Electrification: good news, bad news

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14 mins. to read
Electrification: good news, bad news

Range pride

Recently, the German automotive giant Mercedes-Benz announced that its Vision EQXX had driven over 1,000 kilometres (620 miles) on a single charge. The vehicle was taken on a test drive from Germany through Switzerland to the Côte d’Azur using the energy equivalent of just nine litres of petrol and costing about €20 in electricity. That journey involved both motorway driving and the crossing of mountain passes.

The Vision EQXX has a highly aerodynamic design, low-resistance tyres, lightweight battery casings and even solar panels on the roof. If Mercedes’ production version could sustain such a range, then that would challenge the Tesla Model 3 which has a maximum range of around 310 miles – about half. The Mercedes Vision EQXX is expected to be released in late 2023 and might retail in the UK at around £110,000.

The Chinese automotive manufacturer GAC Motor is building the Axion LX Plus – an SUV – which it claims will be able to travel 626 miles on a single charge. Other electric-powered cars have shorter ranges than advertised because hill-climbing, braking, heating and air conditioning drain the battery. Range Rover’s new plug-in hybrid model which will cost around £100,000 has been criticised by motor enthusiasts because it reportedly has a battery range of just 54 miles.

Charge anxiety

The automotive industry has been lobbying the government in the UK of late to accelerate the rollout of high-speed EV charging points in public places. Large batteries with a high charge capacity are more expensive; therefore, most middle-income motorists will opt for EVs with lower charge capacities which will need to be recharged more often.

Many keen EV drivers have had the experience of finding that public charge points do not work properly. And those who wish to install a charge point facility at home may find that they need to pay to upgrade their electricity supply. Regular electricians may not have the skills to do this. The UK government sponsored Electric Vehicle Homecharge Scheme (EVHS) was designed to reduce the cost of installing a charge point to a maximum of £350. However, it came to an end on 31 March this year. Most home charge points will cost around £1,000 – that is of course on top of the cost of buying your EV.

To accommodate an EV charge point, each property must have its own mains grid access. But many homes are on a “loop” whereby a single cable connects one house to the grid and up to six other households are connected by branches from that cable. There have been cases where a neighbour’s drive has had to be dug up to accommodate a home charge point. (The same considerations will apply to the mass rollout of heat pumps – on which more soon).

Many dealers when selling an EV now try to sell customers a home charge point too. As a result, many EV manufacturers are entering into partnership arrangements with charge point operators. The problem with this is that people might not be adequately informed about the full range of options available. For example, some households could benefit from off-peak or “smart” tariffs from their electricity suppliers. Tesla in the UK is selling a wall-mounted charger for its models for £449.

About 40 percent of UK households do not have off-street parking and 36 percent of UK households rent their accommodation. EV manufacturers fear that sales will stall if there are insufficient public chargers. The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) advocates that a new regulator be set up to oversee the rollout of charge points and to monitor their fees. The number of EVs on Britain’s roads has quadrupled since 2019 to 450,000, yet the charge point infrastructure has increased by just 70 percent. Charge points are particularly scarce in the North of England.

Apparently, EVs are vulnerable to cyber-attacks by hackers which can inhibit their ability to charge. A malicious radio signal, continually broadcast, could disactivate charge points within an entire neighbourhood, according to an academic paper published by Oxford University. This is particularly worrying when one considers that the NHS is planning to move to an all-electric fleet of ambulances over the next decade.

The Financial Times recently reported that BP is to spend £1 billion on charge points in the UK. It plans to have 16,000 charge points on its forecourts by 2030, up from 8,000 today.

Affordability

The average EV in the UK is already about £10,000 more expensive to buy new than its ICE-powered equivalent. This is mostly due to the exorbitant cost of batteries. Lithium, an essential component of EV batteries, has soared in price this year and there is little prospect that it will get cheaper in the medium-term. The target set by the UK government and others to ban the sale of new ICE-powered vehicles in 2030 and thereafter has only boosted demand for lithium. And a new more recent target states that half of all cars sold in the UK must be EVs by 2028 – just six years away.

EVs are obviously much cheaper to run (ignoring maintenance issues). The cost of electricity per mile is around one third of the cost of petrol per mile. But one thing to consider is that, in the current somewhat thin second-hand market, they seem to retain their value. Driving Electric estimates that a Tesla Model S will hold 60 percent of its value after three years or 36,000 miles.

Reliability

A recent survey by Which? suggests that many EVs are unreliable. According to the report, EVs, when they go wrong, spend longer off the road than conventional vehicles, since the problems are usually software-related which are problematic to fix. A relatively complex software glitch is that sometimes EVs refuse to charge at all.

There have even been cases where drivers have been unable to disconnect the power lead at charge points and are therefore unable to drive away. The Jaguar I-Pace has come in for a lot of flak in the motoring press. On the other hand, the Kia EV6 won the European Car of the Year Award last month and comes with a seven-year warranty. Hybrid cars are said to be more reliable than pure EVs – but they are due to be discontinued by 2035.

Until recently, EVs were no match for their ICE-powered equivalents in terms of their towing capacity; thus, caravan-owners have avoided them. The BMW iX, however, has a towing capacity of 2,500 kilograms and should be capable of towing all but the largest double-axle caravans – though it does not come cheap, from around £70,000. But towing a caravan or even a modest trailer will affect an EV’s range. Thus, EV caravaners will have to plan for numerous charging stops – though few, if any, charge points are designed for EVs with caravans in tow.

When EVs break down, they can’t be towed. The AA usually lifts EVs onto a trailer when it recovers them. And lithium batteries are prone to catch fire in certain circumstances.

The haulage industry

The sale of diesel-run heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) will be banned by 2040. But logistics companies are torn between what to replace them with – should they go for EVs or hydrogen-powered vehicles, or perhaps a mixture of the two? The current lack of battery or hydrogen HGVs is proving a challenge for fleet managers.

Articulated lorries, which consist of a “tractor” and a trailer, account for 62 percent of Britain’s road freight, according to Connected Places Catapult, which describes itself as an “innovation accelerator” for the UK’s transport network. One option which has been floated in Sweden, Germany and the USA, might be to build overhead power cables on motorways so that HGVs can power themselves as many city trams and continental trains do.

Hydrogen is energy-dense: one kilogram of hydrogen contains the same amount of energy as 3.3 litres of diesel. But there would have to be a network of hydrogen refuelling stations – currently there are only around a dozen in the UK. The larger the vehicle, the shorter the range. The Dutch truck manufacturer Daf has launched a new electric model that has a range of less than 140 miles given a charge of 75 minutes. Volvo is promising a truck later this year with a range of 215 miles. For a 44-tonne articulated lorry to drive 350 miles on a single charge it would require a battery weighing between four and five tonnes which would cost well over £100,000.

Liverpool-based ULEMCo is developing vehicles that can use fuel cells which burn hydrogen, but which can also run on diesel. This would be suitable for, for example, council bin lorries and road sweepers which mainly operate at slow speeds. Lord Bamford, Chairman of JCB (private) thinks that ministers are “fixated” on EVs at the cost of ignoring the hydrogen economy. Prime Minister Johnson has pledged to make the UK “the Qatar of hydrogen” but there are rumours that Whitehall is resistant.

Germany, the (tarnished) brand

Since Putin’s brutal invasion of Ukraine on 24 February it has become unpleasantly apparent that it is largely Germany that is funding Putin’s war machine. While Ukraine has received in the order of $1 billion in military aid from western nations over the last month or more, Germany has been paying Russia for its gas in the order of €800 million every single day. Admittedly, there has been a robust debate in Germany about the Merkel-era policy of energy dependence on Russia; but the Germans are still very far from abstaining from Russian hydrocarbons altogether. Robert Habeck, the number two in the German government, has warned of social unrest if Germany were to turn off the gas taps overnight. Apparently, the Germans would never countenance rationing. No wonder the Ukrainians have told the German president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, a passionate supporter of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, to stay away.

Therefore, anyone who buys a German car in the UK or elsewhere, should know that they are contributing to Putin’s obliteration of a sovereign nation, since German car factories are powered by Russian gas, coal and oil. Germany’s industrial competitiveness has been sustained on the promise of cheap power. Unlike hair-shirt Britain, where coal accounts for less than 2 percent of the energy mix, the German grid is dependent on coal to the tune of about 25 percent of its power supply.

It is already becoming evident that the shiny German brand has been tarnished. Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder is still sitting on the board of Gazprom. Widespread consumer boycotts of German goods in Anglo-Saxon countries are now inevitable. For this reason, I suspect that Tesla will continue to enjoy a brand advantage in the EV sector relative to VW and the rest – even though, ironically, its sole European gigafactory, which has just started production, is located outside Berlin.

Tesla versus Amazon

Tesla commands a market capitalisation of over $1 trillion – but Amazon-backed Rivian is catching up fast. As of this morning, it has market cap of over $30 billion. Rivian’s first vehicle, a pickup with a price tag of $73,000 first arrived just last September. But the valuation lies mainly in the fact that Amazon has placed an order to buy 10,000 delivery vehicles from Rivian by 2030.

Tesla is being investigated after owners in the US reported that its cars tended to brake suddenly while travelling at high speed on highways. This “phantom braking” is thought to be related to Tesla’s autopilot system. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) received 354 complaints from Tesla owners in nine months. Fortunately, no casualties occurred but owners feared being hit from the rear. This is not the first time that Tesla’s autopilot system has been investigated.

That notwithstanding, Tesla admirers say their models are fun. The Model X has a “party mode” in which the rear-doors bounce up and down performatively. They can even make rude noises. The sound system in the Model S has 22 speakers. Tesla owners are notified via a smartphone app if someone tries to break into their car. Tesla’s models’ acceleration is equivalent to Porsche’s.

Some analysts think that Tesla has done for motoring what Apple did for mobile telephony – obviously, an iPhone is much more than a mobile telephone. Tesla has even disrupted the traditional model of car dealership. Prospective buyers must set up an account which enables them to book a test drive, order their model and finally make payment. However, lead times are getting longer because of the semiconductor shortage. I’m told that buyers in the UK who place an order this month are unlikely to take delivery of their car before August.

On Wednesday (20 April) Tesla announced a massive rise in sales and profits exceeding analysts’ expectations. Revenues leapt to $18.8 billion in Q1 2022, up from $10.4 billion the previous year; and profits were $3.3 billion, up from $438 million one year ago. Tesla delivered 310,048 cars during the quarter, up from 184,800 in 2021. This was achieved despite the microprocessor shortage and the lockdown in Shanghai where Tesla has a gigafactory. The company’s share price jumped by three percent though it has moderated since.

Doing the right thing for the environment?

Electric vehicles are environmentally friendly – right? But if everyone were to abandon their ICE-powered cars and buy an EV tomorrow the cost to the environment would be considerable. Professor Mike Berners-Lee, who specialises in estimating carbon footprints, calculates that the CO2 generated in the manufacture of the Vauxhall (from the Stellantis stable) E-Corsa with a 50 kilowatt battery is 12 tonnes; whereas the carbon footprint of its petrol-powered analogue is about 6.7 tonnes. So, in terms of the brand new car before it is driven out of the showroom, electric cars start life with almost double the carbon footprint of their ICE-powered equivalents. (By the way, 12 tonnes of CO2 is roughly the average amount of CO2 emitted by every UK citizen each year – and the figure for the average American being about double that).

The question then becomes, how many kilometres or miles does each version of the Corsa have to drive before the EV becomes more environmentally friendly than its petrol-powered analogue? It is often assumed that the electricity used to power the EV throughout its life is generated entirely by renewable energy. But in the UK, over the course of a year, only about 40 percent of our electricity supply is currently generated from renewables, so a lot of fossil fuels are being burnt to power those EVs. Putting that to one side, the break-even point of an EV over an ICE-powered car – that is, the point at which is responsible for less carbon emissions – is about 37,000 milesi. That’s more than four years’ usage for the average British motorist.

Then there is the issue of how long cars last. Correctly, we should amortise the carbon footprint of manufacturing a car over its working life. But we still don’t really know how long EVs will last before they become scrap. I suspect that ICE-powered vehicles will be shown to last longer than their EV counterparts.

EVs, just like conventional ICE-powered cars, emit particulates arising from using the brakes and tyre friction. Tyres are made from by-products of petroleum and the tyre industry has been criticised for dragging its feet on decarbonisation. Apollo Tyres, a major Indian manufacturer, recently announced that it is spending $50 million a year to reduce the amount of rubber its tyres shed over their working lives.

Reportedly, the worst carbon-emitters are hybrids. Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) have been found to emit 2.5 times more carbon in the real world than in lab tests. Sales of new PHEVs will be banned in the UK from 2035.

Electric car sales in the UK reached record levels last year. About 33,000 EVs were purchased in October 2021 – 50 percent more than in October 2020. In March, Tesla revealed that its Model Y and Model 3 were the UK’s top two bestselling new cars.

The irony is that ICE-powered cars are about to be axed when they have never been cleaner and more fuel efficient. The Peugeot 208 1.5 100 Active boasts average fuel consumption of 73.6 miles per gallon. Cars which run on next-generation synthetic fuels (not to be confused with biofuels) might be even more fuel efficient and less polluting – but they will never now be developed, thanks to the Net Zero diktat.

Volkswagen (which ironically means “People’s Car”) has announced that it is going to axe most of its low-end models and focus on the luxury end of its EV product range. This confirms my suspicion that electrification will spell the end of motor car ownership for the less well-off forever. We are going back to the age when motoring was monopolised by moustachioed toffs. Henry Ford must be turning in his grave.

The nominally Conservative UK government has made a feel-good pledge on Net Zero Carbon by 2050 without formulating an industrial strategy whereby British industry will gain from it. Until now, about seven internal combustion engines are manufactured here for every ten cars bought in this country; but we produce only four electric engines per ten EVs sold, according to Andy Palmer, the former Aston Martin boss. And it remains to be seen whether the proposed EV battery gigafactories will get built in the UK.

Memo to Boris: If I think buying an EV will benefit our economy and our environment, I might consider one. But if electrification turns out to be another exercise in outsourcing jobs and carbon emissions overseas, then I’ll stick with my gas-guzzler, thank you very much.

Listed companies cited in this article which merit analysis:

  • Mercedes Benz Group (FRA:MBG)
  • BP (LON:BP)
  • Tesla (NASDAQ:TSLA)
  • Rivian Automotive Inc. (NASDAQ:RIVN)
  • Apollo Tyres (NSE:APOLLOTYRES)

i These figures were cited in “How Green is Switching to an Electric Car?”, a BBC R4 radio documentary presented by Greg Foot, first broadcast on 07 April 2022. Available here.


“The


Comments (4)

  • roger bennett says:

    Governments are really good these days at dictating industrial policy, maybe we should just nationalise all manufacturing.

  • Bob Mackintosh says:

    It must be clearly emphasised (which I have already done before in this column) that electricity is not an energy source in itself, but only a means of conveying energy from its source, to where it is needed.
    You quote the figure, Victor, of only 40% of our present electrical energy supply being produced from renewables, but then say “putting that aside”. However, that is a devastating statistic. Electrical vehicle demand will increase our electricity consumption even more, and ALL that extra energy will be produced by burning fossil fuels, until 110% or more of our present electrical energy consumption is provided cleanly.
    Presumably this fact is not made widely known, because EV manufacturers need to build a demand, to make the whole thing economically viable (for them as companies, at least; that is not factoring in environmental cost savings to the world as a whole). But it makes one question whether there needs to be quite such urgency about the roll-out of charging points!
    At present an EV is probably less beneficial for one’s carbon footprint than a petrol-driven one. The internal combustion engine turns fossil fuel energy into mechanical energy directly. The power station burns a fossil fuel, converts it into mechanical energy in a turbine, then into electrical energy. In the EV battery, the electrical energy is converted to chemical energy; then finally the chemical energy is converted back into electrical energy, which is converted to mechanical energy as the car is driven. At each stage of an energy conversion energy is lost as heat (unavoidably). (There is also energy loss as heat as electricity moves in cables, but this is true of renewable sources as well.)
    An internal combustion engine does lose a lot of energy as heat, but so does the power station, when it burns a fossil fuel.
    So the EV owner, for probably the next 15 years at least, will need to use more fossil fuel than a petrol car owner (unless the mechanics of the electrical engine is superior).
    As for cost comparisons, does the petrol fuel cost include tax? Presumably the electricity for vehicles will not be taxed?

  • Lawman says:

    Yet another informative, fact based, argument by Mr Hill. What makes me cross is that we DO need to take action to protect the planet, but ideology driven governments do the reverse.

    EVs & Solar Panels use a lot of ‘rare’ metals: mined in horrible ways and, on obsolescence, unrecyclable parts become polluting land fill.

    I shall keep to my 10 year old Corsa knowing I am polluting less. A small word of praise for India’s Apollo Tyres (see above).

  • Cliff Morris says:

    Very well researched Mr Hill. Most informative so well done.

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