The truth about electric cars

Earlier this week we had a the head of a car manufacturer visit us and give us a couple of talks. The first thing I noticed was that he didn’t immediately start apologising for what his company does or grovel at the feet of our moral guardians and beg for forgiveness. Instead, he unashamedly said his company made cars of which they’re proud, and said the automobile represented an enormous leap in personal liberty. The fact that this was refreshing says a lot about modern corporations, whose CEOs are often found wringing  their hands while preaching moralistic piffle to placate a noisy minority who think any economic activity which makes people happy is evil. This chap was doing none of that, which made me like him right away.

Rather than speak about his company’s products, he instead spoke about the two major challenges the automobile industry is facing: electric vehicles and autonomous cars. On electric vehicles, he said pretty much the same as I have (1, 2) in that the battery technology is nowhere near mature enough to make the switch now, and probably won’t be for at least 20 years. He compared the power to weight ratio of Tesla’s batteries with the internal combustion engine in his company’s vehicles, as well as their respective useful lives. He thought there will be some improvements with a move to solid-state batteries, but without some sort of hydrogen cell electric cars aren’t going to replace petrol and diesel. He also spoke about the environmental effects of making, recycling, and disposing of batteries for the 100 million cars which are produced every year, including the mining of lithium. None of this will be new to readers of my blog. He didn’t go into the amount of copper that would be required to provide charging points in domestic streets on a national scale, but he did ask where the electricity was going to come from and whether it’s not a case of just shifting pollution from cities to somewhere else. I found all this interesting because it is so out of whack with current policy, which seems to be based on the notion that electric cars are just around the corner. This is from the BBC today:

A ban on sales of new petrol and diesel cars should be brought forward by eight years to 2032, MPs have said.

The government’s current plans to ensure all new cars are “effectively zero emission” by 2040 were “vague and unambitious”, a report by Parliament’s business select committee said.

It also criticised cuts to subsidies and the lack of charging points.

The government said it aimed to make the UK “the best place in the world” to own an electric vehicle.

Politicians seem to think technological barriers to electric cars can be overcome by sheer force of will, as if car manufacturers are sitting on the solutions but are reluctant to apply them. I don’t know who is advising them, but given how the hard sciences have been corrupted by environmentalists and every institution in the land captured by lefties, it’s not too hard to imagine what form government consultations on electric cars takes. Even if they roped in a few representatives of car manufacturers, they’d probably just cave in under NGO and government bullying and tell them what they want to hear (with one eye on their pension and retirement date). My guess is these efforts will run into a brick wall, government-backed schemes will be scrapped having wasted millions in taxpayer cash, and the public will be left high and dry with the cars they’ve bought as official policy collapses into a confusing mess.

What our guest said about autonomous cars I shall write in another post.


70 thoughts on “The truth about electric cars

  1. I,m probably wrong , i usually am, but wont your 30amp cooker circuit provide you overnight more than 50 kws

  2. Another issue electric vehicles raise is tax.

    Someone noted the other day that since large amounts of road infrastructure are paid for with duty upon fuel, how is it going to be paid for when no-one uses fuel and the personal use that electricity is being put towards is hard to ascertain? e.g. Are you using your house electrical appliances at night to take advantage of cheap electricity or are you charging a car up? Should you pay tax at different rates in that case?

    Someone has to pay for the upkeep of the roads but you can’t have a flat “poll tax on wheels” either, as if I don’t use a car much I might resent subsidising some motorway rep who does 50K for business each year – And it will be that way around, with smaller uses paying more, because there are not nearly enough long distance motorists to cover their own expenses.

  3. @robbo – you’re not wrong that you can consume about 7kWh every hour off your cooker circuit – so overnight maybe 50-80kWh.

    The problem which arises (and man in spain mentions) is that the electrical system is not big enough (at the moment) to allow everyone to do that all the time, and so bits (maybe quite a lot) of it will need to be reinforced to allow that to happen. You could probably simulate this already if you could persuade everyone in your town to turn lots of stuff on in their house at the same time.

    50kWh is more than you would expect people to need to charge a car every day on average, though, so it’s not quite as bad as it might seem.

    When EVs are widespread charging on people’s drives, they’ll probably need to be demand-managed in some way, so that the load can be spread out more sensibly. There is also the possibility that you could be paid to allow some proportion of your car’s capacity to provide demand-response – i.e. it would briefly generate power back into the system when that was useful.

    Irrespective of anything to do with EVs, there is a massive change going on in electricity generation at the moment, where it moves from being exclusively large power stations controlled centrally and transmitting their power over the national grid, into a much higher proportion of ’embedded’ generation which is connected into the distribution system.

  4. Bought a new car recently. A fiat 500, fully loaded with the measly engine. Still costs £6k less than the Renault zoe, even after the subsidy…I was quite open about going electric as range is not so much an issue but I’m not going to spend that much more to virtue signal for a less well equipped car.

    BIS is quite right, having driven trucks as a job recently, it seemed to me that they would be perfect for electricity since the routes are known in advance. Add to that the break requirements and maximum driving time allowing for charging and they would make sense. Tesla presented 2 trucks recently I believe.

    That said, someone started some years ago to develop a system where the battery was easily replaced and was planning a network of service stations where you’d swap your battery for a fully charged one quickly. I thought it was a great idea but I haven’t heard about it for a while.

    Let the market play with the idea and I’m sure things would evolve quickly.

  5. Monol: The company that you’re thinking of was “Better Place” who were a startup based in Israel. They hoovered their way through a lot of silicon valley money, were the darlings of Wired Magazine and promptly imploded because it is not in the interests of car makers to have a standardised battery system that swaps out at any terminal, and there was no way they were all going pay dutifully line up and pay a fortune to Better Place to use their design, and why should they?

  6. Monoi

    If you want to see the present state of play in electric commercials look no further than the failure of Smith electric trucks, Modec and others.

    There are some salutory tales about electric trucks look at the truck driver forums – some truck routes are known in advance – but electrics were always running out of battery and having to be recovered….

    John Lewis is an interesting one to watch – they are presently betting on gas….

    £60K+++ for an electric Transit van with a 100 mile range (if driven extremely cautiously) is not viable….

  7. ASM,

    “Another issue electric vehicles raise is tax.

    Someone noted the other day that since large amounts of road infrastructure are paid for with duty upon fuel, how is it going to be paid for when no-one uses fuel and the personal use that electricity is being put towards is hard to ascertain?”

    It won’t be popular but electronic tolls are the only way if we as a society want some form of road usage tax.

  8. The mathematics of gasoline vs electricity are quite simple. One liter of gasoline contains about 2.2 kWh of energy. Divide that into the cost per liter and you get the cost per kWh.

    Electricity is supplied in kWh and no conversion is necessary.

    Some interesting gasoline/electricity cost comparisons by country:

    DE gasoline is 2.41 times more expensive per kWh of energy
    US 2.88 times
    UK 4.09 times
    CAN 6.31 times
    ZA 6.65 times

    In a developed country, the useful life of a car is about five years, after which you might get back ten per cent of its new cost if it is diesel/electric and nought per cent if it is electric. (In fact you should be made to pay scrapping charges.) That must also be taken into account when calculating lifetime running costs.

    Even so, the choice of electricity over gasoline looks like a no-brainer.

    I’m a dedicated petrol-head but I also like the linear power delivery of electric, having owned a few high-revving motorbikes and a rotary-engined RX-7, which give a driving experience very close to electric. Even Jeremy Clarkson’s eyebrows disappeared up into his hairline when he put his foot flat in a Model S.

  9. I’ve been running my E-Class Diesel Estate for 21+ years (new May 1998).
    My old S-Class (registered Aug 2001) is still on my drive, but I’ve got to dispose of it as the cost of tackling the rust is greater than its resale value. Its replacement, a 2012 S Class should do me at least another 15 years. So, that does change the economics.
    I’m sceptical about electric because of batteries and charging. If they can be sorted I don’t mind shifting the pollution from city centres to around power stations. London is very Nox smoggy, so shifting the pollution, which is what you’re doing with electrics, from heavily to scantily populated, doesn’t seem a bad idea.

  10. MvdR “In a developed country, the useful life of a car is about five years”

    Seems a bit low to me, depending on what you’re using it for. But isn’t part of the appeal of electric cars that fewer moving parts suggest they should be capable of a longer life, at least mechanically? (Not saying that the battery replacements are going to be cheap.)

  11. Mvdr

    “In a developed country, the useful life of a car is about five years”

    What planet are you living on? My car is nine years old. It drives just like a new car. It has no visible or detectable defects, rust included. I’m 66 and planning to keep it for at least 10 more years, and hoping it will see me out. My previous car was over 10 years old and with 250,000km on it when I passed it on to my ex-wife. She ran it for another five years before trading up.


  12. Michael van der Riet writes on on October 20, 2018 at 1:13 pm: “The mathematics of gasoline vs electricity are quite simple. One liter of gasoline contains about 2.2 kWh of energy. Divide that into the cost per liter and you get the cost per kWh. … Some interesting gasoline/electricity cost comparisons by country: UK [gasoline is] 4.09 times [more expensive per kWh of energy].”

    UK petrol costs include a substantial proportion of tax; well over (twice) the amount needed to pay the costs of the building of new roads that is actually done, and maintenance of all roads, old and new alike.

    UK mains electricity costs do not (currently) include tax for any road building nor for any road maintenance. Domestic mains electricity supply has tax at 5% VAT, rather than 20% VAT for business use. I find it very doubtful that domestic electricity will continue to be supplied at only 5% tax if (and very much if) and when domestic mains electricity consumption is more than doubled: to fuel our cars as well.

    It is also the case that delivery multi-point at the roadside is included for car fuel costs; domestic mains electricity delivery costs are included elsewhere: rent or capital purchase value of the property and connection charges. And the additional connections costs of feeding all cars on domestic mains electricity (at much more than a trickle) are considerable.

    And Michael writes: “In a developed country, the useful life of a car is about five years, …” Maybe the UK is no longer judged by Michael as a ‘developed’ country – but we here are happy to run our German- and Spanish-made cars for well over 5 years: the current ones (petrol fuelled) having managed, respectively, 11 years (at an average of over 15,000 miles per year) and 8 years.

    We judge ‘developed’ as meaning knowing how to get value for money. And that is, WRT cars and most other road vehicles, by buying ones solely or almost entirely powered by liquid hydrocarbon fuel.

    This is because there are no practical means of powering all self-contained road vehicles from electricity stored in batteries. Liquid hydrocarbon based fuels are just too practical for that job to be replaced, either at all or in the next several decades.

    What I do see, because of reduced pollution (and other performance benefits like fuel economy and peak acceleration) is that different forms of hybrid electric/hydrocarbon propulsion will very likely come to the fore. What I am thinking of is the wheels being driven only ever by electric motors, and there being very modest-sized batteries (perhaps supported by super-capacitors) that are charged (largely continuously) from a hydrocarbon driven engine. Such a hydrocarbon engine need only deliver the average power requirement of the vehicle, rather than peak power – and hence can be made more cheaply, run more efficiently and pollute less. Need for gearboxes, clutches and torque converters (and their costs) will fade away; regenerative braking will be the norm. And none if this is actually news – nor actually new in terms of technological concept.

    On the pollution in particular, there is specific need for most pollution reduction in dense urban areas – this given that the ‘poison’ is in the dose – and the high and dangerous dose comes only through high (current type) vehicular concentration. This benefit can be gained by cars not recharging their batteries (and hence not running, or running much less, the hydrocarbon engine) while driving in such urban areas.

    Without the additional cost of so many rechargeable batteries (through not needing so much capacity for longer ranges), such hybrid cars could (eventually and with further design work) become sufficiently cheap to be price-competitive with vehicles powered (only and directly) by an internal combustion engine.

    Best regards

  13. A little more on what Michael van der Riet writes on on October 20, 2018 at 1:13 pm: “One liter of gasoline contains about 2.2 kWh of energy.”

    Looking on Wikipedia here, it is stated in the table that petrol (gasoline) has an energy density of 34.2 MJ/L (mega-joules per litre), and immediately above that, that 3.6MJ is the equivalent of 1kWh.

    Thus, by my calculation (hope I have not slipped up), 1 litre of petrol contains about 9.5kWh of thermal energy.

    So Michael’s figure for the energy density of gasoline looks to be understated, by over 4 times on raw thermal capacity.

    Now, I know that car internal combustion engines (ICE) are not wonderfully efficient. However, it is distinctly heavy-handed, especially when looking forward, to claim battery electric power is 4+ times more efficient than ICEs. Modern diesel engined trucks can manage up to 45% fuel efficiency; and modern petrol engines up to 35%. A those are before one allows for less than perfect battery-electric efficiencies. [Note: just on Michael’s cost-comparison basis, I agree we should exclude mains electricity generating and transmission inefficiencies.] Then there are the possible improvements, as I mention above, for hybrid petrol-electric and diesel-electric power chains, with battery and/or super-capacitor support.

    Best regards

  14. I’m with Tim on this one.

    Given that battery powered cars have been around since my late grandfather was a boy and we have still not seen anything like the gains in productivity which had taken place in the previous century with the switch from sail to steam power when his grandfather was a boy. It’s hard to get over excited about the notion that they will somehow replace the combustion engine anytime soon because they won’t, and we know this by referring to the most credible forecasters of what the outlook is for EV uptake and hydrocarbon production. The International Energy Agency (IEA) in both their conservative and aggressive predictive models say that both are going up, no doubt about it.

    So, we will continue to see both a daily growth in oil demand and an increasing market share of EV’s but when you look at EV uptake in context it’s not that it doesn’t matter, it’s just that it matters an awful lot less than we think it does. Using the IEA’s predictions that means that EV’s market share will increase from todays 2 million to 100 million in the next ten years, a fifty fold increase, stonking growth in anyone’s books, not for the faint hearted to achieve. So, let’s say that we do have 100 million EV’s on the roads ten years from now that would equate to 7% of the total forecasted 1.5 billion vehicles forecasted to be on the road at that time. We know that hydrocarbon fuelled cars account for just under half of the global oil demand. So, using the most aggressive forecast for EV growth translates into a 3% reduction in global oil demand.

    In summary in any mans books and taking the most credible bullish forecasts for increased EV market take up, there is still a long road ahead before they come anywhere near to contributing to the demise of the combustion engine.

    That’s why you should enjoy the best of both worlds and continue to drive your stretched Hummer and invest in small market cap listed lithium miners.


    Global EV Outlook 2017
    Two million and counting

  15. “What our guest said about autonomous cars I shall write in another post.”

    That will be interesting, as this year is the hundred year anniversary of the first prediction of the driverless car.


    Imagining the Sleek Car of the Future—in 1918

    “In the future the car with the steering wheel will be as obsolete as the car with the hand pump for gas or oil is today! ”

  16. And sixty one years since we first successfully tested a driverless car.


    Nebraska tested driverless car technology 60 years ago

    Sixty years ago, a 1957 Chevy moved slowly down U.S. 77 near the Nebraska 2 intersection guided by wire coils buried in the highway.

    It was the first real highway demonstration of a system its inventor and promoters believed would allow cars to be guided by signals from electronic wiring buried in the highway, rather than by human drivers.

  17. Michael van der Rie

    “In a developed country, the useful life of a car is about five years, ”

    While New Zealand is clearly not a developed country, perhaps be aware that the majority of cars here are imported second-hand from Japan, where legislation limits there life on Japanese roads.

    My current car is a 2003 Golf GTI which I purchase for a $9k 5 years ago and have since done 150,000km in it. I’m about to hand it down to someone as their first car, and she will likely get another 5 years out of it as well.

    Across Europe, the average fleet age varies between 8 years in the UK and 14 in Greece. In the US it is 12.

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