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Best of 2022

5 pivotal moments that changed EVs in 2022

From the smashing success of Ford’s electric F-150 Lightning to Tesla’s Full Self-Driving woes, 2022 was the year when things got real for electric cars.

Tim Stevens / Inverse

For years now, industry gurus have been predicting that the year 2022 would be a big one for EVs. And you know what? For once they got it right. When it came to news and developments, 2022 did not disappoint.

Public awareness of EVs skyrocketed, as did market penetration and charger availability. Electric cars even became a hotbed political issue in a year that had no shortage of other governmental intrigue and distractions.

Given all that, it's hard to pick just five key moments to focus on, but there were indeed a few threads that stood out. And so, here are the biggest storylines that shaped the EV world in 2022.

1. Full Self-Driving Goes Mainstream

Tesla CEO, Elon Musk, has been promising a wonderful world of self-driving Teslas for ages now. Way back in 2015 he said: "It's not something I think is very difficult... I almost view it like a solved problem." He then promised Teslas would be driving themselves cross-country by 2017.

Five years after that blown promise, Musk's vision of autonomy is finally here. Sort of. In beta form, anyway. And, frankly, it's pretty awful.

Tesla's so-called "Full Self-Driving" or FSD option has been on sale since 2019, initially $6,000 but steadily climbing since then, price spiking to $15,000 in August where it sits today. Early adopters of the program paid their dues on little more than a hope and a dream, and this year many of those hopes were crushed.

By April, when Tesla crossed the 100,000 FSD beta tester threshold, social networks were full of videos of Model 3s turning where they shouldn’t, swerving dangerously at cyclists, and generally making a nuisance of themselves.

Through the year the software seemed to get better and, as it did, the beta pool widened. Initially, entrants were prioritized based on the supposed caliber of their driving, as rated by Tesla's Autopilot system. The bar was lowered throughout the year until, on November 23, anyone who'd paid up for the service could experience for themselves what a jerky, nauseating, and occasionally terrifying experience it can be to beta test autonomous software.

What the year ahead holds remains to be seen, but with Tesla removing ultrasonic sensors from its cars, sensors formerly crucial for self-parking and blind-spot detection, I'm skeptical that things are going to get much better.

2. The Inflation Reduction Act Shakes up the U.S. EV Market

President Joe Biden drives the new electric Ford F-150 Lightning at the Ford Dearborn Development Center in Dearborn, Michigan.NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

In 2022, buying an EV got a lot more confusing in America thanks to the U.S. government’s commingled efforts to bolster domestic manufacturing and increase EV adoption.

Why does the U.S. government want more people to drive more EVs? Well, for one thing, a battery-powered car has little reliance on foreign oil, meaning more insulation from the energy crises that seem to sweep the globe every six months or so.

Secondly, passenger vehicles and light trucks are the biggest sources of greenhouse gas in the U.S. As worldwide targets for carbon reduction become more strict, getting EVs on the road is an easy way forward, since they produce far fewer greenhouse gasses than their internally combusted counterparts — yes, even when you factor in electricity generation from fossil sources like coal.

The U.S. has had a federal incentive to encourage more people to buy EVs since the Energy Improvement and Extension Act of 2008. This year, the Biden administration threw that out, replacing it with the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022. In a few ways, this new plan is more clear (removing arbitrary production caps, for example), but for the most part, it’s wildly more complicated.

Going forward, the size of an EV’s tax credit will depend on whether the car was manufactured in the U.S., whether its batteries were manufactured in the U.S., and whether the "critical minerals" used in those batteries come from countries with whom the U.S. has a free-trade agreement — rules that could change on a moment's notice. This demands an unprecedented level of insight into your next car’s origins.

The Act could help bolster U.S. manufacturing at a time when American brands like Ford and General Motors are making big domestic battery moves (the former building the $5.8 billion BlueOvalSK Battery Park in Kentucky, the latter partnering with LG for a $2.6 billion factory in Michigan). However, it's also going to result in some confusing conversations at dealerships on why one car on the showroom floor is eligible for the full $7,500 while the one sitting right next to it gets nothing.

3. Ford F-150 Lightning’s Massive EV Potential

We knew that the all-electric F-150 Lightning was going to be a big deal, and its release did not disappoint. Initially promised as a $40,000 electric truck, that price sadly spiked to $50,000 in the face of inflation, supply chain woes, and everything else going wrong in the world right now.

Still, with a maximum range of 320 miles, a 10,000-pound towing capacity, and all the comfort and luxury options you've come to expect from Ford's F-Series over the years, it’s a pretty good deal. More importantly, it has earned an impressive amount of interest among the typically conservative American truck buyers.

Ford’s F-150 Lightning was arguably the year’s most impactful EV.Boston Globe/Boston Globe/Getty Images

Ford has sold over 13,000 F-150 Lightning trucks since they hit the market in May, but the best stuff is still to come. Ford has partnered with Sunrun to provide advanced bidirectional power, enabling Lightning owners to easily power their homes from the massive, 131-kilowatt-hour battery packs in their trucks. That's enough to run a house and its appliances for three days, something that a few early adopters found quite useful when Hurricane Ian hit Florida this past September.

As we move into 2023 and more threats of rolling blackouts due to high demand, the F-150 Lightning actually stands poised to reduce peak energy usage, powering homes during the day and recharging at night. That could not only save you from blackouts, but provide a tasty discount on your monthly energy bill, too.

4. Global Lithium Prices and Availability

Battery manufacturing may be ramping up globally, but all those factories are going to need the same thing: lithium. Lithium makes up the bulk of the cathode in the lithium-ion batteries used in nearly all the battery packs globally. And, as the industry migrates to solid-state lithium batteries in the years ahead, manufacturers are only going to need more of the stuff.

Most of the world’s lithium mines are located in South America and Australia.Anadolu Agency/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Lithium prices tripled in 2022, growing more than tenfold since 2020. Demand hasn’t quite out-stripped supply yet, but we’re not far off from running headlong into that situation. In 2021, 100,000 tons of lithium were mined globally. That's enough for 11.4 million EVs, according to the World Economic Forum, a figure we're expected to hit next year.

That doesn't give much time for more mines to come online. The bulk of the global lithium is mined in Australia and South America currently, then refined in China. While the U.S. has massive lithium reserves, plans for mines in places like Thacker Pass, Nevada are currently tied up in legal and environmental proceedings.

Thankfully, there’s another lithium source that looked mighty promising in 2022.

5. Redwood Materials

Anyone who’s followed the EV industry for any time has known that someday, battery recycling was going to be hugely important. In 2022, Redwood Materials stepped up to show that there is a solution, and it might save more than the environment.

A battery teardown by Redwood Materials in action.Tim Stevens

Redwood Materials was founded in 2017 by J.B. Straubel, former CTO at Tesla. If anyone could see the writing on the wall and the growing crisis that the EV segment was about to put on the environment, it was him. Redwood was founded to provide a means to extract all the precious (and often toxic) materials from used car battery packs, not only keeping those materials out of landfills but enabling their use in future packs, too.

Redwood says that its recycling process can recover 95 percent of the materials used in batteries, which can then be put back into the battery production pipeline, not only reducing the need for destructive mining but also decreasing the distance between those materials and the factories that will need them.

In 2022, Redwood Materials announced partnerships with Audi and Panasonic, providing direct access to more batteries as soon as they reach their end of life. Going forward, this will be key not only in meeting the increasing demand for materials like lithium, but in ensuring your next EV keeps doing good even after it’s put out to pasture.

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