Almost the world’s new cars will be electric in 20 years, whatever happens to the price of oil.
A couple of weeks ago an owner of the Nissan electric Leaf spoke of her affection for her car. In the morning she goes outside and gets into the vehicle. Despite the low temperatures, it is already warm and the windows are free of ice. She drives silently and smoothly to work and once there plugs it into a free charging point and hasn’t even had to pay for the petrol. At the end of the day, she steps out of the office and walks the short distance back to her fully replenished car. Like many others employers, her place of work has given privileged electric commuters parking places closer to the main building.
Another friend is in a different class of electric car owner. He has a new Tesla and took me for a ride a few weeks ago. At first one assumes this is just another well-padded luxury car. As he eased the vehicle out of the driveway he needed to take as much care as anybody else to avoid running into small children or loosely driven delivery vans. Things changed as he hit the open road. Although the pitch of the electric motor barely changed, the speed increased sharply. ‘No other car’, my friend said, ‘has acceleration as fast - except a Bugatti Vitesse’.
I didn’t have the knowledge to question him. A later look confirmed that the Vitesse can manage a maximum of about 1.4g (1.4 times the acceleration of a body under the influence of the earth’s gravity at sea level without air resistance) and his Tesla could match it. The difference is the price. The Bugatti will take €2m off your bank balance. The electric equivalent costs about £85,000. Not that anybody notices, but the Bugatti also has CO2 emissions of about four times the average new car in the UK at well over 500 grams per kilometre, even when driven below the speed limit.
Another person I know really wants an electric car. He drives hundreds of miles a day in his London taxi and pays for the petrol himself. Since much of his day is driving in slow moving traffic, his stop-start driving makes his engine extremely thirsty. He dreads the daily stop at the petrol station.
These three case histories illustrate the reasons why electric cars are now unstoppable. Whether it is middle aged speed fans, careful commuters or cab drivers, battery-powered vehicles deliver a mixture of comfort, acceleration and cheapness to drive that will eventually appeal to almost all types of motorists. Add increasing range, and within a decade there won’t be a single reason to spend money on an internal combustion engine. A century or more ago, the first motor cars were often battery powered. It’s taken a long time but electricity will end up as the eventual victor, powering all the light vehicles on the road.
Two things will push the internal combustion engine into oblivion. Neither are what one might have expected five years ago when the renaissance of the electric car was just beginning. The first is the growing concern – almost panic – about the impact of nitrous oxide and tiny particle pollution in urban streets, mostly coming from diesel engines that for decades were encouraged by governments looking to reduce greenhouse gas pollution.
It took a while for politicians to accept the truth of this conclusion but London’s one mile long Oxford Street is possibly the most dangerous road in the western world. Every year pedestrians get run over as they step into the paths of buses. Far more lethal is the invisible but more pervasive effect of nitrous oxide on the health of pedestrians, residents and drivers. Latest estimates suggest 25,000 people die from the effects of traffic pollution in the UK, perhaps fifteen times the numbers killed in traffic accidents.
Policymakers spend weeks and months in massive international conferences on greenhouse gas reduction. Little happens. But most weeks in the last year a major city has taken its own independent decision to put the brakes on internal combustion engines because of urban pollution. And, as usual unnoticed by the West, China is moving as fast as anywhere.
A few weeks ago, Shenzhen put in place a policy that means that 20,000 of the cars bought by its residents this year will be battery powered. That’s more than the whole of the UK last year, even though Britain’s electric car sales quadrupled in 2014. Other Chinese cities have instigated similar rules.
In Europe, Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo has decreed that some of the key routes in the city will be open only to electric cars by 2020. Boris Johnson’s response to the growing threat of massive EU fines has been to enact rules that from 2018 effectively ban all new taxis that aren’t electric. In Rome, new rules block all but electric cars on Sundays in the city centre. This is an unstoppable move: pollution fears will push the internal combustion engine out of cities within a decade or so.
Of course the other force at work is the declining price of electric cars. The underlying competitiveness of these vehicles has been long disguised by the shockingly high price of batteries. Although an electric vehicle is far simpler and cheaper to build than its petrol equivalent, all this advantage was swallowed by the cost of the power pack sitting under the driver’s feet. There’s no engine, powertrain, coolant system, lubrication or gearbox to worry about. Just a surprisingly small motor and two axles. Insurances and maintenance costs should be lower as well.
When the history of the battle against greenhouse gases is written in a century’s time, two groups will have their own chapters: the German politicians who decided to heavily subsidise solar power ten years ago, bringing PV today to approximate cost parity with fossil fuels in sunny countries, and Elon Musk and his engineers at Tesla. And the Tesla chapter won’t be about the car, but rather about the way in which Musk’s investment in lithium ion battery storage pushed the price down to levels that made electric cars competitive with petrol. Power packs coming out of his ‘gigafactories’ will priced at figures possibly as low as $100 per kilowatt hour, down from $250 at the moment.
A kilowatt hour in a well-engineered electric car might give four miles of driving. So a battery pack with a range of 200 miles will cost little more than $5,000 or so if Musk’s dream is realised. (This is also roughly the target of GM’s newly announced electric Bolt). Combined with fast chargers that are springing up on motorways around the world that can fully charge a vehicle like this in an hour or so, the barriers to the adoption of electric cars will disappear. To misuse an expression, batteries will be at ‘grid parity’, much like PV in the south west of the US. Needs for subsidy will disappear, complicated government rules will be avoided. We won’t even need a carbon tax.
One last point. Many people are questioning the future of the electric car because of the precipitate fall in the price of crude. Take a look at the comparison below. Even at £1.10 a litre, petrol is about twice the price of electricity per mile travelled in an equivalent battery car. A good electric vehicle turns over 80% of the energy in its power pack into motion. A petrol car manages about 25% on a good day. Electric cars are simply more energy efficient. It doesn’t matter much what happens to the price of fossil fuels.
In the table, I assume a figure of 9kWh per litre of conventional petrol and a car that consumes 1 litre of petrol per 12 miles, a figure that is slightly better than the average of UK cars sold in late 2014. (Source: SMMT, New Car CO2 report 2014, extrapolated to late 2014 using Chart 3 in that report).
*Domestic electricity is about this price in the UK, and this number will fall alongside petrol costs over the next months.
In a book I wrote seven years ago I foolishly called the early end of the internal combustion engine. (As well as raving wildly about wave power and ethanol from trees). Tesla’s early cars were just appearing and the absurdly ugly G-Wiz was creeping onto London streets encouraged by the first free electric chargers. Now, some years later, I think that the momentum behind electric cars cannot be stopped. And it isn’t worries about climate change that are driving the switch to electrons for motive power; it is clear air and the attractions - financial and otherwise - of the cars themselves.