now capable of driving more than 300 km on a charge.
Range increases have moved electric vehicles from impractical tokens to a desirable means of transportation in many markets — though, sales in Manitoba have lagged.
"The perception here is that you go a couple of miles in a vehicle and it just dies. But there’s a lot of energy you can pack in now. This ain’t your grandpa’s battery," McDonald says.
Even in Winnipeg’s cold winters, batteries will have a decreased range, but will hold up very well, he says.
"It’s a myth that the cold kills your batteries," McDonald says. "That’s not really an issue at all. The problem with the cold climate is that we just have higher energy demands in the cold simply because we have to heat the vehicles."
"When you have an internal combustion engine, you get a ton of wasted heat, because the process of combustion is extremely inefficient. And so we can very cleverly wrap some coolant around the engine and blow that heat into the (passenger) compartments — it’s like getting free energy. But because the electric drive system with batteries is so efficient, you don’t really get as much heat as you’d need to be comfortable. And so you have an electric heater, which basically just means that you’re adding a big energy consumer on there, and that just drains your battery faster than it would in summertime."
For a few years now, the term solid-state battery has been floating around — a technology that promises to be the next leap forward in the battery realm.
Volkswagen, in March, had a showy investor event called Power Day, in which the company QuantumScape promoted the solid-state battery they’re manufacturing for the carmaker. But details of the new technology were sparse (since they’re proprietary). But despite the demonstrations, experts in this arena remain skeptical that the industry is going to immediately crest the wave into the next battery revolution.
"We’ve been two years away from solid-state batteries for about 10 years now… Until it’s commercially proven, I’m going to kind of remain a bit skeptical," McDonald says.
"So it has been moving very quickly, solid-state batteries, over the past, I guess, five years or so," Kuss said. "So there has been a lot of progress made. And sometimes there’s the step changes that really make a big impact in the feasibility."
But Kuss finds suspect any promises that this technology will be imminently deployable.
"At the moment, I don’t see it. We have to (be able to assess) the long-term performance of the solid-state batteries, right? That, at the moment, we just don’t have. One of the problems is that once you buy a car with a solid-state battery, you expect it to be running for a good number of years, right? So, any new technology that we’re developing today, in two years from now, we only know how it’s performing after two years. We don’t know how it’s going to be in five years."
For now, lithium-ion is where long-term performance is known, Kuss explains, and it’s where consumer confidence can be high.
Different fine-tunings in the ingredients of lithium-ion batteries will continue to yield smaller improvements in the meantime, which will continue to make electric vehicles and electric transit more appealing. And when it comes to climate-focused transportation policy, batteries are the whole ball game.
"It’s the single most important thing," McDonald says. "It’s the source of the energy. In a full comparison, it is the analogous part to replacing gasoline and fossil fuels."
Sarah Lawrynuik reported on climate change for the Winnipeg Free Press.