The future is not tomorrow … yet
I don’t believe electric cars are the solution for the future of mobility. Allow me to explain.
I want to start 2019 with something important. I feel that it is my obligation to share my thoughts about what is going on with electric cars and how the world is shaping up the next decades of motoring.
I hear a lot of noise around this subject and I would say around 75% of the people I know outside the motoring press are ill-informed. I hope I can shed some light on the subject and help you make substantiated decisions.
Okay, so here goes: electric cars are not the future. They are just not. What they are is a way for the automotive industry to buy some time until they figure out what the future actually is. The way I see it, fuel cells are the answer.
I first thought about this when I drove the latest BMW M5 at the international press launch, right here in Portugal, more than a year ago. A few laps of the Estoril race track and around the circuit, and on some great roads I know very well, made me realise a couple of things: first, the M5 is an astonishing car; second, it is, objectively, only marginally better than the model it replaced.
Maybe it is a bit faster, maybe it uses a little less fuel, maybe it is a bit more comfortable, but really, the things that make the BMW a car, a machine to take us from A to B in the best way possible, those have not evolved all that much.
The explanation is pretty simple: there was nothing to evolve. Cars as good as the M5 have reached the pinnacle of the automobile as we know it. They are perfect.
Obviously, this is a problem for constructors. A product that has been continuously developed for 125 years has stagnated, but they need to keep on selling it. What can they do? How can they show the customer they are still at the cutting edge of technology and innovation?
Well, apparently, the answer is, for the time being, tell people electric cars are the future. This is the easy route because electric cars are something new and sold as an extraordinary breakthrough. They are almost always worse than a similarly priced ICE car, but marketing and advertising are here to solve that minor issue.
The Volkswagen diesel scandal and all that came with it only helped the electric car movement and, particularly, it helped politicians to jump on the band wagon and start waving their green flags all over the place. It’s nonsense. Diesels can be very clean when built properly.
Let’s be realistic, shall we? Imagine all cars were electric. Just how would we produce enough electricity to power all of them? Would we fill every city street with chargers? Would everyone have a charger at home? It’s just not possible.
I have some facts I took from an article I read in Motorsport magazine regarding the Audi e-Tron, the first zero-emission Audi on sale. The new generation of superfast chargers that will supposedly invade Europe in the next decade work at 350kW/hour. This would charge the Audi in approximately 10-15 minutes. That is very nice, but still twice as long as it takes to stop for fuel in our cars.
At home, a domestic socket is rated at 3.6kW/hour. You do the math. But there’s more. In the UK – and Portugal for that matter – there is not one single public charger that works at 150kW/hour, let alone 350kW. Why? Because there are no cars that accept a 150kW charge – the Audi is the first.
Still, imagine that in 10 years there are hundreds of thousands of electric cars on the road that can take a 350kW charge and thousands of superfast public chargers. Where is all that electricity going to come from? Is it even possible to produce it? In which case, is this still a green approach?
Remember, an electric car may be zero emissions when it’s moving, but what about production lines, battery development, battery disposal, power station emissions?
Moreover, 60% of the world’s cobalt – a key element for lithium-ion batteries – comes from mines located at the Democratic Republic of Congo. This number will rise to 70% in the next few years. Now, how democratic do you think those mines are? Just search online and you will find some truly horrific stories.
On a different level, governments will lose trillions in fuel taxes and have to find some other imaginative ways to make us pay. Have you ever seen taxes going down? I am Portuguese. I haven’t.
Even if electric cars and their hybrid derivatives rule the roads in the medium term, they are definitely not the answer for a sustainable future. That must be the fuel cell, a technology where hydrogen, the most abundant element on the universe, reacts with oxygen to produce water and energy.
It’s still a very expensive solution, although it would be much cheaper to invest in fuel cells until their pricing was right, all the while keeping internal combustion engines on the road, then to build an electric car transition period that, really, will never pay for itself or save even one sea lion.
Electric cars are interesting products. I appreciate them as a complement to normal, ICE models and I enjoy driving them, I really do. But the future of human mobility they most definitely are not.
By Guilherme Marques