The coming of electric cars

Tuesday 17th August 2010
Electric cars.jpg

Having been around for more than a century, electric cars are perhaps the greatest never-been of the automobile industry.

With the potential to have us driving cheaper, cleaner and greener, we should all be using them.

However, there are a range of issues that have prevented them from taking over the mainstream.

Most cars use a four stroke internal combustion cycle to convert petrol into energy. By mixing fuel with heat and water in an enclosed space, energy is released in the form of a gas that then propels the car forward.

While internal combustion engines have served us well in the past, petrol is a non-renewable resource and will get more expensive to buy.

Plus, the main bi-product of burning petrol is carbon emissions, a major contributor to global warming. So people have begun to look at alternatives for powering their vehicles.

The benefits of electric

Electric cars have long been touted as the saviour of motoring as we know it.

They have battery powered motors that can be charged overnight and used effectively on long journeys. They don’t emit carbon and only consume energy through electricity.

This means if electricity is produced in a sustainable way (a big ‘if’), like hydro power or wind farms, they can have a minimal impact on the environment.

The amount of energy an electric car uses is often accounted for in a ‘well to wheel’ ratio – the carbon footprint electric cars have depending on how electricity is produced.

For instance in New Zealand and Canada where electricity is dominated by hydro and nuclear power respectively, this results in a lower WTW ratio than say China or the US where most electricity is produced from fossil fuels like coal.

It’s currently estimated that electric cars could decrease total carbon emissions in the UK by 40%, China by 19% and US by 30%.

In addition to purely electric cars, there are a range of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles that have a combination of battery and petrol powered motors.

What are the issues?

Despite their advantages, a number of issues have prevented electric cars from dominating the mainstream market.

Perhaps the most important is that most electric vehicles remain well beyond the price of ordinary cars.

The Mitsubishi i-MiEV (Mitsubishi Innovative Electric Vehicle) currently retails for US$60,000. At this price, it would take a driver 10 years before savings on petrol and running costs (compared with an average sedan) would allow them to break even.

‘Range-anxiety’ is another major barrier. While most electric cars comfortably cover 100 miles on a single charge, studies show drivers are reluctant to drive more than half the quoted range of the vehicle for fear of being stranded with a dead battery.

To combat this, there needs to be significant investment in infrastructure like a national network of charging stations (capable of being faster than the current quickest charging speed of 30 mins) to ensure electric cars can be used over long distances and charged rapidly.

Furthermore, as electric cars don’t have a conventional motor, many are silent which can be hazardous to pedestrians and cyclists.

Suggested solutions have included installing them with artificial engine sounds for when travelling below 30 km/hour to avoid accidents.

There is also the issue of charging standardisation. Last week America opened its first electric charging station in Portland, Oregon using Japanese specs (the leading manufacturers).

But the industry needs to make sure there is just one set of standard specs for plugs and fast-charging capabilities around the world, rather than several.

And because a huge portion of government revenue comes from petrol and diesel taxes, a switch to electric vehicles may lead to a drop in government revenue unless an ‘electricity tax’ could fill the gap.

Finally there is the issue of consumer mindset. With buyers focused on maintenance, resale and cost of repair (as well as looks), manufacturers will need to address these concerns before they get large-scale buy-in.

The way of the future

Awareness of the viability of electric cars as a mainstream alternative is growing.

Developments like the hybrid vehicles have helped reduce range anxiety for drivers, while flexible payment plans from retailers can lower upfront costs for consumers.

In 2003, the Bush government announced US$1.2 billion for the ‘Freedom Fuel’ initiative, which supports the development of new technologies to make electric cars more efficient.

In Victoria, Australia, over 200 households have been invited to participate in a five-year road test for electric cars as part of a plan to slash greenhouse emissions by 20% in the state.

Currently, electric cars show huge potential, but face significant challenges.

While most major car manufacturers have an electric vehicle on the market, many are unproven and even subject to recalls.

To succeed, innovation in terms of battery design and range are needed, as well as better infrastructure and government support.

Ultimately, electric cars have the potential to revolutionise the way we drive and consume resources. Whether they are adopted by the mainstream is up to us.

By Victoria Craw

Photo – The Teslar Roadster electric car

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