On 10 October a fire broke out at the Terminal 2 car park at London Luton Airport (which is located 32 miles from central London). It raged for nearly a day and resulted in the complete shut-down of the airport causing massive disruption for travellers. By the time firefighters extinguished the blaze it became apparent that around 1,500 vehicles, mostly parked there by holidaymakers, had become burnt-out wrecks. Fortunately, no one was killed or injured, but the economic cost going forward will be colossal.
CCTV footage suggests that the fire broke out in a parked diesel SUV – an unusual event (though, interestingly, there was no thick black smoke as one might have expected from a diesel fire, so the origin of the fire is contested). But one of the reasons the fire spread with such intensity was that a number of electric cars caught fire. Notoriously, once a lithium-ion battery catches fire it is almost impossible to extinguish it until all its chemical components have been consumed. These unstoppable chemical fires are called “thermal runaways” by the cognoscenti as they can sustain themselves without a supply of oxygen. They emit toxic gases including hydrogen cyanide and hydrogen fluoride, so firefighters require special gear when they tackle them.
In the past couple of years, two container ships carrying thousands of EVs have gone up in flames. A fire on board car carrier Felicity Ace in February 2022 led to the vessel sinking in the Atlantic, along with its cargo of 4,000 vehicles. Lithium-ion batteries were cited as a factor in keeping the fire ablaze. And in July this year, the Fremantle Highway cargo ship caught fire in the North Sea. It was alleged that batteries in EVs on board had overheated. During the salvage operation, all the cars were washed to remove any chemicals from the fire before they were taken off the ship. One charred vehicle, in which the fire appeared to be extinguished, reignited as it was lowered into the water.
Or consider that Paris’s metropolitan transport authority withdrew 149 electric buses from operation last year after two ignited in separate incidents.
It should come as no surprise, then, that according to a new report from the building consultants Arup, our car parks may need to become a lot more spacious because of the fire risk posed by electric cars. Parking spaces will have to be wider, or cars will have to be parked further apart because of the danger of electric battery fire contagion. That means fewer parking places – and higher parking charges.
Moreover, cash-strapped local governments will have to build more multi-storey car parks, which will have to be robust enough to support the weight of cars which weigh, in many cases, double what their petrol-powered forebears weighed. (The Audi E-tron weighs 2,351 kilos).
An EV battery weighs about 500 kilos – so hopefully your local authority will not use aerated concrete this time round. The same applies to bridges. (If readers have noticed a spate of road and bridge closures across the UK due to engineering issues, please let me know – I’m compiling a dossier). Roads will have to be re-surfaced more frequently as these heavy monsters take their toll, making the ubiquitous pot holes even worse.
Meanwhile, the automobile insurers have cottoned on, at last. The cost of insuring an EV is soaring. Insurers are struggling to anticipate the costs of battery repairs, according to Thatcham Research. Some EVs are effectively being written off because relatively minor scrapes can destabilise battery cells, requiring extensive repairs to their batteries. What’s more, damaged batteries are more prone to thermal runaways, which raises the nightmare of spontaneous combustion.
As a result, Aviva withdrew insurance products for the Tesla Model Y earlier this year before reinstating them several months later; and John Lewis Finance has stopped insuring EVs at all, at the request of its French underwriter, Covéa. Other motor insurers have been raising premiums on EVs as estimates of repair costs rise, according to the Association of British Insurers. Average annual electric car insurance premiums rose 72 percent in the year to September, compared to 29 percent for petrol and diesel models, according to Confused.com. The price comparison website notes that premiums for the Tesla Model 3s have risen by more than two thirds over the last two years.
One reason why repair costs are rising is that repair shops are now advised to keep EVs at least 50 feet apart in case of an explosion. Obviously, this limits the number of cars that can be repaired at any one time meaning that repairs will take longer.
The EV future: More Traffic Jams
The government’s plan for the adoption of electric cars, called the ZEV Mandate 2024, will require 22 percent of cars sold by manufacturers in the UK to be electric from next year. By 2030, that quota will rise to 80 and, of course, to 100 percent by 2035. Carmakers which cannot hit the annual targets must either sell more electric vehicles in future years, purchase credits from rivals or pay a fine of £15,000 per car. That means that, whatever their drawbacks, and however dangerous and unpopular they are, thanks to state intervention the number of EVs on our roads is likely to surpass the number of conventional cars some time before the end of this decade.
How will that affect the state of traffic on our roads? The Department of Transport recently published a study on this question. It concluded that because EVs are cheaper to run than conventional cars the cost differential between a journey in an EV and one on our expensive public transport system will widen. Therefore, people will make more car journeys – and traffic congestion will worsen. It’s kind of the DoT to let us know.
There will be those who argue that this issue is simply resolved by building more roads. No doubt there will be residential road building at scale in response to Labour’s plan to build 300,000 new homes a year which I discussed recently. The problem here is one of Parkinson’s Law: just as bureaucracy expands to fill the time available to it, so the number of cars on the road rises in tandem with the size of the road network. Professor Andrew Graves of the University of Bath, doubts that building more roads will halt the threat of congestion. “The more roads you build, the quicker you’ll fill them up”, he told the Daily Telegraph last week.
It would be paradoxical if a policy designed to save the planet resulted in concreting over more of our countryside.
Alternative Technologies Developed By Toyota
Toyota has been an industry leader in developing fuel-efficient vehicles. Its iconic Prius hybrid hatchback is one of the most efficient cars on the market. And yet Toyota has been reluctant to develop full battery electric vehicles hitherto.
Some analysts have concluded that Toyota’s legendary focus on quality control and continuous improvement have rendered it excessively risk-averse. Its “Kaizen” culture, which emphasises the need to delight customers and never to repeat mistakes, has been cited as an example of a classic business paradox by Clayton M Christensen in The Innovator’s Dilemma. That paradox is that corporate strengths built up over time can become the cause of long-term weakness because they inhibit innovation.
On the other hand, Toyota has long since expressed scepticism about contemporary lithium-ion batteries as the best long-term solution for the electrification of transport. Toyota anticipated that lithium-ion batteries use highly flammable liquid electrolytes which in time would pose and unacceptable fire risk. They have low recharging speeds and even the latest generation of cars using these batteries have insufficient range.
Thus, quietly but surely, Toyota has been developing an alternative EV battery technology: namely, advanced solid-state batteries powerful enough and with sufficient capacity to power the next generation of electric cars. Last month, Toyota issued a press release announcing that “Toyota has struck a deal with fellow Japanese company Idemitsu Kosan to mass produce ultra-high-range EVs with solid-state batteries”.
Toyota claims the new technology batteries will eventually enable EVs to travel about 1,000 miles on a single charge and to charge up in just 10 minutes, due to their higher energy density. Such vehicles might be available as early as 2027. Idemitsu Kosan, Japan’s second-largest oil refiner, was not previously regarded as a leader in battery technology. But Toyota claims that Idemitsu has been working on the science the for the new-generation batteries since 2001, five years before Toyota began pursuing them in 2006.
Since the press release Toyota’s market cap has surged. As I write the company is worth about Yen42 trillion. In contrast, Tesla’s share price is below what it was 12 months ago.
All batteries work on the same fundamental physics. A stream of electrically charged atoms, known as ions, flow through a chemical compound, known as the electrolyte, from the anode to the cathode, generating an electric current. In lithium-ion batteries the electrolyte is liquid, while in solid-state batteries it is solid. Various materials, including polymers, oxides and sulphides can function as solid-state electrolytes. By replacing the graphite used in lithium-ion batteries, the battery becomes lighter, and therefore affords the possibility of greater range.
Toyota is claiming that its solid-state battery uses some kind of sulphide electrolyte which is extremely durable – though technical details are scarce. Of course, there are hurdles with getting from proof-of-concept to mass production capacity at an economic cost. Nissan and Honda also have sold-state battery development programmes, as do the South Korean companies LG Energy Solutions, Samsung SDI and SK On, a subsidiary of SK Inc. In the USA there are QuantumScape and Solid Power, partners of Volkswagen and BMW respectively.
Solid state batteries would reduce western manufacturers’ dependence not just on lithium but also on graphite, for which China is the dominant supplier. But even if the claims about next-generation solid-state batteries prove to be illusory, there is another significant technology that Toyota is working on: ammonia-fuel engines. This technology is the product of a collaboration with the Chinese state-owned GAC Group.
Ammonia is a molecule comprised of one nitrogen atom and three hydrogen atoms. It does not contain carbon. Therefore, when it is burned in an internal combustion engine, it does not release carbon dioxide. One advantage of using ammonia is that it is readily available and therefore inexpensive.
We know that the shipping industry has been considering using this technology for marine engines, but this is the first time that a volume auto manufacturer has designed an ammonia-powered car engine. The 2-litre, 4-cylinder ammonia engine unveiled recently generates over 160-horsepower of power. Reportedly, there are teething problems: one issue is the ability effectively to control combustion pressure which affects the volume of nitrogen emissions.
Toyota has adopted a portfolio strategy which includes battery electric vehicles and hydrogen-powered cars – for example the Toyota Mirai. The company’s Chairman, Akio Toyoda is on record as saying that the internal combustion engine still has a future. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal last December, Toyoda said: “Because the right answer is still unclear, we shouldn’t limit ourselves to just one option.”
When Prime Minister Sunak announced last month that the UK would delay the cut-off date for the sale of new petrol and diesel-powered vehicles in the UK from 2030 to 2035, Toyota UK welcomed the announcement, saying it provided “the clarity the industry has been asking [for] and recognises that all low-emission and affordable technologies can play a role in a pragmatic vehicle transition”.
EV Sales Slow
Car dealers in the UK are reporting that electric cars are taking longer to sell than conventional internal combustion engine-powered cars. Unsold inventory is starting to stack up, which is why some EVs are now on offer at a discount. Global EV sales grew by 49 percent in the first half of this year – but that is well down from the 63 percent growth achieved last year. What’s more, the global figure is skewed by China, which is responsible for 55 percent of all EVs sold worldwide.
One reason why EVs are failing to impress the punters is that there are too few charging stations and too many charge-points are out of service, forcing people to drive elsewhere in a desperate search for power. The more EVs there are on the road, the more competition there is for charge points – hence reports of people having to queue for an hour or more to charge their car.
Also, the range of EVs is often less than advertised. The range of an EV tends to decline as the battery gets older, although reportedly manufacturers are working on this. EVs are still much more expensive than their petrol and diesel-powered analogues. Their second-hand value is difficult to assess as there is no deep second-hand market as exists for petrol and diesel cars. Their batteries last no more than 15 years and are expensive to replace.
Reading The Runes
It’s time to tell the truth about lithium-ion battery-powered electric cars. The manufacture of a lithium-ion battery-powered EV generates much greater carbon emissions than for a conventional car. And the safety issues associated with them have been underplayed.
The determination of governments in the EU and the UK to force automotive giants in the direction of one single fundamentally flawed technology, while proscribing any alternative internal combustion engine technologies, will come be seen as a huge mistake. If it had been left to the market we would have got to minimal carbon quicker. (Zero CO2 emissions is a chimera – you emit CO2 every time you exhale!).
It’s akin to the Locomotives Act of 1865 which compelled a man waving a red flag to walk in front of any horseless carriage. (Happily, that was repealed in 1896). It will saddle Europe and the UK with a massive competitive disadvantage, since no other continent is likely to embark on parallel policy.
Hands up anyone who thinks we are poorly governed in the UK.
I’ve just finished reading Rory Stewart’s new book, Politics On The Edge, a memoir of his time as an MP and a minister. It is quite depressing. David Cameron comes out of Rory’s memoir as a smug amateur: and that’s before the pitiful regime of Mrs May, and the chaos-fest of the early Johnson government. And it’s not just the elected politicians. The UK civil service looks pretty feeble too, seen from Rory’s Olympian perspective. He reflects on why our parliamentary system, of which we used to be so proud, churns out mediocre legislation, the unforeseen consequences of which always bite back.
I once thought that Brexit would embolden us to govern ourselves better by letting us regulate ourselves. Now, I’m not so sure. We don’t have the technical and administrative skills in Whitehall (nor in Holyrood, Cardiff Bay or Stormont, for that matter) to frame effective regulation.
One example: I’m concerned about the impact of the Online Safety Act which received royal assent (and thus became law) on 26 October. If Meta decides to shut down WhatsApp across the UK there will be an outcry. Mind you, at least we won’t have to digest Mr Cummings’s foul-mouthed messages in any future public inquiry.
You really need engineers to administer a country who understand that all technology is in permanent evolution and that all designs can be improved. Engineers embedded in government would not have devised the electric car fiasco described above and would not have conceived a project to build super-fast trains to the North of England. (One of the reasons the HS2 project went so awry is that the original plan was for bullet trains that would be the fastest in the world – with little by way of cost-benefit analysis). France is a better run country than the UK because it has always recruited engineers as fonctionnaires.
Unfortunately, in this sceptred isle, we are no longer run by statesmen, nor by engineers, but by social workers. It will only get worse under Labour.
Listed companies cited in this article which merit analysis:
- Toyota Motor Corp. (LON:TYT)
- Idemitsu Kosan Corp. (TYO:5019)
- Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. (TYO:7201)
- Honda Motor Co. Ltd. (TYO:7267)
- SK Inc. (KRX: 034730)
- QuantumScape Corp. (NYSE:QS)
- Solid Power Inc. (NASDAQ: SLDP)