Electric vehicles (EVs) have well and truly toppled all other alternative fuel transport solutions from the news agenda.
As with any petrol and diesel substitute, however, the arguments surrounding their genuine environmental impact seem to be endless, as does the list of reasons why they will never be a true replacement for the trusty internal combustion engine (ICE).
Supporters claim that EVs are inherently more efficient than ICE cars even when the electricity they run on comes from a coal-fired power station, that they are perfectly practical for the typical everyday needs of the average driver and that with government grants they will be affordable.
Allies also point to their immense energy storage capabilities when combined en masse and thus the potential that EVs have in actually taking pressure off otherwise stressed-out electricity grids, as well as their smart mobility role in preventing global gridlock.
Sceptics, on the other hand, say EVs are (and always will be) too expensive and that they are impracticable because of their range limitations and the vast weight of their batteries. As a result, they say, EVs will never be anything more than a niche solution, and an interim one at that until the holy grail of green motoring – the hydrogen fuel cell – is reached.
Critics also insist that EVs are not even environmentally-friendly unless the electricity they run on is generated by nuclear or some kind of renewable energy (e.g. wind/solar/tidal), which in most cases it isn’t.
Here, we take a closer look at one of the many environmental debates which surround EVs as well as hearing some surprising comments from some of the car manufacturers themselves.
The Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf were both launched to a fanfare at the end of 2010. Each has been hailed as showcasing the very best of new-generation EV technology, albeit in different ways. The Volt is a range-extended electric car with a supplementary internal combustion engine, in theory meaning that its drivers will never suffer from ‘range anxiety’ (otherwise known as a flat battery).
Meanwhile, the Leaf has no back-up engine, the downside of which is that it is strictly limited to a range
of 80 – 100 miles, but the upside of which is that it really is ‘zero-emission’ at road level.
Other, lower-profile EVs are also being marketed as on sale in the UK and Europe, or soon to be so. These include the Mitsubishi i-MiEV, over 5,000 of which are already on European roads according to Mitsubishi, and rebadged versions of that car, the Peugeot iON and Citroen C-Zero. Then there’s Renault’s Fluence ZE, the smart fortwo electric drive, the Tata Vista EV and the Toyota Prius Plug-in.
Yet try and actually buy any of these cars and you may be surprised as they are in extremely short supply. For example, General Motors (GM) and Nissan both plan to build just 20,000 units of their respective EVs in 2011, the vast majority of which are restricted to US test fleets. Of the few EVs that have made their way to Europe, these cars are less on-sale, and more on-lease, and even then, just as is also the situation in the US, often not to the average man or woman on the street.
Of course, now that the first EVs have been launched, production will start to ramp up. Next year, for example, GM will more than double its 2011 numbers, having recently increased its 2012 production target from 30,000 to 45,000 Volts (10,000 of which have been earmarked for Europe, in the form of the Vauxhall/Opel Ampera).
By 2015, GM says it will have the capacity to build and sell 120,000 Volts and Amperas. Yet still, this would only be equivalent to 1.3% of its global volumes, assuming GM sales of around 9M in 2015.
Trying to calculate how clean a car is on the basis of what comes out of its exhaust pipe is becoming a progressively more primitive mode of measurement – not least if the vehicle in question does not even have an exhaust pipe!
The fact that EVs are usually described as zero-emission (because of their lack of road-level exhaust gases) infuriates their critics who quite rightly point out their true and full environmental impact can only be gauged when considering the lifecycle emissions of electricity. The problem is that that this is easier said than done.
It is a fact that EVs use their energy more efficiently than ICE-powered cars. Some studies have shown that an electric car can run at as much as 90% efficiency across the whole driving range from a hard acceleration launch to cruising.
Cars powered by an ICE typically reach up to 35% efficiency if they’re cruising at 60 mph in steady motorway conditions, but amazingly, can slump to as little as 2% efficiency in other driving conditions, such as stop and start driving in cities, or driving that involves a lot of hard acceleration and braking. And then there is the argument that generating electricity on a mass scale in a power station – regardless of how that electricity is produced is substantially more efficient than having millions of mini-generators (i.e. cars with petrol- or diesel-burning engines) on our roads.
U.S. electric sports car manufacturer Tesla Motors uses data from one of the world’s few remaining large-scale diesel-powered utility companies to claim that with one gallon of diesel, you can either run an ICE car for 38 miles or use that gallon of diesel to produce electricity and run an equivalent EV for 89 miles.
So is there no truth behind the argument that EVs simply displace emissions from the road to the power station?
UK Government-commissioned report published in late 2007 thinks there is. The King Review stated that: “clean cars are dependent on clean power and, as the world moves towards EVs, countries’ road transport CO2 emissions will increasingly be determined by the composition of their power generation sector.”
The fact that coal-fired power stations – such as those that dominate the UK – only run at around 30% efficiency, does not help EVs’ cause. In countries such as France where most electricity is nuclear, the numbers are completely different, but who wants to go down that road in the light of recent events in Japan? And while it is true that renewables – such as tidal, solar and wind – can all make a contribution, the possibility of those becoming a serious contributor to large-scale energy production are distant, at best.
If the world’s roads aren’t clogged with EVs in 2011, will they be in 2020?
Many experts think not, which could be considered surprising given the intense hype which has surrounded EVs for several years and which shows no sign of stopping anytime soon.
At the Geneva Motor Show in March 2011, Ford Motor Company’s Director of Global Electrification, Nancy Gioia, told just-auto.com:
“Our global fleet today is about 1% electrified, which includes our hybrids. By 2020, we expect 10 – 25% of our global fleet to be electrified. Of that 10 – 25%, we expect circa 70% of them to be hybrids, 20 – 25% plug-in hybrids and the remainder [5 -10%] battery electrics.”
In other words, Ford expects that a maximum of 17.5% of its global sales will be hybrids by 2020, and a minimum of 7%.
Between 2 and 6.25% of its total sales will be of plug-in hybrids (like the Chevrolet Volt) and just 0.5 – 2.5% will be pure electric cars, it thinks.
Many other forecasts are just as muted. Auto forecasting house JD Power, thinks that EVs will account for only 2% of total light vehicle sales by 2020, while IHS Global Insight is even more cautious, predicting that EVs will make up around 1.1% of passenger car production by 2020 and just 0.9% of total light-vehicle production in that year.
But if EVs aren’t the future, what are? GM for one is clear on this.
“We think the future of individual mobility lies in electric cars powered by fuel cells with hydrogen as the fuel”
Dr. Lars Peter Thiesen, GM’s Manager of Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Deployment Strategy, recently wrote in an official company document: “Fuel cells have two decisive advantages over batteries: first, hydrogen’s high energy density allows a completely emission-free drive range of several hundred kilometres. Secondly, fuel cell vehicles can be fuelled in only three minutes, a much shorter time than battery recharging. We have invested billions in developing this propulsion technology and we’re now confident we will bring it to production maturity by 2015.”
Author: just-auto's Rebecca Dowdeswell.
Renault Nissan – The exception to the norm
Franco-Japanese conglomerate Renault Nissan has made the most ambitious EV sales predictions to date and has an EV programme to match, endeavouring to be the first major vehicle manufacturer to launch a full range of EVs onto the market.
Company executives have gone on record several times to predict that EVs will make up around 10% of total global industry volumes by 2020. Hot on the heels of the launch of the Nissan Leaf will soon come Renault’s Megane-based Fluence ZE EV, allegedly followed in 2012 by various electric cars, including the Renault Zoe C-segment car and the Twizy two-seater urban car) and electric light commercial vehicles.
However, few of Renault Nissan’s competitors are as bullish, with Mitsubishi so far being the only other major rival to publically concur with such large-scale beliefs.