By JR on Saturday, August 06, 2011
Comment from Britain
Silently, save for a faint whine, the prophets who claim to have seen the future of the automobile glide round the trendier districts of Britain’s cities, confident that the way forward must be electric.
There they go, hunched over the steering wheel of their funny little plastic runarounds, an invisible halo of environmental piety hovering over their heads as they trundle about saving the planet.
The future, they believe, will belong to them, never mind what the dinosaurs on Top Gear say. Clean, green, smooth battery power will replace messy, polluting, expensive and noisy petrol and diesel engines that have powered our cars and trucks for more than a century — and which contribute 20 per cent of Britain’s carbon emissions.
And so, manufacturers such as BMW and Nissan have invested billions developing futuristic battery-powered vehicles. You can now choose from a range of electric cars that look much like normal vehicles.
Except there’s a problem. Electric cars are dreadful. Even after 20 years of frantic development they remain impractical, ridiculously expensive and not even particularly green. I wouldn’t pay £1,000 for any of those I’ve test-driven, let alone the £28,000 or so often demanded.
The Top Gear team, who have been waging war on the electric car, are right — even if Jeremy Clarkson may have been guilty of exaggerating the problems when he suggested an electric car needed to be recharged during a test drive. The makers of the car deny it ran out of power during the trial and have accused the BBC of ‘mischaracterising’ its capabilities.
The public, however, are waking up to the problems. Last month it was revealed that a Government scheme aimed at encouraging people to buy electric vehicles by offering a £5,000 subsidy for each new car is not working. Just 255 electric cars were bought in the past three months, which the RAC Foundation says is ‘less than electrifying’. And, it was revealed, there are fewer than 2,000 pure-electric cars (as opposed to petrol-electric hybrid versions) on Britain’s roads.
So what has gone wrong with the car of tomorrow?
Well, imagine buying an ordinary car and finding that it runs out of petrol every 80 miles or so. Then, filling it up takes not a couple of minutes but eight hours. Only the insane would buy such an impractical machine.
The problem is down to the laws of physics. No known battery technology can come even close to matching the efficiency of fossil fuels. The problem revolves around ‘energy density’ — the amount of energy contained in a given volume or weight of fuel (or battery). Even the best lithium-ion batteries have energy densities many times less than petrol or diesel.
A kilogramme of petrol contains enough energy to propel a car about 15 miles. A kilo of fully-charged lithium-ion battery will drive your electric car 500 yards. That is why electric cars have huge battery packs weighing up to half a tonne. In the electric BMW Mini I tested a couple of years ago, the battery took up the whole back seat and weighed about 250kg (or the same as five full petrol tanks).
And you only get about 100 miles to a fully-charged battery at best, compared with 1,000-plus miles from the most economical diesels.
This leads to ‘range anxiety’, or the fear you will be stranded miles away from a socket. The previous Government, in its enthusiasm for all things electric and green, promised state-subsidised charging points up and down the land. These haven’t materialised.
The dreadful G-Wiz car I borrowed once had barely enough juice to get me the few miles home across Central London. I’d have been better walking
But the problems do not end there. Manufacturers of electric vehicles, such as Nissan, which has just released a family-hatchback called the ‘Leaf’, point out that electric cars are ideal for city dwellers who tend not to drive more than 15 miles at a time.
But the majority of urbanites live in flats or houses without drives. So to recharge your car you need to trail an electric cable out of your letterbox, across the pavement and maybe along the road — a vandals’ charter.
On its website, Nissan UK describes its new Leaf as ‘zero emissions’. It is not. If you live in a country where 75 per cent of the electricity is generated using fossil fuels such as coal and gas, as in Britain, then every time you recharge your electric car you will be generating emissions — at the power station rather than the exhaust pipe.
If you work out the full lifecycle emissions figures for electric cars — taking into account energy used to manufacture the car (and its batteries) and to dispose of it, plus lifetime emissions from fuel/recharging — the best electric cars on sale work out to be, in environmental terms, a little worse than the most efficient diesel and petrol cars on sale (and cost on average twice as much to buy).
So, electric cars are heavy, expensive, slow, impractical and not very green. They are much cheaper to fuel, but that is largely a function of the way petrol and electricity are taxed differently. If we all switched to electric cars tomorrow, the Treasury would have to quadruple electricity taxes to make up the shortfall in his finances.
The biggest problem for the electric-car lobby is this technology has hardly advanced at all in the past 100 years.
Buy an electric car today and it will effectively be worthless in five years, because by then the worn-out batteries will need replacing — with the cost of their replacements varying wildly from £4,000 to a ludicrous £19,000 (the estimated cost of a new battery for the Leaf). I would never spend £19,000 on a whole car, let alone a wretched battery.
Advocates of electric claim battery technology will improve. This is no doubt true, but batteries will need to improve at least 15 times over to rival petrol or diesel vehicles.
Fans of electric cars also claim they can take advantage of off-peak power to recharge at night. But what would happen if everyone plugged their car into the mains when they get home? The electricity grid would keel over.
Then there is talk of ‘battery-swap’ machines being installed in filling stations so drivers can switch their flat battery for a fully-charged. This is perhaps the only hope for electric cars — although the practical obstacles are formidable.
Every car manufacturer would have to agree a common standard for battery design (when they cannot even agree a standard on light bulb size or which side the petrol filler cap is on), and the oil companies (which own the garages) would have to spend billions on the technology.
So what is the future of motoring? If not electric cars, what about hybrids such as the Toyota Prius, the new Vauxhall Ampera ‘plug-in hybrid’, fuel-cell vehicles (which use liquid-hydrogen to generate electricity on-board) or some other futuristic technology?
Apart from the fact the world still has a lot of oil left, the key is simply to make cars smaller and lighter. Modern cars have become too big. Too many people drive around in absurd, two-tonne 15ft 4WD trucks. And this comes at a terrible price in terms of fuel efficiency.
British automotive genius Gordon Murray is developing the ultimate practical vehicle — a petrol-powered, diminutive, featherweight little three-seater called the T25 that turns 30 years of car design on its head. He says: ‘Make the car lighter and you will then need a smaller engine and lighter brakes.’
I have been in his T25, and it is brilliant — tiny, comfortable and nippy.
Indeed, the true vehicle of the future, which can drive four people in rapid, air-conditioned comfort for 100 miles or more on a gallon of petrol is probably only 15 years away. Maybe their day will come again, but for now electric cars belong in the Victorian era, from whence they came.