Electrified or Electrifad?

The UK government has told local councils to make 2011 “the year of the electric car”. Our own work in hybrid technology places us in a significant position to discuss how this fast rising technology will impact the automotive industry.

To clarify, hybrid technology uses two distinct power sources to move the vehicle, often with a battery recharged by friction from driving to assist the petrol engine. Full electric cars are powered purely by plugging them into a socket to recharge a battery, so they produce no direct CO2 emissions. To encourage uptake of electric cars, the UK government is urging local authorities to relax planning permission quotas for building public charge points and give up to £5000 Plug-In Car Grants to those leasing cars with CO2 emissions of less than 75grams per kilometre, during 2011 only. Three cars eligible for this grant have been available since the 1st January 2011, yet it appears that the significant majority of the automotive industry believes that electric cars won’t be affordable or accessible until the middle of the decade, while 64% of the British populace suggest that they won’t pay more than £10,000 for their next car. At the moment there are no hybrid or electric vehicles under £10,000, meaning that nearly two-thirds of the UK population will be unwilling to consider them as their next car purchase. Our Town Hall co-creation workshops have found that hybrid should be communicated as the rational and functional choice not the environmental one. This piece of communication has buy-in as the highest levels at Honda as they apply it to normalising the Jazz Hybrid, because it came from their customers. In this context, it remains up for debate as to whether electric vehicles will actually develop competitive sales in the next few years.

Despite the Nissan Leaf not being released until 2011, it has already been named 2011 European Car of the Year, the first electric car to win this title. It will retail for £28,990 without, and £23, 990 with government subsidy of £5, 000 if buying through a lease. By comparison, Honda’s Jazz Hybrid, which reduces emissions using a friction rechargeable electric battery assisting the petrol engine, will sell for an estimated £16, 000 (but will not qualify for a government subsidy because of its slightly higher 104g/km emissions). This lower price to the Leaf may prove disruptive to the full take off of electric cars. Cheaper, more efficient petrol vehicles may also be disruptive to the electric car market, as VW’s Polo BlueMotion offers CO2 emissions of 80-91g/km at a price of £14, 445. Customers will almost certainly not be paying attention to exactly how the emissions of Polo BlueMotion are kept so low, but will instead focus on price which will perhaps guide them to BlueMotion regardless of the technology used to be green.  Being reliant on the government subsidy, the Leaf at full price is 45% more expensive than the Jazz Hybrid and 50% more expensive than the Polo Blue Motion.

Despite Nissan’s claims of zero emissions, the Leaf offers only 30% less emissions if well-to-electric-outlet (well-to-wheel) calculations are made on how CO2 emissions are derived from charging the Leaf using electricity. Well-to-wheel calculations are quite dependent on the geography and source of energy used in the calculation, with electric car CO2 emissions possibly rising to 120g/km when CO2 emissions are calculated with a coal energy source. With this in mind, considering the other disadvantages of range anxiety, length of charge and availability of public charge points, it is clear that the infrastructure for electric cars as well as their affordability and efficiency will have to be improved before they can become the dominant type of engine in car sales and possibly have a real impact on CO2 emissions globally and nationally.

Despite the technology of electric vehicles perhaps being more immediately understandable than hybrid, there is clearly a fair amount of anxiety about whether they can actually perform the tasks expected of them. Of the 200 senior executives of the world’s leading car companies surveyed by KPMG, 76% of them believe that vehicle design will be driven by urban planning. Will charging infrastructure be the electric car’s speed bump? A social experiment conducted by BBC journalist Brian Milligan found that it took 4 days and a total of 48 hours charging time, to drive from London to Edinburgh. With such charging demands, there is a concern about the amount of electricity that will have to be used to power full electric cars, and the natural variability of renewable sources. One suggestion is that such electric vehicles could store electricity by charging overnight and specifically off-peak to meet peak electricity grid demands.

A mid-term solution to the anxieties of full electric cars will be plug-in hybrids, which charge from electricity outlets to assist the petrol engine. The first mass produced plug-in hybrid, the Vauxhall Ampera, will be on sale in the latter half of 2011. It will offer more effective engine assistance than the current group of hybrids which recharge their batteries using friction from driving. Honda plans to show off a plug-in hybrid at the Geneva Motor Show next month. Long term solutions could be a quick stop battery replacement station and recycling batteries as Tesla are beginning to do.  Another improvement is being enacted as Toyota are investigating replacing Lithium car batteries with Magnesium batteries. This will help with range anxiety and plan against the shortage of rare earth metals that is brewing.  Mining rare earth materials is particularly environmentally destructive. Not using rare earth metals will go a long way to both improving electric car  range anxiety as well as making the process for building the vehicles cleaner.

The path to mass usage of full electric cars is certainly a while off with the market set to grow in the next few years, and there are many considerations to take into account as I have outlined above. Hybrid technology will need to be marketed as standardised, and the cost of the technology will have to be dropped in order to open accessibility to potential customers. Petrol and diesel vehicles with reduced environmental impact will perhaps be just as valuable to customers in the short term, as the materials currently used to source petrol engines aren’t as damaging to source as the rare earth metals mined in China for electric car batteries. Ultimately electric cars will be cleaner than traditional petrol cars. Yet to truly embody their slogans of ‘zero emissions’ renewable energy sources will need to be used to charge them rather than fossil fuels, which is part of a larger conversation.  Honda has this longer term view, in developing the first Hydrogen fuel-cell powered car, the FCX Clarity. It runs on electricity produced by combining hydrogen with oxygen, with zero CO2 emissions, emitting only water vapour as its waste product. While the technology is too expensive to mass produce currently, Honda clearly believes this to be the long term goal of clean driving, with plug-in hybrids and electric cars relative stops on the way.

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