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The EV Transition Explained

Engineering a new cyberphysical system at scale poses daunting challenges

7 min read
F-150 Lightnings parked at charging stations at the Rouge Electric Vehicle Center in Dearborn, Michigan

These F-150 Lightnings are parked at charging stations at the Rouge Electric Vehicle Center in Dearborn, Mich.


From the outside, there is little to tell a basic Ford XL ICE F-150 from the electric Ford PRO F-150 Lightning. Exterior changes could pass for a typical model-year refresh. While there are LED headlight and rear-light improvements along with a more streamlined profile, the Lightning’s cargo box is identical to that of an ICE F-150, complete with tailgate access steps and a jobsite ruler. The Lightning’s interior also has a familiar feel.

But when you pop the Lightning’s hood, you find that the internal combustion engine has gone missing. In its place is a front trunk (“frunk”), while concealed beneath is the new skateboard frame with its dual electric motors (one for each axle) and a big 98-kilowatt-hour standard (and 131-kWh extended-range)battery pack. The combination permits the Lightning to travel 230 miles (370 kilometers) without recharging and go from 0 to 60 miles per hour in 4.5 seconds, making it the fastest F-150 available despite its much heavier weight.

Invisible, too, are the Lightning’s sophisticated computing and software systems. The 2016 ICE F-150 reportedly had about 150 million lines of code. The Lightning’s software suite may even be larger than its ICE counterpart (Ford will not confirm this). The Lightning replaces the Ford F-150 ICE-related software in the electronic control units (ECUs) with new “intelligent” software and systems that control the main motors, manage the battery system, and provide charging information to the driver.

The EV Transition Explained

This is the first in a series of articles exploring the major technological and social challenges that must be addressed as we move from vehicles with internal-combustion engines to electric vehicles at scale. In reviewing each article, readers should bear in mind Nobel Prize–winning physicist Richard Feynman’s admonition: “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.”

Ford says the Lightning’s software will identify nearby public charging stations and tell drivers when to recharge. To increase the accuracy of the range calculation, the software will draw upon similar operational data communicated from other Lightning owners that Ford will dynamically capture, analyze, and feed back to the truck.

For executives, however, Lightning’s software is not only a big consumer draw but also among the biggest threats to its success. Ford CEO Jim Farley told the New York Times that software bugs worry him most. To mitigate the risk, Ford has incorporated an over-the-air (OTA) software-update capability for both bug fixes and feature upgrades. Yet with an incorrect setting in the Lightning’s tire pressure monitoring system requiring a software fix only a few weeks after its initial delivery, and with some new Ford Mustang Mach-Esrecalled because of misconfigured software caused by a “service update or as an over-the-air update,” Farley’s worries probably won’t be soothed for some time.

Ford calls the Lightning a “Model T moment for the 21st century” and the company’s US $50 billion investment in EVs is a bet-the-company proposition. Short-term success looks likely, as Ford closed Lightning preorders after reaching 200,000 and with sales expectations of 150,000 a year by 2024.

A construction crew working on a site with a Ford F-150's frunk open showing tools.The F-150 Lightning’s front trunk (also known as a frunk) helps this light-duty electric pickup haul even more. Ford

However, long-term success is not guaranteed. “Ford is walking a tightrope, trying at the same time to convince everyone that EVs are the same as ICE vehicles yet different,” says University of Michigan professor emeritus John Leslie King, who has long studied the auto industry. Ford and other automakers will need to convince tens of millions of customers to switch to EVs to meet the Biden Administration’s decarbonization goals of 50 percent new auto sales being non-ICE vehicles by 2030.

King points out that neither Ford nor other automakers can forever act like EVs are merely interchangeable with—but more ecofriendly than—their ICE counterparts. As EVs proliferate at scale, they operate in a vastly different technological, political, and social ecosystem than ICE vehicles. The core technologies and requisite expertise, supply-chain dependencies, and political alliances are different. The expectations of and about EV owners, and their agreement to change their lifestyles, also differ significantly.

Indeed, the challenges posed by the transition from ICE vehicles to EVs at scale are significantly larger in scope and more complex than the policymakers setting the regulatory timeline appreciate. The systems-engineering task alone is enormous, with countless interdependencies that are outside policymakers’ control, and resting on optimistic assumptions about promising technologies and wished-for changes in human behavior. The risk of getting it wrong, and the resulting negative environmental and economic consequences created, are high. In this series, we will break down the myriad infrastructure, policy, and social challenges involved learned from discussions with numerous industry insiders and industry watchers. Let’s take a look at some of the elemental challenges blocking the road ahead for EVs.

The soft car

For Ford and the other automakers that have shaped the ICE vehicle ecosystem for more than a century, ultimate success is beyond the reach of the traditional political, financial, and technological levers they once controlled. Renault chief executive Luca de Meo, for example, is quoted in the Financial Times as saying that automakers must recognize that “the game has changed,” and they will “have to play by new rules” dictated by the likes of mining and energy companies.

One reason for the new rules, observes professor Deepak Divan, the director of the Center for Distributed Energy at Georgia Tech, is that the EV transition is “a subset of the energy transition” away from fossil fuels. On the other hand, futurist Peter Schwartzcontends that the entire electric system is part of the EV supply chain. These alternative framings highlight the strong codependencies involved. Consequently, automakers will be competing against not only other EV manufacturers but also numerous players involved in the energy transition aiming to grab the same scarce resources and talent.

“Ford is walking a tightrope, trying at the same time to convince everyone that EVs are the same as ICE vehicles yet different.” —John Leslie King

EVs represent a new class of cyberphysical systems that unify the physical with information technology, allowing them to sense, process, act, and communicate in real time within a large transportation ecosystem, as I have noted in detail elsewhere. While computing in ICE vehicles typically optimizes a car’s performance at the time of sale, EV-based cyberphysical systems are designed to evolve as they are updated and upgraded, postponing their obsolescence.

“As an automotive company, we’ve been trained to put vehicles out when they’re perfect,” Ford’s Farley told the New York Times. “But with software, you can change it with over-the-air updates.” This allows new features to be introduced in existing models instead of waiting for next year’s model to appear. Farley sees Ford spending much less effort on changing vehicles’ physical properties and devoting more to upgrading their software capabilities in the future.

Systems engineering for holistic solutions

EV success at scale depends on as much, if not more, on political decisions as technical ones. Government decision-makers in the United States at both the state and federal level, for instance, have created EV market incentives and set increasingly aggressive dates to sunset ICE vehicle sales, regardless of whether the technological infrastructure needed to support EVs at scale actually exists. While passing public policy can set a direction, it does not guarantee that engineering results will be available when needed.

“A systems-engineering approach towards managing the varied and often conflicting interests of the many stakeholders involved will be necessary to find a workable solution.” —Chris Paredis

Having committed $1.2 trillion through 2030 so far toward decarbonizing the planet, automakers are understandably wary not only of the fast reconfiguration of the auto industry but of the concurrent changes required in the energy, telecom, mining, recycling, and transportation industries that must succeed for their investments to pay off.

The EV transition is part of an unprecedented, planetary-wide, cyberphysical systems-engineering project with massive potential benefits as well as costs. Considering the sheer magnitude, interconnectedness, and uncertainties presented by the concurrent technological, political, and social changes necessary, the EV transition will undoubtedly be messy.

This chart from the Global EV Outlook 2021, IEA, Paris shows 2020 EV sales in the first column; in the second column, projected sales under current climate-mitigation policies; in the third column, projected sales under accelerated climate-mitigation policies.

“There is a lot that has to go right. And it won’t all go right,” observes Kristin Dziczek, former vice president of research at the Center for Automotive Research and now a policy analyst with the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. “We will likely stumble forward in some fashion,” but, she stresses, “it’s not a reason not to move forward.”

How many stumbles and how long the transition will take depend on whether the multitude of challenges involved are fully recognized and realistically addressed.

“Everyone needs to stop thinking in silos. It is the adjacency interactions that are going to kill you.” —Deepak Divan

“A systems-engineering approach towards managing the varied and often conflicting interests of the many stakeholders involved will be necessary to find a workable solution,” says Chris Paredis, the BMW Endowed Chair in Automotive Systems Integration at Clemson University. The range of engineering-infrastructure improvements needed to support EVs, for instance, “will need to be coordinated at a national/international level beyond what can be achieved by individual companies,” he states.

If the nitty gritty but hard-to-solve issues are glossed over or ignored, or if EV expectations are hyped beyond the market’s capability to deliver, no one should be surprised by a backlash against EVs, making the transition more difficult.

Until Tesla proved otherwise, EVs—especially battery EVs (BEVs)—were not believed by legacy automakers to be a viable, scalable approach to transport decarbonization even a decade ago. Tesla’s success at producing more than 3 million vehicles to date has shown that EVs are both technologically and economically feasible, at least for the luxury EV niche.

What has not yet been proven, but is widely assumed, is that BEVs can rapidly replace the majority of the current 1.3 billion-plus light-duty ICE vehicles. The interrelated challenges involving EV engineering infrastructure, policy, and societal acceptance, however, will test how well this assumption holds true.

Therefore, the successful transition to EVs at scale demands a “holistic approach,” emphasizes Georgia Tech’s Deepak Divan. “Everyone needs to stop thinking in silos. It is the adjacency interactions that are going to kill you.”

These adjacency issues involve numerous social-infrastructure obstacles that need to be addressed comprehensively along with the engineering issues, including the interactions and contradictions among them. These issues include the value and impacts of government EV incentives, the EV transition impacts on employment, and the public’s willingness to change its lifestyle behavior when it realizes converting to EVs will not be enough to reach future decarbonization goals.

“We cannot foresee all the details needed to make the EV transition successful,” John Leslie King says. “While there’s a reason to believe we will get there, there’s less reason to believe we know the way. It is going to be hard.”

In the next article in the series, we will look at the complexities introduced by trading our dependence on oil for our dependence on batteries.

The Conversation (3)
Eric Toft16 Nov, 2022

As formulated by those interviewed herein, I don't see how the all-important market comes into play. Solutions that depend on social engineering are doomed to failure, IMHO, as they ignore the market (i.e., customers). I don't want a product that needs 150 million lines of code (I am a SW engineer). The technology is mature enough to serve the luxury/ideologue market segment. For the rest it is too expensive & too inconvenient. Forcing it down people's throats is what this sounds like; that won't work. These problems solve themselves when the technology is ready.

FB TS14 Nov, 2022

Pure EVs (like all Tesla vehicles, for example) are NOT suitable for most(?) people (at least currently) because there is no convenient charging options available everywhere!

General public adoption of EVs would go a lot faster, if they were made "backward-compatible" w/ ICE vehicles!


By governments making it mandatory for all EV makers to include an add-on option which is a flex-fuel gas turbine generator (as both auto-recharger & range-extender)!

Realize then it would be possible to use all EVs same as gas-powered ICE vehicles (as long as needed, everywhere needed)!

1 Reply

We Need More Than Just Electric Vehicles

To decarbonize road transport we need to complement EVs with bikes, rail, city planning, and alternative energy

11 min read
A worker works on the frame of a car on an assembly line.

China has more EVs than any other country—but it also gets most of its electricity from coal.

VCG/Getty Images

EVs have finally come of age. The total cost of purchasing and driving one—the cost of ownership—has fallen nearly to parity with a typical gasoline-fueled car. Scientists and engineers have extended the range of EVs by cramming ever more energy into their batteries, and vehicle-charging networks have expanded in many countries. In the United States, for example, there are more than 49,000 public charging stations, and it is now possible to drive an EV from New York to California using public charging networks.

With all this, consumers and policymakers alike are hopeful that society will soon greatly reduce its carbon emissions by replacing today’s cars with electric vehicles. Indeed, adopting electric vehicles will go a long way in helping to improve environmental outcomes. But EVs come with important weaknesses, and so people shouldn’t count on them alone to do the job, even for the transportation sector.

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