Fighting For A Place In The Automotive Future

17 February, 2013 05:14PM ยท 6 minute read

The electric car is the future of the mainstream automotive industry - this is a fact and can not be challenged. I’m not talking about heavy-haulers or most off-road vehicles for the near future but the vast majority of vehicles in the world. I’m also not talking about the steering or the suspension or windscreens but the device that turns the wheels and moves the car around. For that, currently, it is the internal combustion engine and it is inefficient, requires a lot of maintenance, gets ridiculously hot and burns an ever diminishing resource that can not be easily replaced - polluting the world in the process.

Once you replace the engine and gearbox with an electric motor you have something that beats internal combustion engines in every way. There is only one problem: how do you lug around electricity with you? With petrol it’s easy as it has a high energy density and is a pourable liquid however with current battery technology it’s not that easy to carry electricity around. The best battery technology out there in mass production is lithium-ion - the same batteries that exist in most modern laptops, music players and smartphones. They’re light but have some safety concerns (then again so does petrol) and their performance varies with temperature - oh and they take a long time to recharge. Another problem: they discharge when left sitting for long periods. Whilst it’s true that petrol “goes off” as well that takes significantly longer to happen.

Some people have said that Hydrogen is better. Use it to drive a fuel cell to make the electricity to drive the car. Problem is that Hyrdogen takes electricity to make and it also has safety issues. More importantly it is not very wide-spread. How do you get it to the cars that need it? Electricity is everywhere. Almost every house has it and plugging in fast charging stations to “the grid” is also very straight-forward. With petrol and hydrogen you have to physically haul it to the petrol station - not so with electricity.

When automobiles started out, petrol stations were few and far between. In time, more petrol stations meant longer distances could be travelled between stops for the average person. These days petrol stations have rationalised into big chains and although it’s now less common to have them buried inside our suburbs or as part of convenience stores however they’re still quite abundant. Conversely electric car fast-charging stations are few and far between and Hyrdogen fuel stations are even more rare.

We have come to accept the fact that petrol is everywhere. We don’t run the risk of running out too often (keep your eye on the needle) and if you’re low on “gas” then you have no trouble in urban areas or major highways and freeways finding a petrol station to fill up your tank. This convenience has made us all very lazy. It’s nice to not have to think about it but the truth is that if you have a 4WD vehicle and plan to drive out into the desert, you should figure out how much fuel you’ll need in advance and probably should carry extra.

The current situation with electric cars requires some forethought prior to walking out the door - no different to heading for the desert albeit pretty much anywhere you might choose to drive. As a daily-driver with an overnight charge at home there’s no problem at all - it’s only the unplanned, spur of the moment, and long-distance trips where the wheels will fall off (or just stop turning) should you fail to plan your charging route in advance.

It’s not just that though. We’ve also become used to filling up the tank and getting in and out of a petrol station in 5-10 minutes. In truth that’s been a reality for many decades now and the charging time of the electric car varies between 1-2 hours even for a rapid charging station. That’s fine if you stop for a meal and dine-in but if you’re in a hurry, you’re out of luck.

One more problem - what if you do push it too far? You’ve run out of fuel and what do you do? A 5L jerry can of petrol won’t help you now. There needs to be a viable solution to give the car a rapid roadside charge to get it going again to make it to the next charging station. Such devices would need to be carried by every roadside assistance company before that problem could be considered solved.

The recent events between the New York Times and Tesla and the flurry of articles and opinions and discussion has spurred me to write these facts down. Now comes opinion.

Elon Musk (the man behind Tesla) knows that the Oil companies will jump on ANYTHING to highlight the weaknesses of electric vehicles. It’s happened before and it will happen again. Bad press will hurt sales and Elon knows this. It’s business and there’s a lot riding on his investment so his anxiety is understandable.

The New York Times highlighted the obvious: Bad planning and spur of the moment detours won’t cut it with an electric car. The rules for these cars are different and you need to observe them or it won’t go well for you. No different to driving a car in the early 1900s ill-prepared. It only proves the ignorance of the driver at the time and doesn’t highlight any flaws of the vehicle that were not already obvious.

So is Tesla too far ahead of the game? I honestly don’t think they are. The limitations posed by their vehicles are not so great as to not make them excellent cars. As battery technology improves (and it would serve Tesla well to fund battery storage research as much as they can) Telsa will be in the box seat with the best performing, best designed electric vehicles with many millions of kilometers of real-world road usage and knowledge behind them. In essence Tesla is putting itself in the box seat and fighting for a place in the automotive industry’s future. They are doing so in the best possible way - with no past baggage or dependence upon oil companies and the vices that creates. Oil companies will try to tear them down for obvious reasons, but more individuals should try and give them a chance rather than trying to tear them down too.