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Time to take stock of EVs as car majors power up

With the numbers involved colossal, its time for investors as well to familiarise themselves with what is happening in the showroom

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Tesla, fast, green and not cheap, yet

If the headline grabber in 2015 was wearable tech, driveable tech promises to be the coming year’s big thing.

Dashboards are already being eyed as computer extensions by such as Apple and Samsung, but it is how cars are powered that may see some of the most startling leaps forward.

True, the internal combustion engine is not going anywhere anytime soon, but by the end of next year expect at least one electric vehicle to be parked in your neighbourhood if not your street.

And with the numbers involved colossal, it may be time for investors as well to familiarise themselves with what is happening in the showroom

Leading the drive down Electric Avenue is the mercurial US entrepreneur Elon Musk and his Tesla Motor Corporation.

Tesla, valued at US$30bn currently, is already shipping decent quantities of its battery-powered cars.

Sales this year are forecast to be around 50,000 vehicles, though so far they have largely been confined to the eco-conscious and super rich.

It is the advent of Tesla’s new S and X models that promises to shift the paradigm.

Not only are these aimed more at the mass market, but Musk has vowed to address the issues of range and performance that hindered earlier models.

As its adverts say: “Step on the accelerator and in as little as 2.8 seconds Model S is travelling 60 miles per hour.”

It looks impressive and rave reviews from motoring journalists have backed this up. CNN, for instance, recently rated the Tesla X as its SUV of the year

Musk says the limits of physics have been reached with the internal combustion engine and a fundamental architectural change is needed in motoring.

If it were just Musk on his own investors might still be able to ignore the sector as one for the hobbyists.

But VW’s diesel-cheating scandal has seemingly been the catalyst for the car industry in general to dust off its electric plans.

The ending of production of VW’s Phaeton is apparently so that it can reappear in 2019 as an all-electric model aimed squarely at the Tesla S.

Raymond Greaves and David Buxton, analysts at broker finnCap suggest VW’s decision is a potential tipping point: “An industry that is no more than playing with electrification at this stage could firmly grasp the initiative and confidently move forward into a new age of clean and silent transportation.”

They point to the German group’s huge R&D budget (around €11.5bn), but it’s not just VW.

In December, US giant Ford announced it would spend US$4.5bn adding more electric vehicles (EVs) to its range.

While these are companies that can afford to spend big, it is a still a serious commitment.

Toyota, the world’s number one car maker, meanwhile, has already started to produce its own variation on the petrol engine.

Unlike Tesla, VW (potentially) and Ford’s-battery powered cars, Toyota uses hydrogen electrolysers and fuel cells.

Toyota’s car, the Mirai, produces only water vapour and can travel 300 miles on a full tank of hydrogen, which the Japanese firm says is further than any electric car currently available can from a single charge.

"Our goal is to produce 30,000 units annually by 2020," said Yoshikazu Tanaka, the car’s chief engineer, though he added more work was needed to make the technology more accessible and affordable.

Accessibility seems to be a major bugbear for fuel cell vehicles.

Only California in the US has hydrogen re-fuel stations at present and the UK has just a handful.

Even so, Greaves and Buxton believe that that a long-term trend towards electrification (whether by fuel cells or batteries) will usher in vast opportunities for all companies already working on the technology.

Lithium (Li) miners, such as Rare Earth Minerals (LON:REM) which has an agreement with Tesla, have already seen some of the benefit of this.

Tesla has indicated the metal will be central to the batteries that will power its vehicles.

“Any shift to electrification of vehicles will result in huge incremental demand for lithium (probably the core battery material for some time yet) and copper (motor windings),” said the finnCap analysts.

On the tech front, they highlight Ilika (LON:IKA) Li-ion battery performance improvement), Cap-XX (LON:CPX) super-capacitors for stop/start assist and regen braking), Intelligent Energy (LON:IEH) fuel cell powertrains), ITM Power (LON:ITM) hydrogen storage) and Ricardo (LON:RCDO) expertise in hybridisation and full electric powertrains) as ones to watch.

As an idea of the potential, it’s back to a recent interview with Musk.

He said there are two billion cars and trucks on the road currently so even a few million vehicles would not raise a decimal point.

But he says, by 2020 (hopefully), global EV sales will be “a few per cent” of the total.

That’s an awful lot of cars compared to now and on those kinds of numbers it’s easy to see why there might just be room for all.

Quick facts: Tesla Inc

Price: 261.86 USD

NASDAQ:TSLA
Market: NASDAQ
Market Cap: $46.87 billion
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