There was once a time, and it wasn’t that long ago, that the idea of the average citizen having a computer in his own home or a mobile phone in his hand seemed like wildly exaggerated fantasies. About as far-fetched as the idea today that soon everyone will have an electric car parked in their garage.
Anyone who knows me acknowledges that I have a soft spot for automobiles regardless of whether they run on diesel, petrol, electric or old tea bags but we have to start facing up to the fact that oil isn’t going to last forever and that we need a cleaner alternative to combat global warming.
At present, we still have the luxury of being able to sweep this inconvenience under the carpet because the world’s oil fields still have at least another half a dozen decades left in them, but is this legacy of irresponsibility something we want to pass down to our children? If you’re as worried about these issues as I am, then take heart, because I believe there is a solution in sight, the electric car or electric vehicle (EV) as they’re known in the industry.
“For the generalisation of EV’s you really need three things” argues Bob Lutz, former vice chairman of General Motors “You need cars that can go at least 300 miles on a charge. You need rapid recharging capability. And you need affordable pricing.” So far, Elon Musk’s Tesla has achieved two out of the three and Lutz believes, as do I, that its only a matter of time before consumers won’t need gasoline-powered vehicles. “I always say that the electric car future is definitely coming because batteries will accept more charge, the cost of batteries will come down and fast charging will happen,” he said.
In the same way that smoke billowing factory’s are now an ugly relic of the 80’s urban landscape, so too will the spluttering tailpipes of gas guzzling cars soon be confined to the scrapbook of pollutions past.
A major advantage of EV’s over their gasoline model counterparts is that they run on batteries so there is no internal combustion. No internal combustion means no hydrocarbons. No hydrocarbon emissions means no need for a catalytic converter or distributor, points, spark plugs, coil, radiator, fan belt, valves and any of the other complicated guts of your bog standard gasoline powered car. In a language that non-petrolheads will understand, basically, EV’s are a cleaner, smoother, far less complicated and much quieter car.
According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), electrified transport is the key to a lower carbon future. EV’s will have an important role in the reduced dependency on oil and can dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The Agency also reports that three-quarters of new cars need to be EVs by 2050 if we’re to stay within “safe” global warming limits.
So why hasn’t the EV revolution already happened? Primarily because, to date, the factors supporting it are still playing catch up with the vision and the potential. Here are some fundamental issues holding back widespread use:
At present, anyone with a gasoline car who’s running on empty can pull into a petrol station, fill up their tank and be on their way. But EV owners might struggle to find charging stations, and without charging stations, consumers will not buy EVs.
At present, an EV is more of a choice for the middle-class consumer with an environmental conscience opposed to a practical necessity. However, as the price of EVs drops and the cost of running them becomes more economical, more people will want EVs providing the necessary demand for more EV charging stations.
Once the supermarkets latch onto this, you will be able to plug your EV in, do your shopping and by the time you’re done, your EV is all charged up and ready to go.
Another option would be for home adaptors to convert domestic power into EV rechargers.
Finally, as oil prices increase and governments crack down on carbon emission targets, consumers might not have the same freedom of choice in future that they enjoy now. Chances are, cost and environmental issues will force EVs to replace gasoline cars so EV charging infrastructure will become a necessity.
Cheaper and longer-range batteries are vital to the mass population of EV’s. The batteries for some EVs currently make up 50% of their overall cost. To heap insult upon injury, the battery packs of all electric vehicles must ultimately be replaced, on average once every eight years. Between 2008 and 2012, per kilowatt hour price fell by half and the IEA forecasts that it will drop another half again by 2020. This shows that the costs are falling, but not nearly enough for the mass market consumer.
Another issue with batteries is that at present they can only go up to 100 miles on a single charge which is fine for school runs, shopping and general pottering about but is no use for long distance drivers.
Another drawback is that a slow recharge can take up to 8 hours, not an issue if you put your EV on charge overnight but not so great if you get caught in the middle of two destinations and have to sit and wait it out.
Nissan has tackled this problem quite well with the Nissan LEAF (Leading, Environmentally Friendly, Affordable, Family Car). A fast charge now provides an 80% charge in just 30 minutes.
Furthermore, innovative technology will extend the life of lithium batteries and reduce their cost, size and weight or may even provide cheaper, better, more cost-effective alternatives to lithium batteries.
There are two cons here. Firstly the cost of the EV itself and secondly the cost of the battery needed to power it. At present, both are pretty pricey and make the investment in an EV considerably more expensive than a gasoline car. The flip side is that the prices of both are also falling and will continue to fall, rapidly.
On the plus side, electricity helps people save a significant amount of money on fuel each year and is more efficient than gasoline. The Department of Energy recently released ‘eGallon,’ a tool that makes it easy to compare fuel savings. The average comparison shows the electric price is about one-third of the gas price. A margin that will only grower wider and in electric’s favour in the future. In addition, a $7,500 federal tax credit in the US is another large incentive for purchasing an EV.
There are also lots of options for leasing as well. As EV’s are currently only designed for short drives and are quite compact, this makes them suitable as a quick hop-arounds in large cities. A bit like the Boris bikes in London, consumers might prefer to pay a monthly fee and simply pick up a rental EV from a docking station rather than purchase one outright.
Alternatively, rather than purchasing a couple of expensive batteries, consumers might pay a monthly battery hire fee where they pull into a charging station when they’re low on juice and ask for a recharged battery replacement to be popped in. Even quicker and easier than pumping oil into a tank.
People who own EV’s can also save a tremendous amount on crippling car insurance costs. As EV’s are deemed to be much less of a risk than their gasoline counterparts, the insurance companies reflect this in the price of their premiums.
The good news about the drawbacks of EV’s is that all of these issues are currently being addressed and given time should be relatively straight forward in remedying. But there are other incentives for you to be investing in an EV right now – the parts are geared towards recyclability, there are solar-powered prototypes in the development stage and in the States EV’s can be driven in the carpool lane. Imagine that, you’re stuck in a horrendous traffic jam on a hot day and scooting past you shoots a little EV, the audacity!
As with any new brand or industry, much of its success is reliant on how well it is marketed and in this respect EV’s have a strong advantage. Its benefits should make marketing easy. For example “Electric vehicles are driving the change to a clean, green and sustainable future” – see, wasn’t that simple.
Advertisers will have a field day selling EV’s to the general public – they’re convenient, environmental, safe, cost effective (in the long-term) and there are various leasing options to suit any budget. On marketing, EV’s have gas guzzlers beaten hands down.
Changing a whole market sector is never straightforward but the funny thing about change is that people are only scared of it before it happens. Afterwards, they tend to embrace it.
Once the EV revolution really gains traction, gasoline powered car owners will start to question why on earth they’re paying through the nose for fuel when they could be simply recharging their car every night at a fraction of the expense. At some point in the near future, the pros and cons of EV’s versus gasoline powered cars are going to meet each other halfway on a sliding scale before EV’s start to emerge looking by far the more attractive option. This is why, we’ll all be driving electric cars in ten years’ time.