Electric cars? Maybe. Eventually

One of the key visits of my Korea delegation trip to Seoul last week was to a company called SB LiMotive, a very impressive joint venture between Samsung of Korea and Bosch of Germany – an excellent example of EU-Korea cooperation.  It makes batteries for electric vehicles, and has just picked up a contract to supply BMW for its up-coming all-electric 1-series model.  So naturally there was some discussion of the prospects for electric vehicles.

I have to say I’m not convinced – call me a grumpy old sceptic if you will.  But the problems are serious.

First of all is the range.  Currently all-electric vehicles have a typical range of 100 miles (if you’re lucky).  And psychologists have identified a new phobia – “range anxiety” – amongst electric vehicle owners.  Often they will use only half of the available range, for fear of being left stranded at the road-side.  In a petrol car you can hitch a lift and get a jerry-can, but a gallon of electricity is harder to come by.  Researchers tell us that most journeys are less than 100 miles – but who wants a vehicle that simply can’t do longer journeys?

Then there is the re-charge time.  You can fill a conventional car in a couple of minutes, but a full electric recharge can take eight hours – if you can find a plug.  There is a “fast charge”, but it needs a specialised high-amp supply.

Batteries are heavy, which is unhelpful to designers.  They require power to get them rolling.  They are also very expensive, so electric cars come at a premium.  And the batteries can take only a limited number of recharges. So second-hand vehicle prices fall because of the many thousands of pounds needed to replace the batteries.

These days drivers expect air-con, and maybe headlights.  These functions place an additional burden on the batteries, and shorten the range still further.

But there are a couple of other down-sides that are rarely mentioned.  Advocates of electric cars point out that they are very cheap to run – perhaps a tenth of the cost-per-mile of petrol vehicles.  But what do we think will happen if electric vehicles start to cut seriously into the petrol/diesel market – and cut into government revenues from fuel duty?  Of course governments will find new ways to fill the gap by placing new taxes on electric vehicles.  So the vaunted running cost saving may prove to be short-lived.

And the last point goes straight to the heart of the electric vehicle project.  The whole point is to cut down on CO2 emissions (whether that’s a good idea or not is another story).  And of course an electric vehicle produces zero CO2 at the point of use.  But the electricity has to come from somewhere, which is most probably a fossil fuel power station.  And the total emissions for an electric vehicle, including the power station, are broadly comparable to the most efficient modern diesel cars.  So unless we get serious about nuclear power, electric vehicles may have only a minor effect on emissions.

Let’s end on a positive note.  The industry believes that in ten years, the energy density of batteries may increase by a factor of three – the same weight will carry three times the power.  And the cost may reduce to a quarter.  So the energy per Pound (£) may increase by an order of magnitude, and electric cars may be both viable and attractive.  In the meantime, I’m sticking to the internal combustion engine.  I like horsepower.

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9 Responses to Electric cars? Maybe. Eventually

  1. Richard J says:

    But would they last 57 years like my Morris Minor? Still all original mechanics dynamo distributor leads plugs and factory fitted engine. But I confess the battery is a replacement, 26 pounds, to save using the starting handle.

  2. Gillibrand says:

    My father made the first viable battery powered vehicle in the UK- we even have film of the first test run I think.

  3. John says:

    The Morris Minor and Morris 1000 were /still are vey well made cars but without expensive trims etc. They should rebuild this model again , perhaps with improved features ,am sure it would be a winner

  4. Patrick Mountain says:

    Itcan be shown thqat electric car usage will give increases in power generation and consumption and that their use will entail the use of more power than can be saved i.e. the power used is generated at a distance and the conversion to chargeablke batteries results in much greater losses all round than is evident with internal combustion. Greener? certainly not.

  5. Patrick Mountain says:

    Roger. can we get some figures on the overall savings that could be achieved if the EU parliament and all it’s appendages abandoned Strasbourg ( or Brussels) and centred itself in one place…please?

    • mrphilburrows says:

      Shai Agassi, the founder of Better Place, said in a speech Monday that his company’s battery-swapping service will launch at a price cheaper than gasoline in most places, costing the equivalent of $2 – $2.50 a gallon and falling to a $1-a-gallon equivalent by the end of the decade.

      The swapping service will allow electric vehicle drivers to pull up to a Better Place station and have their drained battery exchanged for a fully-charged one in just under a minute. Its official launch is in 79 days in Israel, where gas is close to $7 a gallon. The full pricing plans will be announced just before the launch.

      For the past 75 days, electric taxi drivers in Tokyo have been testing a pilot swapping station. The battery swaps have averaged 59.1 seconds and each taxi has averaged 10,000 miles, marks of success according to Better Place.

      If the Better Place concept (where people buy electric cars and a battery service separately, resulting in far cheaper EVs) works in Israel and Europe, and if cheaper EVs and cheap fuel come together, electric cars could take over more quickly than thought.

  6. Nicholas Court says:

    What absolute nonsense.

    Roger, I have one word for you: TESLA.

    Oh, and there is no reason why we cant get the electricity from nuclear.

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