ARE WE A DYING BREED?
W hilst browsing through a car magazine some time ago, a caption caught my eye: “Runs completely on electricity — generated by a tiny coalburning power plant!” Hmmm, so much for saving the planet. And while we’re at this, I’ll grab the bull by the horns and address the million-dollar topic for us car enthusiasts: electric/hybrid cars — what’s in store for petrolheads and car nuts? Are we a dying breed? I’ve been asked this question a lot: how long will petrol cars be around, now that Elon Musk has put his green curse upon us?
Here to stay
Over the course of time I’ve asked many experts — from automotive engineers to business executives, technology specialists, scientists, authorities, economists, green activists and politicians; I even pulled in the local vicar! Despite significant advances in green-vehicle technology, the internal combustion engine is here to stay for the foreseeable future — but of course this is only my opinion.
Several factors influence me on this, primarily the fact that green technology — pretty much all of it of any significance — has been mandated by governments apparently influenced by watermelons, or other tasty green items worth their weight in gold. This, along with other legislation, had a lot to do with the car industry cutting exhaust emissions and driving us to go electric, but could governments go the extra mile and truly convert the car business to an environmentally sustainable operating basis in the long term? The planet does hold 1.2 billion cars! I remain pessimistic.
Another factor seems to be the lingering suspicion, if not conviction, that the process of transforming basic technologies among large populations is often very slow. A more technical point is that oil and its derivative fuels still hold huge advantages over all the alternatives for transport use, especially if you don’t mind dumping combustion trash into the atmosphere. Effective vehicle propulsion So backed by more than a century of steady and even intensive research, development and engineering efforts, the internal combustion engine today sets a high performance standard for low-cost, effective vehicle propulsion. Conversely, the growing use of fossil fuel–based electricity generation — for instance China, the world’s biggest car market, builds a new coal-fired power plant each week — undercuts the argument for more electric vehicles in terms of the technology’s total environmental footprint. New Zealand, being the clean, green country that it is, supplies highly valuable coal to markets all over the world.
My view is that electric propulsion is really not there yet as a substitute technology, and probably won’t reach the market in a fully capable form any time soon. How long that takes is anybody’s guess, with estimates depending to a great extent on one’s crystalball view of our global economic future. In my opinion it’ll probably take decades, even without a Eurozone crisis or oil shortages. And even when high-performance, affordable electric cars start hitting the road, we’d have to wait for who knows how long until the entire auto fleet could be converted — until that day when the last exhaust-spouting car engine dies out.
There are also a couple of related realities that people typically don’t always think about, but which are worth mentioning. Firstly, the most popular of the green/electric vehicles — petrol-electric hybrids — burn fossil fuel in internal combustion engines, and hybrids are regularly touted as the transition technology to the electric car. It is perhaps ironic that of all the alternative propulsion technologies on the market, it is hybrid technology that has probably saved more transportation fuel than anything else tried so far. Secondly, no matter how electrified passenger cars get, I can’t see how their omnipresent counterparts on roads and highways will go electric any time soon, that is, barring the emergence of some unforeseen, revolutionary highcapacity battery or other advance. It’s early days, for example, as to how to efficiently propel heavy tractor trailers, long-haulers and larger transports without burning fuel in big internal combustion engines, hybrid power plants notwithstanding. And medium-size trucks probably need engines as well. So the fuel station is most likely a keeper.
For smaller trucks like pick-ups and SUVS, the issue is a bit cloudier. Most ‘experts’ don’t think that electric batteries, even improved ones, will be able to drive small trucks in the short- or mid-term, so that’s why the car companies and governments are still sticking with the poor cousin of the electric propulsion family, the hydrogen fuel cell. Though long ignored by most, fuelcell vehicles have shown that they can haul larger loads. But like electric vehicles and the public/private recharging infrastructure which makes it all run, fuel cell– powered vehicles and their related hydrogen infrastructure would be costly to build, and have yet to materialize.
Until next month, safe driving.