Month: January 2012

Electric Cars

Image: digitalart / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Anyone who reads this blog with any regularity (and there can’t be that many, since I don’t really update this blog with any regularity at the minute) will know that my posts tend to be about a few broad subjects: the world is ridiculous, or the world is stupid and not quite to my liking.

I’ve not written much on the subject of electric cars, save for a brief rant on the technicalities of claiming to have a ‘full hybrid’ car (oh yes, the other kind of post – pedantry). However I have for some time been fostering an opinion about them, I’ve just been waiting for a catalyst to make me post (as is usually my way).

Earlier today on Twitter, perennial electric car proponent (and all round nice guy, if his Twitter feed and Carpool are anything to go by) Robert Llewellyn posted a link to what is probably total link bait, a piece from the Irish Times neutrally titled Let’s Ban Electric Cars. Electric cars are no good, says the article, hydrogen is the answer, so let’s ban electric cars and pump the money into developing hydrogen.

An interesting point, although the article does have a whiff of a failed Modest Proposal parody about it (I admit I might possibly only be thinking that because it’s from the Irish Times).

I do have a problem with electric cars. They’re painted as being the saviour of motoring and yet they are still not ready for the big time.

I don’t deny that an alternative for petrol needs to be found, and reasonably quickly – there is a constantly decreasing amount of oil left and something needs to step up and replace it.

In a reply to Mr Llewellyn – which, unexpectedly, actually received a response – I pointed out that the article made sense as electric cars, as they are now, can only be a stopgap solution to what eventually replaces the internal combustion engine. I would have elaborated further, but it is a little tricky to have an in-depth argument with a 140 character limit – hence this post.

One argument I’ve heard – primarily from Robert Llewellyn who actually (briefly) debated with me on Twitter on this point some time ago – is that electric cars represent an inevitable fundamental shift in our car habits.  Rubbish. We have seen numerous significant shifts in humanity’s relationship with various technologies over the years, but all of these have been changes for the better, the easier. Smartphones, the internet, social networking – these are fundamental shifts in behaviour, but the upsides are clear. We won’t see a major shift to electric cars whilst they are more expensive, more effort, and without the capabilities of standard vehicles. You currently have numerous downsides and few upsides – the few being saving money and saving the planet, but still.

I’m not necessarily saying that electric cars have no future and hydrogen is the answer – both have their respective flaws, and I fully expect science to be able to solve them – but my point is simply this: electric cars, as they are now, can only be a temporary solution to what will eventually be dubbed the motoring crisis.

Here are the problems:

1. Cost.

Electric cars are still more expensive, by several thousands of pounds, to a petrol car equivalent – even after government subsidy. Eventually this will be solved by the machinations of supply and demand, but this requires the sales of these cars to continue to drive down the cost – and there are still other problems which are preventing widespread adoption.

2. Charging.

Petrol cars reign still because when one is running out of juice, you take it to a petrol station, and refuel it in minutes. This is easy to plan around because there are petrol stations almost everywhere (although, it must be said, usually they all seem to hide when you actually need some fuel). Electric cars, however, will take hours to refuel – all night from empty. And that’s if you’re somewhere that has a charging point or electrical socket. Which brings me straight on to the next point.

3. Range.

Most electric cars these days have a range of only 100 miles or so. This means you have to carefully plan your journey to make sure you can get to where you’re going without not getting there at all, or not making it back.

The huge shift people talk about with regard to electric cars is mainly due to range. More people will apparently use the train for longer journeys and the car for ‘city hopping’. Aside from the obvious problem of the cost of catching a train these days, stations have a habit of not being close to most people’s houses, requiring a further onward journey. This is not a massive shift towards convenience; people won’t buy into it until they have to.

4. Battery life.

We’ve all owned an iPod, laptop or phone that just doesn’t seem to hold its charge like it used to. This is an inherent problem with batteries; they can only complete so many cycles before they’re knackered and need replacing. When there was that whole problem a few years back when people were complaining about iPod batteries no longer working (the greater issue: Apple had built an MP3 player that lasted long enough for the internal battery to die), Apple started an iPod battery replacement program. The cost to replace an iPod battery? £39. A rechargeable battery for a MacBook Pro costs over £100 (if you’re lucky enough to have a MacBook that lets you replace the battery yourself). The battery for an electric car costs thousands of pounds, and there is nothing you can do to stop it from failing to hold a charge after it’s been through a thousand or so cycles. And that’s if you look after it and drain it all the way every time – if you keep ‘topping up’ the charge and don’t fully discharge the battery every so often it will last even less time.

5. Fun.

The future of the petrol car lies in track day-like events. This much I have come to terms with. But until an electric car can provide the day-to-day thrill of driving a petrol car, a majority of drivers won’t make the switch. I will admit that I’ve never driven an electric car, so I am assuming an awful lot here, but I do know how less enjoyable it is to drive a diesel-powered car compared to the same sized-engine petrol equivalent. Maybe against all the odds they’ve managed to build an electric car that is torquey and exciting, but I doubt it.

 

I openly admit that in the future we will all be driving around with a different sort of fuel. That much is a certainty. However, right now, alternative fuel cars are still primitive, underdeveloped, and not really a viable alternative to the incumbent internal combustion engine.

One of the reasons why hydrogen-fuelled cars get so much press is because they represent the future most drivers want – the convenience of petrol with the planet-saving longevity of low emission driving.

As scientists continue to develop battery technology, eventually we will almost certainly have electric cars that can hold enough of a charge to get us longer distances, can recharge in minutes not hours, and will last many thousands of cycles before they need to be replaced.

But that isn’t the point. Right now, electric cars are simply not good enough, and there are problems that simply will need to be solved before they see mass market adoption.

Image: Sujin Jetkasettakorn / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Think of it like energy saving lightbulbs. They were (and many still are) rubbish. They take ages to warm up to the right light temperate, and even then the light is terrible, and as they are effectively fluorescent they are flashing at 50Hz and can make some people ill. And as they contain mercury, don’t drop one in your house. But since they were first released, technology has moved on, and you can buy energy saving bulbs that work almost as well as the old incandescent bulbs, an adoption has been good enough that incandescent bulbs could be banned in the EU without a huge uproar (there was, of course, a slight uproar from the Daily Mail, but then that is to be expected).

 

Zero emission?

One final point on “zero emission” vehicles. I don’t think it is right to call a vehicle ‘zero emission’ unless its entire production has been emission free. The manufacturing process produces emissions, the batteries contain various harmful chemicals, the car then has to be shipped from whatever country it is made in to wherever it is sold. If that can’t be done with a net emission of zero, then it shouldn’t be a zero emission car (and don’t forget, the electricity out of your plug isn’t necessarily from a renewable source).