I’ve said many times, to anyone who’ll listen, I’m a petrol head. I love cars, I love driving and I love Motorsport. However, as I’ve gotten older, head has ruled heart and increasingly I’ve gone down the sensible, practical route. This has however been pretty soul destroying. My current, beloved Alfa Romeo 159 SW is all but paid off, and it’s time to consider what’s next.
Right now, popular opinion in the UK right now is that the sensible option is to go and buy a BMW 320d. Well built, exceptional mileage, seats four, “sporty”, holds it value. However, it’s dull as dishwater, and unless you are doing more than 20k miles a year, diesel won’t pay for itself over petrol (i.e. same spec car is more expensive than the petrol equivalent). And there is the whole running out of Fossil fuels things. Yup. No debate, it’s happening. Coal-oil and shale will only take you so far, and perhaps buy a few more years, but I fully expect in the lifetime of my next car than fuel costs will double. Tax cuts may be a band aid to ease this, but for the numerous home/nursery/shopping trips that I do with an average round of <10 miles, relying on internal combustion is just not going to be viable.
Delaying the invevitable
There are several technologies which may extend the life span of the internal combustion engine, but hanging on for the handful that make it cost-effective/successful is just more dino-juice sent back into the atmosphere. Two promising candidates are fuel harvested from engineered algea, but no-where near enough land or investment has been made available to demonstrate this as feasible. Hydrogen is a maybe; the whole fire-risk thing is bogus IMO; cars are already filled with combustibles by idiots every day. In my view, infrastructure is the killer. Hydrogen splitting can be made “green” by using solar or other renewables to split seawater, but converting existing filling stations or deploying home converters using drinking water is a massive investment I can’t see anyone bearing at this point. It’s a technology we needed about 10 years ago; we could have had a nice smooth transition from Oil to gas, but there are two many problems to be overcome in terms of logistics. Especially when there is something we can already use, that is (almost) ready for prime time.
The car industry probably has the likes of Gates and Jobs to thank for driving down the costs. Lithium ion batteries are in virtually every electrical device in our grasp. Although a big part of the cost of building an electric car is the batteries, the fact that prices and capacity are where they are has made a oil-competing car feasible as a proposition. At the moment, there is no comparison in terms of range between a Diesel and even the best electric cars, but that is irrelevant considering the type of journeys that 95% of us do 95% of the time. At the moment, the upper limit seems to be around 120 miles from the likes of the Renault Zoe and the Nissan Leaf. All it takes is one small lifestyle change, i.e. to plug the car in when you’ve finished using it, and you are golden. I KNOW that building any car uses energy; I KNOW that all cars create pollution during their life cycle. Many things about the technology is not perfect; but nothing worthwhile or useful ever is.
The key thing is infrastructure. Most development nations already have a means of delivering electricity into cars on a national basis. The equipment needed is little more than a mains point. Every filling station already has high-voltage power to run the pumps to drag the fuel back out of the ground (again). Why not just cut out the middle man and stick the volts in the car, rather than running another pump? However, even with a fast-charger, 20 minutes at the filling station will buy you much more petrol range than electric, but the trade off is minimal in my view. There are bunch of battery technologies in the pipeline that will either reduce charging times or increase capacities; only a few of these need to make it into production to radically improve the usability.
The environment, yeah, remember that thing?
From an environmental point of view, the big difference between an electric and any type of combustion engine is that it is possible to close the loop on carbon emissions. I can spend a few thousands of pounds installing solar panels and/or a basic wind turbine in my back garden and have it charge the car I need for 99% of the time. No fossil fuels need to be dug up, nothing needs to be shipped, nothing needs to refined, shipped, shipped again or split over pristine coastlines. This is yet to be proven, but I strongly suspect that over a cars life time, fuel aside, electric cars will be much “greener” than internal combustion engines, mainly because there are far fewer moving parts to wear, replace, split, decompose or otherwise require fossil-based lubricants.
Putting my money where my mouth is
As a result, in the next couple of months I’m going to be test driving all the full-electrics on the market and making a decision in the next couple of months. Cars like the Tesla Roadster & Model S have proven that nice cars can be electric. The Zoe and Leaf has proven they can be in the reach of most people. I’m still going to keep a fossil burner around, for the time being, to have as plan B or those occasions when I do need to drive more than 100 miles in one go, but this won’t be a new car. And when I hand back the Zoe/Leaf/whatever in 3-4 years time, I fully expect that internal combustion engines will be an act of folly, only purchased by a handful with specific needs.