This column and many others have recently and repeatedly warned that new technologies will have dramatic effects on society.

Studies say things like: “57% of 1960 workers’ jobs no longer exist;” “47% of all U.S. jobs are at high risk of falling to computerization within two decades;” and “By 2055 over 50% of all work tasks will be automated.” This is all probably true. So, as part of this change, readers of this journal must adjust to the arrival of electric vehicles (EVs).   

Many of these changes are caused by government and totally ignore technology realities. For example, 300,000 customers buying a Tesla Model 3 deposited $1,000 each to achieve a $7,500 federal tax credit for buying a car that has yet to be fully designed, manufactured or delivered. Tesla has also benefitted from $174 million in (California) sales-tax suspension for equipment purchases and tens of millions of dollars in “emission credits” due to federal and state distortions to industrial economics. Most of the distortions are based on “happy thoughts” foisted on the public to sell green technology to save the world. 

The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy claims that 570,000 jobs will be created, including 50,000 in vehicle manufacturing. Their study does not address what happens to existing carmakers’ employees or the fossil-fuel industry. Nor does it address facts about the inadequacy of current battery technology to meet EV owner needs (decreased battery costs and life, availability of charging stations with short recharge times) or about dislocations in electricity generation to replace fossil-fuel use when 18 gigawatts of generation must be added in the next decade to meet consumption. In truth, today’s bright EV outlook is mostly based on the federal tax subsidy of $7,500 for buyers plus an added 3 cents per mile driven.

What politicians do not know or comprehend is something that you in the thermal-processing sector must understand. EVs will drastically affect the metals industry. Internal combustion cars typically contain 20 kg of copper, while EVs need 80 kg; battery manufacturing today uses 42% of cobalt production, so 58% is consumed in non-battery use, most of which comes as a by-product of copper mining. Lithium, nickel, manganese and cobalt supplies will be hard-pressed to meet EV industry demands, which will drive up both the price and availability of these metals. But you should be comforted knowing that 60% of the world’s cobalt reserves are located in the stable (I mean corrupt) Democratic Republic of the Congo. The USGS reports that last year’s cobalt production was 124,000 metric tons, with the U.S. and Canada together mining 4% of it. 

Also remember that light weight is critical for an EV, so the use of plastics instead of steel is a given for body structure. Globally, plastics use in EVs is expected to grow this supply sector 37.3% by 2021 alone. It is currently projected that the batteries of an EV will be a plurality of weight and dominate operating costs. Lead-acid batteries could constitute 25-50% of an EVs weight and have good efficiency (70-75%) compared to nickel-metal hydride (60-75%), which exhibits problems in charging and has poor cold-weather performance. Molten-salt batteries have poor power density and long-term storage issues. Lithium-ion batteries have good power density but degrade significantly with age, pose fire risks and are not cold-weather friendly. All of this shows the problems of an EV – electric power supply cost, durability and efficiency. We ain’t there yet, but smart folks are working on it. 

Indeed, these technology problems will be solved, and the EV will be a part of our collective futures around the world. However, too much hype and not enough reality pervades the thinking of do-gooders and politicians today. It is realistic but optimistic, in my view, that the number of U.S. vehicles on the road will fall from 247 million today to 44 million by 2031. Then automated and EV transport of humans – making up 95% of passenger miles driven on the road with a tenfold increase in vehicle utilization, with EVs having a 500,000-mile lifetime – will change our world. 

But, again, the metals and materials-processing sectors may face some unusual and unforeseen times as the world of EVs unfolds. A word to the wise, as they say.