Electric Car: A Different Point of View

September 15, 2016 — The electric car is here: quiet, clean, fume-free, energy efficient – it will solve all our problems at a stroke. Hardly a month goes by without some giant car corporation somewhere rolling out its latest battery powered vehicle and extolling its virtues. Impressing us with its environmental credentials, its low running cost, decent performance, silent running and graceful lines. Well, I buy some of that; the bits about silent running and sometimes the graceful lines. But fuel efficient, environment sound performance – no, no and no.

One day, batteries will be able to be charged fast enough, hold enough power, be light and cheap enough. Not to mention small enough to power a car that not only accelerates well, but travels far enough and can be recharged in the decent amount of time, to make living wth the beast practical. Has that day arrived? No, I don’t think so.

But it’s the other problems that worry me most. Can electric cars deliver?
Efficiency — well, not really. We told that electric cars are efficient. Over 90% of the energy in the battery ends up as useful it makes us move. Petrol cars are way down by comparison. Maybe a fifth of what you put in your tank lands up as useful in getting you around. But that’s the wrong comparison.

BMW i3 electric carIt’s taken very little energy to get that petrol to your tank. Before electricity gets to your battery it must be generated, carried across wires to electric socket, pass through the battery and stored there chemically. Making electricity is perhaps 40% , power transmission loses 10% of that, charging the batteries loses another maybe 30%. And suddenly the figures don’t look so different after all. Certainly, not good enough to proclaim electric cars as the answer.

Performance — you can make electric cars that are fast or have a decent range. But it’s very hard to do both and no one is as yet suggesting their grand tourers. So your electric car is good for commuting to work, delivery rounds and that sort of thing. But not to go on holiday, travel across the country to see your relatives. Electric one isn’t enough, so only the petrol one.

Pollution — to be sure an electric car emits no pollution. Instead it’s emitted by the power station on your behalf only miles away. We are not saving carbon dioxide and the power station chimneys are pumping out all the rubbish. This suits the Californians, whose special atmospheric conditions make their smog worse than anyone else’s. But that’s no reason for the rest of us to shift the problem into someone else’s backyard. And as for wider environmental concerns – cars are cars and the more we have, the worse environment is going to get. Gridlock, here we come.

So why are we being persuaded by the car companies the electric route is viable? Because they want to sell cars. It doesn’t matter what sort of car, just as long as we buy them. And if we feel good about buying a green one with electric power – fine, just as long as they make a profit. No surprise there. That’s what car companies do. But it’s a dream we shouldn’t fall for.

People have been plugging the electric car dream for a long time. We seem to believe that with a few technical tweaks it could save the day. But this is an illusion designed to keep us focused on the idea that cars can be sustained, if only we had the right technology to do it. The truth is – they can’t. Granted, they’ll have a place and some new technologies will be very important in keeping pollution levels down as low as possible.

But nothing will really improve if we still believe the car is the solution to this problem. It’s the car company’s job, to keep our eyes on the horizon, awaiting the time when a shiny new celestial, all electric chariot – the answer to all our problems will appear from out of the rising sun, to keep us distracted from the inevitable and unpleasant choices we have to make. Not choices that are someway into the future, choices that are right here and now.

Source: Science View,BBC

About the Author

Josh Logue
A former engineer, technology journalist, inveterate tinkerer and self confessed geek. I also contribute articles and reviews for a number of mainstream consumer technology magazines.

2 Comments on "Electric Car: A Different Point of View"

  1. When comparing the efficiency of a petrol car to the worst possible efficiency of an electric your figures still show the electric car to be more efficient. 40% in generation less 10% in transmission = 36% less 30% charging = 24% less 10% for the electric motor = 21.6% compared to 20% for a petrol car not counting refining and distribution of petrol.

    For a petrol car refinery efficiency is 85% less distribution (pumping, trucking, service station running power) say 2% = 83.3% less petrol engine efficiency 20% = 16.7%.

    It looks like in the worst case, an electric is still 30% more efficient than a petrol car in its energy use.

    • GeekB4TVsHadTransistors | November 13, 2016 at 11:16 pm |

      I agree with Chris. True, there is power generation, line transmission, and battery efficiency, however at least electrics are break-even with gasoline or better.

      Chris has a cogent argument, however I’d like to add something regarding power generation. Thermal (burning something including nuclear) is 33% efficient while a gasoline engine is typically 20% efficient. Diesel can get to 40% and Toyota claims an R&D gasoline engine of 38%. However power plant efficiency also has room for improvement estimated at 44% using molten salts instead of steam. However clean technology such as hydro and wind is nearly 100% efficient. Small solar, however, isn’t so good at about 15% and some of the best solar facilities are thermal-solar – using light to generate heat.

      Next, regarding batteries. A lot of the issue here is with infrastructure to deliver a lot of electrical energy quickly. If you can quick charge a cell phone battery, you can quick charge a car battery, but it takes infrastructure. The same is true of hydrogen BTW. This will be solved as adoption increases. There’s also the opportunity to install power distribution in the pavement or overhead in roadways similar to light rail, trams, and trolleys thereby reducing weight, size, and cost and increasing energy efficiency of the vehicle itself. Such infrastructure would also allow touring over long distances.

      Regarding pollution, generating power in a large facility allows better pollution control vis-a-vis small scale, that is, a car. In other words, electrics are less polluting. If indeed, as I think is true, overall systemic energy efficiency is improved then there’s also less carbon emission.

      The day of electrics may not be here now, but it will eventually come.

      Whether electric or fueled, gridlock is a problem. There are potential solutions here also, for example, microcars (motocycle width, special narrow lanes?), a 4 day workweek, cost effective fast public transportation, etc.

      Old Geek,

      Jim

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