The future of four wheels is all electric

Published on16 FEB 2024

As long as cars have been around, they’ve been defined by two things: a fuel-burning engine and a human driver at the controls. Both of those things are changing – fast. The Future of Four Wheels, a four-part podcast series from Goldman Sachs Exchanges, chronicles the sweep and pace of this transformation. “Since the car was invented more than a hundred years ago, this is clearly the most transformational shift,” says Axel Hoefer, managing director in the industrial group in Global Banking & Markets at Goldman Sachs, on the first episode of The Future of Four Wheels

Electric vehicles could make up as much as nearly half of global car sales by 2035, and our analysts forecast that more advanced autonomous or partially autonomous vehicles will make up the same share of sales just five years later. It’s a fundamental shift, upending labor markets, supply chains, and commodity markets. Along the way, the car is being completely rethought and re-engineered, to incorporate cutting-edge battery chemistry, microchips, and software.

New carmakers have sprung up around the world – China alone has perhaps more than 100 electric vehicle makers – and traditional auto giants are retooling. They’re navigating technological trends but also the ebbs and flows of the economy. As interest rates rose over the past two years, and the cost of capital increased, investors grew more reluctant to funnel money into EV startups to help them grow in the long term. “Probably nine out of 10 startups are burning cash,” Hoefer says. “And all of a sudden, these companies struggle to raise cash in order to continue the development paths they are on.”

But the overall trajectory continues to lean electric. EV startups are eating into the sales of traditional car companies. And those traditional car companies, in turn, continue to plan for an EV future, says Mark Delaney, an analyst in the Autos & Industrial Technology team in Goldman Sachs Research. “People say: ‘Oh, when are EVs at the tipping point?’” Delaney says. “I was like: ‘Well, it really depends, because in some segments, EVs already have crossed over.’”

The material questions of the EV age

The transition to electric vehicles hinges upon the stuff they’re made of. “I think the way to frame it is: We're moving from a fuel-intensive to metals-intensive car,” says Nicholas Snowdon, head of metals and co-head of the commodities team at Goldman Sachs Research, on the second episode of The Future of Four Wheels. Manufacturing an EV requires a whole new set of critical materials — including up to six times the quantity of metals and minerals when compared to an ICE car. 

EV batteries, for instance, need lithium, cobalt, and nickel. Rare earth metals go into the magnets in EV motors. Aluminum and copper help distribute electricity around the car. Not all of these are readily available, or available in vast supply. “I think there can be very serious concerns over: ‘Do you have enough copper? Do you have enough aluminum?’” Snowdon says. For the mining of other metals, such as lithium and cobalt, the markets have seen high levels of investment over the past three or four years, he adds. 

The distribution of these metals also differs from that of the materials for traditional ICE cars. Chile is the Saudi Arabia of copper, with about a third of global production. Three-quarters of the world’s supply of cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo. More than 60% of rare earths come from China. Further, upwards of 60% — and, in some cases, close to 90% — of refining capacity for these metals and minerals lies in China. Automobile firms will have to build new supply chains to source the materials for their vehicles.

EV battery prices will fall — and soon

Batteries power an EV — and also drive up its cost. Today, nearly a third of the price of an EV is its batteries, so if EVs have to match ICE cars on price, the batteries need to be cheaper. But that dip in the cost of batteries is imminent. At present, the average cost per kilowatt-hour of these batteries is $110–120. Goldman Sachs Research now expects battery prices to fall 40 percent by 2025 from 2023 levels, towards $91 per kilowatt hour. 

For the next three years, according to Goldman Sachs Research, China, Japan, and South Korea — the main producers of electric batteries — will provide an oversupply of batteries and push prices down. But bigger transformations will come with developments in battery chemistry — in, for instance, the arrival of a solid-state battery, which could push the range per charge up from 300 or so miles to more than 600 miles. The EV industry would also gain from the growth of battery recycling, keeping its valuable metals in circulation. Goldman Sachs Research expects that nearly 50% of the metals required for batteries could come from recycled materials by 2040.       

The economies and efficiencies will be crucial in a highly capital-intensive industry — particularly as capital remains expensive in a world of higher-for-longer interest rates, as we detail in the third episode of The Future of Four Wheels.

The EV and the city 

The world over, the gas-burning automobile has shaped the physical environment in which humans live. EVs will impose their own drastic alterations to that environment, and to the future of mobility, says Chris Elmore, a managing director with the public sector and infrastructure group in investment banking at Goldman Sachs, on the fourth episode of The Future of Four Wheels

It's likely that electrification and autonomy will go hand in hand, making ridesharing easier and reducing or eliminating the need to own personal cars. Houses may not need garages; companies may not need vast employee parking lots. Autonomous trucks could ride in long convoys with less space between them than human-driven tricks require, improving the road capacity available for others, Elmore says. Roads and highways may come embedded with wireless charging coils, enabling EVs to draw power on the move. 

Governments will face novel questions too. “The more people that are driving electric vehicles, the less gas tax you have,” Elmore says, pointing out that governments will have to find other streams of revenue. While autonomous EVs may make efficient use of roads and solve those infrastructure problems, they will also need a denser, more extensive electric grid. And to make these roads totally safe and efficient for computer-driven vehicles, it might eventually be necessary to outlaw humans driving cars altogether. 

There will be other, unexpected changes too — these are early days yet. As Elmore says: “We're in the first or second inning in what may be an overtime game.”

This article is being provided for educational purposes only. The information contained in this article does not constitute a recommendation from any Goldman Sachs entity to the recipient, and Goldman Sachs is not providing any financial, economic, legal, investment, accounting, or tax advice through this article or to its recipient. Neither Goldman Sachs nor any of its affiliates makes any representation or warranty, express or implied, as to the accuracy or completeness of the statements or any information contained in this article and any liability therefore (including in respect of direct, indirect, or consequential loss or damage) is expressly disclaimed.

Explore More Insights