2013-09-30

Electric cars, change and premature demands.

When the first electric cars started to see somewhat widespread adoption, I have to admit that I was a skeptic.  All of the cars on the market, without exception, were fairly rubbish vehicles.  Terrible range, ugly design, bad performance and a technical step back compared to even mediocre regular cars.  

Burning hydrocarbons provides a very compact and versatile source of energy.   With just 30-40kg of fuel and a light right foot you can easily travel 500km.  That is pretty hard to beat.  And in just the last decade, the petrol engine became almost twice as efficient as it used to be.

Hybrid cars provided a somewhat more attractive alternative for most consumers, but they represent a fairly pointless distraction.  They are still fueled primarily by hydrocarbons, they are more complex than either electric or hydrocarbon-fueled cars and they are more expensive to manufacture.   You also do not need an engineering degree to realize that whenever you have a system that transforms energy from one form to another, there will be losses.

At this stage it is important to realize that the job of electric cars on the market isn't to save the environment -- it is to make us take the first steps on a long programme to develop sustainable personal transport.  Focusing solely on the environmental impact of the car is wildly premature;  electric cars are going to have large carbon (and energy) footprints both in production and in use for years to come -- and we just have to accept that.

The first goal we have to accomplish is to make electric cars that are fit to be the primary vehicle of consumers.  So far, electric cars have only been a viable option as a second car for people who can afford to have more than one vehicle.  This implies that electric cars have to be more attractive for consumers than their hydrocarbon-powered alternatives.  People have to want electric cars and to accomplish that they have to be better cars than most hydrocarbon-fueled cars.

From an energy-point of view the important aspect of electric cars is to de-couple the use of energy from energy production.  A petrol car will only ever run on hydrocarbons that need to be pumped out of the ground or bio-fuels that tax the environment.  An electric car can be powered by any source of electricity.

We will get better systems for storage and transfer of electrical energy, but it will take time and investment.  It took the petrol engine a century to become somewhat efficient.  It won't take that long to build better batteries, but it won't happen overnight.  And it won't happen unless consumers buy electric cars.