On the slope of a thickly forested Czech mountain, three men in hard hats and mud-spattered fluorescent vests dig for the metal that could power a new industrial revolution.
They watch carefully as a mobile rig, mounted on tank treads, hammers and spins a drill bit hundreds of yards into the bedrock. Water gushes from the bore as the bit punctures an underground spring.
The men are prospecting for new sources of lithium, a raw material now found primarily in China and Chile that could become as important to the auto industry as oil is now.
Faster than anyone expected, electric cars are becoming as economical and practical as cars with conventional engines. Prices for lithium-ion batteries are plummeting, while technical advances are increasing driving ranges and cutting recharging times.
“Once the trend gets going, it can happen very fast,” said Guido Jouret, chief digital officer at ABB, an electronics company based in Zurich whose businesses include constructing charging stations.
But this electric-car future is still missing some pieces. Some crucial raw materials are scarce. There are not enough places to recharge. Battery-powered cars still cost thousands of dollars more than many gasoline vehicles.
Car companies are racing to overcome these obstacles. They, and the millions of people they employ, risk becoming irrelevant.
“Many people are nervous about how fast this is coming and how much they have to invest,” said Norbert Dressler, a senior partner at Roland Berger in Stuttgart, Germany, who advises the auto industry.
Here’s a look at what needs to happen before electric cars take over the world.
Price of an electric car powertrain:
Price of a conventional car powertrain:
Electric cars will go mainstream when the cost of the powertrain — the motor and other guts that make the vehicle move — is the same as owning cars that burn gasoline or diesel. How soon that day arrives is almost solely a function of the price of batteries.
Battery prices, measured by the power they produce, have already fallen by more than half since 2011, according to analysts at Bank of America Merrill Lynch. The unexpectedly rapid drop in prices has sped up the timetable.
Merrill Lynch analysts now expect electric vehicles in the United States will be cheaper than their traditional counterparts by 2024. Just a year ago, they estimated it would take until 2030.
One reason battery costs are falling is that manufacturers are ramping up production. The greater the supply, the lower the price.
Car companies like Daimler are getting into the battery business. Daimler has invested $590 million in a new battery plant in Kamenz, a sleepy city in a rural part of eastern Germany.
“This is an important investment in the future,” Chancellor Angela Merkel told Daimler executives and other dignitaries at a groundbreaking in May. Within a few months, workers had erected prefabricated concrete walls for the enormous new building and assembled the roof girders.
“We could buy batteries,” said Jupp Kaufer, head of quality at Accumotive, Daimler’s battery unit.
But Daimler would rather earn the profits than pay them to a supplier like Samsung or Panasonic. “The battery is a crucial part of the vehicle,” Mr. Kaufer said as he walked through the assembly line of another factory in Kamenz that is already running at capacity.
Price of cobalt:
Price of lithium:
Price of graphite:
Carmakers are racing to secure the essential ingredients in batteries like cobalt, lithium and graphite. They need to avoid shortages that would drive prices too high, making electric vehicles unaffordable.
But manufacturers are also dealing with a geopolitical dimension. Three-quarters of the world’s reserves of lithium, a crucial ingredient in the most common kind of electric car battery, are in China and Chile, according to the United States Geological Survey. As demand surges, China could deploy its natural resources as a diplomatic cudgel the same way that Saudi Arabia uses oil.
The risk that a few countries could control most of the ingredients for electric car batteries is what spurred the drilling crew to the mountainside in Cinovec in the Czech Republic. As early as the 1300s, miners dug tin — “cin” in Czech — from the mountains around the town. Later, the area was an important source of tungsten, but the last shaft closed in 1993. Demand for lithium has made mining in the area attractive again.
European Metals Holdings Ltd., an Australian company, is drilling into the bedrock and hauling out core samples to map deposits. The company plans to complete a feasibility study next year and begin mining and processing the ore in Cinovec soon after.
“We are already in touch with some battery makers,” Richard Pavlik, manager of a European Metals subsidiary overseeing the work in Cinovec, said as he watched the drilling crew.
As for cobalt, it comes primarily from the Democratic Republic of Congo, one of the world’s most war-torn and unstable countries. Illegal mining operations there have been accused of using child labor.
Mining companies are hunting for sources in less problematic locations. First Cobalt, based in Toronto, has announced plans to reopen a former silver and cobalt mine in the aptly named town of Cobalt, Ontario. “We think we are at a point of no return with electric vehicles,” said Trent Mell, the company’s chief executive.
Average range of a gasoline-powered car:
Average range of an electric vehicle:
Even when people can buy an electric car for the same price or less than a gasoline model, they face another problem: where to plug it in. And they won’t want to wait all day for the car to recharge.
Electric cars will become commonplace once there is a dense network of high-voltage charging stations where drivers can refill their batteries in the time it takes to use the restroom and drink a cup of coffee.
At the moment, a cross-country drive in an electric car is an adventure.
Edwin Stafford, a professor of marketing at Utah State University in Logan, Utah, carefully plotted his charging stops before setting out recently in his Tesla S for Berkeley, Calif., with his family.
Tesla S owners have free access to Tesla charging stations and can use the waiting time to have a meal or shop. In half an hour, a high voltage Tesla “supercharger” can supply enough juice to travel 170 miles, according to Tesla. But the amenities at charging stations varied, Mr. Stafford said.
At one in Nevada, the only nearby business was a casino, he said. At another, the charging apparatus was blocked by an illegally parked truck. Close to the Bay Area, there were sometimes lines of other Tesla owners waiting to charge, he added.
But an array of start-ups and established companies like ABB are busy installing charging stations around the world, and they are on their way to becoming commonplace. There are already about 16,000 public charging stations in the United States, up from a few hundred in 2010. That compares with about 112,000 gas stations.
Surprisingly, Volkswagen’s emissions scandal has accelerated the rollout. As part of its settlement with diesel owners in the United States who bought cars with illegal software, Volkswagen agreed to spend $2 billion to promote electric cars and build infrastructure. Electrify America, a company established to invest the settlement money, plans to install more than 2,000 fast chargers nationwide by mid-2019 in a first phase, with thousands more to follow.
time from 0 to 60 m.p.h., Audi A8:
time from 0 to 60 m.p.h., Tesla S:
One of the biggest barriers for electric vehicles is psychological. People are used to internal combustion engines and the sensations that go with them — the odor of the fuel, the shifting of the transmission, the sound of the engine as the car accelerates.
Electric cars have a different personality that people need to get their heads around before they will buy one.
They may be pleasantly surprised. The physics of electric motors give them exceptional acceleration. A $135,000 Tesla S clocked by Motor Trend magazine went from zero to 60 miles per hour faster than Ferraris, Lamborghinis or Porsches costing hundreds of thousands of dollars more.
Electric cars are quiet, nearly vibration free and they don’t smell like gasoline or exhaust. They don’t need oil changes. They cost less to operate — about 1 cent per mile compared to 10 cents per mile for a gasoline-powered car. Electric cars hug the road because heavy battery packs, typically arrayed underneath the passenger compartment, provide low centers of gravity and high stability.
“There is no question that an electric car gives you significantly better performance,” Mr. Stafford said. “I don’t think the mainstream driver is going to understand that unless they experience it.”
Carmakers’ investment in electric vehicles:
Carmakers’ annual profit:
The industry is racing to invest in the future, as electric cars portend sweeping economic and societal changes. The transition will be painful for traditional carmakers and suppliers, potentially even catastrophic.
Electric cars have about 25 percent fewer parts than conventional autos. Companies that make engine parts like pistons, fuel injection systems or spark plugs will have to find new products to sell, or die. Some workers’ skills will no longer be needed.
Governments will lose fuel tax revenues. Filling stations and auto repair shops will go out of business. To compete with Tesla, which allows customers to buy cars online, car companies will have to radically streamline their dealership networks.
“The cake will be smaller,” said Volkmar Denner, the chief executive of Bosch, the auto parts maker.
Established carmakers will face new competitors taking advantage of the technology shift to break into the market. Chinese companies are investing heavily in electric cars. Dyson, a British company hitherto known for its innovative vacuum cleaners, has announced plans to develop an electric car.
Big car companies recognize the threat and argue that they can deploy their enormous manufacturing networks to roll out electric vehicles faster than Tesla, which has struggled to meet demand.
“We won’t have a problem building one million cars,” said Herbert Diess, chief executive of the division that makes Volkswagen brand cars.
But the automakers’ existing expertise — building internal combustion engines — will no longer give them a competitive edge.
“They are losing a lot of their intellectual capital,” said Geoffrey Heal, a professor at Columbia Business School. “And they have to find a way to replace it.”