The truth about electric cars

Or at least the truth from an engineering perspective. And that is an important distinction because of course the main catalyst for the change is political, there may be some very fine environmental and technical reasons for the change too, but politics holds all the aces. It can make oil prices prohibitive, it can subsidise new technologies that herald breakthrough innovations.
You see, every life changing new technology had to start somewhere, it usually starts off prohibitively expensive and a bit unreliable. Just think about those early mobile phones the size of a suitcase with a battery life of only a few minuets and call costs a hundred times greater than a normal land line. Or even the first computers, the size of a large room and less brains than a digital watch. The format is well established; pour loads of funding into research, laugh at boffins making experimental machines with questionable ability, wait for a company to spot the potential, get it into production and within ten years every competitor is developing better versions.

Rolls Royce are leading the charge (pardon the pun) in ultra luxury electric vehicles.

But electric cars are a bit of an exception because at the dawn of motoring they were a front runner, even Porche’s first car was electric. 130 years ago petrol was not readily available, you bought it in cans for quite a lot of money, car journeys were very short and cars were so expensive that only those with a large estate could afford one. Electric cars had the advantage over those first fledgling petrol cars in many ways, they were faster, quieter, much more reliable and had no starting problems. They didn’t even need a gearbox or clutch mechanism, so driving them was a far simpler affair than a crash box piston powered chariot.
But the materials technology needed to advance battery design was simply not there, the early EV hit a performance limit that it couldn’t break free from. The second problem was in motor control, all they had was switches, and as motors became more powerful the need for fine control at low speed became more problematic.
By comparison funding poured into petrol engine design, at that time it was far easier to improve than electric cars and oil companies were understandably keen to see this new product thrive. A couple of world wars forced engine design ahead very rapidly, not least to power aircraft from the humble Tiger Moth to the magnificent Spitfire.
Very rapidly it became far easier to make a high power, low cost petrol engine, opening up the possibility of cheap mass market motor cars.
Electric vehicles didn’t stand a chance. Half a century ago there was simply no reason to invest in electric vehicle research, emissions concerns had not yet manifested, climate change was unheard of and oil supplies were plentiful. A few enthusiasts continued to attempt to make electric vehicles, enjoying their simplicity and quietness, but materials technology would still limit their capability.
But times change, and now with political difficulties in oil supply, a far greater and ever developing understanding of emissions problems and climate change, coupled with massive advancements in technology there is an overwhelming desire to find alternatives to petrol and diesel.
This means that funding is now pouring into research in electric vehicles. But as mentioned above this is merely the first stage in a product becoming a commercial success, early adopters such as Honda with the Insight and more recently Toyota with the Prius have been suffering the commercial pain of subsidising less than ideal technology, but remember this is another essential stage in a technology’s development.
I hope that gives you an idea of where we are; about half way to getting a really useful, cheap and effective electric vehicle. There is now sufficient funding from a sufficiently large range of institutions, governments and corporations that the rest of the development process is pretty much inevitable, after all they all want to see a return on their investments.
Of course electric cars are not the only option for reducing CO2, existing piston engines could be re-engineered to run on hydrogen, and that fuel could be obtained by electrolysis of water. Storing hydrogen is a bit tricky unfortunately, but there are some exciting new developments that could make it a viable option. This has the advantage of using existing engine technology, but introduces large inefficiencies due to the process of hydrogen manufacture, its transport and the low efficiency of the internal combustion engine. You’d be lucky to turn 15% of the electrical energy used in hydrogen production into energy at the car’s wheels. and as ever you loose all that energy as soon as you apply the brakes.
The observant amongst you will know that lost energy from braking could be recovered by hooking up generators to the wheels and using the recovered energy to power the wheels on the next acceleration, as in KERS and other regenerative brake systems, but then you are carrying part of the weight and financial burden of the electric car but without all the benefit.
When you consider the total path from the source to the wheel the electric car can work out significantly better, potentially getting 50% of the source energy to the car wheels.
The other interesting possibility is gaining some, or possibly all, of the electricity from solar cells built into the car body. Various companies are developing composite body panels and special paints that act as solar panels that can be unobtrusively incorporated into the car design. In the UK the average energy from the sun through our legendary gloomy cloud is enough to power a small family car for about ten miles each day, so if all the car does is the school run and weekly shop then there could potentially be no fuel cost. Although as ever with new technology the first cars to have this feature will be hideously expensive and totally negate this benefit, but in time it will become a viable option.
Emissions are not the only reason for going electric, as the technology matures and becomes cheaper it will eventually become far cheaper to make an electric car than a combustion engined one. On a modern small car the engine and associated emissions systems can easily cost more than the rest of the entire car, getting this cost down is a huge incentive to car companies that struggle to make a profit at the best of times. in fact car companies have been trying to get up into electric cars for decades, remember the Ford Think?
There are many other benefits too, electric drives lend themselves to the ever increasing demands of advanced traction and stability control systems. As driver aids such as auto parking gradually evolve into fully autonomous self driving cars, having a simple method of accurately controlling the torque at each wheel becomes increasingly important.
When you put all these factors together the case for electric vehicles becomes compelling, and when you add in the political desire to reduce dependence on unstable oil producing countries the argument becomes overwhelming.
Obviously we are not quite there yet, historically the big problem has always been the battery. Old methods resulted in heavy, expensive and physically large units with limited range, they haven’t really changed in over a century. But in the last ten years or so there has been renewed investment, finally, and whilst there is still a long way to go we are definitely on the road to success already.
In fact as the ‘power density’ of batteries improves, eventually it will exceed that of petrol. This means that eventually electric cars will be lighter for the same power when compared to a petrol or diesel car, or more interesting to a racer like me, an electric car will be more powerful for the same weight. Imagine massively powerful electric supercars with precise control of the torque at each wheel from its four wheel motors, the ultimate in performance. The future world of electric vehicles is a very exciting place.
So there it is, electric cars offer huge benefits to the environment, car companies, drivers and world politics. They are not perfect yet, but within a decade or two they will be as ubiquitous as mobile phones.
And yes, before you ask, I still prefer the sound of a V8. But as long as the car accelerates as if it had one then maybe I could cope, after all we can always simulate the sound!

For more news about electric cars why not follow Robert Llewellyn, a superb ambassador for the EV revolution:bobbyllew

And you must follow Jonny Smith and his fabulous drag racing electric car ‘Flux Capacitor’: Carpervert

3 thoughts on “The truth about electric cars”

  1. I took your advice and took a look at Robert Llewellyn. That was a mistake. There is self-promotion, much unsupported proclamation, vaporous opinion and triviality there. What is missing is substance. Being charitable, about the kindest that could be reported is that he doesn’t know his subject, instead making the attempt to cover his tracks with prodigious production of conventional fluff (there is a lot worse that ought to be said about this kind of “reporting”). I really am disappointed.

    On other matters. Electric cars can be fun. I enjoyed the Tesla, the i8 and even the Leaf. The stunning Concept One stood head and shoulders above all the rest though. It just outstanding. Pity no more are to be built. It’d be worth considering getting one of those. Let’s be fair about this though. These cars are toys for wealthy people subsidised by the rest of you. They each share poor utility and poor ownership economics. There is no getting around it.

    Putting aside the Rimac (which is a supercar and is purchased for reasons other than economic sense- it competes against such as getting another Outremer cat, maybe a Donzi, a Fountain or Premier Dodici, a newer Lancair, a Nemesis NXT with an IO 720 or maybe another farm in, say, Tasmania), none of these electric cars makes economic sense or offers reliable utility as a day to day proposition, even with generous taxpayer support (so that you pay me to own). For a start, recharging is a major drawback. In the real world it takes many hours to recharge one of these properly if you don’t want to eat into battery life too much (and if it is YOUR car you WILL be careful about this- wealth is not generated as a result of needless profligate spending) and you are always aware of not being caught short of a fast-charge park-up or being too far away from home. You also have to remember to charge EVERY day. You can’t just hop in and drive. Everything has to be planned ahead. You soon find you are forced to adapt your activities around the car’s shortcomings. That part I really did not appreciate.

    Anyway, all this is well known (if one cares to look), but the real killers are what are not discussed- ever. The topics to research are where the primary ores to produce batteries and controllers and the like come from, the annual recovery volumes, how much can be won and then refined (and all this is prior to manufacturing a single component), as well as how long it takes to add to mining and processing capacity (not to mention what that costs).

    As a few examples: Look at how the copper content of new copper-bearing ore discoveries worldwide has been in a straight-line decline for decades (so far gains in mining efficiency and mineral process have overcome the deficit, but there comes a point when the Cu % are just too low to make recovery a go). Electric cars are set to demand more and more Cu.

    Consider that vital component of the lithium battery system, cobalt. Look up where that comes from. It ain’t good. Remember this, all of the Co production is spoken for to supply already existent applications. If electric cars get to production levels greater than say one or perhaps two million, where are the car manufacturers to get their cobalt? ‘Cause at that level you would need the entire Co supply presently available. One thing for certain, Tesla appear not to have secured a long-term supply (or even a medium-term one). There’s a hint to investors.

    Look, mines take decades to bring in from discovery of ore to quantifying potential through to acquiring investment, to project start and on to selling the first kilo of mineral/element. In the middle there is much painful risk, the most always overlooked need to provide for the creation of supporting infrastructure (most of these mines are going to have to be located in remote places where the transport infrastructure and electrical power supply is presently absent so it all has to be built), the need to find highly talented loyal people who are willing and able to travel to these usually inhospitable places (these people are rare and expensive; worse is they generally they have a modest shelf-life- you do not have them staying in weird places forever) and then the issue of creating refining and winning plant. All of this is hugely problematic, risky and definitely non-trivial. None of it can be ignored or wished away with the wave of the hand and magical incantation (like “government support”, “new technology”, “will of the people” and so on). Oh, and none of it is environmental at all! It is all dirty, dirty stuff. But one may suppose that if it happens overseas and poisons only the natives it’s OK so long as it remains out of sight and off the TV.

    Now we come to “re-cycling”. Tackle lithium for a start. There is none really. It can be pulled out of dead batteries and used as an additive for concrete (although few even bother with this). Basically it is a once through and then it gets chucked back into the environment somewhere random- hopefully it doesn’t get into the food chain or the water table…. hopefully. Check out the other materials and see what you find. Not all such good news is it? Yet no-one takes any of this seriously, not Robert anyhow.

    Now, as a person who has spent decades looking at this sort of stuff and directing my own money into it, I find the fluffy ramblings of the techno-idiocracy irritating in its meaninglessness, ignorance and, worse, in its misleading deception of ordinary people. Wishing popular myths to come true is a terrible waste of mind-width. Promoting them is unconscionable. What really is demanded is these vacuous opinion “leaders” and ignorant politicians shut up. They do not know what they are asking for. They have no idea of the topic for which they pretend an expertise. What is needed is a little undertaking in rationality, self-directed research, analysis and learning. Now THAT is difficult to promote!

    1. Very good points. Can’t be ignored. Interesting how China plans to be the world’s battery supplier and has bought huge chunks of mineral rich Africa etc.

  2. Yes. China is very, very important to understand, as is the role of Africa. The best way to come to terms with the Chinese approach is to read about Sir Halford MacKinder’s “World Island” and the concept of the “Heartland”. Yes, this was written a very long time ago, but the principles within it are exactly those which motivated key members of the establishment and the British government in the drive to WW1, WW2 and the USA government subsequently and right into recent times. Forget the Germans (although of some importance pre-WW1, they were not the key issue they are purported to have been) the real news was the Russians opening up a direct overland trade with China at the time and grasping the potential to access the rest of Asia. Put it this way, possession of a navy to control the oceans becomes pointless if the World Island comes to fruition.

    China and Russian leadership have explicitly realised the vast economic potential of tying together some 40% of the world population with a mere two railway systems. Add to this pipelines, freeways, electrical reticulation and secondary branch lines in a network for all of these and then the potential expands to well over 50% of the population. In either case the world economy gets set to grow by an order of magnitude. This occurrence shifts the centre of gravity for economic, political and cultural power away from where it presently resides. China’s objective (same as Russia’s) is economic wealth by trade. They are unimpressed with the Western model of forced mercantilism backed by military coercion and mass violence. They see no future in it, especially as it encourages the acquisition of nuclear weapons by smaller, relatively under-developed poor countries with all the dangers that entails.

    Having understood MacKinder the Chinese appear to have developed ambitions to go well beyond his analysis and continue onwards by joining Africa into the trading system. This makes the Middle East a key crossroads with the most important players being Syria and Iran. It is a grave threat to the petrodollar, hence likely ending the USD as international reserve currency. Interesting to see what happens next. Paraphrasing, we do live in interesting times.

    BTW China is already the world supplier of finished product using rare earth metals.

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