E-cars: realistic or fantasies?

by Satish Kalra Sep 09, 2017

The UK has announced that by 2050 all cars will be electric ones. India wants to reach that by 2030. Sadly, neither will happen.

As an automotive engineer from the 1960s, I’m somewhat inured – and amused – by predictions of the imminent demise of the Internal Combustion Engine, not unlike the villagers who heard the boy cry wolf. Initially, reasons focused on the complicated design (‘too many reciprocating parts’) but it’s now the prime villain responsible for greenhouse gases and pollution. With frightening images of cities like Beijing and New Delhi enveloped in smog, we are told the ‘problem’ will disappear once the cars all run on electricity.

The chorus has become even louder thanks to social media, the historic Paris Climate Agreement and the stand taken by Donald Trump. Countries are falling over each other to announce dates by when hydrocarbon-fueled cars will be totally phased out and replaced with electric ones.

To an old timer, it sounds a bit like the high-pitched ‘Health for All by the Year 2000’ – the Alma Ata (that’s since become Almaty) Declaration that was quietly forgotten and buried when the deadline passed.

At the risk of being labelled a retrograde, let me stick my neck out and state electric cars are not the solution; they won’t fly – literally and metaphorically.

First, electric cars don’t eliminate greenhouse gases and pollution; they merely shift those from the tailpipe to the powerhouse chimney. Unless, of course, the electricity generated all comes from ‘renewable’ sources like solar, wind, tides, hydroelectric or nuclear. In 2013, renewables accounted for barely 22 percent of global electricity generation, and the IEA Medium-Term Renewable Energy Report 2015 foresees that share reaching to least 26 percent by 2020.

What this fails to acknowledge is that the low-hanging fruit has already been plucked and the figure could plateau out at 28-30 percent in the next decade. That means 70 percent of all primary energy will still be hydrocarbon derived. With falling oil prices, growth and adoption of renewable energy will slow down even further. This could be further compounded by more realistic costing of renewable sources; for instance, solar panel farms require large tracts of land that has a market price which is rarely factored in.

Second, while individual car makers are all focusing on developing their own prototypes, there is no standardisation of ‘fuel’. Just imagine if all petrol/diesel vehicles were designed to run only on their manufacturer-supplied fuel and you had a multiplicity of manufacturer-specific petrol stations! Sounds absurd, because we are all used to driving our cars of any make into any one and tanking up. No one’s working on standardising the ‘fuel’ for electric cars – electricity! The type – AC or DC, the voltage, the connectors, the amperage which will determine the size of the cables and charging time . . . and so on.

(The batteries are all DC while the mains are AC; will the rectifier converting AC to DC be in the car or will the charging stations all supply DC?).

Actually, a far more logical way forward would perhaps be to standardise the battery – a larger version of say AA – with ‘battery stations’ where a driver goes in, has the existing battery removed and a new one plugged in quickly and easily paying the difference between unused energy returned and fresh energy picked up. But that would require standardisation of not just the battery packs and receptacles but for the entire electrical system. Not happening.

Finally, the Internal Combustion Engine design has not remained static over the years. Major improvements and innovations have made the one under the bonnet a far more efficient beast today than it was even 10 years ago. And with more stringent controls on fuel specifications by WWFC (World-wide Fuel Charter on Fuel – both diesel and petrol) and the BS VI standards, fuel efficiency and emissions today are continually evolving and will delay the predicted demise.

Problems of greenhouse gases, pollution and traffic snarls are real and need to be tackled. Geography specific ‘solutions’ will probably lie in combinations of cheap, efficient and reliable mass transportation, carpooling, increased production of energy from renewable sources like solar, wind, nuclear, better hydrocarbons like LNG, improvements in prime mover technologies, self-sufficient communities, working from home in networked environments . . . and electric cars which will be a part of the ‘solution’, not all of it. Cars with Internal Combustion Engines will still be around for a long time!

The author is a US-based independent consultant; the views expressed are strictly his own.

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