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September 21, 2021Episode 17. Ready or Not, Here They Come: Preparing for the electric vehicle transformation.
FEATURING: Joe Zietsman, Ann Xu
The number of electric cars and trucks on our roadways is growing, and the pace of that growth is accelerating. Are we ready for that? TTI Assistant Director Joe Zietsman and Research Scientist Ann Xu talk about the pros and cons of battery-driven travel, which can be more complex than they might seem.
About Our Guests
Assistant Agency Director
Joe Zietsman is a strategic advisor at TTI and director of the Institute's Center for Advancing Research in Transportation Emissions, Energy and Health, which is a U.S. Department of Transportation university center. He holds a Ph.D. in civil engineering from Texas A&M University and is a member of Texas A&M's graduate faculty. His research interests are in sustainable transportation, air quality, and the intersection of public health and transportation.
Ann Xu is co-founder and CEO of ElectroTempo, Inc., and assistant director of technology at TTI's Center for Advancing Research in Transportation Emissions, Energy, and Health. ElectroTempo, Inc., is a spin-off from TTI focusing on software and analytics for vehicle electrification. Prior to TTI, Ann was senior technical advisor for impact and assessment at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E). She received her Ph.D. in civil engineering at Georgia Tech. She lives with her husband and two daughters in northern Virginia.
Bernie Fette (host) (00:16):
Welcome. This is Thinking Transportation — conversations about how we get ourselves and what we need from one place to another, and what it takes to make that happen. I’m Bernie Fette with the Texas A&M Transportation Institute.
Bernie Fette (00:32):
Automakers seem to be sold on the idea of electric vehicles dominating the industry in the near future. General Motors, Ford and Volkswagen collectively plan to spend almost $80 billion on research and development in the next five years. Electric cars now make up only about 2 percent of new vehicle sales in the U.S., but, the pace of change is clearly picking up. So what exactly does that mean for us? What does it mean for the fuel that we use? How we use the roads, and how we pay for them. These are some of the questions that Joe Zietsman, assistant director of TTI, and Research Scientist Ann Xu are exploring in this new chapter of transportation history. And, they are here with us. Ann and Joe, thank you for sharing your time.
Ann Xu (guest) (01:25):
Thank you. Glad to be here.
Joe Zietsman (guest) (01:27):
Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be with you guys.
Bernie Fette (01:29):
When I was getting ready for our visit, I came upon a brief history lesson. Electric cars weren’t always this tiny percentage of the U.S. market. Electricity was in power source competition with both steam and gasoline more than a century ago. So at the time, more than a third of the cars on the road at that time were electric, even if it was only for a few years. It’s safe to say we’ve been here before, haven’t we?
Ann Xu (02:00):
Yes and no. On this topic, there are actually two very interesting documentaries. The first one is Who Killed The Electric Car? And then the second one is The Revenge Of The Electric Car. And I think that tells a good story of why electric cars didn’t go very far before. But I think we’re at a different place. Essentially, Who Killed The Electric Car talks about the power of the oil and gas industry. But then The Revenge Of The Electric Car talks about, you know, the power of entrepreneurship and creative thinking. Then the reinventing, the electric car as the stylish and desirable option. Since Tesla’s roadster came out a few years ago and the electric cars became, you know, the desirable option, there have been a lot of other options. And I think we’re at a juncture in history where there are a few things coming to play here.
Ann Xu (03:02):
First of all, people are a lot more aware of it and people are seeing the consequences of it. So electric cars nowadays are a viable solution to this environmental challenge. And then second of all, electric cars do represent a way for significant innovation because the powertrain is entirely different from internal combustion engines. The supply chain is quite a bit different. And that allows entrepreneurs to reinvent and disrupt this very mature auto industry. If you think about how Tesla has come along in the very beginning, they were actually thinking about building a hybrid car. They thought very hard about it. They tried it. They decided not to go that route. They decided to go entirely electric because the mechanics, the engineering is so much easier, so much cleaner than the internal combustion engine. And because of that, I see that the electric car industry is presenting a way for new entrants to combat the very established auto industry. I think those are the two big forces at play here.
Bernie Fette (04:25):
What you mentioned about the way that the electric cars are built, being so much different from internal combustion engine-powered cars, I suppose, would have an appeal from a maintenance perspective, if they run much more, if they’re built much more simply?
Ann Xu (04:39):
Yes, they have so many fewer moving parts. That’s why actually, some of the TTI research projects have shown that, you know, for trucks, for example, yes, electric trucks right now are so much more expensive than a diesel truck, but because of the maintenance costs savings, a truck would actually break even at about 30,000 miles per year. And that over a 12 years of lifetime of a truck and 30,000 miles is not that much for a truck if you think about it.
Bernie Fette (05:13):
Right. The latest numbers tell us that electric cars right now make up just about 2 percent of new car sales in the United States right now. I think it’s 3 percent worldwide. But in just looking around on the road, it seems to me that they’re more numerous than that. I’m wondering if that has been something that either of you have noticed as well?
Joe Zietsman (05:37):
Absolutely, Bernie, I think that’s something that we noticed and the numbers also confirm that if you start looking at the trends and I think it’s a couple of forces in play here. You know, firstly, the manufacturers are a hundred percent on board with this new trend and they are definitely investing tons of money to make this happen. And secondly, the government is pushing this issue for, for various reasons. And one of them is environmental. If you look at the air quality regulations, this is definitely a clear way of addressing some of the emission concerns that we have both on pollutant emissions, as well as with climate change and greenhouse gas. So there’s a force there from the government as well. And then thirdly, I think the, the public — they’re jumping on board and they’re beginning to experience electric vehicles because to your point, they are more numerous, there are many more options to look at and you get the chance to drive some of these and test them out and feel them.
Joe Zietsman (06:34):
And I think what the consumers are finding out, they’re very different. It’s not the same animal. The acceleration is something that you’ve probably never experienced before. So that’s something that people tend to get used to. There’s basically no noise. So when you start this vehicle, it’s nothing to listen at. And that’s a very important health issue as well with zero noise. So people underestimate the importance of that. And then also you get the opportunity to experience other things and you need to figure out where you charge and how you charge, and when. So those are things that are a total different dimension, and as people are getting more used to this, we’re also seeing more and more people getting to purchase electric vehicles. Two other points I want to make. People are becoming more and more environmentally conscious because we see the impacts of vehicle emissions. We’re seeing the impacts of climate change. But I think folks are also beginning to see the economic benefits of driving these vehicles. If you drive them a lot, you could actually save money over the long term. So I think that trend is happening and it’s happening fast, probably faster than some people expected.
Bernie Fette (07:42):
Well, and you mentioned that the industry is fully behind this. I think that they’re certainly not only just saying that. They’re putting their money where their mouths are. From what I see, General Motors, Ford and Volkswagen collectively planning to spend close to $80 billion — billion with a B — on electric vehicle development in the next five years? Do I have that right?
Joe Zietsman (08:08):
I think you absolutely do. And that’s not the only manufacturer that does that. And I think that comes back to the targets they’re setting. A lot of them are saying by 2030 or by 2035, we’re going to be either fully electric, like Volvo was saying about trucks and some other companies. So to meet those targets, those kind of investment numbers need to be behind it.
Bernie Fette (08:30):
As transportation transformations go, this one seems to be moving more slowly than some others that we’ve seen in recent memory. I’m wondering if you think that that’s a good thing. If we take e-scooters, for instance, those appeared in a lot of cities literally overnight, leaving the local authorities very much caught off guard and wondering, “okay, now what do we do?” I’m wondering if you think that the slower adoption of electric cars might give us all the opportunity to think things through more.
Ann Xu (09:02):
I would actually like to argue that it’s not necessarily a fair comparison between electric cars and electric scooters, right?
Bernie Fette (09:10):
Ann Xu (09:10):
If you think about the coverage, I mean, pretty much every household has at least one car in the United States. The people that can, or the type of patterns that can support e-scooters is a much smaller portion. Not every household can use an e-scooter. So, you know, e-scooters are a lot more concentrated in terms of applications, right? In dense urban areas. But electric cars is pretty much is a transformation that touches every family, every individual in the country. But I agree with you though, Bernie, what you said about, you know, the lead time for the government to react. Yes. The government probably has a little bit more time with electric cars than compared to electric scooters to react. But I think the time is now. The government also cannot wait any longer.
Ann Xu (10:06):
There are many issues, there are many policy questions to address. And going back actually to your previous question about adoption — as with any technology adoption, it’s pretty much a hockey stick pattern. So a hockey stick pattern is just like a hockey stick, where the adoption goes kind of flat at the bottom at the very beginning, right? And then all of a sudden it reaches an inflection point and it goes straight up. Some fellow researchers and I, we published papers and mathematically showed that phenomenon with electric vehicles were still sort of at the flat part of the hockey stick with electric cars. But as you just now mentioned, you see a lot more electric vehicles, the adoption is picking up. I think we’re getting to the inflection point. And part of the reason why we’re still seeing that the numbers are more, I think it has to do with the fact that there is a lag with data in registration numbers, right?
Ann Xu (11:11):
So we’ve got to get ahead of the curve here because once it reaches the inflection point, we’ve shown that if all the automakers deliver what they say they’re going to deliver in terms of electric car penetration market share around 2030, the vehicle turnover every year on year, there will be 5 percent more of the total light-duty vehicle population that will become electric. For example, to put this in perspective, in Houston there are 5 million light duty vehicles. Five percent of that. And that’s 5 percent every year that’s more. Over a period of time, hundreds of thousands of vehicles will become electric in the general vehicle population. And that has huge implications on the power grid, on renewables, a lot of other things, and the government needs to be ready for that.
Bernie Fette (12:15):
And I suppose that’s what you were referring to a minute ago when you talked about the policy questions that governments will have to face, and you mentioned the power grid for one. What are the implications there? And I actually have a couple of others I was going to ask you about, because in a way, at least on the surface in, in one way, this would appear to some people to be a trade-off. And at the risk of oversimplifying here, but with more electric cars, we use less oil and gasoline. But we also use more electricity, which has to be generated somehow somewhere. And I wonder if it’s fair to say that in some ways, this is a trade-off, because if the electricity has to come from a generating plant that runs on fossil fuels, for instance, isn’t this just a question of where the emissions come from? A tailpipe or a power plant?
Ann Xu (13:10):
I am so glad you asked that question. So as we are in Texas, I actually won’t talk about Texas first. So yes, the power generation, the emissions that are come from power generation has been a research topic and has been a hotly debated question for probably two decades now. You know, as a typical researcher would say, and I will say it now, it does depend on the dynamics of the grid. So let’s talk specifics about the ERCOT grid. That is most of Texas is in the footprint of ERCOT. And we recently between TTI and our collaborators at the Smart Grid Center over at the university, we actually have done very detailed dynamic simulation of the grid, how it would interact with the EV load. And we actually showed that EV charging can reduce the emissions from the grid, even on a hot summer day when wind is low. You know, I won’t bore you with all the gory details of power grid simulation, but it has a lot to do with the amount of wind that is already present in our grid. And the fact that coals are, are already so much more expensive than natural gas and natural gas is still a fossil fuel. It is much more efficient than coal.
Bernie Fette (14:38):
And cleaner as well.
Ann Xu (14:39):
Yeah, a lot cleaner. So overall EV charging, even though it’s more load, it actually, when you add that load to the grid, the overall grid produces less emissions, both in terms of greenhouse gases and NOx, oxides of nitrogen. That’s a precursor to ozone.
Bernie Fette (15:00):
And the question about the grid has another layer to it, of course, when we mention the context of a debilitating freeze that cripples the state as we experienced just several months ago.
Ann Xu (15:13):
Well, first of all, let’s not forget that when the grid goes down, you can’t pump gas either.
Bernie Fette (15:18):
Ann Xu (15:18):
There actually was quite a viral video right after the ice storm, that someone with a hybrid truck with a big battery pack, that person powered his house and was able to make coffee when everybody else didn’t even have lights …
Bernie Fette (15:37):
Ann Xu (15:37):
… using the battery from his truck. Right? So you imagine now, if you have a charged electric truck in your garage, you can heat up and, you know, get warm in your truck without breathing in all the bad air as you would with a gasoline or diesel.
Bernie Fette (15:55):
And you’re doing so off the grid.
Ann Xu (15:56):
Bernie Fette (15:56):
Maybe this isn’t a fair question, but if you had to identify what, what the two of you thought was the most important research priority that we should be pursuing related to electric cars, what do you think that that would be?
Joe Zietsman (16:13):
What is the true operational conditions and what do these vehicles actually do in terms of performance? And when I say performance, I’m more talking about range, carrying a load, those kinds of questions under these various conditions. I think at the moment, it’s just a big question mark. To Bernie’s point about, is this roll-out slow and does it give us a chance to catch our breaths and think about it a little bit. So I’ll talk about it from the perspective of a researcher. To be honest with you, I think it does give us a little bit of an opportunity to think about what are all these key questions that we need to answer. And there are lots of questions and a lot of things that we don’t even know yet. People are trying to get used to electric vehicles. You know, there’s a range that’s kind of quoted by the vehicle manufacturer and they say, can breach X range, but what happens under cold temperature or when it’s extremely hot, when you need to also keep the cabin comfortable.
Joe Zietsman (17:19):
And we know that batteries deplete much quicker under cold temperature. So we don’t know what the true range is going to be under those conditions. What about if you drive at a high speed or if you climb some hills and you do a different drive cycle than just the flat road, under 75 degrees? And what happens if you tow a trailer or something? So those are all fascinating questions. And fortunately here at TTI, we are very well positioned to answer those questions. In our collaboration with electrical, and computer engineering, we basically bring transportation expertise together with, um, the electric side, the grid side, and we are able to develop sophisticated models in combination that never existed before. And we’re also in the process now of expanding our emissions testing capabilities. So EERF, which stands for Environment and Emissions Research Facility, is going to get expanded to become an electric vehicle testing facility.
Joe Zietsman (18:18):
And we’re very excited about that. So one thing we are doing in that environmental test chamber is to increase its cooling capabilities so that we can reach minus 40 C and sustain it. And the significance of that is there will be cases where batteries will be exposed to those kinds of temperatures. And we need to know what happens in those extreme conditions. Those are the kinds of things that we are getting ready here at TTI, so we can start answering some of these questions. And I think it will color in a picture that the consumers will actually be benefiting from and knowing how these vehicles can and should be driven, what to expect. And that will also help the manufacturers to improve in certain areas that are critical.
Bernie Fette (19:01):
What do you think, Ann?
Ann Xu (19:03):
I am heading up the technology side of our research center. So I naturally have more of a bent on technology transfer and the practical implications. I think for vehicle electrification, the biggest and most pressing question right now is actually charging infrastructure. And how do we deploy that in a way to enable, to support the fast transition that we just talked about. And that is not just in terms of light-duty vehicles. That is actually more pressing when it comes to trucks and buses, actually.
Bernie Fette (19:42):
And you’re talking about big trucks, semi-trucks?
Ann Xu (19:45):
Yeah. Because the technology is already there where there are certain applications, certain trucks. Not necessarily the long-haul trucks. I think there’s the consensus is that the technology has a ways to go before you can support long haul-applications, but things like drayage, things like refuse trucks, trash trucks, you know, those are feasible, if we can figure out how to build the charging infrastructure and how to integrate it with a grid.
Bernie Fette (20:17):
That infrastructure that we all use is paid for now, mostly by the motor fuels tax. But if the car that you drive doesn’t run on gas or diesel, you don’t pay that tax. We talked a little about that with Brianne Glover, our chief economist here, a few months ago about how that can create an imbalance. When you have a growing number of vehicles that aren’t paying that tax, the value of that tax also shrinking because of inflation and fuel efficiency. Do you have any thoughts on how we solve that particular puzzle going forward?
Joe Zietsman (20:52):
I think, Bernie, we’ve seen that the gas tax has been flat forever. So when it’s inadequate in terms of collecting enough funds to pay for transportation infrastructure and, and the operation of it. So clearly there’s an issue there already. And if you put on top of that more fuel-efficient vehicles and eventually vehicles using zero fuel like electric vehicles, it would just make that specific problem even bigger. So I think obviously we need to find a different way of getting road users to pay for, uh, what they use; some form of user-based fee or something along those lines. And when we do that, we need to make it equitable in the sense that should. An electric vehicle takes up the same space as a regular internal combustion vehicle. So that’s true and everybody accepts that. It causes congestion. Some research has shown that it’s a little bit safer from the vantage point that if you’re involved in a crash, it can protect the passengers better.
Joe Zietsman (21:53):
But some of the other negative externalities that we really are concerned about, and in this center that we have at TTI — CARTEEH — we are really looking at the intersection between health and transportation. So when I talk about health, I’m also talking about vehicle emissions, noise and aspects like that, that can really cause health problems. So I think when we look at how folks should pay, depending on what vehicles they drive, um, all those factors should be included as well. So I think there’s a proper analysis that should be done to look at the total health impacts and maybe the externalities associated with these different vehicle types and do a true cost assessment. And I think you’ll find that because noise is close to zero for electric vehicles, the emissions are lower, these vehicles will end up paying less if we’re looking at an equitable distribution in terms of who should pay.
Bernie Fette (22:47):
Ann Xu (22:48):
You know, we were talking about policy questions. This is another policy question, and I think it’s very relevant, but I don’t think it’s fair to say that electric vehicles, drivers don’t pay, right? Most places, most jurisdictions already established a user fee or registration fee for electric vehicles. I think this is an issue that was discussed during the legislative session this past summer too, here in Texas; you know, how to set that kind of fee in an equitable manner is definitely a very relevant question.
Bernie Fette (23:23):
With the backgrounds and training that you both have, I’m guessing that you could have taken a number of different career paths, but you chose this one. What motivates you to do what you do?
Joe Zietsman (23:36):
Yeah, I’ll start. So I did my Ph.D. In sustainable transportation in the Civil Engineering Department. So it was in the late nineties and it was a topic that was very, very new, hardly anybody knew what that was. And the reason why I picked up on that topic was just because I could tell that people were not focused on the environment. They were not focused on what transportation could potentially cause on the one side. And then the other side, what are the potential benefits of transportation? And I ended up working here at TTI in Texas, and it felt like the area that I was working in over the past 20-plus years has always been very much forward-looking in the state of Texas because we are kind of working on cutting edge issues that are unique and different to what the general state could potentially be looking at at any given time.
Joe Zietsman (24:33):
So we were looking at issues of vehicle emissions. We were looking at other environmental concerns that were new and different. And I personally always felt like it’s a very good fit to be working in these innovative areas relative to what’s going on in Texas and actually be able to have some impact and have some influence and see how our research can impact decision-making. And I always felt like TTI is a perfect fit. We are totally independent third-party researchers. We just want to work with the fact, see what it tells us, and then report it, hopefully that will then impact how decisions are being made. And then when this whole notion of bringing in health to transportation became an issue, it was really fantastic to be able to lead a center that’s focused on health and transportation, which basically cuts across everything that we’ve been talking about because in the end of the day, it is about the health of the general public. So it’s just an amazing experience and amazing opportunity to be working in that space and to feel that I can make a difference on a daily basis.
Bernie Fette (25:46):
How about you, Ann? What makes you get up every day and come to work?
Ann Xu (25:48):
This is actually a very opportune time for me to answer this question, Bernie, because my career path is changing in the sense that we’ve done a lot of research at TTI on electric vehicles and under the Center for Advancing Research in Transportation, Emissions, Energy and Health — CARTEEH — as Joe mentioned. And so we have disclosed an invention and have spun out a company based on the technology we developed under the research center. So I am now the CEO of the company and the company just raised venture funding.
Bernie Fette (26:27):
Ann Xu (26:27):
Thank you. Thank you. But I, I came into research because I wanted to work on something meaningful. My career path is a bit different though, because after a few years working at Georgia Tech, I went to the U.S. Department of Energy, worked at this agency called the Advanced Research Projects Agency Energy, ARPAE, and there, the focus of that agency was innovation and commercialization. So taking research and technology to a bigger scale and the motto there is “if it works, will it matter?” So I drank the Kool-Aid there and took it with me when I came to TTI. And I made sure that what we were working on at CARTEEH was something that will matter. And we’ve got product in the market based on the technology we developed here for supporting Houston in developing its regional infrastructure strategy for electrification. So we’re taking it to, or practical impacts right here in Texas, and now we’re getting venture funding. So I definitely feel like every day I get up when I get up is a new ball game and I love every bit of it. And I know that everything we do makes a big difference here in Texas and beyond the entire country and eventually globally.
Bernie Fette (27:57):
Is there anything else that you’d like for us to think about in closing?
Ann Xu (28:02):
I would like to just emphasize that this whole discussion about electric vehicles, you know, for years it’s been an environmental topic, right? It’s a, it’s a green type of topic. But think about just over the past year, how much has changed right here in Texas, right? Tesla moving to eastern Austin, building a gigafactory there. Think about all the new jobs, clean energy, clean transportation jobs that our state will have. I do think that there is a huge economic opportunity here too. And that’s something that is worth us looking into as researchers, too.
Joe Zietsman (28:45):
Something I would like to add is in the CARTEEH center, we’re establishing what we call a clean transportation, collaborative, where we’re putting stakeholders together that deal with questions like we talked about in terms of operations, the grid, the connection with the grid, what should be the next technology, et cetera, et cetera. So these manufacturers, the fleets, the grid folks, the transit authorities, the MPOs, the cities, they all have questions. So we’re putting this big collaborative together of stakeholders and folks are welcome to reach out and join the collaborative and, and come and tell us what your needs and your expectations are. And what are your concerns? Because after all, we are a research Institute and we try to answer these questions objectively like a third-party broker. So we would be very excited to, to have folks visit with us and talk about these issues. So we can understand the questions better, so that we can actually answer them better, and be a better partner in this whole process.
Bernie Fette (29:47):
How about let’s close with a prediction? I’m going to put you both on the spot. How many years before half of the vehicle fleet is electric?
Ann Xu (30:01):
Well, as Yogi Berra said, predictions are hard, especially the ones concerning the future. But, this is actually something that we have numbers to back up. So if the manufacturers follow through with their commitments, then we will be seeing around 50 percent of the entire vehicle population, at least the light-duty vehicle population, becoming electric around 2045. And that’s actually pure mathematics. That’s just given the vehicle turnover rate of household decisions.
Bernie Fette (30:33):
Joe Zietsman (30:37):
I was going to say 2050, but, um, I think Ann’s mathematics and modeling with her hockey stick could be more accurate, but I’ll go with 2050. You know, that incorporates the fleet turnover rate because you don’t just throw your vehicle away. It stays on the road. So considering that as well, but this tremendous momentum behind it would probably make us hit those numbers.
Bernie Fette (31:03):
This has really been fascinating. This has been fun to talk to you both about this topic. So Ann, Joe, thank you very much for the work that you do. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and insight with us.
Joe Zietsman (31:14):
Thank you, Bernie. It was a pleasure.
Ann Xu (31:16):
Thank you, Bernie. This was a lot of fun.
Bernie Fette (31:20):
Electric cars made their first appearance about a century ago. They did not last long, but a lot has changed since then. This time around, automakers are all-in and consumers are jumping on an ever-more crowded bandwagon. Battery-powered vehicles are transforming the roadway landscape and promising to remake the auto industry within the next decade. The transformation is likely to be complex and there’s a lot that we don’t yet know. What we do know is that the way that we think about getting around each day is likely to change as well.
Bernie Fette (31:58):
Thanks for listening. We hope you’ll be back next time. TTI Senior Research Scientist Allan Rutter will be with us to continue our discussion of electric vehicles, with a focus on how freight and big trucks fit into the picture.
Bernie Fette (32:14):
Thinking Transportation is a production of the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, a member of the Texas A&M University System. The show is edited and produced by Chris Pourteau. I’m your writer and host, Bernie Fette. Thanks again for listening. We’ll see you next time.