The Unsung Inventor Who Chased the LED Rainbow

LEDs came only in shades of red—until George Craford expanded the palette

10 min read
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Man  with grey hair wearing dress shirt and tie standing in front of an LED stoplight and holding a panel with yellow and red LEDs glowing
Yellow

Walk through half a football field’s worth of low partitions, filing cabinets, and desks. Note the curved mirrors hanging from the ceiling, the better to view the maze of engineers, technicians, and support staff of the development laboratory. Shrug when you spot the plastic taped over a few of the mirrors to obstruct that view.

Go to the heart of this labyrinth and there find M. George Craford, R&D manager for the optoelectronics division of Hewlett-Packard Co., San Jose, Calif. Sitting in his shirtsleeves at an industrial beige metal desk piled with papers, amid dented bookcases, gym bag in the corner, he does not look like anybody’s definition of a star engineer.

Appearances are deceiving.

This article was first published as “M. George Craford.” It appeared in the February 1995 issue of IEEE Spectrum. A PDF version is available on IEEE Xplore. The photographs appeared in the original print version.

“Take a look around during the next few days,” advised Nick Holonyak Jr., the John Bardeen professor of electrical and computer engineering and physics at the University of Illinois, Urbana, and the creator of the first LEDs. “Every yellow light-emitting diode you see—that’s George’s work.”

Holonyak sees Craford as an iceberg—showing a small tip but leaving an amazing breadth and depth unseen. Indeed, Craford does prove to be full of surprises—the gym bag, for example. He skips lunch for workouts in HP’s basement gym, he said, to get in shape for his next adventure, whatever that might be. His latest was climbing the Grand Teton; others have ranged from parachute jumping to whitewater canoeing.

His biggest adventure, though, has been some 30 years of research into light-emitting diodes.

The call of space

When Craford began his education for a technical career, inthe 1950s, LEDs had yet to be invented. It was the adventure of outer space that called to him.

The Iowa farm boy was introduced to science by Illa Podendorf, an author of children’s science books and a family friend who kept the young Craford supplied with texts that suited his interests. He dabbled in astronomy and became a member of the American Association of Variable Star Observers. He built rockets. He performed chemistry experiments, one time, he recalls with glee, generating an explosion that cracked a window in his home laboratory. When the time came, in 1957, to pick a college and a major, he decided to pursue space science, and selected the University of Iowa, in Iowa City, because space pioneer James Van Allen was a physics professor there.

Vital statistics

Name

Magnus George Craford

Date of birth

Dec. 29, 1938

Birthplace

Sioux City, Iowa

Height

185 cm

Family

Wife, Carol; two adult sons, David and Stephen

Education

BA in physics, University of Iowa, 1961; MS and PhD in physics, University of Illinois, 1963 and 1967

First job

Weeding soybean fields

First electronics job

Analyzing satellite data from space

Patents

About 10

People most respected

Explorer and adventurer Sir Richard Burton, photographer Galen Rowell, Nobel­ Prize winner John Bardeen, LED pioneer Nick Holonyak Jr.

Most recent book read

The Charm School

Favorite book

Day of the Jackal

Favorite periodicals

Scientific American, Sports Illustrated, National Geographic, Business Week

Favorite music

String quartets

Favorite composers

Mozart, Beethoven

Computer

“I don’t use one”

Favorite TV show

“NYPD Blue”

Favorite food

Thai, Chinese

Favorite restaurant

Dining room at San Francisco’s Ritz Carlton Hotel

Favorite movies

Bridge on the River Kwai, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Lion in Winter

Leisure activity

Hiking, walking, snow skiing, bicycling, tennis, and, most recently, technical mountain climbing.

Car

Sable Wagon (a company car)

Pet peeves

“People that work for me who don’t come to me with little problems, which fester and turn into big ones.”

Organizational membership

IEEE, Society for Information Display

Favorite awards

National Academy of Engineering, IEEE Fellow, IEEE Morris N. Liebmann Memorial Award; but “everything you do is a team thing, so I have mixed feelings about awards.”

As the space race heated up, Craford’s interest in space science waned, in spite of a summer job analyzing data returned from the first satellites. He had learned a bit about semiconductors, an emerging field, and Van Allen pointed him toward the solid-state physics program at the University of Illinois, where Craford studied first for a master’s degree, then a PhD.

The glowing Dewar

For his doctoral thesis, Craford began investigating tunneling effects in Josephson junctions. He had invested several years in that research when Holonyak, a pioneer in visible lasers and light-emitting diodes, left his position at General Electric Co. and joined the Illinois faculty. Craford met him at a seminar, where Holonyak was ex­plaining his work in LEDs. Recalled Craford: “He had a little LED—just a red speck—and he plunged it into a Dewar of liquid nitrogen, and it lit up the whole flask with a bright red light.”

Entranced, Craford immediately spoke to his thesis adviser about switching, a fairly unusual proposal, since it involved dropping years of work. “My thesis adviser was good about it; he had been spending less time around the lab lately, and Holonyak was building up a group, so he was willing to take me on.”

Craford believes he persuaded the laser pioneer to accept him, the senior man recalls things differently.

Craford’s adviser “was running for U.S. Congress,” Holonyak said, “and he told me, ‘I’ve got this good student, but I’m busy with politics, and everything we do someone publishes ahead of me. I can’t take good care of him. I’d like you to pick him up.”’

However it happened, Craford’s career path was finally set—and the lure of the glowing red Dewar never dimmed.

Holonyak was growing gallium arsenide phosphide and using it successfully to get bright LEDs and lasers. He assigned his new advisee the job of borrowing some high-pressure equipment for experiments with the material. After finding a professor with a pressure chamber he was willing to lend, Craford set up work in the basement of the materials research building. He would carry GaAsP samples from the lab to the materials research basement, cool them in liquid nitrogen, increase the pressure to study the variation of resistivity, and see unexpected effects.

“Just cooling some samples would cause the resistance to go up several times. But add pressure, and they would go up several orders of magnitude,” Craford said. “We couldn’t figure out why.”

Eventually, Craford and a co-worker, Greg Stillman, determined that variations in resistance were related not only to pressure but also to light shining on the samples. “When you cooled a sample and then shone the light on it, the resistance went down—way down—and stayed that way for hours or days as long as the sample was kept at low temperature, an effect called persistent photoconductivity.” Further research showed that it occurred in samples doped with sulfur but not tellurium. Craford and Stillman each had enough material for a thesis and for a paper published in the Physical Review.

The phenomenon seemed to have little practical use, and Craford put it out of his mind, until several years later when researchers at Bell Laboratories found it in gallium aluminum arsenide. “Bell Labs called it the DX Center, which was catchy, studied it intensively, and over time, many papers have been published on it by various groups,” Craford said. Holonyak’s group’s contribution was largely forgotten.

“He doesn’t promote himself,” Holonyak said of Craford, “and sometimes this troubles me about George; I’d like to get him to be more forward about the fact that he has done something.”

Move to Monsanto

After receiving his PhD, Craford had several job offers. The most interesting were from Bell Laboratories and the Monsanto Co. Both were working on LEDs, but Monsanto researchers were focusing on gallium arsenide phosphide, Bell researchers on gallium phosphide. Monsanto’s research operation was less well known than Bell Labs’ and taking the Monsanto job seemed to be a bit of a risk. But Craford, like his hero—adventurer Richard Burton, who spent years seeking the source of the Nile—has little resistance to choosing the less well-trodden path.

Besides, “Gallium phosphide just didn’t seem right,” said Craford, “but who knew?”

In his early days at Monsanto, Craford experimented with both lasers and LEDs. He focused on LEDs full time when it became clear that the defects he and his group were encountering in growing GaAsP on GaAs substrates would not permit fabrication of competitive lasers.

[He] didn’t toot his own horn. “When George [Craford] published the work, he put the names of the guys he had growing crystals and putting the things together ahead of his name.”
—Nick Holonyak

The breakthrough that allowed Craford and his team to go beyond Holonyak’s red LEDs to create very bright orange, yellow, and green LEDs was prompted, ironically, by Bell Labs. A Bell researcher who gave a seminar at Monsanto mentioned the use of nitrogen doping to make indirect semiconductors act more like direct ones. Direct semiconductors are usually better than indirect for LEDs, Craford explained, but the indirect type still has to be used because of band gaps wide enough to give off light in the green, yellow, and orange part of the spectrum. The Bell researcher indicated that the labs had had considerable success with Zn-O doping of gallium phosphide and some success with nitrogen doping of gallium phosphide. Bell Labs, however, had published early experimental work suggesting that nitrogen did not improve GaAsP LEDs.

Man holding panel with 6 by 3 array of LEDs over his head with both hands

Nonetheless, Craford believed in the promise of nitrogen doping rather than the published results. “We decided that we could grow better crystal and the experiment would work for us,” he said.

A small team of people at Monsanto did make it work. Today, some 25 years later, these nitrogen-doped GaAsP LEDs still form a significant proportion—some 5-10 billion—of the 20-30 billion LEDs sold annually in the world today.

“The initial reaction was, ‘Wow, that’s great, but our customers are very happy with red LEDs. Who needs other colors?’”
—George Craford

Again, Holonyak complains, Craford didn’t toot his own horn. “When George published the work, he put the names of the guys he had growing crystals and putting the things together ahead of his name.”

His peers, however, have recognized Craford as the creative force behind yellow LEDs, and he was recently made a member of the National Academy of Engineering to honor this work.

Craford recalls that the new palette of LED colors took some time to catch on. “The initial reaction,” he said, “was, ‘Wow, that’s great, but our customers are very happy with red LEDs. Who needs other colors?’”

Westward ho!

After the LED work was published, a Monsanto reorganization bumped Craford up from the lab bench to manager of advanced technology. One of his first tasks was to select researchers to be laid off. He recalls this as one of the toughest jobs of his life, but subsequently found that he liked management. “You have more variety; you have more things that you are semi-competent in, though you pay the price of becoming a lot less competent in any one thing,” he told IEEE Spectrum.

Soon, in 1974, he was bumped up again to technology director, and moved from Monsanto’s corporate headquarters in St. Louis to its electronics division headquarters in Palo Alto, Calif. Craford was responsible for research groups developing technology for three divisions in Palo Alto, St. Louis, and St. Peters, Mo. One dealt with compound semiconductors, another with LEDs, and the third with silicon materials. He held the post until 1979.

Even as a manager, he remained a “scientist to the teeth,” said David Russell, Monsanto’s director of marketing during Craford’s tenure as technology director. “He is a pure intellectual scientist to a fault for an old peddler like me.”

Though always the scientist, Craford also has a reputation for relating well to people. “George is able to express complicated technical issues in a way that all of us can understand,” said James Leising, product development manager for HP’s optoelectronics division.

Leising recalled that when he was production engineering manager, a position that occasionally put him in conflict with the research group, “George and I were always able to work out the conflicts and walk away friends. That wasn’t always the case with others in his position.” One time in particular, Leising recalled, Craford convinced the production group of the need for precise control of its processes by graphically demonstrating the intricacies of the way semiconductor crystals fit upon one another.

As an executive, Craford takes credit for no individual achievements at Monsanto during that time, but said, “I was proud of the fact that, somehow, we managed to be worldwide competitors in all our businesses.” Even so, Monsanto decided to sell off its optoelectronics business and offered Craford a job back in St. Louis, where he would have been in charge of research and development in the company’s silicon business.

Craford thought about this offer long and hard. He liked Monsanto; he had a challenging and important job, complete with a big office, oak furniture, a private conference room, and a full-time administrative assistant. But moving back to St. Louis would end his romance with those tiny semiconductor lights that could make a Dewar glow, and when the time came, he just couldn’t do it.

He did the Silicon Valley walk: across the street to the nearest competitor, in this case, Hewlett-Packard Co.

Instead, he did the Silicon Valley walk: across the street to the nearest competitor, in this case, Hewlett-Packard Co. The only job it could find that would let him work with LEDs was a big step down from technology director—a position as R&D section manager, directing fewer than 20 people. This meant a cut in salary and perks, but Craford took it.

The culture was different, to say the least. No more fancy office and private conference room; at HP Craford gets only “a cubby, a tin desk, and a tin chair.”

And, he told Spectrum, “I love it.”

He found the HP culture to be less political than Monsanto’s, and believes that the lack of closed offices promotes collaboration. At HP, he interacts more with engineers, and there is a greater sense that the whole group is pulling together. It is more open and communicative—it has to be, with most engineers’ desks merely 1.5 meters apart. “I like the whole style of the place,” he declared.

Now he has moved up, to R&D manager of HP’s optoelectronics division, with a larger group of engineers under him. (He still has the cubby and metal desk, however.)

As a manager, Craford sees his role as building teams, and judging which kinds of projects are worth focusing on. “I do a reasonably good job of staying on the path between being too conservative and too blue sky,” he told Spectrum. “It would be a bad thing for an R&D manager to say that every project we’ve done has been successful, because then you’re not taking enough chances; however, we do have to generate enough income for the group on what we sell to stay profitable.”

Said Fred Kish, HP R&D project manager under Craford: “We have embarked upon some new areas of research that, to some people, may have been questionable risks, but George was willing to try.”

Craford walks that path between conservatism and risk in his personal life as well, although some people might not believe it, given his penchant for adventurous sports: skydiving, whitewater canoeing, marathon running, and rock climbing. These are measured risks, according to Craford: ‘‘The Grand Teton is a serious mountain, but my son and I took a rock-climbing course, and we went up with a guy who is an expert, so it seemed like a manageable risk.”

Holonyak recalls an occasion when a piece of crystal officially confined to the Monsanto laboratory was handed to him by Craford on the grounds that an experiment Holonyak was attempting was important. Craford “could have gotten fired for that, but he was willing to gamble.”

“I hope to see the day when LEDs will illuminate not just a Dewar but a room.”
—George Craford

Craford is also known as being an irrepressible asker of questions.

“His methods of asking questions and looking at problems brings people in the group to a higher level of thinking, reasoning, and problem-solving,’’ Kish said.

Holonyak described Craford as “the only man I can tolerate asking me question after question, because he is really trying to understand.”

Craford’s group at HP has done work on a variety of materials over the past 15 years, including gallium aluminum arsenide for high-brightness red LEDs and, more recently, aluminum gallium indium phosphide for high-brightness orange and yellow LEDs.

The latest generation of LEDs, Craford said, could replace incandescent lights in many applications. One use is for exterior lighting on automobiles, where the long life and small size of LEDs permit car designers to combine lower assembly costs with more unusual styling. Traffic signals and large-area display signs are other emerging applications. He is proud that his group’s work has enabled HP to compete with Japanese LED manufacturers and hold its place as one of the largest sellers of visible-light LEDs in the world.

Craford has not stopped loving the magic of LEDs. “Seeing them out and used continues to be fun,” he told Spectrum. “When I went to Japan and saw the LEDs on the Shinkansen [high-speed train), that was a thrill.”

He expects LEDs to go on challenging other forms of lighting and said, “I still hope to see the day when LEDs will illuminate not just a Dewar but a room.”

Editor’s note: George Craford is currently a fellow at Philips LumiLEDs. He got his wish and then some.

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Convincing Consumers To Buy EVs

How range, affordability, reliability, and behavioral changes figure into purchase decisions

15 min read
A collage showing four current electric vehicles. The EV's shown are: Mercedes-EQE SUV, Hyundai IONIQ 5, CHEVROLET EQUINOX EV 3LT, and Lucid Air.

Four EVs, from economy to luxury, currently for sale in the U.S. From top left clock wise: The Mercedes-EQE SUV, Hyundai IONIQ 5, CHEVROLET EQUINOX EV 3LT, and Lucid Air.

Credits: Mercedes-Benz Group AG; Hyundai Motor America; Chevrolet; Lucid.

With the combination of requiring all new light-duty vehicles sold in New York State be zero-emission by 2035, investments in electric vehicles charging stations, and state and federal EV rebates, “you’re going to see that you have no more excuses” for not buying an EV, according to New York Governor Kathy Hochul.

The EV Transition Explained

This is the tenth 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.”

Perhaps, but getting the vast majority of 111 million US households who own one or more light duty internal combustion vehicles to switch to EVs is going to take time. Even if interest in purchasing an EV is increasing, close to 70 percent of Americans are still leaning towards buying an ICE vehicles as their next purchase. In the UK, only 14 percent of drivers plan to purchase an EV as their next car.

Even when there is an expressed interest in purchasing a battery electric or hybrid vehicle, it often did not turn into an actual purchase. A 2022 CarGurus survey found that 35 percent of new car buyers expressed an interest in purchasing a hybrid, but only 13 percent eventually did. Similarly, 22 percent expressed interest in a battery electric vehicle (BEV), but only 5 percent bought one.

Each potential EV buyer assesses their individual needs against the benefits and risks an EV offers. However, until mainstream public confidence reaches the point where the perceived combination of risks of a battery electric vehicle purchase (range, affordability, reliability and behavioral changes) match that of an ICE vehicle, then EV purchases are going to be the exception rather than the norm.

How much range is enough?

Studies differ about how far drivers want to be able to go between charges. One Bloombergstudy found 341 miles was the average range desired, while Deloitte Consulting’s2022 Global Automotive Consumer Study found U.S. consumers want to be able to travel 518 miles on a fully charged battery in a BEV that costs $50,000 or less.

Arguments over how much range is needed are contentious. There are some who argue that because 95 percent of American car trips are 30 miles or less, a battery range of 250 miles or less is all that is needed. They also point out that this would reduce the price of the EV, since batteries account for about 30 percent of an EVs total cost. In addition, using smaller batteries would allow more EVs to be built, and potentially relieve pressure on the battery supply chain. If longer trips are needed, well, “bring some patience and enjoy the charging experience” seems to be the general advice.

While perhaps logical, these arguments are not going to influence typical buying decisions much. The first question potential EV buyers are going to ask themselves is, “Am I going to be paying more for a compromised version of mobility?” says Alexander Edwards, President of Strategic Vision, a research-based consultancy that aims to understand human behavior and decision-making.


 Driver\u2019s side view of 2024 Chevrolet Equinox EV 3LT in Riptide Blue driving down a roadDriver’s side view of 2024 Chevrolet Equinox EV 3LT.Chevrolet

Edwards explains potential customers do not have range anxietyper se: If they believe they require a vehicle that must go 400 miles before stopping, “even if once a month, once a quarter, or once a year,” all vehicles that cannot meet that criteria will be excluded from their buying decision. Range anxiety, therefore, is more a concern for EV owners. Edwards points out that regarding range, most BEV owners own at least one ICE vehicle to meet their long-distance driving needs.

What exactly is the “range” of a BEV is itself becoming a heated point of contention. While ICE vehicles driving ranges are affected by weather and driving conditions, the effects are well-understood after decades of experience. This experience is lacking with non-EV owners. Extreme heat and cold negatively affect EV battery ranges and charging time, as do driving speeds and terrain.

Peter Rawlinson serves as the Chief Executive Officer and Chief Technology Officer of Lucid.Peter Rawlinson serves as the CEO and CTO of Lucid.Lucid

Some automakers are reticent to say how much range is affected under differing conditions. Others, like Ford’s CEO Jim Farley, freely admits, “If you’re pulling 10,000 pounds, an electric truck is not the right solution. And 95 percent of our customers tow more than 10,000 pounds.” GM, though, is promising it will meet heavier towing requirements with its 2024 Chevrolet Silverado EV. However, Lucid Group CEO Peter Rawlinson in a non-too subtle dig at both Ford and GM said, “The correct solution for an affordable pickup truck today is the internal combustion engine.”

Ford’s Farley foresees that the heavy-duty truck segment will be sticking with ICE trucks for a while, as “it will probably go hydrogen fuel cell before it goes pure electric.” Many in the auto industry are warning that realistic BEV range numbers under varying conditions need to be widely published, else risk creating a backlash against EVs in general.

Range risk concerns obviously are tightly coupled to EV charging availability. Most charging is assumed to take place at home, but this is not an option for many home or apartment tenants. Even those with homes, their garages may not be available for EV charging. Scarce and unreliable EV charging opportunities, as well as publicized EV road trip horror stories, adds to both the potential EV owners’ current perceived and real range satisfaction risk.

EVs ain’t cheap

Price is another EV purchase risk that is comparable to EV range. Buying a new car is the second most expensive purchase a consumer makes behind buying a house. Spending nearly 100 percent of an annual US median household income on an unfamiliar technology is not a minor financial ask.

That is one reason why legacy automakers and EV start-ups are attempting to follow Tesla’s success in the luxury vehicle segment, spending much of their effort producing vehicles that are “above the median average annual US household income, let alone buyer in new car market,” Strategic Vision’s Edwards says. On top of the twenty or so luxury EVs already or soon to be on the market, Sony and Honda recently announced that they would be introducing yet another luxury EV in 2026.

It is true that there are some EVs that will soon appear in the competitive price range of ICE vehicles like the low-end GM EV Equinox SUV presently priced around $30,000 with a 280-mile range. How long GM will be able to keep that price in the face of battery cost increases and inflationary pressure, is anyone’s guess. It has already started to increase the cost of its Chevrolet Bolt EVs, which it had slashed last year, “due to ongoing industry-related pricing pressures.”

An image of a Lucid  Air electric vehicle.The Lucid Air’s price ranges from $90,000 to $200,000 depending on options.Lucid.

Analysts believe Tesla intends to spark an EV price war before its competitors are ready for one. This could benefit consumers in the short-term, but could also have long-term downside consequences for the EV industry as a whole. Tesla fired its first shot over its competitors’ bows with a recently announced price cut from $65,990 to $52,990 for its basic Model Y, with a range of 330 miles. That makes the Model Y cost-competitive with Hyundai’s $45,500 IONIQ 5 e-SUV with 304 miles of range.

Tesla’s pricing power could be hard to counter, at least in the short term. Ford’s cheapest F-150 Lightning Pro is now $57,869 compared to $41,769 a year ago due to what Ford says are “ongoing supply chain constraints, rising material costs and other market factors.” The entry level F-150 XL with an internal combustion engine has risen in the past year from about $29,990 to $33,695 currently.

Carlos TavaresChief Executive OfficerExecutive Director of StellantisCarlos Tavares, CEO of Stellantis.Stellantis

Automakers like Stellantis, freely acknowledge that EVs are too expensive for most buyers, with Stellantis CEO Carlos Tavares even warning that if average consumers can’t afford EVs as ICE vehicle sales are banned, “There is potential for social unrest.” However, other automakers like BMW are quite unabashed about going after the luxury market which it terms “white hot.” BMW’s CEO Oliver Zipse does say the company will not leave the “lower market segment,” which includes the battery electric iX1 xDrive30 that retails for A$82,900 in Australia and slightly lower elsewhere. It is not available in the United States.

Mercedes-Benz CEO Ola Kallenius also believes luxury EVs will be a catalyst for greater EV adoption—eventually. But right now, 75 percent of its investment has been redirected at bringing luxury vehicles to market.

The fact that luxury EVs are more profitable no doubt helps keep automakers focused on that market. Ford’s very popular Mustang Mach-E is having trouble maintaining profitability, for instance, which has forced Ford to raise its base price from $43,895 to $46,895. Even in the Chinese market where smaller EV sales are booming, profits are not. Strains on profitability for automakers and their suppliers may increase further as battery metals prices increase, warns data analysis company S&P Global Mobility.

Jim Rowan, Volvo Cars' new CEO and President as of 21 March 2022Jim Rowan, Volvo Cars’ CEO and President.Volvo Cars

As a result, EVs are unlikely to match ICE vehicle prices (or profits) anytime soon even for smaller EV models, says Renault Group CEO Luca de Meo, because of the ever increasing cost of batteries. Mercedes Chief Technology Officer Marcus Schäferagrees and does not see EV/ICE price parity “with the [battery] chemistry we have today.” Volvo CEO Jim Rowan, disagrees with both of them, however, seeing ICE-EV price parity coming by 2025-2026.

Interestingly, a 2019 Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) study predicted that as EVs became more widespread, battery prices would climb because the demand for lithium and other battery metals would rise sharply. As a result, the study indicated EV/ICE price parity was likely closer to 2030 with the expectation that new battery chemistries would be introduced by then.

Many argue, however, that total cost of ownership (TCO) should be used as the EV purchase decision criterion rather than sticker price. Total cost of ownership of EVs is generally less than an ICE vehicle over its expected life since they have lower maintenance costs and electricity is less expensive per mile than gasoline, and tax incentives and rebates help a lot as well.

However, how long it takes to hit the break-even point depends on many factors, like the cost differential of a comparable ICE vehicle, depreciation, taxes, insurance costs, the cost of electricity/petrol in a region, whether charging takes place at home, etc. And TCO rapidly loses it selling point appeal if electricity prices go up, however, as is happening in the UK and in Germany.

Even if the total cost of ownership is lower for an EV, a potential EV customer may not be interested if meeting today’s monthly auto payments is difficult. Extra costs like needing to install a fast charger at home, which can add several thousand dollars more, or higher insurance costs, which could add an extra $500-$600 a year, may also be seen as buying impediment and can change the TCO equation.

Reliability and other major tech risks

To perhaps distract wary EV buyers from range and affordability issues, the automakers have focused their efforts on highlighting EV performance. Raymond Roth, a director at financial advisory firm Stout Risius Ross, observes among automakers, “There’s this arms race right now of best in class performance” being the dominant selling point.

This “wow” experience is being pursued by every EV automaker. Mercedes CEO Kallenius, for example, says to convince its current luxury vehicle owners to an EV, “the experience for the customer in terms of the torque, the performance, everything [must be] fantastic.” Nissan, which seeks a more mass market buyer, runs commercials exclaiming, “Don’t get an EV for the ‘E’, but because it will pin you in your seat, sparks your imagination and takes your breath away.”

Ford believes it will earn $20 billion, Stellantis some $22.5 billion and GM $20 to $25 billion from paid software-enabled vehicle features by 2030.

EV reliability issues may also take one’s breath away. Reliability is “extremely important” to new-car buyers, according to a 2022 report from Consumer Reports (CR). Currently, EV reliability is nothing to brag about. CR’s report says that “On average, EVs have significantly higher problem rates than internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles across model years 2019 and 2020.” BEVs dwell at the bottom of the rankings.

Reliability may prove to be an Achilles heel to automakers like GM and Ford. GM CEO Mary Barra has very publicly promised that GM would no longer build “ crappy cars.” The ongoing problems with the Chevy Bolt undercuts that promise, and if its new Equinox EV has issues, it could hurt sales. Ford has reliability problems of its own, paying $4 billion in warranty costs last year alone. Its e-Mustang has been subject to several recalls over the past year. Even perceived quality-leader Toyota has been embarrassed by wheels falling off weeks after the introduction of its electric bZ4X SUV, the first in a new series “bZ”—beyond zero—electric vehicles.

A vehicle is caught up in a mudslide in Silverado Canyon, Calif., Wednesday, March 10, 2021.A Tesla caught up in a mudslide in Silverado Canyon, Calif., on March 10, 2021. Jae C. Hong/AP Photo

Troubles with vehicle electronics, which has plagued ICE vehicles as well for some time, seems even worse in EVs according to Consumer Report’s data. This should not be surprising, since EVs are packed with the latest electronic and software features to make them attractive, like new biometric capability, but they often do not work. EV start-up Lucid is struggling with a range of software woes, and software problems have pushed back launches years at Audi, Porsche and Bentley EVs, which are part of Volkswagen Group.

Another reliability risk-related issue is getting an EV repaired when something goes awry, or there is an accident. Right now, there is a dearth of EV-certified mechanics and repair shops. The UK Institute of the Motor Industry (IMI) needs 90,000 EV-trained technicians by 2030. The IMI estimates that less than 7 percent of the country’s automotive service workforce of 200,000 vehicle technicians is EV qualified. In the US, the situation is not better. The National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE), which certifies auto repair technicians, says the US has 229,000 ASE-certified technicians. However, there are only some 3,100 certified for electric vehicles. With many automakers moving to reduce their dealership networks, resolving problems that over-the-air (OTA) software updates cannot fix might be troublesome.

Furthermore, the costs and time needed to repair an EV are higher than for ICE vehicles, according to the data analytics company CCC. Reasons include a greater need to use original equipment manufacturer (OEM) parts and the cost of scans/recalibration of the advanced driver assistance systems, which have been rising for ICE vehicles as well. Furthermore, technicians need to ensure battery integrity to prevent potential fires.

And some of batteries along with their battery management systems need work. Two examples: Recalls involving the GM Bolt and Hyundai Kona, with the former likely to cost GM $1.8 billion and Hyundai $800 million to fix, according to Stout’s 2021 Automotive Defect and Recall Report. Furthermore, the battery defect data compiled by Stout indicates “incident rates are rising as production is increasing and incidents commonly occur across global platforms,” with both design and manufacturing defects starting to appear.

For a time in New York City, one had to be a licensed engineer to drive a steam-powered auto. In some aspects, EV drivers return to these roots. This might change over time, but for now it is a serious issue.” —John Leslie King

CCC data indicate that when damaged, battery packs do need replacement after a crash, and more than 50 percent of such vehicles were deemed a total loss by the insurance companies. EVs also need to revisit the repair center more times after they’ve been repaired than ICE vehicles, hinting at the increased difficulty in repairing them. Additionally, EV tire tread wear needs closer inspection than on ICE vehicles. Lastly, as auto repair centers need to invest in new equipment to handle EVs, these costs will be passed along to customers for some time.

Electric vehicle and charging network cybersecurity is also growing as a perceived risk. A 2021 survey by insurance company HSB found that an increasing number of drivers, not only of EVs but ICE vehicles, are concerned about their vehicle’s security. Some 10 percent reported “a hacking incident or other cyber-attack had affected their vehicle,” HSB reported. Reports of charging stations being compromised are increasingly common.

The risk has reached the attention of the US Office of the National Cyber Director, which recently held a forum of government and automaker, suppliers and EV charging manufacturers focusing on “cybersecurity issues in the electric vehicle (EV) and electric vehicle supply equipment (EVSE) ecosystem.” The concern is that EV uptake could falter if EV charging networks are not perceived as being secure.

A sleeper risk that may explode into a massive problem is an EV owner’s right-to-repair their vehicle. In 2020, Massachusetts passed a law that allows a vehicle owner to take it to whatever repair shop they wish and gave independent repair shops the right to access the real-time vehicle data for diagnosis purposes. Auto dealers have sued to overturn the law, and some auto makers like Subaru and Kia have disabled the advanced telematic systems in cars sold in Massachusetts, often without telling new customers about it. GM and Stellantis have also said they cannot comply with the Massachusetts law, and are not planning to do so because it would compromise their vehicles’ safety and cybersecurity. The Federal Trade Commission is looking into the right-to-repair issue, and President Biden has come out in support of it.

You expect me to do what, exactly?

Failure to change consumer behavior poses another major risk to the EV transition. Take charging. It requires a new consumer behavior in terms of understanding how and when to charge, and what to do to keep an EV battery healthy. The information on the care and feeding of a battery as well as how to maximize vehicle range can resemble a manual for owning a new, exotic pet. It does not help when an automaker like Ford tells its F-150 Lightning owners they can extend their driving range by relying on the heated seats to stay warm instead of the vehicle’s climate control system.

Keeping in mind such issues, and how one might work around them, increases a driver’s cognitive load—things that must be remembered in case they must be acted on. “Automakers spent decades reducing cognitive load with dash lights instead of gauges, or automatic instead of manual transmissions,” says University of Michigan professor emeritus John Leslie King, who has long studied human interactions with machines.

King notes, “In the early days of automobiles, drivers and chauffeurs had to monitor and be able to fix their vehicles. They were like engineers. For a time in New York City, one had to be a licensed engineer to drive a steam-powered auto. In some aspects, EV drivers return to these roots. This might change over time, but for now it is a serious issue.”


The first-ever BMW iX1 xDrive30, Mineral White metallic, 20\u201c BMW Individual Styling 869i The first-ever BMW iX1 xDrive30, Mineral White metallic, 20“ BMW Individual Styling 869i BMW AG

This cognitive load keeps changing as well. For instance, “common knowledge” about when EV owners should charge is not set in concrete. The long-standing mantra for charging EV batteries has been do so at home from at night when electricity rates were low and stress on the electric grid was low. Recent research from Stanford University says this is wrong, at least for Western states.

Stanford’s research shows that electricity rates should encourage EV charging during the day at work or at public chargers to prevent evening grid peak demand problems, which could increase by as much as 25 percent in a decade. The Wall Street Journal quotes the study’s lead author Siobhan Powell as saying if everyone were charging their EVs at night all at once, “it would cause really big problems.”

Asking EV owners to refrain from charging their vehicles at home during the night is going to be difficult, since EVs are being sold on the convenience of charging at home. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg emphasized this very point when describing how great EVs are to own, “And the main charging infrastructure that we count on is just a plug in the wall.”

EV owners increasingly find public charging unsatisfying and is “one of the compromises battery electric vehicle owners have to make,” says Strategic Vision’s Alexander Edwards, “that drives 25 percent of battery electric vehicle owners back to a gas powered vehicle.” Fixing the multiple problems underlying EV charging will not likely happen anytime soon.

Another behavior change risk relates to automakers’ desired EV owner post-purchase buying behavior. Automakers see EV (and ICE vehicle) advanced software and connectivity as a gateway to a software-as-a-service model to generate new, recurring revenue streams across the life of the vehicle. Automakers seem to view EVs as razors through which they can sell software as the razor blades. Monetizing vehicle data and subscriptions could generate $1.5 trillion by 2030, according to McKinsey.

VW thinks that it will generate “triple-digit-millions” in future sales through selling customized subscription services, like offering autonomous driving on a pay-per-use basis. It envisions customers would be willing to pay 7 euros per hour for the capability. Ford believes it will earn $20 billion, Stellantis some $22.5 billion and GM $20 to $25 billion from paid software-enabled vehicle features by 2030.

Already for ICE vehicles, BMW is reportedly offering an $18 a month subscription (or $415 for “unlimited” access) for heated front seats in multiple countries, but not the U.S. as of yet. GM has started charging $1,500 for a three-year “optional” OnStar subscription on all Buick and GMC vehicles as well as the Cadillac Escalade SUV whether the owner uses it or not. And Sony and Honda have announced their luxury EV will be subscription-based, although they have not defined exactly what this means in terms of standard versus paid-for features. It would not be surprising to see it follow Mercedes’ lead. The automaker will increase the acceleration of its EQ series if an owner pays a $1,200 a year subscription fee.

Essentially, automakers are trying to normalize paying for what used to be offered as standard or even an upgrade option. Whether they will be successful is debatable, especially in the U.S. “No one is going to pay for subscriptions,” says Strategic Vision’s Edwards, who points out that microtransactions are absolutely hated in the gaming community. Automakers risk a major consumer backlash by using them.

To get to EV at scale, each of the EV-related range, affordability, reliability and behavioral changes risks will need to be addressed by automakers and policy makers alike. With dozens of new battery electric vehicles becoming available for sale in the next two years, potential EV buyers now have a much great range of options than previously. The automakers who manage EV risks best— along with offering compelling overall platform performance—will be the ones starting to claw back some of their hefty EV investments.

No single risk may be a deal breaker for an early EV adopter, but for skeptical ICE vehicle owners, each risk is another reason not to buy, regardless of perceived benefits offered. If EV-only families are going to be the norm, the benefits of purchasing EVs will need to be above—and the risks associated with owning will need to match or be below—those of today’s and future ICE vehicles.

In the next articles of this series, we’ll explore the changes that may be necessary to personal lifestyles to achieve 2050 climate goals.

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