Features
8 Jun 22

Lucas Di Grassi: Making the transition to EVs the right way

Vehicle advances such as seat belts, the rear-view mirror, disc brakes, and turbo charged motors started in the vehicle racing industry before coming to consumers, but possibly the largest transition in the automobile industry today also made significant advances on the speedways some 10 years ago.

With environmental sustainability on the minds of many, Formula E racing (the electric version of Formula 1) started in 2012 and today, the transition to electric vehicles (EV) is occurring throughout the world.

Present since the beginning of this transition was Formula E race driver Lucas Di Grassi, winner of the Formula E championship in the 2016-17 season (pictued left). Considering his knowledge of the technology and business behind EVs as well as the related environmental issues around the world, his experience goes far beyond the track.

In addition to being a Formula E champion, Mr. Di Grassi is an entrepreneur as well as a clean air ambassador for the United Nations. Below are some of his outtakes of the industry, including a look on whether or not his home country of Brazil is ideal for the transition to EVs.

Before we start, we must understand that producers of electric vehicles (EV) - for the most part – are battery manufacturers. In the last few years, battery technologies have been growing exponentially, investments are on the rise, and the increasing demand for xEV (all types of electric vehicles) are expected to continue.

Battery Technology

Finding the most efficient way to store energy is key today and there are several battery technologies we can look out for in the industry.  

“As of 1Q22, most cars are using lithium NMC (nickel manganese cobalt oxide). However, in China, lithium with iron phosphate is being used, a cheaper alternative which should be replacing NMC for the private car market soon,” Mr. Di Grassi said on Brazilian TV program Roda Viva.

There are other technologies such as NTO (titanium-niobium oxide). They charge faster but have lower energy output, so this technology is better suited for hybrid vehicles.

Another benefit of EV batteries is that they are recyclable. While a battery from your conventional internal combustion engine is made up of highly polluting materials such as lead and acid, EV batteries are made up of elements such as cobalt, manganese, and nickel which are totally recyclable, Mr. Di Grassi said.

EV batteries last for approximately 10 years, but they do have a second life offer. Once removed from cars, they can be implemented into infrastructure (hospitals, homes, electrical substations etc.).

Focusing on public health

As the UN clean air ambassador, Mr. Di Grassi says that he is focused on reducing CO2 emissions, fighting global warming, an improving public health, something that can be achieved by making the transition to zero emission vehicles, or to say battery electric vehicles (BEV).

Some cities are worse than others and one which is especially worrisome to the ambassador is Delhi. “I visited Delhi recently and during my stay, I discovered that 8 in 10 children will have chronic pulmonary problems in their life owing to bad air quality”.

However, Mr. Di Grassi says that private vehicles are only a small fraction of the problem. While they only produce 3-4% of the polluting emissions around the world, there are a slew of other causes such as energy and food production, construction services, and other industries.

Are EVs good for Brazil?

Making the transition to electric vehicles can help matters but remember that the way we generate electricity itself must be clean. 

One clean solution calls for creating electric energy by way of hydroelectric plants. In Brazil, approximately 72% of the energy is produced in this manner and some 85% of the energy produced in the country can be considered renewable. 

While 70% of electric energy production is to blame for global emissions worldwide due to production stemming from coal and fuels such as diesel and gasoline, only 6% of electric energy production is to blame for global emissions in Brazil as it focuses more on hydro-powered energy and natural gas.

According to Mr. Grassi, creating energy through photovoltaic cells is also cleaner and more efficient than fossil fuel or coal-based energy generation. Regions such as those in the Nordics are an exception though as sunlight is sufficient for only about half of the year. 

A country like Brazil which has a lot of land mass and abundant sunlight could benefit highly by photovoltaic energy generation, Mr. Grassi said, explaining the use of hydroelectric at night and photovoltaic during the day.

Lastly, the Formula E champ said that sugarcane-based ethanol is also a clean option in Brazil as it recaptures CO2 in the crop fields. Ethanol and bio diesel are competitive energies in Brazil, but electric powertrains are better if you are traveling many kilometers.  

One firm advocate of ethanol in Brazil is Wilson Ferreira Junior (pictured left) who is President of Rio de Janeiro based energy company Vibra Energia. Although the country’s electricity production is clean, there are still large barriers for the fleet manager, he says.

EVs are expensive today, at least double the price of a combustion engine vehicle, and their battery packs are quite heavy (some 500 kilos), thus impacting efficiency. “I feel that we will be using ethanol for quite a long time,” Mr Ferreira said on Roda Viva, referring to this decade (until 2030).

One alternative to look out for in Brazil today are hybrid vehicles which are ethanol capable. In fact, the first-ever vehicle of this kind worldwide was launched in Brazil (2020 Toyota Corolla hybrid flex).  

By 2030, Mr. Ferreira sees electric vehicle production representing no more than 15% of the market in Brazil with some 3% of vehicle stock being EVs. Most of them (two thirds) should be hybrids. 

In the coming years, electric vehicle sales will be incrementally more than today. However, the executive does not really see any significant change coming to the country, at least in this decade.

With that said, we certainly can't count EVs out. Within the next few years, more expansive electric recharging networks will be available in Brazil from both the public and private sector and energy stations should be replacing petrol stations, meaning that they will provide electric and hydrogen recharging as well as gasoline and ethanol. 

Whether or not this will be enough to sufficiently accomplish the EV transition is yet to be seen but certainly expect EV popularity to grow in Brazil over the coming years. 

EV sales in Brazil reached nearly 35,000 in 2021, up 77% year-over-year, according to local electric vehicle association ABVE, and this represents some 2% of overall light vehicle sales. At the start of 2022, approximately 73,000 electrified cars and light commercial vehicles were on Brazilian streets.

For more on what is happening around the world in terms of fleet and mobility, including fleet electrification, download "The World in 2022", a Global Fleet E-book..

Authored by: Daniel Bland