In July, the UK government announced plans to ban the sale of new diesel and petrol cars and vans from 2040. This restriction will extend to hybrid vehicles which operate a part diesel or petrol powertrain, leaving electric vehicles as the leading alternative.
With less than 1% of new cars sold in Britain powered solely by electricity, can we really go all electric by 2040?
There have always been three main barriers to electric vehicles: price, performance and practicality. So where are we with these three pieces in the puzzle now and where do we need to be by 2040?
Battery technology has come a long way in recent years and production processes are improving every day. Several manufacturers have released ‘mass market’ vehicles though range has been limited for the most part. The Tesla Model 3 is being hailed as the first true breakthrough electric vehicle (although Renault, Nissan and BMW may have something to say about that given that they have the Zoe, Leaf and i3 selling in significant volumes) with Mr Musk’s aspiration to build up to 500,000 of them every year. With a price around £35K and a range exceeding 200 miles per charge, the Model 3 represents a real alternative for many consumers, competing directly with the likes of the BMW 3 Series and the Mercedes C-Class. However, with offerings from other mainstream manufacturers (including Jaguar with the ice-cool I-Pace) hot on its heels, it will be interesting to see if the Model 3 really is the “big one” or simply the Model S’s little brother…
The issue of battery purchase or rental is still one that requires a bit of scrutiny. The commonly held view is that you don’t want to own great big lumps of lithium ion and other rare-earth metals because they’re more expensive than myrrh and lose their ability to hold a charge. The facts appear not to support that; indeed, outright purchase may be the best way forward, particularly if it’s a second car runaround style proposition (which most electric vehicles are), in which case Renault and Nissan may need to look carefully at their sales model.
For the longest time, electric motors were associated with milk floats and golf carts. The staggering success of the Toyota Prius did little to sway imaginations that an electric vehicle could in fact also be fun to drive. The intonation that times were changing came in 2009 when Formula 1 introduced KERS, an electronically aided acceleration function in their new cars. More recently, several key manufacturers embraced this hybridization mentality for a new generation of ‘hyper cars’, most notably the McLaren P1 and Porsche 918.
Once again though, Tesla have led the way in changing perceptions of electric powertrains. The current generation Model S is capable of a staggering 0-60 sprint of 2.3 seconds. At this moment, an electric saloon is the fastest acceleration mass production car on sale. You wouldn’t want to do that very often though, it doesn’t do the battery much good.
The two main weaknesses of electric have always been range and charging time. Vehicle range has seen some good progress, with several vehicles able to exceed 300 miles on a single charge. Good progress has also been made on charging times with fast charging, able to deliver 100 miles of range in 20 minutes in some cases.So, that settles it. Everything is cool and the gang and we are going all electric by 2040!
Hang on though...
Sadly, there is one key element of the puzzle that is likely to place a roadblock in our impending move to electric transportation.
Over the last 100 years, Britain's road network has evolved to accommodate 32 million cars, all powered by fossil fuels. Service stations have opened and closed with demand to service vehicles that require, on average, just over 6 minutes to deliver 400 miles of range.The best offering today would take nearly 2 hours to deliver the same 400 miles and over 8 hours when charging domestically. Even now, with less than 1% of vehicles requiring a charging point, it can be difficult to find somewhere to park and charge.
Several companies are working hard to provide a solution to just this problem. Perhaps the most interesting has found a way of upgrading halogen lamp posts and adapting them to provide a charging socket for the saved energy. Battery technology will most certainly improve, with range increasing and charging time decreasing. It is very unlikely, however, that we will see a comparable performance to fossil fuels anywhere near 2040. Even if this were the case, we would be hard pressed to deliver a century’s worth of infrastructure development in 23 years.
There’s also the uncomfortable truth around grid capacity. Currently we work at about 1% over capacity at times of peak use, which doesn’t feel like much of a margin for error. Lob in another couple of million electric vehicles and we’ll need a few more Hinckley Point Cs to start kicking out a few more gigawatts. Recently we’ve heard about power generating roof tiles, in-house battery packs to store excess power for when it’s required, and smart fridges in Waitrose that turn on and off to help the grid.
Smart lamp posts and fridges all sound very clever and perhaps with a bit of luck and a following wind these may be some part of the answer.
But who is going to pay for this?
My house has just had a new roof, so it won’t need another one for the couple of hundred years that the last one did its job for. Why would I shell out again? The example is trite but the point is real, the cost of change is huge and, let’s face it, the public and private finances of UK PLC aren’t in the best shape at the moment.
For what it is and this very much my opinion, don’t write off hydrogen fuel cell technologies. Some really clever innovators like Honda are quietly beavering away making the tech work in real life, at a cost that’s decreasing all the time. The progress made in the last decade has been huge, jump forward another 10 years and it’s possible that Hydrogen fuel cells could be a convenient answer to all those difficult questions that BEVs are asking of our current infrastructure.
Just think, the only emission is water, they run for 350 miles, we can adapt the existing infrastructure and, for dinosaurs like me who care about driving pleasure, they’re actually fun to drive…
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