3D Printing Miracles: Electric Car Apocalypse

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We’re accustomed to introspection regarding the future of 3D printing, pondering improvements to enhance the viability of our technology. Yet, what circumstances could enable us to expand from $14.7 billion today to $147 billion by 2026? The COVID pandemic has already reshaped the world, demonstrating the increased viability of 3D printing for many manufacturers. What other scenarios could potentially catalyze our industry’s rapid growth?

The Electric Car Apocalypse

Supply chain delays during the pandemic, coupled with pent-up demand, led to increases in car prices. High demand for cars and low supply resulted in price hikes by car companies, dealers, and in the second-hand market. Eventually, supply chain glitches were overcome, and second-hand prices then dropped precipitously. In the UK, electric vehicles (EVs) and other cars declined by around 15% in price year over year. Subsequently, China’s economy underwent a meltdown, resulting in Chinese EVs being offloaded on the European and other markets at low prices. Tesla then slashed its prices, leading to significant challenges for rental car companies holding many Teslas, prompting them to offload the cars on the market. Now, Tesla is cutting prices in Europe and China again as inventories pile up. There are stories, such as one of a 2021 $23,000 Chevy Bolt now being appraised at $14,000. Some see a silver lining because electric cars are becoming more affordable. Electric cars are now around 17% more expensive than gas ones after a fall in pricing of 21% in a year, whereas just a few years ago, electric cars were 42% more expensive than gas ones.

What is Happening?

There are two perspectives on Tesla’s decision to slash prices: one views it as a strategy to maintain margins and increase volume sales against Chinese competitors and major automobile firms, effectively initiating a price war to dominate the EV market. This approach implies that for electric cars to become the predominant platform, they need to be more affordable, and Tesla is leading this charge. Despite Tesla’s stock dropping by half from its highs over the past year, the company was already planning to introduce a more affordable Model 2, which could have undercut other car models and made electric driving more accessible without reducing the prices of premium products, potentially damaging the company’s reputation permanently.

However, with Tesla’s revenue declining, previous price cuts seem ineffective, raising questions about the rationale behind continuing this strategy. Elon Musk’s controversial statements have also sparked speculation that public sentiment towards him, and consequently electric vehicles, might be deteriorating. Alternatives to consider include a broader economic slowdown affecting the EV market, the possibility that electric cars have reached their key consumer demographic and are awaiting broader adoption, or the perspective that hybrid vehicles, as long promoted by Toyota, represent the most practical solution for the majority.

This situation could reflect either a hasty reaction to anticipated market shifts, leading to excessive price reductions, or a calculated plan to outcompete rivals by enduring short-term losses. What is clear is that rapid depreciation is making electric vehicles more costly to own, while slashing new car prices undermines the investment of existing owners, who may feel deceived by their depreciating assets.

Batteries

A crucial aspect not receiving sufficient attention is the quality and condition of batteries in EVs. Unlike traditional cars, where mileage serves as an indicator of the vehicle’s value and remaining lifespan, EVs present a different scenario. The number of charging cycles, climate conditions, and charging practices significantly influence an EV’s battery life. Currently, consumers lack access to detailed information regarding battery health, such as the number of cycles or the overall condition, making it challenging to assess the risk of purchasing an EV and determining its accurate price.

For instance, two June 2022 Polestars priced at $25,000 with 50,000 kilometers might offer vastly different remaining mileages—one could last another 150,000 kilometers, while the other might only manage another 75,000 kilometers. Without the ability to independently verify battery health and longevity, it’s impossible for buyers to know the fair price of these cars or to distinguish between a vehicle with a good or bad battery.

The seminal paper “The Market for ‘Lemons’” discusses how uncertainty and information asymmetry can lead to lower market prices. This principle could explain the depressed prices of EVs, suggesting that the recent trend of price slashing might exacerbate the issue by triggering a rush to sell electric cars. It’s conceivable that car manufacturers and dealers, aware of the significant variations in true values due to battery health, are eager to reduce inventory.

Assuming this scenario is accurate, alongside the other factors mentioned, it offers a comprehensive explanation for the observed market dynamics, potentially more so than any other hypothesis presented thus far.

Chart courtesy Nissan.

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Audi Etron battery pack.

In the US, the pricing for a new 2024 Polestar 2 Long Range stands at $49,000. Conversely, launch editions of the same model from 2021 with 40,000 miles are listed between $25,000 and $28,000, despite variations in mileage. For instance, versions of the car with 30,000 miles are similarly priced, while a significantly lower mileage option, with just 6,000 miles, is available for $35,000. However, a critical factor not disclosed in any of these transactions is the battery health of the vehicles. It’s widely understood that EVs operated in hotter climates suffer quicker battery degradation than those in temperate climates, yet, across several platforms in the states, there’s no apparent price distinction based on climate exposure.

The cost of battery replacement for the Polestar has been quoted with a wide variance, ranging from $36,000 to an exorbitant $79,000. This pricing discrepancy creates a scenario where cars only three to four years old could be considered almost valueless, as the cost of a new battery alone might exceed the value of the car itself. When combined with the purchase price of a second-hand vehicle, the total expense could surpass the cost of buying a new car.

The situation appears somewhat more manageable with the Tesla Model S, where battery replacement is estimated at $14,000, and for the Model Y, around $10,600. Nonetheless, the uncertainty surrounding battery health and its impact implies that owners may face a significant unforeseen expense. For example, a 2017 Tesla Model S, currently priced at $25,000, carries the potential future cost of $14,000 for battery replacement at an indeterminate time.

This scenario underscores the broader issue of information asymmetry regarding battery health in the EV market. The absence of transparent, accessible data on battery condition complicates the purchasing decision for second-hand EVs, affecting perceived value and potentially influencing market dynamics.

The 3D Printing Opportunities

The emerging scenario presents two distinct opportunities in the realm of 3D printing, linked to the evolving dynamics within the EV market.

Firstly, the anticipated depreciation in the value of EVs, driven by the high cost of battery replacement, positions these vehicles as attractive prospects for tinkerers and hardware hackers. As the market adjusts and certain EVs become significantly less valuable—potentially valued less than the cost of a new car—these vehicles could be acquired at low costs. This opens up exciting avenues for innovation, with 3D printing playing a pivotal role. Enthusiasts could leverage these affordable, technologically advanced vehicles as platforms for customization and experimentation, transforming them into tech hubs, advanced security systems, or the operational brains behind factory automation. The inherent versatility and adaptability of 3D printing technologies make them ideal for such endeavors, enabling the creation of custom parts, enhancements, and modifications to repurpose these vehicles in imaginative and valuable ways.

Secondly, the broader economic implications associated with the battery replacement challenge in the EV sector underscore a massive market opportunity. With approximately 50 million electric cars currently in use and an average battery replacement cost of $10,000 per vehicle, the industry faces a looming $500 billion market in battery replacements alone. As the EV market continues to mature, this figure represents just the beginning. Starting around 2030, as the first wave of current EVs requires battery replacements, there could be an annual market opportunity worth $250 billion for battery replacements. This market potential rivals significant existing industries, such as consulting, food delivery, and beauty, offering substantial opportunities for businesses capable of innovating in battery technology, manufacturing, recycling, and aftermarket services. 3D printing could play a crucial role here as well, especially in the development and production of battery components, custom battery enclosures, and other related innovations that could reduce costs, extend battery life, or enhance performance, further catalyzing this burgeoning market opportunity.

Low Tech Replacement

The second opportunity for 3D printing lies in producing replacement batteries. This approach, considered low-tech, involves creating a 3D printed housing and brackets specifically for a particular vehicle. Old battery units from consumer electronics, other vehicles, and various devices would be repurposed within this housing, offering an environmentally friendly solution to extend a car’s lifespan. Additionally, 3D printing can cost-effectively produce housings for any current battery technology, device, or form factor. The advent of new battery cells or subunits poses no issue, as housings, along with all necessary tools and components, can be swiftly printed. This would necessitate the use of polymer and ceramics 3D printers, along with affordable metal 3D printers, utilizing bound metal and ceramics to manufacture essential parts, including frames and covers.

A high-tech approach also presents an opportunity to create aftermarket batteries incorporating the latest technology, tailored to specific vehicles. Although original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) may not support this, 3D printing could facilitate the necessary customizations. For instance, a battery pack designed for a Polestar could be adapted using 3D-printed parts for a perfect fit, without infringing on Polestar’s intellectual property. This new battery technology could be more cost-effective, offer a better range, or be more environmentally friendly than the original equipment. While OEMs might sell their packs at a premium, aftermarket solutions could combine individual batteries with custom parts to fit them into vehicles. However, this approach could pose risks, and regulatory considerations will need to be addressed.

What would this mean for 3D Printing?

Assuming that only 5% of all electric vehicles (EVs) sold annually are upgraded with non-OEM batteries, this equates to 1.3 million cars each year. If the cost for each replacement is $3,000, then this represents a $3.9 billion opportunity. Considering that the 3D printing component constitutes 30% of the total value, this still amounts to an annual opportunity of $1.17 billion. This could offer moderate extra growth potential and introduce a new market segment, accounting for approximately a tenth of our current total revenues.

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