When electric cars first started hitting the mainstream just over a decade ago, most criticism focused on the limited range available and the long recharge times required. Since then, automakers have been chipping away, improving efficiency here and adding capacity there, slowly pushing the numbers up year after year.
Models are now on the market offering in excess of 400 miles between charges, but lurking on the horizon are cars with ever-greater range. The technology stands at a tipping point where a electric car will easily be able to go further on a charge than the average driver can reasonably drive in a day. Let’s explore what’s just around the corner.
The newest EVs on the market have more range than ever before. Under the EPA range test, the latest Tesla Model S can hit 402 miles, while the cutting-edge Mercedes EQS450+ makes it to 350 miles on the same test regime. These long-legged cars are packed with batteries, boasting packs of 100 kWh and 107.8 kWh capacity and operating at 450 V and 400 V respectively.
These two vehicles are two of the longest-range mainstream electric vehicles presently available. Both are able to quick-charge another 200 miles of range in just 20 minutes under the right conditions. Driving at a continuous average speed of 75 mph, either car could easily handle eight hours of driving in a single day with only a short stop to recharge. Interestingly, too, private testing shows the Mercedes itself to be capable of far exceeding its EPA test result, with Edmunds finding it to be the longest range car it’s ever tested with a real-world run netting 422 miles on a single charge.
Despite this, a tiresome few continue to protest that electric vehicles are simply incapable of taking long trips. With ranges already reaching above 400 miles in premium vehicles, and all manner of lower models capable of 300 miles or more, it’s becoming an increasingly difficult position to defend.
New vehicles only promise to further destroy this argument, though, by posting bigger numbers again. The prime example ready to burst onto the scene is the Lucid Air, the debut car from electric vehicle startup Lucid Motors. In its longest-range trim, the Dream Edition model achieves a EPA-rated 520 miles of range. The company has only just started vehicle deliveries to customers, but the range of the Air is already a leap far beyond that of its rivals.
This huge figure was not achieved by simply using a larger battery; the Lucid Air features a pack only a mite bigger than the competition at 113 kWh. With range a primary selling point for EVs, Lucid are being a bit canny about exactly how they achieved such a figure, with most coverage of the car putting the result down to a focus on “efficiency.” One number does stand out, however, and that’s the fact that the Lucid Air relies on a 924-volt battery architecture.
Running at higher voltage can bring significant advantages. For the same given power in a system, as voltage goes up, current goes down. Resistive losses in conductors are proportional to current squared, these losses go down as voltage increases, meaning efficiency improves. .
Lower losses means greater range when driving the car. There are also benefits to charging as well; lower heat build up from resistive losses is important when charging batteries that are sensitive to high temperatures. Lucid claims the Air can add 300 miles worth of charge in just 20 minutes when connected to an appropriate DC fast charger of 300 kW or more.
It’s a mark of Lucid’s commitment to its goals; back in 2019, Lucid’s chief technical officer Peter Rawlinson noted the company was aiming to push for a new level of efficiency in electric cars, rather than simply relying on ever-larger batteries. As far as aerodynamics were concerned, the Lucid Air managed an astounding coefficient of drag of just 0.21. Overall, Lucid got close to its goal of an energy efficiency of 5 miles per kwh, with the Dream Edition launch model hitting 4.6 miles/kWh in production trim.
And Further Again…
As far as the future is concerned, Mercedes also sees value in the efficiency-first approach. The German automaker recently unveiled its EQXX Concept, claiming a 620 mile range from the prototype design which features a battery of under 100 kWH capacity. It’s an efficency in excess of 6.2 miles/kWh, marking a serious leap forward.
Mercedes achieved this by going back to the drawing board and doing everything possible to maximise range. Unlike many of the premium luxury EVs on sale today, the EQXX Concept eschews four-digit horsepower figures and multi-motor setups for a relatively tame 201-horsepower single-motor drive unit. This would make a production model a harder sell, as the market has become accustomed to electric vehicles with ridiculous acceleration figures. A heavy electric vehicle hauling a big battery with only 200 horsepower to propel it along won’t be competing with cars like the Lucid Air or the Tesla Model S Plaid edition, and it could leave buyers cold.
The drag coefficient leaps to a even-more ridiculous figure than the Lucid Air, to an astounding Cd of just 0.17. It’s a small vehicle too, taking up far less space compared to the EQS road car, being closer to the size of a compact sedan. A solar panel on the roof is even pressed into service, helping to power the HVAC and infotainment system, and reportedly can add a whole 15 miles of range to the EQS on a particularly sunny day.
As much as Lucid and Mercedes hope to achieve with their high-minded efficiency focused approach, however, some believe that simpler methods are the way to go instead. A startup by the name of ONE has done just that, equipping a Tesla Model S with a battery of its own design of an astounding 203.7 kWh capacity. Just over double the standard capacity of the Model S battery, the startup were able to achieve a range of 752 miles in a long-drive test of its own devising.
The project essentially ignores efficiency improvements entirely. ONE made no mods to the Tesla in this regard, and the system is technically less efficient as a whole, making only 3.69 miles/kWh versus the 4.02 miles/kWh of the stock car in EPA testing. What is astounding is how the team were able to fit a battery pack of double the capacity in the same space as the original pack – marking a huge increase in energy density. The team were reportedly able to do so without much of a weight penalty either. The ONE pack apparently required no active cooling during its drive test (albeit run in cold weather). The production battery that ONE hopes to bring to market, known as “Gemini,” will reportely rely on LiFP (lithium iron phosphate) technology, something already used in many EVs today, and production samples should be available around 2023.
As capable as these vehicles are, perhaps the most frustrating part is that the engineering used to achieve these feats remains a little opaque to the public. It’s only when these cars start hitting the market en masse, and getting disassembled by inquisitive engineering teams and individuals, that it will become clear exactly how these improvements to efficiency and energy density are being achieved. Whether it’s exquisitely-prepared motors that cut down on even the tiniest of losses, new high-efficiency semiconductors, or bigger moves like jumping up to work at higher voltage ranges, it all adds up. But the real big gains are much more of a secret weapon that automakers will aim to keep as a competitive advantage for as long as is possible.
At best, we get little hints here and there, pockets of insight when an automaker wants to boast of its achievements. A great example is Tesla, which has invested heavily in some of the most advanced EV motors on the planet. The company has previously openly discusssed with Car and Driver how improving motor efficiency by 8 to 10 percent helped it boost overall range by 15 to 18 percent. Other players are typically less forthcoming, choosing to talk in broader terms as to the source of their gains rather than discussing real engineering details. Tesla somewhat stands alone in this area, often going into great detail on its new technologies as a marketing tool, though it tends to announce big things well before they ever come to market.
In any case, whether by improved efficiency, increasing energy density, or simply by stuffing more batteries into a car, it seems that electric vehicle range will only continue to improve at a rapid rate in coming years. EVs with huge range are just around the corner, and the ones we have today are already posting some serious numbers. Range anxiety may soon be a thing of the past for all but the cheapest, shortest-range EVs, or those with batteries nearing the end of their useful life. It may be that running out of charge becomes as rare for the average EV driver as running out of petrol is for those of us with conventional ICE-powered vehicles. Come what may!