Let’s ban electric cars
I’ve been thinking very, very hard about this, but at the end, there can be only one conclusion. We have to ban electric cars.
No, honestly, we do. And I have a very valid reason for this, let’s face it, somewhat controversial assertion.
Let’s start with what electric cars have been portrayed as, compared to what they actually are. Generally speaking, if you don’t regard electric cars as the second coming these days, you are regarded as some sort of heretic and are to be bound at the stake (re-useable hemp ropes, of course) and pelted with non-quarried stones until the hordes have sated their bloodlust. Or at least, someone from a major company will groan that you’re yet another electric car doubter, or worse yet, a climate change denier.
The thing is that I am neither. Nothing bothers me more than anthropogenic climate change (see, I even used the Brian Cox word!) and its possible consequences. I live barely 30-metres from the Atlantic Ocean, so if that baby starts to rise, my house is one of the first to get a new indoor pool.
And I actually like electric cars. A recent trip in one of Dublin’s Nissan Leaf taxis reminded me how smooth, pleasant and swift a car powered by batteries can be. They really are very cool things indeed, and their mechanical simplicity appeals to the frustrated engineer in me.
But they’re all but useless. Here’s the criteria for owning and running an electric car as you’re sole daily driver at the moment. First off, you have to be able to absorb the €30k purchase price. Second, you have to own your own home and it needs a driveway so that the ESB can come and fit a charging post for you. Third, you will really, really need to live in a heavily urbanised environment (in town, in other words), drive fewer than 160km a day and never take the car on long trips. Like from Dublin to Galway, let’s say.
Even if you tick all those boxes, there are other significant problems. Such as the lack of a national charging infrastructure. We were promised 1,500 charging points nationwide by now. We actually have 400, and none of the motorway-based fast-charge points. And then there is continuing uncertainty over the longevity of the batteries (the car companies say it’s not an issue, others say otherwise) and the potential second hand value of electric cars.
But none of that is why I think they should be banned. My argument is based solely on numbers, and they are numbers of Euro and Dollar signs in front of them.
You see, we could, and should, just leap right past electric cars and go straight to hydrogen fueled transport. Hydrogen is brilliant. It’s the most abundant element in the galaxy (no more peak oil worries) and when you burn it in a combustion engine or pass it chemically through a fuel cell, the only by-products are heat and water vapour. It’s brilliant, and it works. GM and Honda already have fleets of fuel cell cars on the road, and Mercedes, Toyota and others are promising to have such cars available for general purchase by 2015.
Brilliant. Job done then. Let’s just go hydrogen.
Ah, not that simple unfortunately. Hydrogen is plentiful but it’s also the tart of the chemical world, bonding readily with almost every other substance. So separating the hydrogen from its chemical partners can be messy, and causes emissions of its own. And then there’s the need to compress and chill it for storage. It’s no more difficult or dangerous to handle than natural gas or petrol, but it can be awkward.
Then there’s the fact that, outside of a handful of stations in Japan, Germany and America (mostly California) you can’t get hydrogen fuel at your local Topaz. Not without a massive investment, around €3-billion to equip Germany with a national hydrogen refueling network.
And then there’s the cars themselves. Hydrogen fuel cell technology isn’t new, but getting it to work reliably in a car, at the extremes of temperature and usage that cars demand, is tricky at best and is still costing a lot of money to develop. Mercedes and Toyota will have fuel cell cars on sale in 2015, no doubt, but they will be very limited run vehicles, priced like supercars in the hundreds of thousands, appealing to wealthy tech-heads, not to someone trading in an ’01 Punto.
There is, however, a simple solution. Money. Lots and lots of money. There is money, clearly, being invested in hydrogen power for cars, but it’s clearly not enough at the moment. The EU has invested around €1.5-billion recently, while the US government trickles a billion here and a billion there into it. Meanwhile, Renault is spending €4-billion to develop a four-car electric car range. That’s just Renault, a relatively small Euro-centric car maker, and the most significant model that that €4-billion will go to is a Fluence saloon with batteries. And, at best estimates, in a decade’s time, electric cars will account for just 10% of the European car market. Leaving 90% to still be serviced by good old diesel and petrol.
So I think it’s time we stopped messing about. Unless there is a dramatic discovery in terms of making batteries easier to charge and longer-lasting, electric cars are ultimately only going to be useful for short, intra-urban hops. For true mobility to be continued into the latter half of this century, hydrogen seems to be the only rational choice.
Let’s ban electric cars then, and take the money that would have been spent on them and spend it instead on hydrogen. We know hydrogen works, it’s mature technology and doesn’t require any major new breakthroughs; it just needs to be honed, developed, productionised and made affordable. If we can concentrate our resources on doing that, then maybe we can truly change the future of motoring, for good, for all.
Meanwhile, there is a final engineering aesthetic argument. The technology that drives electric cars is, essentially, the same technology that makes a food blender spin around and around. The technology that drives hydrogen fuel cell cars is the same technology that NASA used to power the Apollo spacecraft that flew to the moon and back. Which one would you rather have in your car?