The future of the motor car

13 mins. to read
The future of the motor car

Last week I argued that the main issue with Tesla (NADAQ:TSLA) is that its product – the electric car – is inherently flawed. A number of readers got in contact. What about hybrids and hydrogen fuel cell powered vehicles? It turns out that these technologies are also to be found wanting. “Green” technology is not going to replace hydrocarbons without severe consequences for how we live.

The death of the internal combustion engine?

The leading article in the 12 August edition of The Economist was entitled The death of the internal combustion engine. That veteran organ of the mainstream media – the mag that BBC types and much of the UK civil service read in order to confirm their prejudices – opined that the end is in sight for the machine that changed the world. The Economist thinks that advances in battery technology mean that electric cars will overtake those powered by the internal combustion engine (ICE) very soon.

(If you read my article last week you will already know that I have issues with that perspective. I set out four intractable problems with electric cars: their minimal range; the cost of batteries; the shortage of charging points; and the costs of recycling batteries).

Currently, electric cars account for about one percent of the approximately one billion plus vehicles on the world’s roads. UBS Group (SWX:UBSN) thinks that the figure will rise to 14 percent in 2025 – reasonable, in my view. And there is now a gaggle of governments, including that of the UK, which are committed to the demise of the ICE before 2050. (Not President Trump’s America, of course.) This obsession with electric cars is more driven by politics than by engineering.

The Economist thinks that electric cars are simpler and have fewer parts than ICE-powered cars. It argues that while today’s ICE carmakers will grapple with their costly legacies of old factories and swollen workforces, new entrants will be unencumbered. To boot, carbon monoxide emissions killed 53,000 Americans last year (The Economist did not offer a source for this) and 34,000 died in traffic accidents. So the people down on Charles II Street apparently think that electrification will eradicate traffic fatalities as well.

And then The Economist leader resorted to that old chestnut: the automotive industry is ultimately controlled by the evil oil men. (Apparently, the Economist still believes in the peak oil hypothesis, which, as I explained earlier this year, has long since been junked by the oil majors themselves.) They also believe that policymakers will need to help by ensuring that there is enough generating capacity – in spite of the broken system of regulation

The Profs strike back…

Oh, what joy! In the 02 September edition, The Economist finally manned up and published an entire page of letters signed by some of the leading academic engineers of the world. They very politely and scientifically argued that the august British newspaper had been perpetrating hogwash.

Lynn Kaak and Granger Morgan of Carnegie Mellon University pointed out that 40 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2015 come from freight. They stated that: Successfully electrifying heavy trucks remains unlikely. They quoted a report to the effect that a truck with a range of 300 miles (the lower end of average daily distance covered) would require a battery costing US$200,000 – which would obviously render it uneconomic. For an electric truck to have the range of its petrol equivalent – 600 miles – the battery would weigh 16 tonnes with the result that its freight capacity would be halved – thus also making it uneconomic.

A second letter signed by Felix Leach of Keble College, Oxford and additionally by fifteen leading world energy policy luminaries (including Professor Alexander Taylor of Imperial College, London) began:

We could not disagree with you more with your assessment of the death of the internal combustion engine…

The demand for lithium for the batteries of electric cars will have to rise to 400,000 tonnes per annum by 2025. That represents a compound growth from the current level of about 20 percent per year.

These eminent academics made three key points. (You can call them experts if you want – though I avoid that term. An expert usually means the chap with the glasses on telly who knows slightly more than you do.)

First, 90 percent of ground-transportation energy will continue to come from hydrocarbons in 2040. (In plain American: Electrification ain’t gonna happen.) Second, electricity generation capacity available currently does not come close to meeting the needs of an all-electric fleet. Third, battery production is not emission free – so it is wrong to suggest that electric cars are (CO2) emission free.

Moreover, there is no way that combine-harvesters used by farmers or JCB diggers used in the construction industry will go electric. Vehicles used for long-distance travel such as cars and coaches might be hybrids – in which case they will still use the ICE.

A Chilean professor also finessed a problem I outlined last week. The demand for lithium for the batteries of electric cars will have to rise to 400,000 tonnes per annum by 2025. That represents a compound growth from the current level of about 20 percent per year. It is doubtful whether this is feasible. About half of all lithium extraction takes place in South America (Argentina, Bolivia and Chile) where governments have been very protective of their reserves and have imposed restrictive extraction policies.

What about hybrid cars?

There are two types of hybrid car: petrol-electric motor hybrids of which there are numerous models in production; and petrol-hydraulic hybrids, which are rarer – one such is the BMW 530i modified by Artemis Intelligent Power to use digital hydraulics.

Artemis is a private company and a leader in digital displacement hydraulics, located in Edinburgh. It fits two hydraulic motors, one for each rear wheel, driven by a 6-litre accumulator powered by compressed nitrogen. The car is still powered by its petrol engine but, thanks to the digital hydraulic transmission and regenerative breaking (whereby energy is captured as the vehicle slows down), fuel consumption is reduced by about 30 percent.

Hybrid petrol-electric cars like the Toyota Prius have efficient engines and additional features like regenerative breaking. But trials have shown that its carbon emissions are not radically less than a conventional ICE-powered car. The Prius emits about 100 grams of CO2 per kilometre – about the same as a petrol-powered VW Polo. Another petrol-electric hybrid, the Lexus RX 400h (also manufactured by Toyota (TYO:7203)) emits 192 grams per kilometre – much higher than the average emissions for new cars sold in the UK of about 168 grams.

While the petrol engine can be used to recharge the battery, when the car operates in electric mode, it is carrying the weight of the petrol engine and the petrol tank which obviously reduces the range that the car can travel before switching back to petrol-power. Overall, the fuel savings offered by the Toyota Prius relative to a conventional car is in the range of 20 to 30 percent[i]. That is impressive, but it is a long way from being the ticket to a carbon neutral economy.

Jeremy Clarkson’s verdict on the Toyota Prius was: It is a very expensive, very complex, not terribly green, slow, cheaply made and pointless way of moving around.

And hydrogen fuel cell powered cars and buses?

Hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles work by chemically combining hydrogen and oxygen to generate electricity. When you combine H2 with O you get – well done – H2O – water. So the only waste products are water and some heat. Zero carbon emissions and no mess.

This is a technology that has been around since the mid-19th century. Hydrogen can be compressed into fuel tanks such that these vehicles often have a longer range than so-called Pure Electric Vehicles (which store electricity in batteries). Hydrogen provides an ownership experience more akin to that of a petrol-powered car. It takes between three and five minutes to fill up a hydrogen car as compared with at least half an hour to charge a Tesla Model 3.

Park your hydrogen car at the airport and, by the time you get back from holiday, the tank will be empty!

As of 2016, there were three hydrogen cars available in selected markets: the Toyota Mirai, the Hyundai (KRX:005380) ix35 FCEV, and the Honda (TYO:7267) Clarity. In terms of range, the Toyota Mirai is said to be capable of about 350 miles. The Honda Clarity (an analogue to the Honda Accord), has the longest range of any zero-emission vehicle today at 366 miles. One problem is of course – where does one fill up the tank?

In previous Honda electric car models, the electric motor, gearbox, and power control lay under the bonnet, while the fuel cell was located vertically between the driver and passenger seats. And a large hydrogen tank resided in the boot. This meant that space and comfort in the passenger compartment were compromised.

In the new Honda Clarity all the machinery previously under the hood has been tilted forwards by 90 degrees, allowing for a new and more compact fuel cell to be sandwiched horizontally between the motor and the fuel cell. Altogether, it takes up about the same amount of room as the Honda Accord’s V6 petrol engine. Although the small lithium-ion battery still resides under the front seats, the cabin is no longer compromised. The driving position is at a normal height and there are five seats, rather than the four offered by the previous Clarity and the Toyota Mirai.

The 2017 Clarity has two smaller tanks: one under the back seat and another in the forward portion of the boot which of course still takes up luggage space.

Now for the bad news. The green guru, the late Professor MacKay wrote: I don’t see how hydrogen is going to help us with our energy problems[ii]. Hydrogen is not so much a source of energy as a store of energy (like a battery – though an inefficient one). The real problem is: where does the energy come from to generate the hydrogen?

In the CUTE (Clean Urban Transport for Europe) project (2003) it was found that fuelling hydrogen busses required between 80 and 200 percent more energy than for a standard diesel bus – though admittedly without the toxic pollutants. Similarly, the BMW Hydrogen 7, an early prototype, used 220 percent more energy than the average European car.

Arnie Schwarzenegger pioneered hydrogen cars when he was Governor of California, prompting much talk about the hydrogen economy. But hydrogen is a very inconvenient energy source because it takes up a lot of space – even if stored as a compressed gas or as a liquid (which requires refrigeration down to a temperature of minus 253 Centigrade – which, again, requires huge amounts of energy).

Even at a pressure of 700 bar (which requires a thick and thus very heavy metal container) its energy density – energy per unit of volume – is only 22 percent that of petrol. Furthermore, hydrogen, being such a miniscule atom, always seeps out of any container, however tightly sealed. Park your hydrogen car at the airport and, by the time you get back from holiday, the tank will be empty!

Compressed air?

Power by compressed air – known to the engineers as pneumatic locomotion – was used by French trams in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Tata Motors (BOM:500570) has been looking into developing compressed air cars but there is a fundamental problem: when you compress air you generate heat; and when the air is decompressed it generates cold – so a lot of energy is lost. And the energy-density of compressed air is five times smaller than that of a lithium battery. Somehow, I don’t think this technology will be a goer.

ICEs of the future

It is very hard to beat the very high energy density of liquid fuels (petrol and diesel) which power the ICE. In the future, it may be possible to engineer fuels which release no net CO2 into the atmosphere thanks to carbon capture and storage (CCS) and decarbonisation. Modern ICEs are vastly cleaner and more efficient than in days gone by and that trend – given ongoing R&D – is set to continue. Of course, if we cease investing in the development of better engines – as the Economist proposes – then we will lose the opportunity to improve them further.

Modern ICEs are vastly cleaner and more efficient than in days gone by and that trend – given ongoing R&D – is set to continue.

The easiest and most obvious way to increase the fuel efficiency of conventionally powered cars is to make them smaller and lighter. Smart (a subsidiary of Daimler AG (FRA:DAI), the mother company of Mercedes Benz) has carved an important niche in the micro car sector. Tata Motors pioneered a mass market micro car in India – the Tata Nano which when launched there in 2008 retailed for just £1,000! The car had a poor safety record and was a commercial disaster[iii]. Not many people want to ride around in a cheap egg box, even in developing countries.

The most energy efficient form of transport over a flat surface is cycling – which is also excellent exercise. But when cyclists share the roads with traffic they take their lives in their hands. What about a comprehensive network of segregated cycle lanes in the UK like those in Holland and Scandinavia[iv]?

A trendy policy

The latest government to jump on the electric-only bandwagon is the SNP government in Edinburgh. On 05 September Ms Sturgeon proclaimed that Bonnie Scotland would be petrol-free eight years ahead of the rest of the UK – in 2032. There is no reason to suppose that the geography of Scotland favours electrification – on the contrary, the non-availability of charging stations in remote areas will make long journeys through the Highlands impossible. Yet announcing the end of petrol – regardless of preparedness – is now an emblem of progressiveness in an age when politicians are judged by how passionately they emote with popular causes rather than by their leadership and judgment.

As the eminent professors wrote in their letter to The Economist: The demonisation of the internal combustion engine makes good politics, but poor engineering.

A difference of opinion

It was interesting to learn from Melanie Phillips that Roy Spencer’s book, An Inconvenient Deception: How Al Gore Distorts Climate Science and Energy Policy, is trouncing the former Vice President’s own book, An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power, on the Amazon e-book rankings. And this despite the fact that Al Gore’s book was launched alongside a new movie and a promotional tour, while Mr Spencer’s book only appeared on Amazon last week.

Mr Spencer – a professor at the University of Alabama and a former NASA meteorologist – advances two main themes. First, that most of Al Gore’s claims about weather disasters, melting ice sheets and rising sea levels are the result of natural rather than human activity. Second, that using renewables to reduce CO2 emissions will make people poorer and more vulnerable. There is a cost associated with renewable energy which many are reluctant to admit.

I repeat what I wrote in the August edition of the Master Investor magazine: I am not a climate change denier. I accept that man-made CO2 emissions are having a warming effect on the Earth’s climate, though we don’t know by how much and how rapidly temperatures will rise. But we have now got to a point where the politicians’ urge to be seen to do something about it is actually doing more harm than good.

Rather, we should be focussing on adapting to and managing the effects of climate change rather than pursuing the electric pipe-dream of zero emissions. In future articles I shall reveal the sophisticated governments (like that in Delhi[v]) and the big players in the private sector who already understand this.

Electric cars will have a place in the scheme of things – alongside hydrogen fuel cell buses and cars and trucks powered by super-efficient ICEs. They always did. British people of a certain age will fondly remember the humble but ubiquitous electric milk float. But a national policy of electric-only transport is just plain silly – and it’s not going to happen anyway.

[i] According to David MacKay in Sustainable Energy without the Hot Air – see page 126.

[ii] Ibid: page 129.

[iii] See:

[iv] Cycle lanes which intersect with roads are especially dangerous. The Bow roundabout on the East-West London Superhighway is a notorious death-trap.

[v] For those who can’t wait for my forthcoming article on the subject, see:

Comments (9)

  • Michael Lavelle says:

    Electrification will happen, and happen faster than most people thing. The ICE has had its day, it is inefficient and contains too many moving parts. There is no point sitting ones head in the sand, CO2 emissions are killing us all.

  • John Scrivens says:

    This article is a very welcome reality check on electric car development. However, the flaw I would point out is that your assessment is mainly based on current car models and current technologies and I would suggest that the future is less certain than implied by your article because of the possibility of developing technologies further. I would also observe that governments and local authorities do indeed implement irrational policies (you only need to look at current recycling policies to realise this) because they are driven by political rather than academic reasoning and this could lead to much wider usage of electric vehicles than is warranted by the technology.

  • Terence T Restorick says:

    Thank you, that is interesting.
    I live in Bali, Indonesia. The traffic is horrible and going to the main towns, the air horrid. 300 miles would take you round the island five times. And we got sun. So electric would be very practical here. The cars don’t have heaters, but do have a/c. I also have just had a couple of months in India, to see for myself.
    Emerging nations tend to be in the tropics, and account for quite a large population.
    I understand there are some places in the Caribbean and possibly Florida – the sunshine state, that will be starting from scratch. That will be interesting to see where their priorities lie.
    Previously I lived in London and have managed without a car for almost 20 years now. Mostly because there are plenty of willing people to drive me. If American style, but electric school buses are adopted, that would cut emissions. Most journeys are less than the range of electric vehicles. There are so many ancillary solutions that can do away with the need for individual ownership of vehicles. e commerce and deliveries.
    I agree the ICE will continue. But the demands of city dwellers for cleaner air will also continue.
    You missed the big manufacturer supplying electric buses to London Transport, California and Australia amoongst others. BYD.

    • Terence T Restorick says:

      Just read the final comment on the previous article. Jude Merritus. The thrust appears to be that he is upset governments are taking away his right to own things – vehicles in this case. I am very keen he does and others do own things. Personally I own shares in companies who make real things that he and others want to buy. It’s a fashion thing and changes.
      Thus enabling me to own little more than a laptop and have a rather nice time.

      • Jude Meritus says:

        An interesting reply. However, I wanted to inject some serious consideration of the UN’s 2030 Agenda. You can either consider it a crackpot idea by a few control freaks or see in the haste with which the cultural Marxists, from Al Gore through an increasingly wide spectrum to , as in this latest article, Nicola Sturgeon that there really is a widespread conspiracy. Either these people are just carried away by an unachievable utopia or they really are planning massive population reduction and the concentration of luxuries, such as vehicles, in the hands of the elite. And with the push for self-driving cars to become mandatory, accelerating faster than an electric car, the sheer cost will severely restrict car ownership in the next few years. Witness the propaganda emanating from Google, Apple, Tesla and other globalist giants in cahoots with progressive governments.

        Are those pushing this dystopian agenda really so naive to think power generation will be sufficient to replace the ICE and fossil fuels so soon, or do they know something that we don’t?

  • Paul Swift says:

    On your point about Scotland, it does have plenty of opportunities for clean generation from wind and water. Also, there does seem to be more intent there – on a tour of the west coast and Skye, many public car parks were already fitted with charging points(better than around Norwich for example). The newer generation of EVs seem to be available with an ‘on paper’ range in excess of 300 miles which should be enough for many. As always, there will be some for whom an EV will be unsuitable, but that’s no different from school mums buying a diesel and finding it clogs up its DPF because of the frequent short journeys.

  • ken hughes says:

    No doubt much of what you write in this article is correct, but I’m intrigued by your suggestion that air “generates cold” when it decompresses following the release of pressure that previously compressed it and that this contributes to the “lot of energy” lost in a compressed air system. Care to rethink our expand (!) on this point?

  • William Loughnan says:

    Here are some very interesting lectures about the future of cars and solar

  • J Garner says:

    The best energy source for producing liquid hydrogen for fuel cells would be offshore wind farms. Using the electricity produced to electrolyse sea water, producing hydrogen and oxygen. The gas could be compressed to liquid using the electricity produced on-site. The fact that production would vary between windy and calm days would not matter since the output would be stored as liquid.

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