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.