Why Electric Cars Are Not the Answer

9 Jan, 2011 | MotoringTdp

There seems to be growing agreement that electric cars are ready to take off and start to account of a larger part of global car sales.  First off, I don't think that's likely, they're still too expensive and far too limited, but why are we even talking about them?  They're supposed to be the great solution to rising oil prices and diminishing oil reserves.

The BBC are out to see if they make the practicality stakes for a start, by driving an electric Mini from London to Edinburgh, a distance of 484 miles.  The trip is estimated to take four days in all, because the Mini takes 10 hours to fully charge.  Now bear in mind that Top Gear's Jeremy Clarkson did the same trip in one day and completed the trip, both ways, on one tank of full in a supposedly gas-guzzling V8 Audi (see part 1 on YouTube here, and part 2 here).  He averaged just over 40 MPG, which by today's standards is actually quite low.  Top Gear also did a challenge where they drove from Basel (in Switzerland) to Blackpool, a distance of  750 miles, on one tank of fuel.  They all picked very different cars.  After the event they found Clarkson's Jaguar XJ6 twin-turbo diesel  had enough fuel left to cover a further 120 miles despite him not driving economically for most of the trip.

In terms of costs of energy, the electricity wins on the Edinburgh trip (40 hours of electric beats a tank of fuel), but imagine having to spend four days to get there.  You wouldn't bother.  Take into account you have to spend 40 hours fuelling your car, however and the petrol is vastly more economic.

So why do I think we need to be looking elsewhere for the solution of petrol-powered cars?  Well, there are a few reasons:

I realise some of those are stating the obvious, but let's have a quick look at each.

Limited Range
The Mini the BBC are using has a claimed range of 156 miles, but most drivers have struggled to get more than 100, and the batteries are affected by cold, so in winter your could get substantially less (someone from the UK said 40 miles on a charge).  I drive a small car and even mine has a range in excess of 300 miles on a tank if I'm motorway driving.  Apparently electric car drivers suffer from 'range anxiety' and this is seen as a barrier to people buying one.  Not only do you not know how far you'll get on a charge, but you don't know where you can fill up either.  In terms of usability it makes the cars useful for round-town, short journeys only.  Most people buy a car that needs to perform a lot of roles, not one that only works in one environment.

Time to Refuel
The Mini mentioned is fairly typical of recharge times from a standard socket (i.e. one that most people have in their homes) a eight hours.  So if you go somewhere that is further than your range, it means have to stop and while away eight hours somewhere.  That's going to be largely impossible.  It's mean charging your car anywhere you go just because you might need to go somewhere, so it'll be on charge every night at home, and probably anywhere you stop for a reasonable period too (car parks, friend's houses).  If you don't have a garage it also means anyone else could happily take your car off charge or use it to charge their own.

Cost to Build
Modern batteries rely heavily on elements like Lithium and Nickel.  Both of these are produced in a limited number of locations so must be shipped to the destination of manufacture (along with most of the others used in car production, granted), but it means electric cars, which use a far most exotic mix of metals are far more environmentally unfriendly as the extraction and transportation of these materials adds to the overall 'carbon footprint.'  Aside from the environmental cost, they are also more expensive, which puts them out of the reach of most consumers.  There's also the question of longevity, no one knows how well these cars are going to last.  While a petrol or diesel car can happily last 20 years passing from owner to owner, I doubt electric cars will be able to do the same without expensive overhauls to their battery packs.

Although there have been improvements in battery technologies, they're still fairly basic.  Apart from anything else they are very heavy and, as previously mentioned, take a long time to charge.  That weight actually makes the typically car much heavier than it's petrol or diesel equivalent (the Mini E is more than 350 Kg heavier than the petrol Cooper S), which in turn means it takes more energy to move it, making it less efficient.  It also gives it higher kinetic energy for when it crashes.  That's assuming it doesn't catch on fire, because lithium-ion batteries have a tendency to do that (to the point they may soon be treated as a hazardous substance and have transport restrictions imposed on them, and already have in some places).

Lastly is the fact that, on top of all the environmental issues that standard against electric cars, you have to consider the source of the electricity you use to charge it.  Most likely this will come from a vast generator on the national grid, which is more likely than not, burning fossil fuels (around 78% comes from fossil fuel in the UK, in the US 50% comes from coal alone).  If not fossil fuels, possibly nuclear, which adds the fun of disposal of nuclear waste with a half-life of 5,000 years.  So, in reality, the fuel going into an electric car is no better, and possible worse (no destructive mining) than the oil used to make petrol and diesel.

The current state is that electric cars are too expensive, offer very little if any environmental benefits and are completely impractical for most car owners.  We should be looking at other options to fuel vehicles, whether that be hydrogen, alcohol, biofuel or something else that has yet to be discovered.  I suspect the electric car is purely a marketing gimmick to appeal to a public that are increasingly environmentally conscious.

Update (15/1): The BBC has finished their journey in the electric Mini and, although the video seems to suggest they see a bright future for electric cars, the article is a little more realistic.  Due to the length of time required to stop for charging, they averaged 6mph.  They almost didn't make it, but luckily a charging post had been put in last week so they could, and even then he finished with no heating on to save power.  I like the quote:

Not exactly impressive, or very practical, but then I'm sure Stevenson's Rocket didn't go very fast the first time he tried it.

Stevenson's Rocket may have been slow, but it was still faster than a horse and could pull several tons more.  An electric car has to compete against existing models that go farther, faster and are cheaper.  He does conclude:

This journey has been laborious, impractical and time-consuming.

But from here on out, the technology will improve rapidly.

...When you plug in, your car will get an 80% charge in just 20 minutes.

Oh yeah, because 20 minutes is great.  While it may be a vast improvement on the eight or so hours it currently takes, this will only be on special charging stations with higher amperage, so home charging will still take forever, and who wants to spend 20 minutes sat at a charging station?