Having been involved in grassroots motor sport, I tend to read more automotive journalism than most people. Aside from keeping track of new models, which is useful when I shop for those models in the second-hand market years later, I like to keep tabs on automotive trends for their own sake, out of simple interest. It appears to me that there is, at the moment, a small cottage industry among some automotive writers to downplay the importance or even completely dismiss electric or electric-assisted automotive designs.
This seems odd at first, since I associate automotive enthusiasts with tinkerers, or at least people with an interest in things technical, and so I would expect genuine interest in knowing more about these technologies. There is some of that, but there is also a persistent undercurrent of dismissiveness from writers who seem to go out of their way to look for reasons to disparage electric vehicles. It’s as if they want those cars to fail, as if there is some visceral dislike of them.
The amount of energy stored in a gallon of gasoline is such that, up till now, we have been able to buy enough of it at a reasonable price to allow us to get in a car and drive from Ottawa to say, Toronto, and not think about it too much. That is, it’s not exactly free, but given that you already own, maintain, and insure the car, the incremental cost of driving it to Toronto is a completely acceptable price to pay for most people, certainly so for the North American middle-class. We tend to forget, or ignore, that the efficiency of gasoline-fired engines is lower than 25%. That is, we throw away 75% of all the energy that’s stored in that gallon of gasoline. That’s not good engineering design.
Electric motor conversion of electrical power to physical movement is very efficient, in the 90% range. And yes, I know they ultimately depend on generating stations and the electric grid, but efficiencies at those plants can be high, so that the life-cycle efficiency of electricity use looks pretty good. It’s not as if all those oil-digging and refining sites don’t present their own problems, it’s just that we don’t think about them much, because we put them in Sarnia or in outlying ugly suburbs of our cities so we tend to forget about them.
The trouble is that portable electric power, in the form of batteries, suffers from low power density and high weight. This means that a present-day fully-electric vehicle cannot travel more than 100 km or so (most optimistic) without having to re-charge the batteries for several hours. (Up to now, batteries also suffered from long charge-up times, but the latest developments in battery research are reducing that time down to minutes, as per the latest solid-state batteries from Hydro-Québec and probably others too.)
One objection to this short-range limitation is the belief that there is little chance that the technology can ever improve enough to overcome this. The objectors also seem to assume that this short maximum travel range will never be acceptable to the car-buying public. It’s far from obvious that the first objection is true, though it does not look too promising at the moment, it’s too soon to tell. I believe that the second objection is just wrong.
Picture a group of blacksmiths having a beer in a pub in 1906, just talking shop. “Have you seen one of these new-fangled automobiles yet”, one asks. “Noisy ugly smelly slow things, break all the time,” another answers. A third pipes in, “What damn use are they? They need gasoline. What are they going to do? Dig up crude oil all over the world, ship it by boat or thousand-mile pipelines, refine it, then ship it to filling stations at every street corner so people can put it in their cars!?! It’s a frigging joke, it’ll never happen.” You know that someone had that conversation, or one very much like it.
There are already projects being planned for fleets of electric vehicles that have been designed with easily replaceable battery packs. Imagine, during your drive to Toronto from Ottawa in your electric car, that you might have to pull into a battery-swapping station 3 times for a 5-minute swap of your dead battery for a fully-charged one. This is a little more inconvenient than what we do now, but do you have a contract with god that says that you will be able to go from Ottawa to Toronto with no effort? You couldn’t take that trip very easily a hundred years ago, but times change. I used to be able to get customer service in stores, and I now live without that.
But let’s assume that the battery-changing station idea will never come about, that it really is a more outlandish suggestion that digging for oil all over the planet and shipping it to every street corner in every city. At the moment, my wife and I occasionally make the drive out to Perth, Ontario, a nice small town one hour west of us. It’s pleasant to walk around the town, it has some nice stores and coffee shops, makes for a nice outing. It costs us about $25 in gasoline to do that these days, and we make the trip a couple of times a year or so. But in the year 2033, say, when the price of gasoline is $10 per liter, not the current $1.20 per liter, that little Sunday afternoon outing would cost us $250 or more in fuel costs alone. Theoretically. In actual fact it wouldn’t cost us a dime, because I would no longer own a car when gasoline costs $10 per liter. It would be utter madness to spend $20,000-$30,000 on a vehicle that I could not afford to operate. At $10 per liter, the lives of a lot of people will change. It may already be happening. I read in the press recently that young adults are increasingly NOT buying cars these days, they’re not willing to incur the costs of ownership, and this trend is worrying the automobile manufacturers. And it should.
My point is, if it isn’t obvious, that it’s irrelevant whether or not electric vehicles cannot provide the flexibility of current day automobiles. When the day comes that buying a gasoline-fired car ceases to be a sensible choice for you and me because of fuel costs, unless some miracle happens and we completely rebuild our cities, which is not very likely, your dentist will still be 10 km away from you live, and your grocery store will still be a lot farther than you’d be willing to carry 40 kilos of groceries. In that world, an electric car that “only” has a range of 100 km will not be a bad compromise, it will be a godsend. It’s not necessary that an electric car match the convenience of present-day gasoline-burning cars, it is only required that they are better than hauling 40 kilos of groceries for an hour on foot. And if the range of an electric car drops to 50 km on a cold mid-February Canadian afternoon, it will still be better than trying to ride your bicycle through a foot of snow to the doctor’s office when you’re shivering with flu symptoms.
Electric cars may not turn out to be a good idea. We simply don’t know yet. Right now, barring the development of battery-swapping “filling” stations, the long-distance use of electricity seems to necessitate some kind of very complex hybrid design. That complexity is itself something else that the naysayers complain about, understandably so. But there may not be any simple solutions left. Electric cars may turn out to only be a niche solution to short-distance urban transport. But if we will need electric cars in the year 2033 because there may not be another viable alternative at that time, it means that we had better start figuring out how to properly build them, and the sooner the better. Whining about how inconvenient the current models are, which may be true, serves little purpose.
Battery disposal and re-cycling may be a very tough issue to solve, but let’s not delude ourselves that this is not the case for oil-based technologies. Those same concerns also hold in the case of the oil economy, it’s just that the oil industry emerged at a time when no one worried about things like the ecology and product life-cycles. Imagine trying to develop an oil infrastructure from scratch in today’s policy climate. If you lived in east Montreal, would you want a refinery next door? The fact is that what we currently view as normal is only just familiar, not necessarily safe or clean.
Another important aspect of electric car design is crash safety. A fully charged-up battery represents lots of pent-up kilowatts, and while insulating occupants from that energy under normal circumstances doesn't seem too complicated, all bets are off in the case of collisions. Developing standards for battery containment in collisions and procedures for emergency personnel will be critical. But even here, some automotive journalists seem to think that this is some kind of deal-breaker, when all it requires is new engineering. We don’t think twice about sending teenagers out on the road in 3-ton SUVs with gallons of liquid explosive in the fuel tank now, and we seem to think that flying in airplanes is normal, is coming up with a way to deal with charged-up batteries so remote a concept?
All new systems seem complex. The old systems are complex too, it's just that we're familiar with them so don't notice anymore. Everybody, please calm down, we'll probably figure out ways to deal with batteries. Overcoming these various obstacles may not be cheap, of course, but neither will the oil economy of the future.