Race to build the optimal electric car heating up

Race to build the optimal electric car heating up

An e-Golf electric car charging outside the production line of the Transparent Factory of German carmaker Volkswagen, in Dresden. (Reuters)

Several governments around the world (including France, Spain, Greece and Mexico) have announced plans to get rid of diesel cars by 2025; Norway wants to phase out all conventional (non-electric) cars by 2025, to be followed by France and the UK by 2040; and other countries have put forth equally or even more ambitious plans, such as India to go all-electric by 2030, “if economical.” Why? Two years ago, Copenhagen’s mayor put it most simply and bluntly: “It’s not a human right to pollute the air for others.”

So the question that expressly poses itself is: Are electric cars ready to fill the need, and can they really solve at least the urban pollution problem?

The electric car concept is quite simple: Replace the gas tank with rechargeable batteries, and replace the gasoline engine with an electric motor (in between, there’s a “controller,” but that’s a technical detail). Ideally, one would start with solar energy, but current technology does not allow that efficiently enough and we can only strive to build — for the future — charging stations that use solar power, not directly into the car.

Electric cars don’t pollute the air, as they do not burn any fossil fuel. Does that mean the whole production, utilization, maintenance and riddance (after 10 or 20 years of use) cycle contributes no pollution or much less than conventional gasoline cars? This is an important question, and the answer to it is: Not as of now.

Why not? Because, first, the construction of electric cars requires the same energy in the factory as conventional cars, and that energy right now almost entirely comes from fossil fuels. This will change as we gradually go solar, but we don’t know to what extent. Most critically, the production of rechargeable batteries requires large amounts of energy. Moreover, these special batteries (especially those made with lithium) release highly polluting elements into the environment. A better technological solution is the use of hydrogen cells as batteries and that is an innovation that is being fervently worked on. Lastly, because they accelerate quickly (and are thus fun to drive), they release large quantities of tiny rubber pieces from their tires, which is another negative contribution.

Of course, while being driven, electric cars release no carbon dioxide or other bad gases, and that’s a big plus.

The upshot is, all things considered, electric cars may or may not be environmentally friendly, at least not yet; in fact, at the current state of technology, they may be — overall — detrimental to the environment. The good news is that research is making good progress on the above issues, and the future may be much brighter for electric cars.

There are other factors weighing in favor of electric cars and contributing largely to their current boom.

First, especially in Europe, where gasoline is extremely expensive, electric cars are a good investment for the consumer. Indeed, while they typically cost about $5,000 more than their conventional sisters, electric cars save their owners roughly $1,000 per year (these are very rough figures, as they strongly depend on models, but one gets an idea).

Secondly, electric cars are nearly silent and thus greatly help reduce the noise pollution in big cities, especially where and when traffic becomes congested.

Thirdly, and as mentioned above, they provide a great driving experience as they produce zippy acceleration.

However, and in addition to the issues mentioned earlier, electric cars do carry important disadvantages to the driver and consumer, most notably: The limited range (currently 100 to 150 kilometers for the smaller models, and up to 500 km for the very expensive “long range” models) that batteries provide before they have to be recharged; the long charging times (currently at least 4 hours, although some companies have announced fast devices that can charge a car in as little as 30 minutes); few charging and repair locations; and, last but not least, low resale value.

All things considered, electric cars may or may not be environmentally friendly, at least not yet.

Nidhal Guessoum

All these issues are changing rapidly, as companies (most car companies have entire divisions working on producing the best models they can) strive to win the race for the most optimal electric car, considering the huge market and strong governmental support for this solution.

So what can we expect for the (near) future?

For the next five to 10 years, I think hybrid vehicles, ones that have both an electric motor and a conventional gasoline engine, will be the best way to go. They solve the problems of limited range and long charging times by going conventional when urgently needed and only charge at home, and they reduce the usage of chargeable batteries, thus lengthening their lifetimes and lowering their negative environmental impact. However, they help the environment less regarding gas and noise pollution.

Looking more broadly, with the world’s population growth and urbanization problem (cities getting bigger all around the world), some experts have commented that we may need a paradigm shift in transportation; for example, transforming whole city areas (especially downtowns) into bicycle-only zones. Already, in Copenhagen’s city center, bikes outnumber cars and this capital is expected to be car-free within 10 years. Similar efforts and transformations are being considered or implemented in a number of cities.

Electric cars will probably be an important part of the future of cities, but they aren’t yet, mainly for technical reasons. However, additional urban designs and lifestyle changes may be needed for our future to be clean, healthy and comfortable.

  • Nidhal Guessoum is a professor of physics and astronomy at the American University of Sharjah, UAE. Twitter: @NidhalGuessoum
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