Danger, High Voltage

With the motor industry abuzz with the prospect of electric propulsion, just how confident are we they’ve thought this one through?

Image: clker

Earlier in the week we considered the mainstream industry’s lack of leadership when it comes to the design of electric cars. But at the Frankfurt motor show this week, two industry leaders fleshed out some of the challenges they’re facing. Firstly Mercedes’ Dieter Zetsche pointed out to auto journalists the effect the push to electric is likely to have on profitability.

At first glance, this is a case of stating the blindingly obvious, but while the mighty Stuttgart Untertürkheim car giant can weather the loss of 50% of its potential profits, putting aside an alleged €4.0 billion to cover the likely revenue shortfall, it raises questions of how other less financially robust car businesses can possibly weather a similar reversal.

It’s easy to be flippant about car makers’ varying degrees of culpability in deceiving the public over the benefits of diesel, but one can have some sympathy for what’s at stake when you look at the investments manufacturers have poured into combustion engine development, not to mention production facilities and staff, so managing their decline without catastrophe could well become the trickiest aspect of the entire business. Because if the transition is not as measured as the car industry can reasonably handle, the fallout really could be rather messy.

The problem however is that in the short-term at least, nobody can be certain what the uptake of electric cars will be, whether part-hybrid or plug-in hybrid will be favoured as a bridging measure and how best to gauge the delicate balance in second-guessing demand. What looks likely is that car makers will have to take a sizeable financial hit for several years until such time as the market speaks clearly, a matter which plays into the hands of the tech companies and pure-electric start-ups who won’t have to bear the costs of running down huge areas of pre-existing infrastructure.

Image: hdimagelib

But with governments actively pushing the industry towards electric however, it’s difficult to avoid the suspicion we’re on the cusp of another unilateral decision on automotive propulsion where once again the necessary due diligence as to the potential repercussions (or indeed the alternatives) has failed to take place. Back in the late ’90s when exhaust emissions took centre stage across Europe, many promising engine related developments are believed to have been sidelined or cancelled entirely due to expedient and short-term solutions pushed by legislators and colluded with by a motor industry bent on a path of least resistance.

PSA’s Carlos Tavares recently made the point that had they invested heavily into the Hybridair technology they were in the process of developing, they would now be contemplating its cancellation as it goes against the favoured direction of travel. It’s a tricky one however isn’t it? Manufacturers, left to their own devices will not innovate for the good of mankind, only if there’s money to be made – and can we realistically expect anything else from them? However, as we know from experience, legislation made in haste very often ends up being poor legislation, (and that’s before we even get to the subject of referenda). But if governments get this wrong once again, it’s difficult to envisage how the dial can be reset.

It’s probably too early to speculate with any certainty, but I can’t help wondering what fresh crisis is being set in motion 15-20 years down the line based on decisions taken in legislatures and automotive boardrooms now?

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founding Editor. Content Provider.

9 thoughts on “Danger, High Voltage”

  1. I agree Eóin. The messy and polluting business of lithium mining is never mentioned. Neither is the likelihood of “peak lithium”. Mining lithium also reduces local access to water often in poorer areas that can ill afford it. The Co² emissions of the transport of all battery components and the batteries themselves make the manufacture of EVs less environmentally friendly. What about the disposal of these packs. Currently it’s far cheaper to make new batteries than to recycle old ones (although I’m sure technology will improve in this area). Who would bet against an EV backlash in 20 years as we’re all incentivised to drive fuel cells or whatever the latest idea is?

  2. Interesting analysis Eôin. I find it hard to have much sympathy for the corporations that make cars, only the workers who could lose their livelihoods. My own suspicion is that most legislation on emissions and safety is lobbied for by the biggest car makers as a way of reducing competition by forcing smaller companies out of business. I can’t think of any other area of life where legislation is passed to genuinely improve conditions for us humans without there being a larger benefit to corporations.
    On the subject of battery technology, isn’t there a danger of putting all their eggs in one basket with lithium ion when the real breakthrough looks likely to be graphene? I for one will not be buying a car that needs to be plugged in for several hours as I live in house at least 60 metres from where I park my car. Graphene would solve the problem of time taken to recharge.
    I expect the internal combustion engine also has a future beyond Europe, North America, China and Japan. The markets of South America, Africa and the rest of Asia still have lots of room for expansion and I don’t doubt some manufacturers already have plans for such markets. Of course, it’ll all be academic as this unsustainable expansion will result in ecological disaster, war and famine.

  3. If Tesla didn’t exist, how far would electric cars have come? To me, Elon Musk shone a light on the complacency and restricted thinking of the car industry – it turns out, as always, that if you build a compelling product, customers will come flocking.

    Climate change and plastic pollution are crises that are not on the horizon but already with us. Drastic action is necessary. Electric cars also depend on the extractive industries for mining rare earth metals etc, and much of the electricity they rely on is generated through dirty power, so there are big problems to solve.

    But EVs also offer such compelling technical advantages that they cannot be ignored: zero local emissions, packaging / safety, silent running, maintenance costs. They are the future.

    The great advantage the established industry has over the disrupters is that building cars is a huge technical challenge. Even the mighty Apple is rumoured to have pulled the plug on its own vehicle.

    The biggest problem we have is over-consumption, and the car industry is a big culprit. Flooding consumer markets with millions of new vehicles each year is madness. Scrapping serviceable old petrol cars because they are taxed off the roads is madness. Globally we simply cannot continue consuming and throwing away resources like this.

    1. As I say, this is a great time to get off the car bandwagon. I think that we’ve had a lot of fun with cars but the demerits are larger now than the advantages. In my utopian mode I suggest reducing car numbers, increasing durability and avoiding trying to go entirely electric. The ICE is a fabulous device overdeployed.

  4. Tesla are doing an amazing job of papering over the cracks of EVs, but even with the advancements of recent years the technology just isn’t good enough for mass adoption.

    Most electrical energy is lost to resistance. We don’t yet have the key enablers for beneficial adoption of electric transportation at the scale of the internal combustion engine: nuclear fusion and superconductors that work over a wide temperature range. The former to produce abundant clean power and the latter to use it efficiently.

    1. Could it just be that by adopting Evs this would accelerate developement in fusion tech which is how things have always worked.

      Present resistance losses are mainly caused by long distant transmission due to power station locations. With localised production using solar along with other forms this becomes a non issue as its more efficient.
      This also provides the chance for individuals
      ls to be off grid and not paying giant utility and petrochemical companies for amps and fuel.
      Therein lies the threat to the established conglomerates so
      Expect a pleathora of misinformation and doubt which is even surfacing in comments on these pages.

    2. Localized production using solar and windpower is good for when the conditions work. Of course if you want to store up energy when the generating times are good to cover for when it isn’t, then you need mountains of batteries, which is not so good. Localized power stations are not so good for local air quality, and if it is local then nobody will bother transmitting electricity at the really high voltages that minimize current and hence losses, because it gets silly very quickly.

      Power utility companies employ people called System Planning Engineers, who have far more of a clue as to the best mix of generation and transmission/distribution voltages than the average punter reading the latest edition of Eco-Digest. Their job is to minimize system losses and to ensure capacity is available for peak demand. Our system loss is about 9% – the difference between energy at the power station doors including windmills minus what gets billed to the end consumers. That’s over a 20,000 square mile territory a quarter the size of Great Britain, but with only 900,000 inhabitants, not a promising beginning for an efficient system. But not a bad result nevertheless.

      What is difficult is to minimize air pollution from a thermal plant using bulk oil or coal. Petrol engined cars are superior in this aspect, but then the pollution generated to provide the refined fuel has to be factored in from the refinery. So if you have scads of natural gas then use that at thermal power stations. Of course we would all like thorium reactors or the holy grail of fusion reactors but nothing seems even tantalizingly close on that front.

      There are precious few easy answers but to hear some polticians spouting away you’d think it was as easy as pie. You have to keep it simple for these dolts with zero technical background which makes it easy for their brains to be highjacked by some smooth operator or another peddling “ultimate” solutions that fatten their personal pockets. If the new Toyota Dynamic Force petrol engines could actually maintain their 40% thermal efficiency in service, and/or if the new Mazda SCCI engine does even better as is rumoured, then it is likely better to really run serious numbers and see whether it isn’t better to burn the fuel in vehicles directly rather than go through line losses, voltage transformation losses, battery charging losses and other hoopla for EVs – which then chuck away another 10% in friction and inverter, resistance and copper losses in the vehicle itself. At least the ICE machine’s heat losses can be partly gathered and used for heating in cold weather. A thermal power generating system is unlikely to exceed 36% efficiency from input fuel to output work on a system wide basis, and probably several percent less.

      Instead people leap on a bandwagon and trivialize whatever the other side says, constantly shading the truth to their advantage. It’s all a bit internet-ish. And the way of the modern world. Everyone wants THE solution right now and don’t bother me with the details. We have a pie which needs to be divided eight ways, but there are only seven pieces available, so people argue the toss over trivialities when they lose focus on the main point. Too many people, not enough cleanish energy. And few independent voices being listened to, certainly not from the EU’s published rubbish I’ve read.

      Great post by the way Mr Doyle.

  5. Bill I fail to see your logic of local power stations being bad for local air quality. If they consist of solar and wind with battery storage how does that affect air quality other than making it cleaner by eliminating or reducing the number of big plants.
    If everyone produced and stored their own power at point of use transmission losse’s would be elim inated, power plant numbers reduced etc.
    When I say local I mean a single property to several not hundreds or thousands.
    This is already being done check the net.
    You mention a lot of perceived negatives of an EV compared with fueling an ice vehicle while conveniently omitting the petro industry trail before that ice on its own starts to pollute and its inefficiencies.

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