Article – Electric Cars (A Cynic’s View) Part One

Before I start, I should say straight away that I am not a fan of electric cars.  However, I do like the Tesla S and its awesome performance, having had test drives, the last one had the “ridiculous” mode which delivers an initial 1G acceleration and 0-60 in barely 2 seconds. However, at over £100K this is not a motor for the masses, those will have to make do with a Nissan Leaf or a Renault.

My concern is the batteries that have a number of issues from, manufacture, life and ultimate disposal. Current technology is with Lithium-ion batteries as found in a laptop, however, lithium although the world’s third most abundant metallic element, requires lots of energy to refine and manufacture into batteries, to which a Swedish government research unit published, in 2017, a report into this issue. A stand-out item is that the energy required to produce a battery pack for the Tesla S equates to 38 tonnes of CO2 per vehicle. This is in addition to the CO2 incurred in building the car in the first place which is broadly the same as an average non-electric car. To put this into perspective, an average diesel car will produce that amount of CO2 over a 12 year period of use. So, there is the green lobby’s problem; CO2 levels are 10-12 years more than a diesel car before its use. The report also noted that a pack for a Nissan Leaf requires 5 tonnes of CO2 per unit, so although better, has drawbacks on range and power. Secondly, the packs will require replacement as they lose their ability to retain charge, a problem that no-one has yet solved and the time quoted is about 8 years. A new pack for VW’s electric Golf is quoted at – wait for it! – £8000. Given that electric cars have “over a cliff” depreciation, who is going to stump up that amount for a car worth £3000 at best, so cars become disposal domestic white goods?

Another problem with a battery pack is its tendency to catch fire when shorted out, such as in an accident or subject to water, and are very difficult to put out. Statistics are not fully sorted on this yet but we can’t ignore it. Vehicle charging times range from Tesla’s 20-60 minutes to 4+ hours for others, the difference being that Tesla have a patented fast charge system not available to others. Finally, disposal of the Lithium batteries require careful and technically intensive recycling which is a significant cost and you cannot dump them unless you want to poison the place. The power source is very CO2 intensive across its whole life and this is ignored by the disciples of electric cars, they only quote the recharge cost (more later).

So, you’ve bought a Nissan Leaf and you live in a house with a garage with power so you can plug it in but you’d still be in a fix if you want to drive more than 100 miles on any day. Where will you get a recharge? Route planning becomes complex, much like the early days of motoring when one had a list of chemists that sold that peculiar new petrol product. Police are reporting disputes at service areas on who has use of limited charge points, block parking and the anti-social results. Drive 120 miles, have a punch up, drive home via A&E. If you don’t have a garage or a private drive the Leaf sits out on the street, how will you charge it? If you can park outside the house, how will running a cable from house to car play out with public liability of cables lying on the pavement? Some characters were on TV recently espousing the use of street lights as charging points, but not having the nous to realise that increasing power output(s) requires a heavier delivery cable and the uprating of all street power – doh! What happens when more than one car needs charging at a time and don’t think that a “neighbourly consensus” would suddenly appear to control timings. Given a limited resource, your neighbour becomes your enemy, basic human instinct I’m afraid. Given the insatiable desires of ambulance chasing lawyers, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Live in a flat? Forget it, so we deduce only the comfortably off can afford to recharge safely and easily?

The Leaf and similar cars have a range in warm weather of 100 to 120 miles but in the cold, all battery performance reduces, drivers will want heat and full lights, no problem except your range is now about 50 miles. Still fine if you commute a total of 40 miles a day in winter but the Leaf is now useless as a longer commute vehicle unless you have a dedicated park slot with recharging at  work! I commuted by motorbike to London in 2015 and regularly saw a Renault electric buggy between junctions 3 and 4 of the M3. I didn’t know his daily route but I could see the anxiety on his face, do we need that? Didn’t see him after a couple of months, probably in hospital with range stress. Another amusing observation when a woman in a Leaf joined the A303 at Barton Stacey heading East, I was doing 75 and she swept past me but within 1/2 mile braked to 40 as if she saw the battery range warning light come on. I know the next recharge point is Fleet services so did she make it or did she live nearby? We’ll never know.The solution has to be a quantum step forward on battery technology but we’ve waited years and we still have cars with barely the range of a United Dairies milk float. I’m not holding my breath as current producers are too busy supplying the “old” technology. Even Tesla only has patents on pack connections and the faster charging of existing technologies.

Now we have the Government decreeing that all petrol and diesel vehicles will be banned from sale in 2040, that is not long. Personally, I can’t see this happening given the massive infrastructure investments that need to be in place, plus what will happen to HGVs, delivery, emergency and police vehicles when their batteries are exhausted? HGVs run for hundreds of miles on a tankful, the cost of lugging battery packs to provide similar range reduce payloads – that’ll go down well. Given society’s current preference for buying on-line and waiting for Mr White Van Man to deliver they won’t be amused when they are grounded because their AAA batteries have expired, or that the ambulance runs out of juice or can’t be used because it’s under charge. Some “experts” suggest local tradesmen can run E vans as their daily mileage is actually quite low, but how many are parked on the street thus having a charging issue. The lightweights that form our political “elite” have not thought this through as we are back to the ability to provide thousands of charging points both domestic and commercial, and vastly increased power generation, the latter being a singular failure of national strategy since we led the world in nuclear technology 60 years ago. In the 90s, BMW did a detailed study into electric cars and concluded that if 50% of all cars and vans registered in Munich alone were fully electric then the city would require 4 more power stations. They decided not to go electric but are now on that band wagon today. Jaguar are another follower but their PR stunt of creating an electric E Type (as used by Prince Harry!) by dumping the classic mechanicals and replacing them with a lekky motor and battery with crap range is off target, plus another E Type chassis/body is lost, what a waste. E cars have improved and the “renewables” have their place in the generation scene but the conclusion is the same, more E cars equals more power stations. Given that our leaders cannot address this simple equation and almost all have no knowledge of, or technical ability, the future looks bleak.

Part 2 follows in a future printed magazine – Ed.

Keith Hazell

Posted by Geoff Wade, FDMC Media

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