The electric car conundrum

Electric cars are not a new invention. When I was growing up in west London in the 1960s, Harrods delivered its wares in a silent electric van while in contrast the cart belonging to Sam, the elderly milkman, was hauled up the hill where I lived by a huge horse which I invariably rewarded with a sugar lump.

That story illustrates just how slowly modes of transport change and how difficult it is to predict which technologies will become dominant. I saw numerous other working horses on my way to school at the time, a half century or so after cars had become well established, but there were few electric vehicles. Yet, at the beginning of the 20th century, when electric and petrol-driven cars were in competition with one another, it seemed that it would be the former that would win out. After all, they had numerous advantages, such as reliability, the lack of emissions, the ease with which started at the push of a button rather than a turn of a heavy crank as the starting motor was not invented till 1912.

The internal combustion engine, however, was to dominate the next century thanks to a variety of factors. Electric vehicles had a short range, and therefore as country roads improved, increasing the potential for longer trips, their limitations became all too apparent. However, it was the discovery of huge quantities of oil and the consequent pressure from the oil companies that tipped the balance. After the First World War, all the R&D that could have reduced the size of batteries and increased their power to weight ratio of electric vehicles was focussed on making petrol driven vehicles more efficient instead. Influenced by the growing oil companies and the motor manufacturers, governments across the world encouraged the development of petrol driven vehicles, ignoring the negatives such as air pollution and other environmental effects.

Within little more than a generation, electric cars had all but disappeared and the humble milk float, which in the late 1960s, much to his displeasure, replaced Sam’s horse, became part of what was at the time the world’s largest fleet of electric vehicles. And then people stopped having milk delivered…

Now, though, there is the promise of a new age of the electric vehicle. Prompted by increasing public concern about air pollution especially in cities, there has been a renewed interest in electric cars. There was flurry of developments during the oil crises of the 1970s, but it was not really until the 1990s that there has been a sustained effort to create an alternative to the internal combustion engine for the mass market.

However, nearly three decades on, progress has been slow. The trend is upwards but from a very low base. While electric and hybrid purchases in 2018 grew by 21 per cent compared with 2017, this still only represents  a mere 6 per cent of all car sales. Moreover, if only pure plug-in electric cars, rather than those that can be powered by both conventional fuel and electricity, are taken into account, that percentage is far lower, a mere 0.7 per cent, representing just 15,500 vehicles out of a total sale last year of just under 2.4 million vehicles.

And if it is air pollution that is the main area of concern, then it is the pure electric cars that will lead to rapid improvements rather than the hybrids, like the familiar Prius, which still burn considerable amounts of fuel. The motor manufacturers understand this as demonstrated by the emphasis on electric cars at events like the Geneva Motor Show in March. As Wired magazine reported, ‘Geneva 2019 was host to an eclectic mix of electric and hybrid cars, and, perhaps more importantly, by some margin more vehicles with these powertrains than ever before’.
However, according to Steve Gooding, the director of the RAC Foundation, there are several major obstacles to overcome before electric becomes the norm. He cites the 4 Rs which present challenges and all need resolving before the electric revolution can really take off: ‘Retail availability, range, recharging and residual value.’

Ring up a car dealer today to ask for the latest electric model, and the likely answer is, ‘sorry guv, we have a waiting list of several months’. This is not a result of excessive demand, but rather because the manufacturers are reluctant to produce enough cars. They claim that it is a global market and therefore local supply may be difficult to fulfil but a more likely explanation is that in a bid to create a market, the car manufacturers are selling at a loss. Therefore more sales equates to bigger losses. There is something of a chicken and egg situation here, as prices will not come down until demand increases substantially. Moreover, to make matters worse, the government has now cut the maximum grant available for purchasers of new cars by £1,000 to £3,500. Employers are being encouraged to fit chargers in their car parks but this is expensive and there is not surprisingly much reluctance to make this investment.

Range has always been the biggest concern of potential purchasers of electric vehicles as oddly been low on juice is perceived as far more worrying than running out of petrol because you can’t do anything with a fully discharged car apart from towing it to a charging point. That explains why this fear has been the greatest barrier to widespread take up of electric vehicles but the improvement in battery technology, giving greater range, is starting to reduce this anxiety. Whereas early models often had a range of 100 miles, newer ones coming on to the market can invariably do 250 which is pretty much all that is needed, apart from really long trips. Cars produced by Tesla, the company created by the eccentric, and at times highly unreliable, Elon Musk, have ranges of over 300 miles but these are both very expensive and very large vehicles carrying huge numbers of batteries.

There are two aspects to recharging. The ideal situation is to have a driveway or garage, which has a permanent home recharging kit for which a government grant of £500 is available. Yet that situation covers fewer than half the homes in the UK and although there are possible solutions such as running wires across pavements, strictly this is illegal and therefore for many people home charging will not be possible, making electric car ownership difficult or even impossible.

The other aspect is charging on the go, either for longer journeys or by taking advantage of a facility while shopping or going to the gym. There are 7,000 public charging locations across the UK, but there is no universal standard. Instead, there are fast chargers – which are in fact standard – and rapid which are faster. This is confusing enough in itself but then there are a whole plethora of different types of cable and adaptors, as well as power providers, and the chargers themselves are sophisticated as they ‘talk’ to the car while in use and adapt the speed of charge accordingly. Therefore many chargers cannot be used by all vehicles and to further add to the complexity some hybrids can only use fast, not rapid, chargers.

The issue of recharging and providing a network of chargers is so complex that there are two separate task forces currently examining the issue, one set up by the government sponsored Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership and the other by the Mayor of London. They need to find solutions to a huge range of issues. As Steve Gooding put it ‘In the early days of the combustion engine, people bought petrol from chemists and it was some time before petrol stations were established’. We are effectively as the moment at the petrol from chemists stage. There is a need to establish a kind of USB stick for electric cars, as well as a universal system of provision but that will require government intervention which is unlikely. Imagine trying to force Elon Musk, whose Tesla cars have their own bespoke system of public chargers, to cooperate with his rivals.

Oddly, Gooding’s fourth ‘R’, the rapid fall in the residual value of electric cars has been resolved through the market. The shortage of new cars, together with the fact that nowadays few people buy their car outright but instead effectively lease it, means that second hand values are now very strong.

There is little doubt that the percentage of electric cars in the ‘parc’, as it is called, will increase over the next few years driven by government policies to phase out polluting cars. However, predicting by how much is as hard as working out the Brexit endgame. Pessimistic observers of the industry suggest that the obstacles cited above will mean that consumer resistance is still high and that availability of sufficient vehicles and charging points will remain a deterrent. Optimists point to the recent faster rates of growth and the fact that history is on the side of the electric car. The century of dominance of the internal combustion engine is over, they say, and the concerns about pollution, from both governments and consumers, is already forcing the industry into developing electric alternatives – though battery powered 40 tonne HGVs appear some way off. Governments and city authorities across the world are announcing plans to phase out fossil fuel burning vehicles and measures such as the Ultra Low Emission Zone, which was in introduced in London on April 8 and are likely to spread to other cities, are a precursor to such bans and will start the process of stimulating demand for electric vehicles.

The wider question, however, is whether electric cars will ultimately help to save the planet or even make the slightest contribution to doing so. Environmentalists point out that, first of all, they are still cars, with a lot of embedded carbon involved in the manufacture. The batteries, which are mainly lithium-ion, rather than the lead ones still used in conventional cars, not only require a lot of energy to produce, but are a really difficult to dispose of. Currently there is no economic way of extracting the very expensive lithium which, instead, has to be mined in a complex process involving some 500,000 gallons of water to produce a ton of lithium. Despite demand growing rapidly, Lithium found mainly in western South America, Australia and China is relatively plentiful but cobalt, another metal required for battery production is principally only located in the inaptly named Democratic Republic of the Congo. In the cobalt rich region of Katanga, it is mined either by big companies with little regard for the environment or taken from small ‘artisanal’ mines owned by smallholders who use child labour. Of course reducing tailpipe emissions is only part of the story as the key is the method of production of the electricity. China is by far the biggest user of electric vehicles and has the world’s largest solar energy programme but also still uses vast amounts of coal. In the UK, only 28 per cent of energy is from renewable sources.

For the foreseeable future, electric cars will be bit part players. While there are some environmental benefits, they do nothing to address the key problem of road transport, congestion in urban areas and on major routes. The resistance of consumers together with the various technical and practical difficulties makes it difficult to see how the ambitious targets set in various parts of the world for the replacement of conventional cars can be achieved. The auto manufacturers have also made the mistake of conflating the development of driverless and electric vehicles. Driverlessness, as I have written previously (Prospect, January 2017) is technically much further away than electric and quite possibly will never be achieved as the main mode of driving. Electric may be the future but just as horses were still on the roads in my youth, the combustion engine will be around for far longer than policy makers expectand environmentalist would like.


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