The Secret to Hurdling Barriers for Electric Cars

In a signal that the demand for fuel-efficient and clean vehicles continues to gain momentum, the Obama administration convened a meeting of automakers and utility executives last month to explore how these two historically separate industries will work together to roll out electric vehicles.

And, even though Obama’s ambitious pledge to have one million electric vehicles on the road by 2015 will be supported by $2.4 billion in grants, numerous studies have pointed out multiple barriers to widespread EVs adoption.

The most common are:

  • Limited range
  • Long recharging times
  • High battery costs
  • Insufficient battery manufacturing capacity
  • Current lack of infrastructure and associated cost to build it   
  • Integrating electric vehicles with the electric grid
  • Consumers’ upfront costs and payback

While businesses and policymakers are respectively working to tackle these barriers, Rocky Mountain Institute believes one game-changing solution has received little attention: lightweighting. Shedding some weight could enable the widespread electrification of the U.S. personal vehicle fleet -- and overcome some of these critical barriers.

How Lightweighting Works
SuperLIGHT Car Concept
The key to taking significant amount of weight out of a vehicle without making it smaller is to substitute lighter, yet stronger materials such as advanced composites, aluminum or lightweight steel for heavier materials. Once the platform is lighter, the engine (or battery) can be downsized while maintaining original performance. (Learn more about alternative materials and innovative ways to drive down the cost of production.)

Overall, RMI estimates that average vehicle weight increased 20 percent over the last 20 years -- two-thirds of which is from cars getting denser, not bigger. In other words, larger vehicles aren’t causing the automotive pounds to accumulate—it’s bigger engines, thicker steel and heavier parts.

Simply put, every pound removed from the electric vehicle fleet will make electrification easier. Trying to put a battery into a heavy automobile designed to run on an internal combustion engine creates unnecessary challenges. By reducing weight, cars can be designed to run on electricity and reap the multiple benefits of efficiency.