Staying Positive: Electric Vehicles - Progress on the 'Road to Zero', but there are inconvenient truths that need attention

The switch to Electric Vehicles (EVs) and the rapid advancement of the technology underlying them should be welcomed, as it begins the process to wean the world off the Internal Combustion Engine (ICE). However, we should not be deceived that this will end our dependence on hydrocarbons for use on the road, and of course, elsewhere.

The EV-olution

There has recently been a lot of news about the rapid rise in the sales of Electric Vehicles (EVs) and also in the investment and development of the associated battery and energy storage technology. Tesla (and its maverick founder, Elon Musk) are never far from the headlines, as it struggles to deliver its targets and maintain a value amongst growing investor and speculator concerns. Every major car manufacturer has an EV programme, from Nissan to BMW. In the UK, Sir James Dyson is investing in a new EV at his Swindon plant, promising further battery capability.  Williams, the British Formula One engineering team, has announced investment plans to put the UK at the front of EV development and production. Add to this today’s Government sponsored Zero Emissions Summit in Birmingham (11-12 September 2018), coupled with its ‘Road to Zero’ white paper and 46 point action plan, and there can be no doubt that the UK is committed to a significant technological change programme to convert our roads away from the use of hydrocarbons and at the same time place the UK at the forefront of EV development.

At the same time, there is a revolution going on in the energy supply market, with smart metering, home power storage, local production and integration of green electricity all playing a part in managing the electricity grid in a much more efficient and sustainable way, paving the way to help the demand for EVs.

The Challenges

However, the task ahead, for both the UK and other nations, is enormous; certainly greater than the switch from coal to oil in industry at the eve of the 20th Century. There are 38 million vehicles on UK roads and of course it is not just the vehicles that need to be converted, it is the underlying infrastructure. There is also the issue of the raw materials required for EV batteries, namely lithium, cobalt and nickel. There are fears that as EV production ramps up, so will the scarcity of these materials. Competition from China to reserve rights on these materials will have global implications.

Moreover, roads are but one place where we burn hydrocarbons and the proposed EV conversion will not in itself wean a nation off hydrocarbons. We also use gas and oil (and a little coal still) for heating our homes, generating electricity, making plastics, fertiliser, roads and medical products, in agriculture and last but not least, powering our global aviation and shipping industries. The hydrocarbon age is far from done.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, there is a much bigger problem, and that is that EVs, whilst useful for relatively light loads, on predictable shorter routes, at gentle speeds, and in mild weather conditions, have not proved themselves a match the performance of the Internal Combustion Engine (ICE). There’s a scientific reason, and it’s explainable in two words: ‘Energy Density’. The fact is that any vehicle must carry its own energy source and the difference in the energy for the same volume (energy density) between an EV and an ICE car is massive. So whilst there is no doubt whatsoever that an EV is quieter, perhaps needs less servicing and creates zero polluting emissions, this does not, in itself, make up for the huge difference in energy density to make it attractive to many. No doubt battery and storage technology will improve beyond today's understanding of chemistry and physics, and costs will come down, but it needs a massive breakthrough in life extension, energy density, safety, cost reduction, and charging speed, in order to compete properly. The only other way to encourage the adoption of EVs is to subsidise their cost and to discourage people from using ICE vehicles, which is already starting in many countries. One could also argue that this is inadvertently done with the huge taxes and duties placed on diesel and petrol. If that tax was taken off ICE vehicles, running an EV would not compete financially with an ICE vehicle. 

A Little History

It is worth looking back at history, as the energy density issue is not a new one. In the early 1900s, Thomas Edison tried to convince Henry Ford to make his vehicles electric. However, even back then, the EV cost was double that of an ICE vehicle and the energy density mismatch meant that Henry Ford built his Model T using an ICE. The rest, as they say, is automotive history, with all its success, contribution to air pollution and climate change. So even with significant battery technology advancement to the present day, the situation is still similar, (as the ICE has also become much more efficient, and still has the potential to go further, as 30% of the energy created is heat). 

So let us be brutally honest: If toxic emissions from vehicles were not a problem to our health, if these emissions were not contributing to climate change and if the supply of hydrocarbons was limitless and without environmental consequence, then there would be no reason to seek an alternative to our 'beloved' ICE technology. Clearly, this is wishful thinking.....

The need to change and where the focus should be

So what has changed to demand the switch to EVs? Of course we have climate change to contend with, but more importantly, we now have mega cities and the problem of air pollution (and to a lesser extent, noise pollution). This is where the EV is fully justified and can make a significant difference to world health and it is the right environment where EVs can compete, (because energy density is less of an issue, as distances are shorter, speed is not so important  and charging points and sources are likely to be closer). Thus the priority for the drive to get EVs on the road must be about reducing toxic emissions in built up areas and EVs should stop trying to compete today with ICE vehicles for longer journeys, bigger workloads (trucks, larger family cars, utility vehicles), in harsher countryside climates, and where flexibility over time and distance is needed. That competition must wait for the battery technology breakthrough, or for another energy technology source of the future. Perhaps the hybrid engine, hydrogen, or fuel cell technology may overtake batteries as a more efficient way of both reducing emissions and combatting climate change. Perhaps there will be an unexpected rise in the price of oil, thus hastening the arrival of EVs for the mainstream.

Possibly something else that has to change is our attitudes and behaviours towards cars. We are already seeing moves away from car ownership, be that through car sharing and rental schemes in cities, through to the renting of the battery power source in EVs (the major cost of an EV). Cars are becoming more automated, more monitored, and roads are becoming smarter.  EVs need to be light and built for efficiency, not necessarily style, removing perhaps some of the individuality that people prided in their cars. The end result is that car ownership will become less important to people and the marketing drivers in the automotive industry will be turned on their heads. The marketing winning factor will not be "how fast can this car go?" but "how far can this car go?" Perhaps EVs will last much longer than ICE vehicles, where it is the battery and the software that get changed more often, not the EV itself. This will be another fundamental change for the automotive industry, where they have in the past encouraged car depreciation and incentivised owners to replace their car on a frequent basis.

There is one last way of looking at concept of replacing the ICE vehicle with EVs and that is to think about a future with less vehicles on the road. As work patterns shift and technology allows to more people to work from home, or certainly more locally, so the concept of the commute may become less familiar to many. Artificial Intelligence may make transport and delivery of goods more efficient. Further investments in green public transport and innovative ideas to rent and share transport systems may be a better way to solve the problem of vehicle emissions, alongside all the advances in EVs. 

To Conclude

We are a long way from weaning the world off hydrocarbons, even if we were to take cars out of the equation. However, EVs offer us the best opportunity to reduce toxic emissions in our cities and this is where the change should start and concentrate on. The potential improvement to battery Energy Density should allow EVs to expand their utility in the future; but scientists are not there with the breakthrough yet.

Secondly, let us remember that there is no such thing as a fully environmentally friendly car that uses none of the world's resources to be made and run, so perhaps 'less is more'. Instead of just "doing things better" with EV technology, maybe we can change the way we use transport systems to "do better things". 

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