ARE WE A DY­ING BREED?

New Zealand Classic Car - - Local Market Report -

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.

Worth men­tion­ing

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.

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