A lot can happen in 10 years.
In 2005 we had the Cronulla riots, Tom Cruise jumped on Oprah’s couch and Myspace was in its prime. On the road, direct-injection engines were then becoming commonplace and hybrid vehicles such as the Toyota Prius were increasing in popularity.
Hybrid vehicles were popular because they sported enviable mileage stickers on their windscreens, but their downfall was always the battery – the Prius in particular, could only travel a handful of kilometres on electricity alone before the petrol engine had to take over. And that’s when it was new. I always wondered how the Prius would perform as it got older? I guessed it’d be like that old laptop you have in the back of your cupboard at home, that lasts a total of 5 minutes on a full battery charge – just enough time to load windows before it shuts itself down again.
Fast forward to 2015 and times have changed – and so has my opinion. The Toyota Prius is still with us, and older models with over 200,000kms on the clock are still performing similarly to the day they rolled out of the factory. We’ve seen electric-only vehicles such as the Tesla Roadster, Nissan Leaf, Mitsubishi i-MiEV and BMW i3, and a smattering of hybrids such as the Chevrolet/Holden Volt and Lexus CT200h, and they’ve all been pretty decent offerings in their own right.
The traditional limitations of electric vehicles are falling to the wayside, and given a few more years of development, I believe they’ll be a creditable alternative to conventional petrol, diesel and hybrid vehicles – and here’s why.
Reduced mechanical complexity
The modern internal combustion engine is made up of a multitude of moving parts – the cylinder block itself with multiple cylinders and camshafts, cylinder heads, connecting rods, crankshafts, timing belts and ancillary belts, oil pumps, coolant pumps and radiator, and various sensors & filters. Not to mention turbochargers, superchargers, complicated hybrid or stop/start systems.
Look beyond the engine and you have a gearbox with its own sensors, gear sets, clutch(s) or torque converter, oil pump, filter and oil cooling units and the differential itself. In both the engine and gearbox there’s also a multitude of oil seals, bearings and other associated parts – I’ve barely scratched the surface here, but you get my point. Electric cars can potentially do away with all of these components, depending on how they’re designed.
If we look at the most advanced electric car on the moment today, the Tesla Model S P90D, it features a central battery located in the floor of the vehicle, powering four electric motors, sitting together in pairs in the front and rear of the vehicle – an incredibly simple, efficient, yet technologically advanced system. This allows the Model S to vary the amount of power sent to each wheel, side to side and front to back, just like the differentials in a conventional all-wheel drive performance vehicle like the Nissan GT-R.
Better yet, the power isn’t being sent through a gearbox and one or more differentials, meaning there is no power lost through driveline friction – often thought to be around 10 – 20% depending on the type of gearbox used.
Reduced dependence on servicing
Conventional internal combustion engined vehicles need regular servicing in order to continue operating at their absolute best. A typical family sedan or hatchback will typically need to be serviced every 12 months or 10,000 kilometres, whichever comes first. Regular servicing involves everything from minor items such as oil changes (engine, gearbox and differential oil) and changing various filters, through to more expensive items such as spark plugs, cam belts, oil pumps and clutches. Let’s not forget, eventually whole engines and gearboxes will need replacing after they’ve reached the end of their serviceable life.
On the other hand, electric vehicles such as the Tesla Model S don’t need regular servicing. Sure, there will be some maintenance involved, but the intervals will be spaced much further apart and the type of work involved will be different. Tesla don’t even require the car to be looked at yearly in order to maintain the new car warranty.
Reduced wear and tear
Another downside of internal combustion engined vehicles is they suffer from accelerated wear and tear if they’re frequently used for short journeys, such as in a city environment. The engine and gearbox both need a certain amount of time (or kilometres driven) to reach their proper operating temperatures, where they’ll then be running at their most efficient.
Cold engines need to run richer (burn more fuel) until they reach operating temperature, and the engine itself suffers more from wear and tear each time it is forced to start up cold. Conventional petrol or diesel engines are happiest when run continuously for longer periods, where their running temperature remains consistent for optimal fuel burn and the engine oil remains at an optimal temperature, protecting vital components. This is generally why engines and gearboxes in rurally driven cars generally last longer than similar vehicles which may never leave the city.
In comparison, the electric motors in a Tesla Model S don’t need to “warm up” and in actual fact achieve similar levels of efficiency no matter what temperature they’re at. Better yet, they’re only “on” and using energy when you’ve got the accelerator pressed – at all other times they’re either dormant, or recovering energy (like giant alternators) as the car is coasting or braking. Stop/Start cycles simply don’t affect them at all, in fact, they’re designed especially for it, which brings us on to the next point..
Internal combustion engines take fuel (be it petrol or diesel) and burn it in controlled explosions to create energy which drives the pistons, which turns the crankshaft, gearbox, differential(s) and axle(s) of your car, in order to get power to the road. Even putting driveline loss aside (I talked about that in the first point above), internal combustion engines generate a serious amount of heat – that’s why your car has one (or maybe more) radiators and its own cooling system to keep it at operating temperature around 100 degrees C.
Consider this – for each droplet of fuel being injected into your engine, an estimated 35 to 40% of the energy from it is turned into motion. The remaining 60 to 65% is turned into heat, which is eventually bled off into the atmosphere through the car’s radiator.
Electric motors on the other hand, are thought to achieve around 85 to 90% efficiency. Another huge benefit is since electric cars don’t need complicated cooling systems, or gaping holes in the front of the car to channel air through them, the bodywork can be far more aerodynamic than conventional vehicles. The Tesla Model S I mentioned earlier has a drag coefficient of Cd=0.24, much more slippery than a Mercedes CLA which sits at Cd=0.30. This translates to improved mileage, with the Model S using the equivalent of around 2.6L/100km in the city.
We’ve always had the assumption that petrol engined cars will always offer superior performance compared to electric vehicles, but soon this will no longer be the case.
Consider a performance vehicle like Nissan’s GT-R. The GT-R runs a 3.8L twin-turbocharged V6 engine, developing 404kW of power and 628Nm of torque. Incredible figures no doubt, but the important thing to look at here is when this power (and torque) is being developed. You see, the GT-R isn’t producing 404Kw when it is at 2000 rpm, nor 3000 or 4000 rpm – it’s actually a lot less. It isn’t until the engine is spinning at 6400rpm that you’ll actually get to use that much power. The GT-R’s saving grace is it’s meaty torque band, with the full 628Nm available from just 3200 rpm, all the way through to 5800 rpm. These figures allow the GT-R to go from 0-100kph in just 2.7 seconds. Fantastic, but how might an electric vehicle compare?
The Tesla Model S produces 568kW and presumably a huge amount of torque (the actual figure hasn’t been released) from four electric motors. But the difference here is both are available from 0 rpm, meaning a Model S driver could access 100% of the car’s power at any time. As a result, it can complete the 0-100kph sprint in just 2.8 seconds. This also means the Model S doesn’t need a gearbox – just one continuous surge of power.
That makes Tesla’s 4-door luxury sedan just .1 of a second slower than Nissan’s 2-door super car. That also makes it faster than the Koenigsegg Agera R and Ferrari 458 Italia.
Incredible stuff, and this is just the start.
Reduced range anxiety
Perhaps the best thing about conventional, internal combustion engine powered vehicles is the fact that you simply fill them up with fuel, and drive until it runs out. Some economical diesel small cars can easily get over 1000km per tank, giving owners huge flexibility when choosing how far they’re going to drive. Better yet, refilling the tank again takes no longer than 5 minutes. Perhaps the slight downside of this is you can’t refill your vehicle at home, or at your friend’s house – you are at the mercy of the petrol stations, and where they’re located. Hardly an inconvenience I know, but a small one none the less.
“Range anxiety” plagued early adopters of electric cars, such as those who purchased Mitsubishi’s unsuccessful i-MiEV – a car which had a real-world range of just 150 kilometres. Factor in energy use for headlights and air-conditioning and the promised range might end up being a lot lower. The limiting factor with electric vehicles has always been our battery technologies, dictating how many battery cells can be fitted into any given vehicle before their excess weight becomes a problem.
Looking at the Tesla Model S – it has a real world range of approximately 500 kilometres, though to achieve this it requires a battery weighing approximately 550kg – or more than half the weight of an entire Mitsubishi i-MiEV. The good news here is battery technology is constantly improving. Battery cells will continue to increase in capacity and reduce in size and weight. Newer battery technologies will also be developed, in time, potentially overcoming existing shortcomings with lithium-ion batteries.
Reduced dependence on one fuel type
If you purchase a car which runs on unleaded petrol, there’s literally no alternative fuel you can fill it with, besides perhaps E85 – a fuel blend consisting of 85% denatured ethanol fuel and 15% gasoline – but this is hardly a realistic alternative, due to increased fuel consumption, limited distribution of the fuel itself and the fact the car needs to be re-tuned to run properly on it. Unleaded fuel or diesel must always be purchased from the same network of petrol stations, for the same (ever increasing) prices.
Electric cars, aside from being energy efficient, technically run on whatever fuel your local power station uses, and for the majority of people in the world that would be a coal. Coal is an un-environmentally friendly and dirty fuel to burn, but when you factor in the high-efficiency of the power station’s generators, the fact that they’re supplying hundreds of thousands of customers and that the emissions are produced in a single location, rather than where the cars are driving, means there are already benefits to be had. You’ll see additional environmental benefits if a percentage of your house’s power is generated from solar panels, or if you live in an area where the power is generated from wind turbine or hydro-electric power stations.
This all sounds great. So why aren’t electric cars more popular?
Right now there are three reasons stopping electric cars from becoming common place – range & recharge time, battery technology and overall cost.
While the range of electric vehicles may be improving, there’s no getting away from the fact that once you’ve run out of range you’ll have to recharge the vehicle before continuing. Charge times vary by vehicle, and also what type of charger you’re using, but you might be waiting anywhere from 30 minutes to 3 hours in order to receive enough charge to make it home, or to the next charging point.
Battery technology is constantly improving, but the fact remains that they’re still too heavy, meaning there are compromises that have to be made in regards to capacity, and they’re expensive to manufacture. You could purchase a BMW i3 for over $70,000, or go for a mid-sized diesel for $40,000 and pocket the difference.
The $30,000 you save could certainly buy you a lot of diesel…